Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Resolutions for 2010

This past year's resolutions were largely either finished or blown up before Canada Day. Even so, I enjoy the exercise of planning out my year, so here are my goals for 2010.

Pre-Cataclysm WoW
None of these are especially time-sensitive, so they'll fit in when things are quiet in other games.

1. Get Greenraven, my Horde Warrior, to level 80 and complete some key questlines that may not survive the Cataclysm (notably the Nagrand Thrall/Garrosh story and the Wrathgate).
2. Try to kill Malygos on my mage, to complete the Champion of the Frozen Wastes title.
3. Check out the pre-Cataclysm world events.

My LOTRO subscription runs through March thanks to the Mirkwood pre-order promo, which should get me through the remainder of the Mirkwood launch content and the expansion's first content patch. I may or may not take a hiatus from the game while waiting for the inevitable pre-order promo for the next paid mini-expansion.

4. Finish the quests of Mirkwood on Allarond.
5. Complete as many of the game's epic books as possible. (The entirety of Volume 1, the pre-Moria epic books, are supposed to be soloable as of February's patch.)
6. Level a new Runekeeper alt through the re-vamped leveling content (currently through the Lone Lands, slowly expanding outward in each book patch).

EQ2's new expansion arrives in February, so I'll be switching gears to Norrath around the time it arrives.

7. Try to finish Lyriana's fabled epic weapon questline (that's the non-raid version).
8. Bring Lyriana from 80/80 to 90/90 with the new expansion.
9. Possibly mess with one or more alts.

Post-Cataclysm WoW
The Cataclysm is a bit of an X-Factor in my year's plan. I could see myself getting Greenwiz to level 85 in a matter of weeks, declaring victory and going back to other games after a month. Alternately, I could see myself leveling half a dozen different alts as needed to see all of the revamped zones and not bothering with anything else for the rest of the year (presuming that the expansion even comes out this year on schedule - in fairness, probably a safe bet).

10. Get Greenwiz to level 85 with the new expansion.
11. At a minimum, try a Worgen Druid and a Goblin Shaman (the two classes I have the least experience with in retail WoW) through their new starter areas, which always tend to be well-polished.
12. Tourism on one or more other alts (either the new races, or perhaps Cheerydeth the third).

Other Games
13. Watch for developments in FFXIV, possibly trying the game out if I like what I'm hearing.
14. Perhaps try one or more other games - Runes of Magic is probably the only one that jumps out at me, but we'll see.
15. My Christmas haul included a new PS3, and I intend to put it to good use this year. We also got the New Super Mario Bros for the Wii, and I'm having fun carving out some time to play that with my wife. Hopefully that, and/or some other joint gaming tradition (perhaps Rock Band), can continue.

The Blog
I resolved to get to post 400 this year, and made it well past that goal with 266 posts this year.
16. Stick with a reachable goal of 250 posts in 2010.
17. Sadly, my work schedule has made it hard to keep up with my blogroll and commenters. I'd like to do a better job with this next year, but we'll see what time permits.
18. Once again thank all of my readers for putting up with me, and wish all of you the best for the new year.

Take care everyone, and have a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Pros and Cons of Soloing In WoW

And now for the final installment in my year-end survey of my solo MMORPG's, this time taking on WoW. As with Monday's rundown of LOTRO and yesterday's summary of EQ2, this entry will cover three things I like, one thing that detracts from the experience, and a bottom line.

Three Things that WoW Does Best

Group Accessibility

It may seem strange for a solo player rundown to discuss group content so prominently, but the fact is that WoW's accessible group game is a huge asset to the time-crunched player who might want to fit in a dungeon on occasion. Between dungeons that are no longer tuned for a single digit percentage of the population and the game's new highly touted random cross-server group-finder, it has never been easier to sneak in a dungeon run.

Content Variety

WoW's massive revenue has brought massive production values, and Blizzard has put those numbers to good use. Between two factions and neutral content, you can probably get three separate characters to the level cap without repeating quests, excepting perhaps a dead zone around the late 40's and early 50's that's probably going to be fixed in the expansion.

Meanwhile, while all three games offer the standard kill and loot quests, Blizzard's more recent content includes some more impressive technology that provides a welcome change of pace. Players can drive vehicles and ride dragons into battle. They can take part in military campaigns that unfold before them as they complete quests. And, perhaps most importantly, next year's expansion promises to bring all of these advances down to the game's oft-neglected early levels.

Throw in PVP (a neglected, endgame-only activity in LOTRO, and completely unavailable on most EQ2 servers) and the previously mentioned random dungeons and players can always find a change of pace in WoW if they're getting tired of doing the same types of quests over and over again.


Would you like your cosmetic pets, your mounts, and your currencies to be filed away in special tabs where they won't take up space? How about one-click dual specs anywhere in the world, accompanied by an outfit manager that comes with the default UI? How about an instant teleport to that dungeon if/when the group finally assembles, so you can actually do something with your time while awaiting a healer? How about player-controlled flying mounts so you can skip over any or all terrain and enemies you don't feel like dealing with?

Speaking of travel, the Argent Tournament rewards allow players to teleport to the grounds and summon remote bank access anywhere in the world. Even your alts can live their lives in luxury with scaling account-bound heirlooms and earlier access to flight.

For better or worse - personally, I don't think that all of the above are necessarily for the best, and some would vote down all of them - Blizzard has been doing as much as they can to make your stay in the World (of Warcraft) more convenient.

One Thing That Detracts From the WoW Solo Experience: Trivialization of the Non-Raid Endgame

When Wrath launched, there was a legitimate space for solo daily quests in the endgame progression. They may not have been supremely challenging, but they offered good rewards; the player who did dailies would advance faster than the player who only played when they had a dungeon group. Today you can buy the minimal blue gear needed to join the random dungeon zerg and skip over three tiers of itemization in a fraction of the time it takes to reach exalted with a single faction. Daily quests are only worth the time if you want to fly around Northrend while waiting for your random dungeon group to form.

Speaking of the random dungeon group, the bribe of daily frost emblems has been enough to draw massively overgeared raiders into 5-man content that's multiple tiers below their current accomplishments. Even on the day the patch arrived, my random dungeon group was overgeared and familiar with the strategies for all of the fights. You won't be waiting long to get a group, and you won't be waiting much longer to breeze through the content without much in the way of challenge.

The random dungeon finder is a great addition to the genre for players who want to complete group content while leveling, and for players who want to gear up for future raid content. Unlike Wrath's launch, however, the current tier raid content that actually requires the new gear is not tuned to be puggable - if I wanted to raid, my schedule and lack of experience would be much greater barriers than my current gear. With no challenge in running the content, no need to obtain the rewards, and the company of random strangers who probably won't say anything unless it's to complain about someone's gearscore, I just don't see the point in playing a level 80 character in WoW that you don't intend to raid with.

The Bottom Line

Perhaps it's no coincidence that the game which brought solo play to the genre has the greatest variety and diversity of solo experiences. Even where other games come close - I'd be torn over whether to recommend WoW or LOTRO to someone who wanted to play a single character solo from one to the cap - WoW delivers comparable quality AND significantly more quantity AND support for PVP and group content.

WoW may or may not be the best at any one thing, but it's above average in just about everything. That ability to appeal to multiple playstyles may be an under-rated part of the game's lasting appeal and popularity. With all of that money, Blizzard actually is able to make a little something for everyone.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Pros and Cons of Soloing In EQ2

Today's installment of my year-end survey of my solo MMORPG's will cover EQ2. As with yesterday's rundown of LOTRO, this entry will cover three things I like, one thing that detracts from the experience, and a bottom line. (I'll edit in the link to the WoW installment.)

Three Things That EQ2 Does Best
Best Crafting and Housing

EQ2's crafting makes the WoW and LOTRO versions look like afterthoughts. Unlike either system, EQ2's crafting actually requires player interaction during the crafting process (instead of pushing "craft all" and walking away from the keyboard for a few minutes), and permits crafters to advance without also going out into the world to slaughter things.

As to housing, WoW doesn't even offer the feature, and the LOTRO version is very limited in both functionality and appearance compared to EQ2. If you like these features, EQ2 is far and away the best option.

World Events

WoW's world events have the game's trademark production values, but Blizzard insists on introducing random number generator elements to strictly time-limited events. By contrast, SOE's recurring holidays and one-time world events are designed to tell a story, perhaps hand out some unique cosmetic reward, and wrap up. They don't necessarily keep you occupied for weeks on end, but they're always worth doing, and even worth looking forward to.

Character Options

EQ2 has a total of nineteen playable races. Even if you dock them three for having not one (LOTRO), not two (WoW), but FOUR playable elf-races, the game has more racial options than WoW will have after its next expansion. EQ2 has two dozen character sub-classes covering such unusual roles as evasion tank, melee healer, mind-controlling caster, and singer of sad songs that make your party members hit harder. Characters can even betray their cities and switch to the other alignment version of their class. Overall, it's a ton of very unique options.

One Thing That Detracts From the EQ2 Experience: Unreasonably Low Character Limit

The downside of having all those options is that the game makes it unreasonably difficult to actually try all of them. WoW offers ten character slots per server with which to try its ten classes. LOTRO's monthly fee includes seven slots per server, with only nine classes to try, and you can permanently obtain two more slots per server for a ONE-TIME $20 purchase.

By contrast, EQ2's character slot limit with 24 classes (12 pairs of subclasses if you're willing to betray later) is seven slots SHARED across ALL retail servers. The only option to obtain more slots on the same account is to nearly double the monthly fee by purchasing the all-inclusive Station Pass. Or you could also start a second account, paying a second full monthly fee for additional characters who will not have access to your account's shared bank (a crucial feature which can be used to transfer just about every bind-on-pickup currency or loot drop in the game). Players are also entitled to seven slots on the game's persistent test server, but those characters are stuck on that server.

In short, unless you're able to rule out classes with perfect accuracy, your choices are to pay SOE more money or spend time leveling characters that you will have to delete (or possibly re-create, if you use the test server to audition characters). I realize that EQ2 character records probably take up a large amount of data space compared to other games due to insanely large storage inventories (and potentially hundreds of items per character in player housing), but this limit is inexcusably low.

The Bottom Line:

EQ2 offers probably the most specialized game amongst the games I play. If you want to be a Wood Elf Ranger/Woodworker who fletches his own bows and arrows, you can. If you'd like to be a pacifist giant lizard who shapeshifts into animals and makes furniture in his spare time, that's on the table. Winged fairies come in cheerful, homicidal, and sometimes both at once. Somewhere in all those options, there's a character that's right for you.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Pros and Cons of Soloing In LOTRO

I'd originally been planning to do an awards-show style post at the end of the year, contrasting the solo experiences in my three solo games. Unfortunately, Syp beat me to that concept, complete with clever title and even an award graphic. After thinking about it for a few days, I decided that what I was planning would work better in the form of individual posts about each game.

Today's installment tackles LOTRO, and I'll be taking on EQ2 and WoW in the same format (three things I like, one thing that detracts from the experience, and a bottom line) over the limited remainder of the year. (I'll edit in the links to the companion posts here.)

Three Things That LOTRO Does Best
Best Solo Instant Action

LOTRO's new skirmish system offers the best instant action for solo players in the genre. Sign on, click a few times to pick your skirmish and level, and away you go for a 20-30 minute battle. The rewards are creative, and some of the skirmishes (the ones where you attack objectives, rather than defend) even allow for AFK breaks. In terms of time spent actually fighting the enemy, it's a major improvement over the daily quest grind in LOTRO or WoW, which is more parts traveling than killing.

Most Attention to Leveling Content

WoW's latest expansion and its patches included a five-level intro to Death Knights, a new profession, and no content whatsoever for existing characters below level 70. EQ2 did devote a part of an update earlier this year to a zone revamp, and has some content that scales downwards for leveling characters, but, again, focuses heavily on the endgame. By contrast, LOTRO has been systematically devoting a chunk of each patch to projects like revamping old zones and making the core epic book storyline more accessible.

Best of all, they're pulling this off with basically a one-man army (a dev named Orion), so the attention hasn't been translating into a major decrease in content for level-capped characters (as it appears that WoW soloers can expect in Cataclysm).

Best Kill Ten Rats Quests

Every game has the standard "kill ten rats" and "loot ten objects" quests. That said, if I got to add one new quest to one of the three games I play, I'd choose LOTRO.

With the deep lore of Middle Earth, those rats are probably servants of Mordor, or perhaps Isengard. Meanwhile, LOTRO's combat difficulty is the just-right medium between the trivial ease of WoW's solo content and the sometimes extreme difficulty of the recent solo content in EQ2. Where the other two games tend to jump straight from "easily soloed" to "requires a full group", LOTRO's quests include "small fellowship" content that may, with sufficient skill and care, be soloable. Having the option of that kind of attainable challenge adds a lot to the solo experience, and usually does not detract from your ability to complete quests and gain levels (though I'd certainly quibble with a few of the ratings ;)).

One Thing That Detracts From the LOTRO Experience: Quest Travel Times
There's no other game on my list where I will log in just to hit my hearthstone equivalent so its cooldown will be available again when I actually want to play, or where I sign on so that I can send Allarond on an AFK-travel route while I finish writing a blogpost. Travel in LOTRO is a pain, but it's a symptom rather than the disease.

Far too often, especially in the crowded, tight, stair-filled halls of Moria, questgivers dispatch players into different zones - think 5-7 minutes of travel times - to carry out some errand that will take 2-3 minutes to complete. Then, to add insult to insult (remember, LOTRO characters don't get injured, they just suffer hits to their morale ;)), you return to the quest giver and they send you right back to the spot you just left. Even within the same zone, travel can be a lengthy (but trivial in terms of difficulty, provided you stop and fight the mobs instead of waiting til you have a dozen chasing you) ordeal. If you think swimming across the entire length of Foundations of Stone takes forever, try walking.

In fairness, part of this may have been specific to the setting of Moria, where the narrow corridors often force your trusty invincible auto-goat to take some lengthy detours - the non-swift travel routes of Mirkwood seem to be much more reasonable in length. I even like the concept of having swift travel to previous quest hubs as a reward for deeds and reputations. In the end, the problem is not the difficulty of travel so much as its frequency. If you're going to have players raid the orc camp on the opposite side of the zone, have a friendly scout lurking nearby to give the players the followup quest.

The Bottom Line:
LOTRO offers the solo player two things - the world of Middle Earth, and a strong, almost-exclusive focus on bread and butter, kill and loot solo PVE content. Perhaps the latter would get stale more quickly without the former, but the two combine for an impressive experience. Though the game's repeatable solo and group endgame options are IMO the least interesting amongst my trio of games, LOTRO delivers very well on the core gameplay that is ultimately my reason for visiting the game in the first place.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

How Do You Kill That Which Has No Life Thrice Over?

If having a character at the level cap in an MMORPG is reserved for people who don't have a life, then my lack of life now transcends worlds. Allarond just hit level 65 in LOTRO, marking the first time in my gaming career that I have simultaneously had characters at the level cap in three separate games (WoW, EQ2, LOTRO).

Of course, all such feats are temporary - this edition will last until mid-February, when the latest EQ2 expansion will kick Lyriana from atop that game's throne. I have no idea how common it is for players to pull off this type of feat. For now, though, the deed is done, and that is accomplishment enough.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Preview of an "Upcoming" Game

I was attempting to dog-proof my old room at my parents' house, when something on the cover of an old issue of PC Gamer caught my eye. And now, straight from June 2002, here are details from the "world premiere of the sequel to the hottest online RPG ever" - none other than EQ2!

Fun Facts
  • EQ1, with its 420,000 subscriptions and $12.95 monthly fee, was the king of the genre.
  • The game was slated for an October 2003 launch (it eventually shipped in November 2004, just before WoW).
  • Initial character creation was to be purely cosmetic (race and appearance). You'd get your archetype role at level 6 and your sub-class (the game's modern classes) at level 30. The game actually launched with a version of this system, and has since scrapped it.
  • "Tradesman" was to be a separate archetype, rather than a parallel path for all characters.
  • The game was slated to launch with 100 levels, and Sony claimed to be considering support for up to level 200 via expansions. (The current cap, five expansions post launch, is 80, with an increase to 90 in February's expansion.)
  • The very next page after the EQ2 preview is an ad from EB Games to pre-order the collector's edition of Warcraft III. Blizzard itself also has an ad later in the issue. I guess Blizzard was stealing the spotlight from other MMORPG's even back then.

A very different accessibility experience
I'm also struck by how hardcore the game sounds. A few more fun facts:
  • "One early quest scores you a compass, ending the Sense Heading tedium, but there's still no map."
  • All gear was to be "transient", with an unavoidable chance of permanently breaking. The rationale was to allow more impressive quest rewards, provide a constant market for crafters, and even defeat twinking - you'd be allowed to twink gear to lowbies, but the characters' lack of skill would cause the gear to break sooner.
  • On camping while waiting for respawns: "Sitting on that cold, stony dungeon floor may be tedious at times, but it's also understood to be critical to the socializing experience for groups."
    The people who made this plan look on WoW's automated instanced group finder and weep.
  • Banks would not be global. You'd need to buy a personal cart or boat to haul stuff from city to city, and hire other players to guard you en route.
  • Player housing would be non-instanced, with the potential to slowly build into a city as more of your friends move in. Of course, there'd also be limited numbers of plots, so late-comers would probably be out of luck.

There's no mention of soloing, because the thought that someone could solo to the level cap in the sequel to Everquest was completely unthinkable. Overall, it sounds like a game that I would have approximately zero chance of wanting to play. Which, one supposes, is why the game didn't actually turn out that way.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays from PVD!

Here's hoping that your holidays are more like the happy holiday fairy than the grumpy holiday lizard (unless you really like lizards)!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Melee DPS Learning Curve

After hitting EQ2's level cap, I happened to run into Stargrace (yes, on her actual Dirge named Stargrace), hanging out sporting the Dirge Fabled Epic Weapon. This reminded me that she had posted how the Dirge Epic is "one of those fast easy painless epics" (she would know, she's at or approaching a dozen of them).

I had actually done the solo pre-requisites for this quest (you have to learn a couple of languages, and get access to an old dungeon) while leveling, just in case the opportunity to work on this ever came up. Lo and behold, I opened up the server chat channel that evening and there was a group AT THAT VERY MOMENT looking for another warm body or two for Sebilis, where the item that starts the quest drops. Apparently having picked up the "Luck of the Dirge" AA had paid off, and Lyriana was off to her very first EQ2 PUG.

Point and stab is harder than it sounds
I've been in group content in EQ2 a few times with guildies (shout-out to Sev, Ely, and Ria if you all are reading this), but the pressure is somewhat different with strangers.

The good news was that this particular PUG was not a situation where the group in question was depending on me to survive the content (which was a few levels below many of us). Also, as a buff-heavy class, my Dirge makes a non-zero contribution to the group just by being alive and present to buff everyone else. That said, my performance on the DPS "parse" (which a group member linked repeatedly in party chat) was predictably underwhelming. (In fairness, that group member also did offer me some reasonable advice on improvement.)

I've spent a fair amount of time in WoW groups as ranged DPS, and the basics are pretty straight-forward. Stand somewhere (changes by fight), face the mob (it's pretty hard to miss this unless you're in really close) and cast spells (which spells you cast matter, but you're usually better off casting the wrong spell than no spell at all). I've also, from time to time, attempted to purposefully hold aggro on a mob (generally to keep it from beating on the healers). There have even been a few situations where I have attempted light healing/decursing duties. None of these things gave me nearly as much trouble as the simple-sounding task of walking up to the enemy and stabbing them.

Part of the problem is that Sebilis has some tight, cramped, poorly lit hallways. Throw in six players and typically 3+ mobs in a pull, and that's a lot of bodies piled up on top of one another. One tip I learned reasonably quickly was that I can target the tank, rather than the enemy, and my attacks will proceed to hit his target, rather than some unrelated target that he doesn't have much aggro on. What really screwed with me was that several of my attacks require being behind (or at least on the flank of) the mob, rather than in front of him. I had a lot of trouble even seeing which mob I was fighting, and spent a fair chunk of time ineffectually doing nothing as a result.

There are probably various other tips that I haven't even begun to consider. Still, I was surprised at how hard it was to melee compared to anything else I've tried. Being solo means never having to ask someone else which mob you would like to stab first. If it's attacking you, you want it dead, and it's almost certainly going to be facing you unless you do something to prevent it from doing so.

In the end, I got my Quill, an extra AA from named mob kills, and even a shiny piece of loot. And, perhaps, a new insight into class roles in MMORPG's, if I can figure out what it means.

Lyriana's ill-gotten gains

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Monthly Fees, DLC, And Accountability

According to the FAQ on Gamefaqs (PVD disclaims responsibility for game spoilers behind the link), Assassin's Creed II consists of levels called "Sequence 1-11" followed by "Sequence 14". What happened to Sequences 12 and 13? The devs claim to have run out of time to finish them before the game's launch, but will be releasing them as paid downloadable addons. Sequence 12 will cost you $4 and Sequence 13 will set you back $5 on top of the $60 MSRP of the game.

Joystiq's glass half full take on this incident is that additional fees for downloadable content is "saving" content that otherwise would never have seen release (in this case, too small to be marketed as a sequel but probably not directly relevant to the plot of the third game in the series). This view has some merit, at least until Bobby Kotick at Acti-Blizzard and the paymasters at EA realize that they can shave a month off of every game's release date to ensure that there will be unfinished work to put in the DLC.

More interestingly, this type of move could potentially insert a greater level of accountability into single player games. For better or worse, the majority of an MMORPG's revenue comes from recurring fees. When players up and quit en masse, the developers almost certainly notice (though there might be a limited amount they can do about it when the core complaint is that the game needed another year in development to meet market standards for content and polish).

By contrast, pre-DLC console gamers have already paid the developer every cent they're going to pay for a game before they've even opened the disc. Perhaps the publisher has a limited interest in protecting their brand name from association with "shovelware", but such measures are aimed at customer satisfaction for the NEXT installment of the game (which might be years away). With DLC, console publishers have at least some limited interest in not having the game suck so badly that players won't pay for the add-ons.

Don't get me wrong, it's a limited silver lining to a business model that will encourage companies to cut more and more from the base game to save more and more for paid DLC. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like DLC is going anywhere, so I guess we'll take our silver linings where we can find them.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Blizzard Encourages EQ2 Marathon

My crowded December schedule made Lyriana's chances of hitting level 80 in 2009 pretty slim. Then Washington DC got hit with two feet of snow over the weekend, leaving me with nothing better to do than tackle those last few levels. As a bonus, Lyriana's milestone comes with the most misleading blog post title ever.

I first tried out EQ2 back in February, with my main concern being that I would finish the leveling game in a month or two. After all, the EQ2 forum trolls swear that the game is easier than WoW, and that the entire leveling game is irrelevant because you're at the cap in a week or two.

Instead, the game has lasted for nearly a year of part-time play to date, with more content remaining for ongoing work at level 80 (and/or on alts). I'm also at 127 out of 200 AA's (EQ2's version of talent points, distributed for exploration, quest completion, and killing named mobs), well shy of the current cap.

Overall, the game isn't perfect for the solo player. The Kunark expansion was tuned for players who raided at the previous level cap, and poor Lyriana has been a much different, more fragile combatant ever since. I might have chosen a class with a better reputation for solo ability (people say that bards are weak soloers, though see previous comment about the reliability of the forums) had I known what to expect.

Even so, there's plenty of meaty gameplay for the solo player to sink their teeth into. As this particular chapter in my adventures in Norrath draws to a close, I'm reasonably confident that there will be another. That's a win as far as MMORPG's go.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Half Off Torchlight This Weekend

Via Kotaku, Torchlight is on sale for 50% off - a final price of $10 - on Steam this weekend. I mentioned the Diablo-like game a bit over a week ago because it may become an MMORPG, but I hadn't been in any huge hurry to pick it up. At $10, I decided it was worth stashing away for later (though it actually might run on my graphics-card-less laptop, and therefore be usable over the holiday weekend).

I'm not getting any sort of deal for mentioning this, but I figured I'd point out the sale in case anyone else here was on the fence about this game.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Minor Victory of the Additional Horse, and the Ancestor of the Skirmish

Allarond's adventures in Lothlorien, trying to wrap up the last of the pre-Mirkwood content, left him with the majority of the rep and tokens required to get the rep reward mount. Unfortunately, with the game set in the Middle Earth, the exotic mount in question is another horse. That said, max rep horses come with 50% more health than the default mounts, so that upgrade alone was worth the 3-4 hours worth of daily quests it took to finish the grind.

The Moria Crafting Instance
As an aside, this journey took me into Moria's so-called crafting instances, which appear to be primitive prototypes for the modern skirmish system. Players zone into a solo instance with a fixed map but randomly generated foes, where they can earn tokens for a successful 10-20 minute clear. (The instances are referred to as crafting instances because they happen to contain large numbers of crafting material nodes to harvest, not because there is any actual crafting to do inside them.) Overall, players can expect crafting materials, reputation (and reputation items), and perhaps some legendary item exp for the brief, repeatable encounters.

My guess, having elected to skip Moria era repeatable content in its entirety, is that these instances proved highly popular with the playerbase. That popularity seems to have inspired the evolution of the feature into the current skirmish. Turbine proceeded to make this the major feature of the new expansion, complete with a more robust feature set (more maps, greater variety of random foes), scaleable group options, custom NPC soldiers, and a wider variety of rewards.

How long can random content last?
In some ways, my biggest complaint about LOTRO has generally been that there isn't enough LOTRO to go around. As Zubon observes, that crunch will be especially noticeable for the next few months, as Turbine chose to increase the level cap even though they would only have a single 6-man dungeon for level 65 players and a single relevant 12-man raid (which the login splash screen absurdly refers to as the most challenging 12-man raid EVER) ready to go.

With skirmishes, Turbine appears to be hoping that players will accept randomly generated content in place of the human-designed instances that Turbine apparently cannot supply in any reasonable quantity. Will it work? Time will tell, but the apparently popularity of this type of repeatable content in the game suggests that Turbine may have put all their eggs in this particular basket because they feel that it has the best chance of being accepted by players. So far, so good, but the expansion is young.

Snap Judgements of Age of Conan's Free Trial

Age of Conan isn't really anywhere on my list of games I want to play. However, they just rolled out an unlimited free trial, "valid for those that create an account and log into the game before January 1st 2010".

I don't see why a game that's trying to get more players would announce and then discontinue a free trial program during the busy final weeks of the year, so my guess is that it will become a permanent offer. That said, on the off chance that they're NOT bluffing, I decided that an unlimited trial was worth downloading the client and spending 20 minutes in game just so I'd have the option of revisiting it in the future.

Overall, it turned out about as I'd expected. The game's combat uses an interface where you click to swing and you hit whatever is in front of your weapon. I've never been a fan of that model in stat-driven RPG's - I'd rather just play an FPS or a 3rd person adventure game. The branching dialogue trees are an interesting addition to the single player story, but I could be playing Dragon's Age for that feature.

(I ended my brief session with an absurd "negotiation" with a slaver. He wanted me to kill a monster that had the key to the gate we were both trapped behind, and then surrender so he could sell me into slavery. Given that I had a quest that demanded his death for having enslaved me in the first place, my counter-offer was to kill and loot him instead. Somehow, it took another three dialogue steps to complete this conversation and get to the killing.)

Overall, I don't think I'll be in any hurry to get back to this game, if I ever do. Then again, the free trial was enough to win it at least a few minutes of my limited gaming time. I guess that the fact that I can now return to Tortage at will technically improves the odds of my visiting the game from zero to some small but non-zero number.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Does The Launch Rush Hurt Atmosphere?

The current episode of the Casual Stroll to Mordor podcast mentions how Moria is suddenly deserted and more challenging now that players have moved on to Mirkwood. There are many more mobs underfoot now that there aren't players killing them. Ironically, this is somewhat appropriate for the setting. Moria is not SUPPOSED to be a happy fun social place to hang out. It's supposed to be overrun with goblins, not hobbits.

I probably ran through the Mines in the middle ground because I started in on the expansion 9-10 months late. Many players were already at max level, but the place was not entirely deserted, and I was even able to find a partner for a few quests. Even so, I see a major drop-off in how populated the older areas are now that people are in Mirkwood (or instanced skirmishes).

Is this a situation where it is better NOT to have played the expansion when it was actually the most recent chunk of the game, to experience a more realistic atmosphere? Or does the lack of company - and groups for group content - hurt the gameplay experience? It's one of those questions that does not have an easy answer, though I'm just as happy to be spending time finishing Moria before I brave the Mirkwood masses.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

LOTRO Skirmish Experiences

I've been spending a fair amount of time with LOTRO's new skirmish feature this weekend. This may seem strange in the context of my previous complaints about repeatable content in general, and in LOTRO in particular. What about randomized scenarios that differ only in the random bosses makes them any different?

The best answer I can come up with at the moment is the ability to customize soldiers. If you look at, say, running random dungeons in WoW for gear, you aren't really getting any fundamentally different rewards. Each upgrade adds an incrementally higher number onto your existing abilities. By contrast, LOTRO skirmish soldiers act very differently depending on how you have chosen to upgrade them.

Options for a Champion
As a melee DPS/off-tanking class, I immediately went for the healing specialist. After finishing a few skirmishes and upgrading my soldier's abilities, I suddenly found myself with a powerful ally, capable of keeping me alive as I waded into large packs of foes. On the downside, enemies do not necessarily die very quickly. Champions have a decent AOE rotation, but I'm still trying to beat down a pack of 3-5 mobs with one character's DPS.

Instead, perhaps I should go with a bannerguard, a soldier type that offers offensive buffs, melee DPS, and even a minor heal over time spell. Alternately, I might take one of the two ranged DPS soldier types. I don't know that I'd want to use the tanking soldier for lack of any way to keep them alive, but I guess I could imagine a scenario in which the tank could let me switch to my most offensive-based stance and wail away.

Finally, you can get cosmetic traits to determine the race and appearance of your soldier. This is more fun than you might expect, in that you can create characters who look like your present/future alts. (All of your LOTRO alts on a server share the same house, so it's fair to assume that they know each other, and would fill in the skirmish soldier role accordingly.)

Other skirmish incentive impressions
There are other perks to the skirmishes as well - instant, scale-able access, and the ability to purchase just about anything that you might be having trouble obtaining (such as rare random crafting materials, reputation tokens, or items from the group-only level 50 class quests).

There are also drawbacks to the system - soldiers become available at level 30 now that Mirkwood has arrived, but players who were already level 60+ when the expansion arrived can expect to find their new soldiers starting significantly behind the curve. Finally, the lore behind these things is singularly bizarre - in a game that doesn't like teleportation, I can instantly teleport to the Shire to fight off an orc invasion that never really happened in the lore.

Perhaps the system is going to start getting old once I've had the chance to take the other types of soldiers for a spin, especially if it turns out that the healer is far and away the most effective choice I can be using. Even so, it's an interesting way to re-customize your character and playing experience without actually starting over from scratch. Skirmish soldiers are a lot of fun, and I look forward to seeing what Turbine does with the system in the future.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Privacy Implications of SOE's Facebook Push

Turbine and Blizzard are promoting their new Twitter feeds with a variety of raffles. Ironically, raffles actually discourage players from making an effort to promote the feeds - more followers mean more competition for the same small number of prizes.

By contrast, SOE's new Facebook/Twitter campaign will hand out the prizes - up to $7.50 in Station Cash item store credit - to EVERY SINGLE PLAYER of EQ1, EQ2, and Free Realms (not just the ones who participated) if the respective Facebook and Twitter pages reach very attainable goals by February. Now players have a strong incentive to talk up the pages to their in-game friends, advertise the game to their out-of-game friends, and even sample item shop goodies that they'd previously been ignoring (at no real money cost to SOE).

(Incidentally, your Station Cash balance applies to your entire Station account, not individual games. If you don't already have one, it might be worth taking five minutes to start a Free Realms character on your existing account so you can double up on the prizes.)

The catch is that Facebook's new privacy policy makes your name and your fan pages un-hideable public information. By clicking that "become a fan" button, you may be irrevocably declaring your association with MMORPG's to potential employers. Unfortunately, many non-players still associate MMORPG's with addiction and all-night marathons that leave players too exhausted to work. There is an unfair but real possibility that someone who participates in this promotion will be denied a job because of it.

In the long run, perhaps we're all better off if more players (who DON'T reinforce the stereotype) "come out" about their status as MMORPG players. For any one specific individual at the moment, though, there is a very real possibility that they might someday regret having pushed that button - consenting to, but not necessarily understanding the consequences.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Pranking the Lich King, and other 3.3 Impressions

Thanks to a well-timed Anniversary retrial, I've been able to take WoW's 3.3 patch for a test drive.

Probably the biggest feature is a new five-man dungeon. Non-raiders get to knock on the back door of Icecrown Citadel, kill the doorman and some of Arthas' other servants, raid his fridge, and bravely run for our lives when the Lich King comes home to find us trashing his bedroom. This is supposed to make us feel like all the best lore isn't being reserved for raiders, as it was in TBC and will be in a few months when Blizzard lets raiders actually kill the expansion's title character instead of playing some practical jokes on him. The dungeons also drop ilvl 232 loot on heroic, marking the second complete gear reset in the year since I hit 80.

Lore and loot quibbles aside, the dungeon(s) are actually very well executed. The encounters are basically an 8-boss raid, broken up into three wings to insert convenient stopping points. The bosses do interesting things (the very first is probably my favorite, for sheer uniqueness), and the dungeon tuning seems about right for a group that's geared to the levels of previous 5-mans. That was the group I had for the first wing on patch night, and we actually had to work - wiping a few times and even using crowd control - to clear the dungeon.

On the downside, many players are geared well beyond the levels of the previous 5-mans. I joined a group last night for wing two and wound up burning through that and the third wing (the dungeons are connected to allow groups to chain them in succession, which would probably take experienced players under two hours) without really being challenged.

Finally, on the incentive side of things, I won [Seethe] outright off of the last boss of the first wing. There was no reputation to earn, no tokens to collect, and, now, no particular reason to ever go back to that wing of the dungeon. This weapon was a huge upgrade over the [Spire of Sunset] healer staff I'd been using and I would have been willing to do substantially more work to obtain it.

Such, I suppose, is the peril of the RNG; sometimes you don't get what you wanted (e.g. the caster weapon off of the Black Knight in last patch's 5-man) and sometimes it's almost insultingly easy. Even so, it feels like the purpose of these dungeons is to gear up raider alts quickly, rather than actually occupy 5-man players in the way that the 5-mans at Wrath's launch did.

Misc 3.3 impressions
- The new quest display on the map is great, even more polished than Warhammer's version.
- The Blizzard outfit manager now labels items in your bags with what sets they're in, so you can tell what goes in your bank.
- As promised, it's now possible to mail heirloom items to cross-faction alts on the same server. (If you're planning to test this, be warned that your level 1 alt will have to kill some stuff for the 30 copper needed to mail the heirloom back!) I've always preferred to have my Horde alts on another battlegroup, partially so they won't have to share character slots and partially because that way I have another server to play on if one is down. I'll have to ponder whether it's worth setting up Horde camp on my Alliance server for the heirlooms. Also note that this now includes head and shoulder rep enchant items.

Overall, it's looking like a major polishing patch as Blizzard gets its house in order in preparation for the expansion. It's well executed, but it will be very interesting to see whether the content that's here will keep players entertained through to whenever Cataclysm happens (personally, I doubt that it will be anytime before summer).

The weapon that Greenwiz will probably take into Cataclysm, barring the rare and coveted Quel'Delar drop.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Stargate: Torchlight, the latest solo prototype for an MMORPG

Various sources are reporting that Stargate Worlds will be a single player game before it's an MMORPG. We've already seen one single player Stargate game fail to advance to market after having a prototype that was good enough to use on an episode of the show, but it seems that Cheyenne Mountain has a better chance of pulling off a single player game than an MMORPG given their funding situation.

At this point, I guess we can say that pulling a Torchlight is a legitimate business model - build the game engine first and use the cash from that to finance the network code, testing, and larger amounts of content that players expect in an MMO. The production values on the modern MMORPG are becoming large enough that this may be the only way for a start-up to get into the genre.

That said, it will be interesting to see whether the Torchlight MMO, and Stargate Worlds if it ever happens, will be influenced by having begun their lives as solo games. Will the engine work with large numbers of players, or will there need to be Guild Wars style single party instances? Fans of the single player version are going to be amongst the most likely customers for the MMO, so developers are almost certainly going to be pressured to keep the games solo-friendly at precisely the time when there's real room in the genre for games to hit the non-solo niche. In the end, this development model may have more impact on the end products that anyone realizes at the moment.

(Ironically, Massively has an interview with Runic Games on their work with Torchlight and its MMO offspring just as another studio emulates their business model, albeit as a last resort.)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Optimal Use of Leveling Content

Allarond is back in Moria, trying to mop up some quests he missed, including the entire zone of Foundations of Stone. The catch is that, between these quests and the ones in Lothlorien, he is already level 62. The Mirkwood expansion raised the cap to 65, and I'm likely to hit level 63 before I set foot in it.

The irony is that LOTRO originally launched with far too little solo leveling content, especially in the 40+ level range. Now there's comfortably more than a player needs for a single playthrough from 40-60, but not quite enough to take a second character through without repeating a lot of content. Also, the deed system still discourages alts, and there's no way to lower your level if you actually want to do all the solo content at non-trivial levels.

Content usage in WoW
WoW has a similar problem - amongst other things, you can skip approximately half of the Burning Crusade expansion these days - but there's plenty of content to take a second character (possibly as many as 3-4 if you do both factions, with the exception of the 40-58 range) through all-new content.

Also, if you really know what you're doing, you can use the new level locking feature to freeze your exp gain to do more content at a constant level, though you do this at the risk of having a lot of grinding ahead if you miscalculate.

It will be very interesting to see how the Cataclysm expansion is received, since players may need to make multiple alts of both factions to see all of the new stuff. If you only stick to your one main character, Blizzard's decision to re-allocate resources from the level cap to the early leveling game may leave you feeling like it was a very thin expansion.

Content Usage in EQ2
One of my earliest observations in EQ2 was the same problem - leveling past most of the content in the 1-30 region. (Things settle down from 30-60, kind of suck from 60-70, and then you're looking at basically one path through Kunark from 70-80 and the current cap.)

Today, EQ2's probably got the best solution out there - a new feature in September's Game Update allows players to temporarily lower their levels for the purpose of completing low level content. You will even continue to gain experience at some reduced rate, which might do a fair amount to patch the hole in solo content in the game's 60-70 tier.

Solutions for Everyone?
Don't get me wrong, there are problems with expecting players to complete all the solo quests in the game just to level. Having to chase down every single quest can start to feel like a chore, especially if you're stuck in one area for too much time (See Kunark). You also run the risk of having to return to the same area repeatedly, which is when even the best travel systems start to drag. Finally, players who are trying to make their way to higher levels so they can escape the solo quest grind need to have a way to make that happen.

I'm just saying that it would be nice to have a good mechanism for using all the content before you out-level it, if that's actually your goal as a player.

Onyxia Plus Four Years

Green's most recent Onyxia raid, December 5th, 2009

I've apparently been away from WoW for long enough to be offered seven days of free retrial time in honor of the anniversary. I cashed in this trial on Saturday so that I would beat the deadline for the minipet and still have an active retrial going for the rest of this week in case patch 3.3 goes live.

WoW's endgame is basically how I left it - lots of daily quests, most of which I have finished, and players looking for more companions (almost always including a healer) to try and burn through some dungeon I've completed half a dozen times. As it happened, my guild decided to organize an impromptu Onyxia-10 raid at the exact time I poked my head into Azeroth with an hour or two to kill. After warning them that I hadn't killed her since 2006, Greenwiz came along for the ride.

The more things change

Green's first Onyxia raid, November 21st, 2005

From crawling through my screenshots folder, I determined that Greenwiz went on his first Onyxia raid over four years ago. In my limited experience with the new version, the fight seems to be much polished and improved.

Then and now, DPS players have an odd balance of importance in raiding. If the tanks and healers don't have their respective activities down, the presence and/or competence of the DPS is often irrelevant. Meanwhile, in a 40-man raid with two dozen DPS, the odds are that success or failure will be determined by a greater margin than any one player's contribution.

By scaling the Onyxia fight down to the 10-man format, Blizzard has actually managed to make DPS matter. If I fire off AOE too early and get eaten by whelps (as is traditional), that represents a huge amount of the raid's DPS lost. There are also decisions to be made - what portion of my time is to be spent on whelps versus the new Warders who spawn in the middle of the fight versus actually killing Onyxia in a timely fashion.

Even with the added polish, though, raiding is still largely like I remember it. It's still a question of farming up upkeep costs (I'd guesstimate that I spent 50G on a flask plus repair bills on the brief raid) for largely repetitive content. The eventual victory, if it happens, is supposed to make the tedious learning process worthwhile.

Tobold critiques solo players for diminished willingness to run the same content over and over again, but I'd read the same critique as an admission that the content isn't worth repeating that many times on its own merits. In an era where players have many other options for their gaming time, that's a problem. If the increasing use of NPC henchmen calls attention to the problem, and forces developers to address it with their revenue stream on the line, that sounds like a good thing to me.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Can an NPC teach you to group with players?

Keen, Syp, and Tobold have got a little debate running on whether NPC companion characters in the upcoming KOTOR MMO push the envelope too far away from grouping and towards solo play in supposedly massively "multiplayer" games.

No one knows how this will play out in KOTORO yet, I will offer a random observation from my early experiences with LOTRO's new skirmish system. Skirmishes are instantly-generated PVE instances that scale for various group sizes. Players are given an NPC soldier - who is significantly less intelligent than a player or normal player controlled pet - to fight alongside them (only in Skirmishes). The pet can (in principle) tank, heal, buff, or do ranged DPS. The skirmish system scales to a certain extent with the number of players in the group, and is supposedly used to allow players to solo otherwise group-based content in the game's epic book storyline.

My character is a Champion - a melee DPS with off-tanking capabilities and minor self healing - so I promptly picked the "healer" traits for my soldier. I ran through two actual skirmish battles using the healer, and I noticed something interesting. My Champion has a defensive stance and a taunt that I have never used, because I play 99% of my time solo and don't need to worry about keeping aggro when there's no one else for the mobs to fight.

I also promptly noticed that, when we get attacked by several enemies including at least one with ranged attacks, I needed to take an effort to drag the melee foes to the ranged attacker so that I can hit all of them with AOE attacks. If I failed to do so, the ranged foe would promptly start attacking my somewhat-defenseless healer, as I would not be doing any damage to it or generating any threat. When I'm soloing, I'm generally more inclined to use line of sight to force the ranged attacker to come to me, and it's not necessarily a bad thing if it gets stuck in anti-exploit mode instead of finding me. In the skirmish, that foe would promptly switch targets and kill my healer.

In short, I probably learned more about how to off-tank in LOTRO in a single hour of playing skirmishes than I did from soloing 61 levels to date. I find it puzzling that Keen and Tobold think this feature is detrimental to grouping; it seems like the first serious attempt I've seen to address the problem of players getting to the level cap and not knowing how to play their class in groups.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Tweets of Mirkwood

I've been a bit busy with actually playing Mirkwood to blog about it, but I suppose that makes this as good a time as any to unveil my new Twitter feed.

Twitter seems like as good a way as any to keep track of what I'm actually doing on a daily basis, while saving the more serious analysis for the blog. It's basically an open notebook of sorts, and may or may not be of interest to anyone, but hey, what's a social media tool if not occasionally of questionable use?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Mirkwood Day 1

Yesterday was the launch of LOTRO's Mirkwood mini-expansion. As promised, I received the expansion for "free" in exchange for having my billing cycle set to $30/3 months. (I didn't actually pay for my current time card, because Best Buy wanted to get rid of their Moria inventory that badly, and it appears that I will have the option of canceling before I'm actually billed for that subscription if I'm so inclined.) The patch was done in about two hours, and I'm told it ran in the 400 MB range - for reference, WoW's 3.3 patch has downloaded nearly 1 GB of files so far, so you can draw your own inferences about the amounts of new graphics and sound files in this mini-expansion.

On logging in, I got spammed with half a dozen system notices. I automatically gained several rep levels and transportation routes - notably, it appears that they retroactively increased the rep reward level for the introductory quests in Lothlorien, so that players do not need to do repeatable quests to be allowed into the woods (a pre-requisite for access to the new expansion areas).

Though I did get a notice that the changes had refunded the customization points on my legendary items, I don't get the sense that the Legendary Item system was changed as dramatically as Turbine's marketing would have us believe. I identified some new items and they appeared to be as random as ever, and I also got one of the "good" legacies that are supposed to be "rare" beyond initial identification on a reforge of an item I was about to break down to free up its slot. It appears that the slot machine time sink is still the point of the systen.

(Galadheru, one of the members of my kinship, told me that he had been grinding out the item exp bounty experience quests on a daily basis so that he could try out a bunch of new items when the revamp arrived, and that he also felt that the "improved" legacies still resulted in some lackluster weapons.)

There'll be time for more commentary later, when I've spent a bit more time in the expansion. For now, if nothing else, Turbine can declare victory on the relatively smooth expansion launch.