Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Resolutions For 2011

With another year over, it's once again time for New Year's Resolutions here at PVD.  I have somewhat of a mixed record at this activity (usually all the resolutions that are going to happen are done by Canada Day), but I find the exercise worthwhile for planning out my year.  Without further ado, here's what I think I'm going to be up to in 2011, along with some comments on why I'm interested in things and/or how far I've gotten already.

Post-Cataclysm WoW
  • Get both my Gnome mage (currently 84) and my Tauren warrior (82) up to the new level cap of 85. 
    My mage came up just short of hitting the milestone this year for reasons I've discussed
  • Complete every normal and heroic 5-man at least once on both high level characters.     
  • Explore some of the revamped old world on new alts.
    Currently, I'm a bit over halfway through a tour of the newbie (1-12) zones with a small army of new alts.  My favorite lowbie specs right now are Subtlety Rogue, Survival Hunter, Destruction Warlock, and Discipline Priest.  It's possibly telling that none of those are traditional leveling specs, which tend to make life too easy.
  • Actually get a character into the mid-high levels.
    My highest is currently level 7 (out of 20).  This doesn't bother me, since I'm having fun with the chronic re-rolls, but it might be nice to eventually see some of the new mid-level content as it arrives.
  • Complete the Vol 3 Book 2 content in Enedwaith (added during the F2P switch)
  • Await Isengard
    LOTRO has never been the game I go to for dungeon grinding, and new dungeons are the only announced content between now and next fall. 
EQ2 Live/Extended
  • Write fewer news posts about the EQ2 business model.
    Every studio spent 2010 experimenting with new ways to charge players more, but SOE has really managed to make me feel like I'm getting less and less for my money with EQ2, as the "missing" resources go to the game's cash shop or the studio's other offerings.  Though I believe my coverage to be accurate and informative, I feel like I've said what there is to be said here.  I'd like to pare back my posts about this game to the (currently minimal) time and money that I actually spend on it.
  • Either find a Velious bargain or skip the expansion entirely
    We won't know until they lift the NDA, but nothing that I've heard about this expansion makes me excited about spending money on it.  Right now, the only way I can see myself paying for Velious is if I can get an extreme discount on a surplus unsold retail box later in the year.  If that happens, I might pay to copy Lyriana, my main, off of the left-for-dead Lucan D'Lere server and over to the Extended servers so that I can enjoy this and future content at my leisure without paying for a subscription.
Runes of Magic
  • No current plans to return to ROM
    I would not be opposed to paying money for this game, but they would have to actually deliver an experience that's better than what I could get for the same amount from other games.  I'm at level 30 now and already feeling that the exp curve is balanced around grinding with exp pots and paying for daily quest limit reset tickets to keep both my classes leveled appropriately.  This just doesn't strike me as fun.
PS3 Games
  • DC Universe Online: Sightsee for a month, maybe return for a month at a time as content is added
    If I find enough to have it be worth paying for two additional months (beyond the month that comes with the box), I'll consider this exercise a success.
  • Check out followups to games I've enjoyed, including Uncharted 3 (Nov 2011), Batman: Arkham Asylum 2 (a.k.a. Gotham City?), and one or more Assassins' Creeds.  I'm also vaguely interested in the supposedly forthcoming Tomb Raider collection, and perhaps Red Dead Redemption. 
Rift (or whatever it's called when it comes out)
  • Probably visit this game for a few months
    Depending on what else I'm up to when the MMO-siah of the moment arrives, I might wait and see what people are saying at the 30 day mark.  Telara sounds promising, and it might be unfortunate to miss the launch crowds because these will spawn massive invasions, but I remain concerned about the long term. 
Other MMO's
  • F2P Watch: Both Vanguard and STO have been discussed for potential F2P conversions.  I would try both of these if/when they lose the monthly fee. 
  • My interest in SWTOR is currently extremely low after not having liked any of the past Bioware games I've played.  Also, this may or may not even show up in 2011 anyway. 
  • Though I try to keep an open mind about these things, I've also got limited time if anything else (or even everything I've listed above) is going to get my attention.   
The Blog
  • Though I did manage 200+ posts this past year, my work schedule has made 3 posts per week about what I'm capable of handling these days, which would put me more in the 150 range.  Unfortunate, but I'd rather not feel compelled to post stuff I don't enjoy writing just to make an arbitrary posting quota. 
  • As always, thank my readers for sticking with me for another year. 

Best wishes to everyone for a happy 2011! 

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cataclysm Mid-level Gear Resets

My mage just hit level 84 while doing some of the early quests in Uldum. I decided to skip Deepholm so that I could do SOME of the expansion at its intended level.  As a result, I hit Uldum with a bunch of fresh blue loot that I'd just gotten out of BRC and Throne of Tides... only to immediately replace them with quest reward greens. 

Hitting a gear reset when a new patch or expansion comes out is relatively common at this point, but I really wasn't expecting dungeon reward gear to be quite so short-lived. 

Leveling dungeons of Cataclysm
The seven new 5-man dungeons of Cataclysm are effectively divided into three level-range tiers (81-82, 83-84, and 85).  The strange thing is that players gain enough (or, in my case, more than enough) experience to leave each level range just from then solo quests.  My dungeon gear got pitched the moment after I looted it because it was already out of date by the time I got it (late in level 83, and therefore in the tier above the 81-82 content).   

This design drastically limits the range of dungeons that you would want to do at any given level. Once you get to level 85 and acquire enough gear to unlock heroic dungeons, you will have nine options available to you.  Unfortunately, a level 83 character's random queue includes four dungeons (two of which are out-dated), and I'm told that the level 85 random normal dungeon includes the 3 level 85 dungeons plus the 2 83-84 dungeons (which you no longer want to run by then).  If there's one thing that makes WoW's dungeon system feel old faster, it's doing the same limited selection over and over again. 

Exp but not gear
Blizzard's in a difficult situation here because the power level of gear increases significantly over the expansion.  The experience curve seems to be balanced around players completing all the solo content without rested exp.  In reality, the stuff I've done for the exp from 80-84 includes: 
  • All the quests in Vashj'ir
  • 2-3 quests in Deepholm (for access to the zone)
  • About a dozen quests in each of Hyjal and Uldum (about the minimum needed to hit friendly with the local reputations, so that I can have their tabards for dungeon rep at 85). 
  • One run each through Blackrock Caverns, Throne of the Tides, and Stonecore
  • Enough archeology surveying to get to 135 skill
  • 15-20 days worth of daily cooking quest
  • Completed the "explore Cataclysm" achievement by flying around the new zones
  • Logged off in cities, so that I've always had rested exp while leveling
The last four items are the problem, as all of these award exp (not huge amounts individually, but they add up) while not providing any gear.  If there was no exp from these activities (or if the exp curve was balanced to account for them), Blizzard would be able to safely assume that I was always acquiring level appropriate gear as I gained levels.  Because players can inadvertently get ahead of the gear curve, it becomes necessary to provide a way to catch on gear. 

The result has the unfortunate effect of really limiting the value of running these leveling dungeons.  It's probably still worth visiting each location once since there are guaranteed quest rewards, but the remaining loot for the majority of the expansion's normal five-man content just isn't going to stick around long enough to be worth farming. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Solo Vs Group, Vashj'ir Style

After slogging along for the better part of two levels, my mage finally completed the quests in Vashj'ir.  The zone offers underwater combat, a seahorse mount, possibly the best visuals in the game, and a main storyline that runs through something like 145 solo quests.  Then you reach the end, and it turns out that the entire arc you've been soloing for hours is merely the lead-in for a group instanced dungeon. 

In fairness, we have come a bit of a ways since 2007.  The entire chain is not required to get the dungeon quests, which are found inside the zone itself.  (Some of the early quests in the zone are going to be nigh indispensable for actually reaching the dungeon in the first place.)  Meanwhile, the random dungeon finder makes it much easier to actually find a group for leveling instance content, though it did take me over 90 minutes to queue and complete the zone.  Back in the Burning Crusade era, all the solo quests would have been required to even zone in, and then the story finale would have been a raid encounter that most players would not be able to complete. 

That said, this compromise isn't really ideal for anyone.  Group players don't get the backstory behind the dungeon unless they're willing to spend hours on quests that will not challenge anyone in decent gear.  (You're also required to complete about a third of the quests for access to the Earthen Ring quartermaster, whose rep rewards include a tanking head enchant not available elsewhere in game.)  Meanwhile, solo players will need to carve out a large chunk of uninterrupted time to actually see the payoff of their lengthy work through the zone.

In the end, players generally choose their preferred playstyle for a reason.  Much as I understand Blizzard's desire to get group players to visit all the solo content they spent so much time on, and to get solo players to try the dungeon gear grind (the first two upgrades are free guaranteed quest rewards), this type of mechanic isn't going to change anyone's mind on how they want to play the game.  

Monday, December 27, 2010

Early Impressions of the PS3 DCUO Beta

I spent about an hour over the weekend playing the DCUO beta on my PS3, and I've also skimmed some of the information about the title available online. 

The good news is that I enjoyed the game, to the point where I'm probably going to save the content for when the game actually comes out.  There are some flaws; the menu controls on the PS3 controller are awkward (as always), and newbies are hit with a lot of choices up front about powers, weapons, and skills, with limited information to evaluate the choices (or determine which, if any, can be fixed later).  Even so, the devs really nailed the atmosphere, and I'd rather be playing this than anything else I own on the PS3 at the moment. 

On the downside, the content appears to be extremely limited; I expect to pick the game up with the included month in February and then resubscribe for a month every few content patches.  Ironically, playing the game on the PS3 helps with this plan. I don't own either a keyboard or a headset, so I won't be able to communicate in any meaningful way; this greatly reduces the chances that I would make any friends and then feel compelled to stick around in a game when it's not delivering content. 

I fear that PC MMO players are going to be very disappointed with this project.  Compared to a single player PS3 game, though, DCUO offers more depth and more content, at a price that is only slightly higher so long as you game the subscription system appropriately.  Infrequent players, and those who spend a lot of time replaying the initial content, will pay more than they would with the current console $60 + paid DLC model.  If, on the other hand, you play a single character, pass on the inevitable microtransactions, and carefully time your subscriptions for when you actually have time to play, you may actually see all the content for less than it would cost to unlock DLC content one hour at a time. 

In the end, I'm not sure that it's entirely a bad thing if we start to get more MMO's that aren't necessarily designed with the expectation that players will stick around for years on end.  Many of the most unpleasant things about the genre result from developers trying to extend the /played time on a game beyond the legitimate entertainment value of the product.  By contrast, Sony's PS3 division would like to continue to sell you new games, not merely continue to charge you for games you've already purchased.  Though I'm not convinced that a monthly fee is the best approach (for either players or SOE), I'd like to think there's some potential in games that deliver a smaller quantity of higher quality content. 

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Happy Holidays From PVD 2010!

We here at PVD would like to wish you some very happy holidays...

Alright, seriously, the black horns and the flaming steed and the firey background, is the full Satan Claus treatment really necessary?  Am I going to have to get out my main for this screenshot?

Okay, the wreath's a nice touch I suppose, but the hat doesn't even match the rest of the outfit and there's the gratuitous lizard and... oh never mind.

Best wishes everyone!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Will Rift Focus Enough On Rifts And Souls?

The NDA has come down on the Rift Beta, and the blogosphere has jumped into action.  Trion gets major points in my book for having the confidence in their product to allow players to talk about it seemingly so early. (By contrast, Mythic carefully kept Warhammer's broken endgame hidden behind an NDA all the way up to release, and SOE is insisting on an NDA for EQ2's next expansion beta even though we learned today that the beta won't even start until about a month prior to release.)

Of the various posts, Keen's take on the alpha and beta stood out the most to me, in fairness perhaps because I'm jaded and skeptical and his is one of the more critical impressions I've seen.  In particular, his critique of the questing system as trailing WoW's in both quality and quantity stands out as a red flag.  

As nearly as I can tell, Rift's two major selling points are the dynamic content (though most people seem underwhelmed by the basic Rifts) and the use of the flexible "soul" class system to overcome challenging content.  Will Trion succeed in using dynamic content to add challenge and variety, with the regular quests taking a back seat as things you do when nothing else is happening?  If so, will they manage to communicate that focus to new players, or will the familiar seeming quest system draw newbies away from Rift's greatest strengths and towards unfavorable comparisons with a competitor that has spent an entire expansion cycle on perfecting the theme park quest? 

The good news is that these guys are really conveying the impression that they know what they're doing, which is how they've earned all the praise they're getting around the blogs.  I just hope that they can use their remaining beta time to get the game to a place where all these good sentiments won't be gone a month after launch. 

DCUO Platform Communication Fail?

Massively reports info on launch date and pricing for the DC Universe Online action MMO.  The game abruptly announced plans to release in under three weeks, on January 11th, at the new MMO price point of $50 for the box and the first month, with a monthly fee of $15/month thereafter (or subscription included in Sony's $30/month Station Pass with all their other games). There is understandable concern about the sudden launch, and I'm not betting on it going smoothly as a result.

The thing that strikes me as interesting is the option to play the game on the PS3 - though it is a bit amusing that Sony's console division is charging their MMO division the $10 PS3 tax, bumping the retail price of the game to the PS3-standard $60.  Beta players have said that the game plays better with a controller anyway, and my TV/sound system are certainly more impressive than my monitor and speakers.  That said, I have some obvious questions about this option. 

Do PS3 and PC players use the same servers?  If I purchase the client once (e.g. the PS3 version), can I download the other version, or do I need to pay twice?  If I can buy the game for the PS3 and attach it to my existing Station account, playing on the big screen when I'm at home and my PC when I'm not, it's potentially a decent deal.  If the two are incompatible, the console version becomes much less interesting, and the game probably moves into "wait for sales" territory for me. 

Perhaps these questions have been answered in interviews for people who were paying attention during alpha/beta, but they're nowhere to be found on the game's website. Apparently that's one aspect of the game that isn't ready for the newly advanced launch schedule. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

New Travel Philosophy For Cataclysm

Late in the Cataclysm beta, players were less than pleased to hear that Blizzard abruptly removed the portals previous found in the previous expansion capitols of Shattrath and Dalaran. With the game moving back to the original world, it no longer made sense to have those cities serve as the main player travel hubs.

At the time, Blizzard claimed that players lacked the context to understand the decision, as there was the two week period prior to the expansion in which the portals were gone while everything players actually wanted to do remained in Northrend.  Having spent more time in the world of Cataclysm, both at low levels and on my two level 80+ characters, I understand what Blizzard was getting at. 

With the new, more linear format present continuously through leveling, most parts of the world are now areas that players visit once and never return to.  It's still more convenient to be a class that can teleport to a class trainer (Mages, Druids, and Death Knights) and then use their hearthstone for the return trip, but that's a moot point if you don't have to make the return trip at all because you finished that part of the zone you were in. 

(To make it even easier, the new zones of Cataclysm can all be accessed via portals in Stormwind/Ogrimmar, and guild reward items can grant players additional teleports to those cities if you really don't want to set your hearthstones there.) 

As someone who plays a mage, I still think that the difference between mages and everyone else is a bit too large.  Even so, this only really matters between level 30 (when you start questing 2+ flight path hops away from your capitol city) and level 60 (when you gain flying mounts and move to expansion content, which now has its own class trainers).  With questlines that span multiple zones for no good reason largely removed from the game, long travel times are primarily reserved for world events and archeologists.  Even I don't see much to complain about there. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Changing Approaches To Cataclysm

When the last two WoW expansions came out, I logged into my main and worked on that one character until I had hit the new level caps (about a month both times) and cleared out the other obvious "to do" items like wrapping up quests, working on reputations, etc (about another month).  With Cataclysm, my approach has been different.  I spent the first few days on my main, but since then I've spent a bit of time on some alts and holiday events for other characters (my EQ2X character in Frostfell, and my Horde warrior in WoW). 

I don't know exactly why I'm taking this approach. 
  • Perhaps it's the knowledge that there is less high level content out there, and therefore even less reason to rush.  
  • Perhaps part of it is giving players time to learn the new 5-man dungeons; ironically, my first random PUGs have been on my Horde warrior, who needs a hat for Winter's Veil, and not on my mage.  
  • Perhaps part of it is the weekly guild reputation cap; if you're going to level two characters anyway, you'll end up with a better rep situation for each if you switch over once one character hits their weekly cap.  
  • Perhaps the more linear/cinematic zone stories are holding my attention in low level zones on alts, and/or making me more reluctant to jump onto my main's story if I'm not going to have a lot of time to advance the plot.  My warrior is currently working on Hyjal, which my mage has mostly avoided.
  • Perhaps it's simply my own personal preferences changing; I've taken a similar approach with EQ2, which I only started playing after Wrath.
Whatever the answer, the less main-centric approach seems to be working out in the world of the Cataclysm.  I suppose this could be viewed as a win for Blizzard, since it will probably mean that I ultimately clear more of the content before declaring personal victory over the expansion.  I wonder if they planned it that way? 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

EQ2X Holiday Spirit Fail or Business Model Win?

The new addition to EQ2's Frostfell holiday this year is a daily quest that allows players to obtain Frozen Tokens of E'ci in a scaling solo instance.  This opens up access to a variety of housing and gear rewards that were previously restricted to the holiday's group content. 

Though there are a variety of potential consequences of this change - less reason to run the group content, and easier access to items that can compete with player crafting - you're reading this on PVD because Mr. Scrooge-jumper has literally left EQ2X non-subscribers with a bill for the contents of their Frostfell stockings. 

Major Change in EQ2X Subscription Philosophy?
Last week, SOE quietly made a major change to EQ2X's payment model.  Players can now "unlock" items and spell upgrades for use on their non-subscription accounts by paying for unlock tokens (currently sold in a bundle of 5 for $2.50).  This addresses the single largest failing of the game's model - players who wanted to pay money for the game without being locked into the $15 monthly fee could not gain access to Legendary and Fabled gear for any price. 

Legendary items are EQ2's equivalent of WoW's blue items and LOTRO's purples, and can be found on solo quests, faction reward vendors, and in the game's single group dungeons.  Completely locking down access to these items removed both the incentives to complete large portions of the game's content, and, in some cases, the gear that would be required to do so.  With this restriction in place, the game's model was effectively an extended free trial.  If you planned to advance beyond level 68 or ever complete group content, the only advantage to the free to play server was the ability to log into your character (who would have all their gear unequipped) for social reasons while your subscription is lapsed. 

With the new gear unlocks, the non-subscription option is a legitimate choice - one that will be a better deal for infrequent users and perhaps a worse deal for more frequent players (who were subscribing anyway).  If anything, I'm surprised to see prices so low.  $10 pays to unlock basically a full set of gear, which sounds like a lot during the leveling game, when you might gain 10+ levels a week, but is actually a pretty good deal at endgame - how often do you get so many gear upgrades in a month of dungeon running that you're going to burn through $15 worth of gear tokens? 

(The spell upgrade unlocks are less significant because players have always been allowed to continue using upgraded spells they gained while they were subscribers.  Another new addition allows players to unlock the final 2 bagslots on an individual character for $2.50 each). 

Paying for item inflation?
If I'd heard about this change before Frostfell hit, I would have been more positive about it.  I still think that this is a major improvement to the game's business model, and one that may succeed in getting me to spend more money on the game.

That said, we've now got a business model where SOE literally gets paid 50 cents every time they can convince a bronze or silver player that they want an item that's being offered in game.  I'd like to think that this isn't going to lead to massive item inflation (which will have an equal impact on the subscribers to the traditional EQ2 service), but SOE's record on the slippery slope of increasing monetization is not encouraging. 

(In other news, we learned that EQ2's new vampire race will not only be available for an extra fee, as I predicted, but will actually go on sale about a month and a half BEFORE it is given as a reward to loyal subscribers.)

It's going to be very interesting to watch the next year of EQ2 content - both in the Velious expansion and in any game updates targeted at lower level ranges - to see whether the game starts presenting players with legendary upgrades for every minor accomplishment in an attempt to sell more tokens.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Leaning Towers of Telara

Imagine that someone came to you looking for some money to build a giant stone tower, only they propose to build a tower that leans rather than extending straight upright.  Though this project might turn out well, the possibility that it might tip over is an obvious concern with the design, and you would want to see how the designer proposes to address this. 

As I've learned a bit more about the upcoming Rifts: Planes of Telara game, primarily through The Rift Podcast, I'm seeing a pair of leaning towers occupying some prime real estate in the game's design. 

Class Choice Versus Balance
Rift is offering a flexible class system - characters are locked into one of four callings (archetypes), but they customize their actual role within that archetype by picking three of eight available souls and dividing advancement points amongst the three as desired.  This sounds like a lot of fun on paper, and players who have tested the system at preview events have come away impressed. 

The potential concern is that someone needs to decide how difficult to make the actual game.  Do they balance things assuming the best possible DPS, healing, and tanking, leaving everyone who doesn't look up and adopt a cookie cutter build out in the cold?  When players show up with a full group of completely unpredictable characters, does a tough encounter suddenly become trivial because some obscure combination of abilities leaves the boss helpless? 

Though the issue is not necessarily insurmountable, most other MMO's struggle to balance as many as a dozen classes.  Unless the point is that players are supposed to swap into a different optimized role for every fight, it's going to be interesting to see how Trion handles this.

Dynamic Content Overload
The game's other heavily touted system is its dynamic content.  The namesake rifts open up around the world, allowing NPC's from the elemental planes to attack Telara.  If players fail to close the rifts in time, NPC invasion forces will spawn and march on towns (or even each other).  Again, players' first impressions of the system in limited preview events have been very positive due to the sheer novelty of the mechanic.

The concern here is what happens a month or two into the game's release, as everyone has shown up at least once to find their questgivers dead and had to repel an invasion to get their towns back.  (In some ways, it almost reminds me of Warhammer, with the non-instanced RVR replaced with NPC's who will conveniently show up in beatable numbers and can be counted on not to abandon their conquests because it is more profitable to allow the other side to retake each keep so that you can re-re-capture it.) 

Will midlevel players log in a few months down the line to find their towns demolished by armies of elementals, after the majority of the population has moved past that level range to the cap, with limited interest (or patience) in returning to bail out their new comrades?  As we saw with WoW's notorious zombie invasion, players will eventually give up on saving towns from attacks that will continue indefinitely no matter what players do. 

Toppling in 30 days?
These issues can be addressed given enough time.  The thing that concerns me is that both of these topics are things that will not be apparent in the first hour or day or even week of the game's release.  Endgame class imbalances and invasion fatigue will kick in only after players have had the chance to actually get that far into the game, which won't happen at a press event or a low level beta weekend session.  (For the same reason, it won't show up in press reviews, or even the opinions of real players during the first week of launch.) 

The true test comes at the 30 day mark when subscription fees come due.  If players are blindsided by these issues (or others) and leave en masse, the sharp negative turn in word of mouth can be more damaging than the actual in-game issues (which, in my view, we saw with Warhammer).  The longer the game goes without permitting sustained high level testing in an open, non-NDA environment, the greater the chances that the leaning towers will topple before they can be reinforced. 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

If you can't trust the news...

Ars Technica laments that their job is to spoil every detail of the newly announced Uncharted 3 over the year the game has until release.  The game's marketing team will slowly dole out footage of every level of the game, which will be posted around the internets to the point where anyone who actually reads all the previews will know about most or all of the major sequences in the game. 

A gaming "news" site that sits out misses out on the waves of traffic that are - theoretically - how these sites get paid.  A "news" site that participates is complicit in a world where studios don't have to buy off the press with cash anymore - if you're in the business of re-selling exclusive information for pageviews and you develop a reputation for being insufficiently charitable, they can find someone else who will run the exclusive in a more positive light.

Fostering unsustainable hype
This story is in some ways refreshingly honest and in some ways sad because it reflects an unfortunate reality about gaming news and marketing. 

When it comes to actual news about the games we support, current paying customers take a back seat behind potential customers who might read an exclusive article on a "news" site every single time.  The situation for unreleased games is even worse - marketing departments saturate the entire gaming press with hype about every minor feature of the game, even as the developers are working on whether and how to implement it.  This raises expectations that cannot possibly be met.

The thing that MMO marketers seem not to grasp is that, as bad as the hype cycle can be for a console game, it's even worse in a sector where long term subscription dollars are a big part of the revenue equation.  When word of mouth on a console game is terrible, most of the sales have already been made.  When vague marketing hype - backed by a strict NDA that prevents any more balanced accounts from coming out - gives players an incorrect view of an upcoming MMO, word of mouth and subscriber retention suffer after players pay for a game box and learn the truth. The next thing you know, players are jumping ship in droves and Syp is calling 2010 a "cursed year" for new MMO's. 

Perhaps the saddest part of the story is that some, if not all, of those responsible know that the curse is of their own making.  And, like Ars Technica, they choose to carry on anyway, because, well, it pays the bills. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Should The Cataclysm Exp Curve Be Steeper?

The zone of Vashj'ir is designed to get players from level 80 to level 82.  I'm at approximately the 75% mark through the zone judging from the achievement tracker (slightly below that, but I did a few quests in Hyjal too), and I'm a third of the way through level 82 already, as I sign off for the third day of the expansion. 

There's no one culprit for my ending up ahead of the curve.  I took the time to do a fly-by exploration tour of all the new zones on my flying mount, with exp awards from 2.5K to nearly 7K per discovery.  I've tried a bit of archeology, which also coughs up exp.  I haven't even tried PVP (awards exp these days, though I don't know how much) or 5-man content yet.

I'm also burning through content at accelerated new expansion rush rates, having carefully stockpiled (real world) food to eat this week so I could get home, walk the dog, and sign in without the need for pesky cooking chores.  This ironically means that I'm running out of rested exp, which significant slows down the rate of leveling - with full exp, or actual gathering professions (which also award exp), I might be even further along.

One of WoW's strengths is that Blizzard actually has the production values to do all of the major forms of gameplay, including solo, group, raid, PVP, crafting.  WoW may or may not be the best at any one of these, but they do an above average job with all of them, which can be a major selling point when trying to convince friends to stick around instead of moving on to a game that will only support some of your playstyles.

In that context, it's a little bit strange that the exp curve breaks if you do anything else other than solo quests without rested exp, and that players can't skip ahead in the storyline within a zone if they do gain some exp somewhere else along the way.  The stated intent was for players to do either Hyjal or Vashj'ir, but I've never heard that you're supposed to skip all of Deepholm too.

At the end of the day, I suppose it literally pays off to do the other stuff first - quest reward exp is the only type of exp that converts into gold when you reach the level cap.  Then again, if it's possible and even likely for players to hit the new level cap solo using just half of the content, Blizzard probably could have gone with a steeper exp curve.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Tradeoffs From Wrath To Cataclysm

The jump from Wrath to Cataclysm solo content is remarkable.  The new zones contain some of WoW's highest production values yet, with spectacular scenery, occasional fully voiced in-game cut scenes, and more bells and whistles than even Northrend had to offer.  (For instance, someone took the time to make a specific animation for players bounding along the sea floor in the undersea zone of Vashj'ir.)  However, this increased focus on story comes with a price in terms of flexibility - progression across zones is highly linear, with access to each phased quest hub gated by doing all the quests before it in precisely the correct order. 

The other thing that is really remarkable is the jump in difficulty.  Mob HP more than doubles between the level 80 quests of Icecrown and the level 80 quests in the new zones, and I've seen level 84 solo mobs with more than 50K HP (compared to maybe 12K at level 80).  The jump is so pronounced that Blizzard felt compelled to remove 90% of the exp for characters who try to remain in old expansions beyond the respective level caps to keep players from hiding in Northrend until they gain some levels.  (I'm not thrilled with this change, as it basically kicks players out of about half a dozen zones.) 

With increased difficulty comes increased rewards.  Quest reward item levels jump by 100 ilvls between level 80 quests in Icecrown and Hyjal, and the very first green quest rewards replace all but the very best gear available in Wrath's five-man content (and all but its final raid). 

Finally, the Cataclysm approach comes with an obvious cost in terms of quantity.  I gained a level in about four hours last night without either heirlooms (Wrath heirlooms don't work past level 80) or rested exp, despite spending some time screwing around with Archeology.  The exp curve does jump from there, and some of the new zones are actually pretty large, but the odds that I fail to reach level 85 by the end of the year are not looking good.  Worse, many of the quests seem to be handed out by neutral faction questgivers, limiting the amount of variety I will have to look forward to on my horde characters. 

At the end of the day, Blizzard has really focused its efforts on perfecting its style of questing, even if this means exaggerating the drawbacks of this type of experience.  Many players don't like it (and presumably many more do), but if nothing else the game is recognizing and sticking to its strengths. 

Monday, December 6, 2010

From Shattering To Cataclysm

Courtesy of notes I took on my twitter feed, here's what I did during the two weeks between the Shattering and the launch of the Cataclysm proper:
  • Frothshock, new level 13 Dwarf Shaman, cleared Dun Morogh.  (Beer puns are pretty common on the newly permitted Dwarf Shaman.) 
  • Cheerydeth (the third), existing level 41 Gnome Rogue, cleared half or so of West Plaguelands, gaining two levels (to 43)
  • Orcthanc, a new level 6 Orc Warlock, cleared the orc level 1-6 area.  (Warlocks are evil, and Saruman, who lives in Orthanc, is also evil, making for another pun.) 
  • Tangleroot, a new level 9 Troll Druid, cleared the new Troll newbie 1-6 area and started in on Razor Hill.  (I plan to make this a balance druid, and have a personal habit of stealing location names from other games - DDO in this case - when I'm not slapping an atrocious pun on a character I don't intend to keep.)  
  • Gnoheals, a new level 5 Gnome Priest, cleared the gnomes' level 1-5 corner of Dun Morogh.  (Gnomes previously had "gno", err, I mean no healing classes, and another pun was born.)  
  • Odus, a new level 12 Night Elf Mage, cleared out the quests of Teldrassil.  (Another stolen zone name, this time from EQ1/2, for the newly allowed NE Mage combo.)  
  • Greencross, a previously existing level 23 Dwarf Priest, took the discipline spec for a test drive in Duskwood, gaining two levels (now 25) and clearing somewhere between a third and half of the zone.  
  • Cowsader, a new level 11 Tauren Paladin, cleared out Mulgore.  (Another newly allowed race/class combo, another terrible pun.)
Once the Druid wraps up Durotar, I will have covered the newbie intro zones for half of the game's twelve (as of tomorrow) races. 

Sustainability of the Shattering
Half of these characters will most likely never be used again (except possibly as bank alts), but I don't regret having taken the time to run this little experiment.  In addition to the new storylines - some of which actually do require a character of the appropriate race - it was an interesting chance to see how the new "streamlined" low level gameplay works out on a variety of classes.  I might even stick with some of these alts to level 60- yes, as Gevlon points out, I could solo the content quicker on my high level characters with flying mounts, but there have been enough changes to many classes over the years that it's actually a bit of fun in its own right to see how they work these days.

All that aside, this does illustrate a bit of a challenge that Blizzard faces in having spent so much time and effort on revamping the old world.  Even the best possible case for Blizzard, where I complete literally all of the new content on level-appropriate characters (somewhere between 3-6 level 60's, with another half a dozen or so alts abandoned at level 20) is not going to keep me occupied for the next year or more.  If this is where I am after two weeks - bearing in mind that my gaming time was a bit below average due to the Thanksgiving holiday in the States, a few months of serious alt leveling may be enough to clear out the world.  Meanwhile, it's far more likely that I will lose interest after seeing some of the most dramatically changed zones, if for no other reason than because I will literally run out of classes to play. 

I suppose that Blizzard simply doesn't care because they've got enough subscribers to tolerate some part-timers, but it's certainly a bit of a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of trying something like this on a smaller budget. 

Anyway, tomorrow the expansion arrives, and I haven't even decided what I'm going to do on my main when it gets here.  I don't know anything about the level 80+ game other than the names of the zones, so I suppose I'll just hop on a flying mount and head off in one direction or another.  In any case, I'm going to save enough time before bed to run one last heroic five-man, perhaps to kill Cyanigosa or Ingvar one last time for nostalgia's sake.  The way the revamp rolled out, there wasn't ever really a specific moment that felt like a final farewell to Wrath, so I suppose one final easy dungeon zerg will be as appropriate a send-off as any. 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

EQ2 To Charge Extra For Expansion Race?

SOE has rolled out an unusual promotion for EQ2 (regular and F2P) in which subscribers will receive access to a new vampire playable race if they remain subscribed from mid-December through February and purchase the upcoming expansion. 

EQ2 last received additional races in paid expansions during 2007 and 2008.  Though it is theoretically possible that this race is 100% exclusive to this one promotion, the more likely guess is that it will be available in the station cash store after the expansion goes live; creating a new race seems like a bit too much work to put into a pre-order bonus.  If the vampires do end up in the store, anyone who does not qualify for this promotion will be required to pay extra for a new race that, in almost any other game out there, would be included in the $40 expansion box. 

The decision to turn this into a loyalty promotion is a clever trick that appears to be working.  Current players won't be out of pocket any additional money (unless they were planning on suspending subscriptions for the uneventful final months of the current expansion), and won't care if disloyal former subscribers need to pay extra.  By the time the 2012 expansion arrives, the precedent will have been set that SOE can task the dev team to work on major features that can carry a separate price tag from the annual expansion, which will presumably remain at its current price even as its features get split off into the cash shop.  Time will tell whether SOE offers the same "free" deal a second time. 

P.S. SOE has previously commented that they feel that the $7.50 price tag on EQ2X race packs is in the neighborhood of what they would charge for an individual race.  As of now, I'm betting that it isn't worth paying $30 for two months of a subscription I wouldn't be using to qualify for the race for "free", and I'm prepared to do without the vampires if my guess is wrong. 

P.P.S. In other news, Feldon reports that EQ2's test server has a change that removes the need for player crafted spell upgrades for use of the spell upgrade research feature.  He notes that this change could be intended to drive demand for "spell research acceleration" consumables currently available in the EQ2X cash shop.  Having spent time leveling spell upgrade crafting professions on both Live and F2P servers, I'm not thrilled with this potential change. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

F2P Sale Hoarding Fail

Turbine has decided to remove the price tag from the Lone Lands, LOTRO's first paid zone.  This change got extremely limited fanfare - I only noticed it when I went to LOTRO's site to check out some sale announcements.  This change makes sense in terms of giving new players more time to get into the game before hitting a paywall - realistically, past sales have been so dramatic that Turbine probably isn't losing too much money by adding this zone to the free portion of the game.

That said, this also points out a lesson that I've slowly learned over eight months as a consumer of Turbine's hybrid F2P model; no matter how good the current sale, you're always running the risk that the item will go on sale for an even larger discount later.  Of course, prices could also increase - see DDO races for one example.  The point being that you're taking a gamble when you purchase something that you don't need right now on the theory that it's a "good price" on something that you're going to want for later.  If you don't end up using the thing you bought before a better deal comes along, you "lose". 

When the prices involved are as low as 50 TP (less than a dollar), you're not risking too much.  Even so, sometimes it's worth running the risk of paying more for the things that you're actually going to use if it means not spending money on "bargains" that you didn't really need. 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Passing On Beta

Like Syp, I'm a bit down on the beta these days.  I'm pressed for time and I've got so many games I'm playing where I actually get to keep my progress that it doesn't make a ton of sense to spend time on an unfinished version of a game where the characters will be wiped in a few months. 

I didn't apply for the Rift beta, even though I'm nominally watching the game.  I might try a pre-release open beta as a free trial equivalent, but I'm not interested before then.  I was in the beta tests of both TBC and Wrath, but I wasn't invited to test Cataclysm and I don't regret having missed it.  There will be plenty of time to see how things turn out as the dust settles over the next year. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

WoW 2010 More Like 2008 Than 2004

There's been a lively discussion on my post from Monday about WoW's old world revamp.  To quote Longasc, who tweeted about the post and his comments thereto (which may or may not be a PVD first):
"It is a guided bus tour through Azeroth, more so than ever, an on-rails experience. The elements of challenge and failure, the whole *game* has been removed."
Aside from a discussion on the merits of this argument, I don't consider this exactly breaking news.  The state of the game today is a natural continuation of a trend that has been going since the launch of the Wrath expansion two years ago, if not since the quest system was expanded from the tutorial zones to the entire leveling game during WoW's pre-launch testing. 

The game that people talk about when they complain about the current "rails" was gone long before last Tuesday.  Two expansions' worth of talent tree revamps left players vastly overpowered compared to formerly even conned mobs - my wife and I tried to pick up our old duo from the pre-TBC days sometime a bit after Wrath launched, and we had to go 2-man instances that were supposed to be designed for five to find any semblance of challenge.  Meanwhile, the time to level was drastically decreased, partially through direct reductions in exp to level, and partially through time-savers like improved access to mounts and (recently removed) teleport options.  Less time spent on each level meant less reason to leave the beaten path for anything else, which naturally downplays the value of exploration. 

With these changes, there really wasn't a point to the world remaining in the state that it was in - even for players who actually wanted the 2004 experience, the content was no longer serving that purpose.  For players who actually enjoy the low stress guided tour approach to questing, there were 40+ levels of unpolished old world content to slog through before getting to the expansions.  Players who just wanted to blaze through to the group endgame had even less reason to enjoy this part of the game, until the dungeon finder functionally replaced it by enabling low level instance pugs last year.  Whether or not the 2010 version of Azeroth is better than the 2004 version, it's definitely better than the 2008 version because at least now it's consistent.

Aside: too much content?
Ironically, Blizzard may have caused problems for themselves by actually creating TOO MUCH content in the low levels.  There's a reason why the stereotypical kill quests calls for ten rats, rather than five or twenty; the number of kills is supposed to move players out of each area after they've had a chance to take a look around but before they feel that they've been trapped in a boring grind. 

Blizzard seems to have made an effort to build satellite hubs around every camp that was in the pre-Cataclysm game, at least in the early zones I've seen.  The result is that they have to move you on from some areas at six kills, rather than ten, because the exp from the extra four mobs would push you out of the level range for the zone.  This is faster than players expect, and leaves us feeling like we're being dragged along by the metaphorical train.  Dun Morogh, for example, might actually have been better if Blizzard had declared half of the zone exploded by the Cataclysm and had doubled the kill requirements for the remaining material. 

Monday, November 29, 2010

Scattered Shattering Impressions

When I appeared on the Multiverse earlier this year, Chris asked me whether I thought that Blizzard's strategy with Cataclysm - taking time to revamp the old world at the expense of less higher level content - will allow them to hold the attention of longtime and potentially bored players.  Having spent a bit of time in the shattered world, my guess is that it will not. 

The cinematic approach comes to level 5.

Conflicting Goals
As I wrote on Twitter while rolling up five new alts over the last week, the new starter zones have a very "My Cataclysm, Let Me Show You It" feel to them.  NPC dialog (which the player may or may not be required to stay and watch) does its best to point out exactly what it is about the world your new character has entered that would not have been true two weeks ago.  In some ways, this experience seems more tailored as a sales pitch to returning vets (of which there are many, at least on the blogosphere) than actual newbies (who won't know what the story was before).

At the same time, Blizzard's efforts for simplified skill/spell progression have left those early levels surprisingly boring from a gameplay perspective.  New casters literally spend two levels mashing a single button ad naseum because they only have the one spell.  Combat may be balanced for characters who aren't carrying a heirloom arsenal, in the sense that the mobs pose the correct level of challenge level to players, but it is designed to lack the tactical depth that comes with more situational spells that the character will gain later (sometimes much later) in life.  This may help newbies learn the basics, but it paradoxically makes the early levels feel trivial for the vets that the story appears to be aimed at. 

(Meanwhile, I almost regret my decision to pursue as many heirlooms as I did.  I put a throwaway Night Elf Mage on my Horde server, where I "only" had access to heirloom shoulders and an enchanted staff, because I only have so many slots to spare on my main server with my main arsenal.  The character proceeded to one-shot his way through much of Teldrassil.)

I thought my twink gear was OP, but at least my arms aren't wings.

Upside in the Shattering
The real upside to the revamp comes at the game's mid-levels.  Players who are looking to burn through to max level ASAP to join the group game can rest assured that they will no longer be forced to run all the way across a zone just to turn in a FedEx quest that doesn't award enough exp to justify the largely non-interactive travel time.  Players who actually enjoy the "tourist" solo game offered in the two expansions can now expect the same types of vehicles, scripted events, and convenient travel that are found in the game's more recent content; you're probably going to run out of races and classes that you haven't already played before you run out of content.

(Alternately, you can go back on a flying mount after Cataclysm to blaze through the new stuff on a level 60+ character just to see the storylines.)   

All that said, Cataclysm does not (and indeed should not) fundamentally change the game experience itself. Players who complained that the last expansion was too much of an "on rails" experience really don't have any grounds to claim shock when an expansion that promised to make the old world like Northrend delivered on its word.  Though there definitely is some neat new content here, the re-roll experience is designed to go quickly, and players who weren't alt-o-holics before probably aren't such completionists that they're going to feel compelled to re-roll multiple times. 

If anything, my biggest concern with the revamp is whether Blizzard has planned for the next Cataclysm.  The current story is very strongly rooted in a sense of "this happened RIGHT after Wrath".  This is really neat now, but in a few years it may seem as dated as the journey into a Northrend still ruled by Arthas is today.  Problems for another time I suppose. 

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Worgen Are Amongst Us

For those of you who aren't with family or out shopping, I give you a screenshot of a Worgen questgiver.  I ran into her running the revamped Western Plaguelands (now with substantially less plague), working for the Cenarion Circle.  Apparently they're Austrailian or something judging from the accents. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

MMO Things I'm Thankful For In 2010

I've got a bit of traveling ahead of me this weekend, so I'm going to be signing off for the US Thanksgiving holiday.  In the spirit of thanks, here's a few things I'm grateful for this year in MMO's.
  • Many viable options: This year, I've found the time to try out five different games.  There are others that I haven't even gotten around to.  Meanwhile, say whatever else you will about the various "free to play" models out there, but having these more flexible options really helps open the door to trying a game that you might only visit one or two nights a month.
  • Focus on the early game: Working on the low levels in an existing game is one of those things that no one seemed to find the time to do until everyone started doing it.  This isn't all thanks to Cataclysm - EQ2X, LOTRO and DDO all have newbies to attract with their new payment models - but it's a win for new players and old players' alts alike. 
  • Unofficial online community: I've had less time to spend looking for information of late, and I've become more reliant on the unofficial community - blogs and podcasts - to keep up to date.  The amount of care that goes into these resources is outright humbling, and it's good to see companies (especially Turbine) acknowledging their fans' efforts.  Also, the lone EQ2X server is in some ways a selling point, as this is the one MMO I can think of right now where you can actually run into literally anyone and everyone who plays and blogs the game.
 Happy Thanksgiving and safe travels to everyone, and I'll see you all next week!

Monday, November 22, 2010

EQ2X Status: Occasionally Playing, Not Considering Paying

With the "free gold trial" weekend, it seems like as good a time as any to recap what I'm up to in EQ2X. 

Vaneras, my half-elf Inquisitor, is currently level 31 with 40 levels of Sage tradeskill (makes her own spell upgrades) and 53 AA's.  I took advantage of the trial weekend to dump all the stuff that I've been saving for the next time I subscribed on the broker; this brought in nearly 3 plat, which is more than enough for my low level needs in the near term.  I also ran the EQ2 launch anniversary event with the subscriber-only AA slider set to send all of my earned exp to AA, as I'm already sitting a few levels above some of the content I'm working on.  I will say that it was very disappointing to only gain a single AA in a session where I would have gained at least two levels if I had set the slider the other way.  It's no wonder that everyone ends up behind on AA's and feeling that it is grindy as a result.

Life without a guild hall
The other lesson I'm taking away from my time in EQ2X is that SOE has done a lot to bridge the gap between players with a fully tricked out guild hall and the rest of us.  I started playing EQ2 Live after the introduction of guild halls, and so Lyriana never needed to think about travel; these things were very easy in a high level guild and very painful without one (as I learned every time I started an alt and had to wait a while to find an officer online to get a guild invite).  Today's linked bells and spires and druid rings make travel so easy that I barely notice that Vaneras' guild (Ardwulf's Ebon Tribunal) does not yet own a guild hall. 

As to crafting, it may actually be more fun WITHOUT a bottomless harvest box.  Lyriana was rarely obligated to do her own harvesting (though I tried to help out when I was out adventuring), thanks to guildmates who enjoy it and, as we gained levels, NPC's to do that for us.  The result was that you could spend hours in front of the crafting station, converting resources you never saw into guild and crafting exp.   This gets old.  Vaneras has to go out harvesting every few writs, which really helps break up the grind with a change of scenery.  I'd go as far as to suggest the sacrilege that the harvesting box actually does the otherwise deep crafting system and content a disservice. 

But I'd want to pay why?
Obviously, EQ2X is not my primary game at the moment; as a free to play game, the whole point is that it doesn't have to be.  Instead, I'm free to come and go when I feel like it, and this has allowed me to stop in for world events and now promo weekends without worrying that this was affecting my budget.

The only issue, at least from SOE's perspective, is that the non-subscriber restrictions that do exist simply don't matter to me.  SOE got $10 worth of SC (that I got for free through promos) for the one-time silver upgrade, and nothing that they're offering at the moment is making me want to give them any more.  I suppose their thinking is that I am a relatively unusual case; most of their money is coming from either longtime loyal subscribers who are staying put on EQ2 Live or new free players who might buy this or that on a whim. 

Then again, I guess we both have time to figure it out; after all, I'm not paying by the month. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Difficulty As A Motivation

Over the weekend, I soloed a flurry of level 70 heroic dungeons on my mage.  This project has been simmering on the back burner for a while now, but I really wanted to get my best effort in before Cataclysm.  I got stuck on the second boss of the Black Morass/Opening The Dark Portal event and decided to give the dungeon a shot on my arcane spec rather than my usual instance-soloing frost spec.  This proved so effective that I promptly blazed through half a dozen dungeons, including some that I just couldn't beat previously.

(With patch 4.0 changes, my Arcane blast spell crits for more than 25K damage, which means that I can easily kill just about any level 70 boss in the 30 seconds that the Mirror Image spell keeps them busy.  On top of that damage, AB now automatically applies the Slow spell debuff.  This is actually more effective for single target crowd control than Frost is, as the Slow spell was balanced with the now-outdated assumption that players were going to be spending 20% of their time recasting Slow if they wanted the effect to stick.)

Though this tactic did allow me to cross a number of items off my to do list (all but the last boss of Arcatraz; if any mage has soloed this, I'd be curious to know how), in many cases it was so easy that the dungeons were no longer fun.  Playing as a frost mage requires carefully juggling aggro and freeze effects.  Playing as Arcane involves spamming Arcane Blast until everything is dead.  There were only a handful of encounters (notably the Raven boss Anzu, who I actually had to switch back to Frost to deal with) that were still in any way interesting with a character as powerful as a modern day level 80 Arcane mage facing level 70 heroics. 

The Issue With Difficulty As A Motivator
Ghostcrawler, WoW's head system designer, posted a lengthy philosophical piece last week explaining how they felt that healing in the Wrath era had become overpowered, much as my mage is now overpowered for many dungeons that I was working on.  Cataclysm is designed to challenge healers with more limited mana regeneration to address various (and significant) issues that resulted from the old status quo.  The problem is that, unlike my choice to solo old instances because I'm bored, these changes don't occur in a vacuum.

Group content in World of Warcraft (and most other holy trinity MMO's) is designed to require 20% or more of players to play healers.  This constraint on class requirements for groups has created a situation where large numbers of players who do not want to play healers are doing because someone has to (and/or because their personal wait times are lower as a result).  When someone is doing something that they want to do, you can appeal to their sense of reason that increased challenge will make their victory more enjoyable.  When someone is only doing something because their guild needed another healer, increased challenge only makes an unpleasant task even less enjoyable.

I believe the crab when he describes the problems that resulted from healers who never ran out of mana, and it's entirely possible that the game the crab envisions for Cataclysm would be more enjoyable than the one we have today.  That improvement is reduced to an academic point, though, if the majority of players (who choose DPS) have dramatically less access to actually playing the game because the guy with a healing off-spec no longer thinks he can handle healing the instance and decides to queue with all the other DPS instead.  It's going to be very interesting to see whether Blizzard sticks to their guns if the increased difficulty leaves the highly popular random instance grind unplayable. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

Taking Advantage of EQ2X "Free Gold Membership" Weekend

Sony has rolled out a free gold membership weekend for EQ2X. I'm not convinced that there are many players who will decide to subscribe solely because of a trial weekend, but SOE could still come out ahead if players decide to buy more races, classes, or character slots based on the trial.  That said, non-subscribers can extract significant value out of this event, especially if it becomes a recurring promotion.
  • Non-subscribers are only charged broker tokens (which cost real money) when they attempt to ADD an item to the broker.  You will not be charged for adjusting prices on existing listings (as needed to ensure you have the best prices), collecting the proceeds of your sales, or even removing items that you might have left in there for storage (which you are not necessarily required to offer for sale at any price).  Now would be a great time to list all those rare harvests you've got in your limited bank space.
  • Items that are stashed in personal, bank, or shared bank slots that you lose access to as a result of your free Gold account expiring can be removed freely, just not put back in the forbidden slots.  This is another great option for long term storage.
  • The restriction on expert and master quality spells only prevents you from upgrading the spell while you are a non-subscriber.  Any upgrades you manage to obtain during this weekend are yours to keep (until you outlevel them anyway); if you're low level, you may be able to get one or more masters from the Research Assistant during this time. 
  • If you were debating whether to purchase premium races and classes, this would obviously be a good time to take them for a spin.  You will lose access to any such characters when the weekend ends.

    HOWEVER, be warned that EQ2 has a very clunky way of handling loss of character slots; when your subscription expires, you will have access to the MOST RECENT characters you logged into.  For example, if you as a silver player already have your four silver slots full and you create an additional character this weekend using the three temporary slots, you will need to make sure that the last four characters you use are the four you want to keep access to.  If you mess this up, you will need to delete characters or obtain additional slots (either by resubscribing or paying a one time $10 fee per slot to add more).
Overall, it will be interesting to see whether this deal ever returns.  Even as a non-subscriber, I might have considered paying SOE $15 once a year for a month of gold access to do the things I've described above.  If they're going to offer a trial weekend every six months or so, that expense becomes unnecessary.  As a result, one imagines that this event will only return if it actually succeeds in driving more sales after the event concludes.  Whatever happens, though, there's no reason for current Bronze/Silver EQ2X players NOT to take advantage of the event while it's active.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Surprise! Cataclysm!

The other evening, I got a tell consisting of a single question mark.  I shift clicked the name to see if it was a guild-mate or something, but it was a random level 40 character I'd never heard of before.  I sent back my customary reply, a lone exclamation mark.

A few seconds later, the lowbie restated their question.  "Why should I abandon my home, possessions, and cares?"

I was working on the pre-Cataclysm world event, and there's a stage where the player runs around saying Twilight Hammer doomsday cult slogans in an attempt to infiltrate the organization.  Though these slogans are automatically generated by the quest, they are otherwise indistinguishable from regular player speech.

I considered how to respond; I'm not much of a role player, but it's so rare that my characters are ever doing something that makes in-game sense (as distinct from "re-killing the guy I killed yesterday for more loot") that it seemed a shame to waste the opportunity. 

"The Twilight Hammer made me say that," I replied, carefully choosing words that make sense both in and out of character.

"I don't know who that is," the lowbie replied.  At this point, I was starting to get the impression that they were legitimately confused, rather than playing along with the in-game storyline, so I decided to break character.

"It's for a new quest," I said.  "Oh," came the reply.  Then it was time to go kill an invasion boss, and I'd forgotten the encounter by the time I was done with that.

Cataclysm for the unaware?
Looking back, there are more questions I might have asked.  Was this person new to the game?  Were they aware that we're just over two weeks out from a game-altering expansion?  If they do ever find the quest they asked me about, will they know that their characters efforts are pre-destined to fall short, with the world shattered just as the players' seemingly ineffectual adversaries would like?

The alternative is that this player legitimately had no idea what was going on.  That someday, possibly as soon as next week, they're going to log in and find that the zone they logged off in got blown up overnight, wiping out half of the questgivers and even entire towns.  What happens if that player logs off for the night in the doomed city of Auberdine?  Or if they were advised by a veteran to buy a mage portal to Shattrath or Dalaran for easy hearthstone/portal access and log in to find that the portals leaving these high level areas have been removed? 

These types of issues have probably happened to players in every MMO that has ever launched an expansion.  Based on sheer size, though, Cataclysm will almost certainly take the title for total number of players who are caught unaware by a major expansion revamp to content they were just working on.  I wonder how many people will be asking how they "go back" to the old world when December 7th rolls around.  

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cataclysm Invasion Event Breaks Instance Limit

Public Service Announcement: Do not run any more than four Cataclysm invasion instances within an hour of a raid you want to attend.  

World of Warcraft has an undocumented limit of five instances per account per hour to prevent players from overloading the game's instance servers.  Under normal circumstances, players will not be in danger of hitting the limit, since it's relatively hard to chain any useful dungeons more rapidly than 12 minutes each.  The Cataclysm elemental invasion makes it much easier to hit the limit, as it is possible to queue, enter and clear the instance, and requeue inside of five minutes. 

The automated dungeon finder disregards the five instance rule (which is ACCOUNT-wide, not character specific), so you can easily run vastly over the limit without any idea that you've done something wrong.  Then your guildies ask if anyone else wants to join the raid, you try to join in, and you're not allowed to zone in until the timer wears off. 

It's not the largest of issues, but it's pretty disappointing for you (and potentially your group) if it happens unexpectedly.  There's no UI that informs you of how long you have to wait, so you're just left to guess how long it will be before your fifth-most-recent instance hits an hour old.  It's a bit disappointing that Blizzard did not take this restriction into account when designing the world event. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Malygos and Wrapping Wrath

I've been waiting for weeks now for Malygos to come up as the weekly raid boss so that I could finally complete the Champion of the Frozen Wastes achievement.  This title was awarded for completing each heroic dungeon and raid encounter that was in for Wrath's launch, and I've had all but the Malygos kill since about January 2009. 

It's hard to ever say for certain precisely when one is "done" with an MMO expansion, but this is pretty much the end of the line for my mage.  Earlier this week, I hit exalted with the Frostborn Dwarves, the last 5-man dungeon faction I had yet to complete.  Over on the Horde side, there are a few more reputations I could complete for heirloom head and shoulder enchants, and maybe a few more Heroic 5-man dungeons to complete once for the respective achievements, but nothing I'd cry over missing.   

I suppose the interesting commentary here is that all the things I am still working on are non-RNG based goals.  Theoretically, I could keep farming the elemental invasion bosses for a few upgrades, but these will all be moot in about a month anyway.  I've actually had some pretty good luck with the random number generator this expansion, but I'm just not as interested in rolling the dice this close to the end of the line.  At this stage in the game, it makes much more sense to focus on finishing off things I was already working on, especially if they offer something that will stay with me into next expansion, such as a title or heirloom. 

I suppose that the long term question, after an expansion cycle that featured frequent and dramatic gear resets, is whether the picture will actually look that much different in a month. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

Separating Players By Server/Faction

Last week we had a seemingly minor story about Blizzard expanding cross server group finding.  When the process is complete, all North American servers will be combined for the purposes of random PVP battlegrounds, and servers will be split into four groups of battlegroups for the purposes of the dungeon finder. 

The thing I find interesting about this story is that it's seemingly a step towards a single global server for the game.  WoW already supports cross-server chat with members of your random instance group, and I don't see any technical reason why the game couldn't eventually allow players to type "/invite playername servername" to add their friends from any server in the region, if not the world, to their groups. One might imagine that allowing players to actually PLAY with their friends would be great way to encourage the use of as a social networking platform (which appears to be a major goal over at Acti-Blizzard). 

Such a transition would not come without cost.  Server communities would have less and less meaning, though even the current limited cross-server-dungeon-finder has already started us down that path.  There is in principle a lore issue with allowing Alliance and Horde players to team up (though both sides tend to kill the exact same foes in the exact same dungeons).  Perhaps most important to Blizzard, the lucrative paid character transfer services would be much less attractive if they were not necessary to switch over to the server where your friends are playing. 

Then again, helping players meet up with their friends may be worth far more in the long run, as a way to keep players involved in the game and actually wanting to come back and pay more subscription fees.  As the technological barriers come down, it will be very interesting to see whether Blizzard thinks the price is worthwhile. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Triumph of the Horse Painted To Look Like a Deathcharger

With a few days left to go in LOTRO's harvest festival, I finally snagged the Halloween themed mount.  Because of the lore issues associated with having players ride anything other than horses and more horses, we can't very well give players a Skeletal Deathcharger in Middle Earth.  (Some folks complain about whether there's lore to back up the Moria goats.)  We can at least have a black horse with bones painted on it. 

Obtaining this horse is as simple as looting a chest in the haunted cellar once per 24 hours and hoping that you get lucky.  I'm not really doing much on my LOTRO main at the moment, but you're allowed to log out standing next to the box, so there was no reason not to spend the one minute per day to log in and loot the thing. 

That said, I don't know that I will ever use it again beyond the traditional screenshot.  LOTRO's rep-based mounts are already somewhat better than the basic and festival options, thanks to increased HP (used to determine whether enemy attacks will dismount you).  In the next patch, rep reward mounts will have 2.5x as many HP, will provide reduced damage from critical hits, and will allow mounted players to dodge, parry, and block attacks.  The bonuses are so significant that there's no reason to ever use a regular mount again, other than social events and screenshots. 

At least the screenshots are pretty though. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

May-Ban Festival And Group Accountability

DDO's already underwhelming Mabar Festival took a turn for the worse last night when an automated exploit detection system carried out one of the largest erroneous banning sprees in recent memory. 

Turbine is trying to downplay the issue by claiming that it affected less than one percent of accounts, but that figure is extremely misleading in a free to play game; the overwhelming majority of "accounts" were not used during the event and therefore were not at risk.  The 1% of players who got hit with the banhammer were the most active players on their servers, and their absence was highly visible in game last night. 

Public Groups and Exploits

Customer service performance questions aside, there's an interesting design issue here.  The group portion of the event used a public instancing system; players had only limited ability to control who would be present in their dungeon for the boss fight.  As this type of public cooperative content becomes more popular - see also Warhammer public quests and even WoW's automated group finder - there's a real question of fairness in enforcing exploit policies. 

If a member of your guild exploits a raid encounter on a group raid, you theoretically bear some responsibility for that action by virtue of choosing to associate with that individual.  (Then again, a dedicated griefer might be willing to join a new guild and take a ban if it brings down a raid full of innocent bystanders along with them.)  When the server provides the group, your ability to avoid benefiting from others' illicit activities is limited.  On the other hand, the developers have no way of determining whether players are complicit out of game, and the ingame consequences of exploitative behavior are identical whether the beneficiaries were willing or not. 

At the end of the day, companies generally have to give players the benefit of the doubt to avoid irritating legitimate customers. It does not matter how good your product is if players are unable to use it due to poorly communicated and unjustified account suspensions.  In particular, permitting an automated system to issue bans outside of business hours, such that it will be over twelve hours before there is even anyone in the office to figure out what went wrong, is just asking for trouble.

Regardless, this is a real challenge for dynamic public content, which is inherently difficult to test to begin with. 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Cosmetic Purchase Uptake

Rohan noticed something that I missed in the Blizzcon coverage - Blizzard disclosed in a roundabout way that they sold 220,000 of the $10 Pandaren cosmetic pet during the first two months.  (Half the proceeds were donated to charity during that window, and Blizzard mentioned the total size of the donation.) 

That number sounds low compared to the total WoW playerbase, but it also sounds impressively high for a purely cosmetic item (especially when there are well over 100 alternatives available in-game at no additional charge).  How many might Blizzard have sold if their own in-game rewards weren't competing with their premium store?  How many units would sell if an item actually had an in-game effect?  As Rohan's commenters point out, there's a well-established precedent for large portions of the playerbase paying $40 for additional content in expansion packs.

The one real caveat is that the value of this kind of cosmetic purchase scales with the amount of time players invest in the game.  I paid for the collector's edition of TBC nearly four years ago, and I've logged probably hundreds of hours since that time with my trusty Netherwhelp in tow.  Players will be more reluctant to make that kind of purchase for a new game when they don't even know if they plan to stick around beyond the free month. 

As Rohan says, it would be extremely challenging to pay for a game on the scale of a traditional AAA MMO solely through cosmetic microtransactions.  I don't know of any game of that size that has actually attempted this.  The flipside of the argument is that this kind of microtransaction is a virtual no brainer for game developers.  Even if the market for minipets and other cosmetics caps out at 5%, that's almost certainly more than the portion of the market that will quit the game because it happens to offer cosmetic items.  If anything, it's remarkable that there are any games left out there that have NOT yet added a cosmetic item shop on top of whatever the rest of their business model (subscription, one-time unlock, mandatory consumable purchases) happens to be.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

F2P Success Vs Price Drops

The LOTRO and EQ2X teams will both tell you that their products are doing very well two months into their respective free to play launches.  However, recent price drops in both games undermine these public votes of confidence; at a minimum, both studios appear to be concerned about sweetening the pot in an attempt to get more free players to actually pay money. 

The Perpetual Lone Lands Sale
Turbine tells Ars Technica that over half of LOTRO players use the store, but they're much quieter about what portion of players actually pay for Turbine Points. 

TP can be earned in game (Ardwulf's got a good write-up of one of the tricks to get some easy free points), and are handed out to subscribers as part of the monthly subscription - indeed, the biggest selling items in the store's first month were shared storage upgrades, which sound much more like something veterans spend their loyalty reward points on than something a new player would open up their wallet for the first time to obtain. 

Meanwhile, we have the curious case of the Lone Lands, the game's first paid zone of content.  When the beta first rolled out, the LL price was balanced around players who were going to grind out points for free.  This price was slashed dramatically before the free to play launch, allowing a player who clears out all the deeds in one starter zone (give or take) to buy the Lone Lands.  Then there was a one-day 75% off sale. Turbine apparently liked what they saw in that test run, because the zone has been "on sale" for a total of 50 TP (86% off) for about a week now.

It's not clear whether the price drop is permanent, but it's starting to look like Turbine wants to make sure that players don't need to pay real money to get the points to extend their LOTRO "trial" into the mid 20's. 

EQ2X Hops On The Sale Train, Offers Free Upgrade To Silver Accounts
Meanwhile, SOE has apparently decided that they like what they see on Turbine's side of the fence, as they've abruptly rolled out a 50% off station cash sale, accompanied by a 50% off item of the day for the week.  (No word on whether they noticed how DDO had to raise its base prices to cope with its sale habit.) 

On top of that, SOE quietly gave the $10 silver-status account some free upgrades.  Many players, myself included, might have paid Station Cash for the additional bag slot.  Many players are paying SOE $10 a pop for additional character slots.  Even so, SOE apparently feels that making the silver upgrade more attractive to people who have been holding out will net them more money in the long run. 

Responsiveness Or Weakness?
Both studios are spinning these changes as responsiveness to what their customers want, and I'm sure that this is a factor in the decision process.  That said, making MMO's is still a for-profit activity, and that means keeping prices as high as possible for as long as possible.  World of Warcraft will continue to charge a separate fee for the four-year-old TBC expansion - making new players buy a total of four boxes before they can play their first Goblin or Worgen - because people are still paying for it.  Meanwhile, every other game I'm aware of that has more than one boxed expansion is offering "all-in-one" deals because they're having a hard enough time getting new players period.

If you are going to cut prices, the way that SOE and Turbine have done it is smart; encourage players to invest more time in the game, and make that very first purchase offer significant returns, in the hopes that players will pay more or even subscribe once they've been around for a while.  Even so, the pendulum is swinging pretty heavily towards price cuts for games that are supposedly raking free to play windfall cash.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The AFK Invasion

WoW's Cataclysm launch event is up and running, including a purely cosmetic feat of strength for being present when one of each type of elemental rift is closed.  For the initial phase of the event, the rifts respawn on one-hour timers from the last time they were killed, so it's relatively hard to tell how long you would have to wait for a new one to appear. 

There are three approaches to this challenge:
  1. Wait for the next phase of the invasion to start, which will no doubt increase the spawn rate to the point where you can't AVOID completing the feat of strength.
  2. Fly around looking for a rift that is open.  Each zone tends to host rifts of a specific element, so you can look up which zones you need and just go roaming.  Northrend is the most crowded, so open rifts are likely to be found and killed before you can reach them.  The old world is the least crowded, but you can't use your flying mounts so it will take longer to search.  Outland theoretically sits in the middle, though I didn't have much luck when I went there.
  3. Find a very well known spawn point, such as the gnoll camp outside K3.  Park your character there and alt tab out to work on your blog.  If you're lucky, there'll be dozens of players hanging out in the same place, slaughtering anything that would otherwise pose a threat to your AFK character, and then slaughtering the rift itself in seconds when it finally spawns.
The upside to approach number 3 is that it's an amusing social event, with players from both factions showing off various rare pets and mounts while they wait.  The downside is that the rift will probably die before you get back to take a screenshot.  Oh well, at least my achievement log is updated. 
  The scene while waiting for the rift to spawn, many more players actually showed up before it finally appeared.