Sunday, May 30, 2010

Fury-well to Arms Spec

Several commenters suggested that I try switching my budding Warrior alt from Fury to Arms for a different experience. As it happened, I'd just finished saving up enough gold to pay for dual spec (with 1000G in the bank for cold weather flying when I need it), so I figured that there wouldn't be any harm in taking the other DPS spec for a spin before using the second slot on a tanking spec (presuming that I decide I'm brave enough to try tanking).

Superficially, the two specs have a bit in common. Arms Warriors get the famous Mortal Strike skill instead of the Fury self-healing Bloodthirst attack. Instead of waiting on a talent to proc instant-cast Slam attacks, Arms gets talents that proc instant Overpower and/or Execute attacks. Because these abilities require Battle Stance, I don't get to use Whirlwind (a staple of the Fury rotation), but I get additional tools including Thunderclap, Sweeping Strikes, Retaliation, and Bladestorm to deal with additional foes.

Regardless of how different the two are on paper, though, I find that I greatly prefer the feel of the Arms spec. The results may be similar, but it feels more interactive to be making a choice that now I want to hit multiple targets or now I want to do something that refills my health bar. With Bloodthirst and Whirlwind in the standard Fury rotation, both situations all but take care of themselves for solo content. Arms might be less effective (especially against casters, for lack of convenient access to pummel), but it feels more fun - perhaps the decreased efficiency even helps raise the difficulty from trivial to "need to pay some attention".

P.S. Also, there's nothing that I've done on any of my characters that quite compares to Bladestorm. In solo content, clicking that button makes four mobs die in the next seven seconds. The thing is on a cooldown (90 seconds, 75 with a glyph), but you shouldn't need to pull four mobs at once more often than that, and you've always got Retaliation in your back pocket if there's still mobs standing when you're done spinning around.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Are Dungeon Finder Leveling Dungeons WoW's Public Quests?

I've been saying some less than positive things about WoW's automated dungeon finder of late, so it seems only fair to give equal time to one area where I've been getting a lot of benefit from the system - groups for leveling dungeons.

The logistics of LFG
Historically, I've always simply skipped over leveling dungeons. The nebulous (generally lengthy) amount of time it would take to find a group before you even start the actual dungeon run was too much unpredictability for my schedule. On top of that, dungeons often represent the culmination of the storylines in a given zone, meaning that you will be out of stuff to do in the neighborhood by the time you have all the relevant quests. Though WoW did have dungeon summoning stones, at least two party members needed to travel to the stones (often as many as four of your party members may presume that someone else will summon them), and the greatest concentration of players looking for groups for a given area are often located in that zone's local chat.

The dungeon finder blows all of these concerns out of the water. As a DPS, you're going to be looking for something like 15-30 minutes, and you can do whatever you want with that time, as you will be teleported to the dungeon automatically when a group is assembled. As a result, my Warrior has been doing every dungeon in Northrend as soon as the relevant quests become available, earning significant gear upgrades in the process. I've even queued up for random dungeons when I feel like I could use a change of pace from solo questing - my warrior has already banked a handful of emblems and stone keeper shards from these efforts.

A different take on the public quest
When Warhammer Online was getting ready to launch, I was actually very excited about the concept of public quests. The idea, as Mythic described it, was for players to get to enjoy high quality group content without having to deal with group logistics. Unfortunately, because these quests were non-instanced events located in the outside world, population worked against them. You might show up at a PQ and discover that there weren't enough players there to complete it, or you might find that too many had shown up, making the content trivial. Worst of all, you had to travel to the quest areas on foot, and could arrive to find that the party was over.

The way that the random dungeon finder has worked out in WoW is very similar to the end goal of the Public Quest - but with much of the random chance and logistic inconvenience taken out. Your group will have the right number of people and correct balance of classes for the content (though they may or may not be overgeared). You do not need to worry about travel, or even knowing where it is that you should be going (though this can be a problem when players die and don't know how to get back to the instance).

There may be no removing the social downsides of working with strangers in group content. I also maintain that the system should do a better job of maintaining difficulty by using appropriately geared players when possible - one random Old Kingdom group, a level 74 dungeon, ended up with a level 80 tank for some reason. When it comes to the actual goal of making group content accessible to players as they level, though, this system is a huge success.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Key Binding Homogenization

Ferrel's a bit disappointed that his plate Templar healer isn't actually that much more durable than EQ2's other healing classes. EQ2's especially vulnerable to this kind of homogenization because the game has so many classes that it's very easy to end up with too many niches. It's not alone by any stretch, however, just today the crab is talking about the same type of issue in WoW.

Fury Warrior Vs Ret Pally
With my warrior now on the move once again, I decided to dust off the old Ret Paladin to see how the two classes compare hitting Northrend content around level 70. The first thing I had to do was gut and overhaul the Paladin's keybindings, as he had previous been a bizarre spell power Prot/Ret hybrid and I had never fully updated him to the Wrath era. Having literally just logged off the Warrior, I ended up with a very similar key layout.

The crucial keybinds that I am most likely to use when soloing one or more normal mobs are:

2: Heroic Strike (single target, burns excess rage)
3: Bloodthirst (single target, triggers a self-heal)
Shift+3: Slam (single target, ONLY used when a specific talent triggers, making it instant cast)
4: Whirlwind (AOE)

2: Crusader Strike (single target)
3: Judgement of Wisdom (single target, triggers mana regen)
Shift+3: Exorcism (single target, used to burn excess mana ONLY when a specific talent triggers, making it instant cast)
4: Divine Storm (AOE, triggers a self-heal)

There are substantial differences between the two classes - for example, the Paladin has many more healing and buffing skills beyond the passive ones, and the Warrior has multiple stances and more defensive tools as a non-tanking spec. From my perspective DPS'ing solo mobs, however, the end results are very similar - both guys can kill multiple mobs at once while regenerating their health and resources (mana or rage) pretty indefinitely, using a very similar set of key bindings.

I haven't played a Death Knight since the Wrath beta, and their current rune system probably requires more than four buttons on a typical fight, but, again, the end result is pretty similar based on what I remember - DPS with enough passive mitigation and self-healing to keep on killing.

Eliminating diversity for laziness?
It's possible that I'm working on the wrong melee alt at the moment. The one melee experience that's really different from the above is what I have on the rogue, who is specced for Subtlety. With this spec, the first mob is dead within 4 seconds of my sneak attack and the rest of the pull is attempting to survive long enough to mop up.

Ironically, rogues don't like to level as Subtlety, because stealth is too much work; why sneak when you can evasion tank and burn stuff down faster than it can hit them like some more agile version of Fury Warriors, Ret Pallies, and Death Knights? Blizzard has announced plans to grant Rogues their wish, with Cataclysm changes aimed at making the use of stealth while leveling more optional, and adding a way for Rogues too to burn their passively generated resource for self-healing.

I suppose that this change was inevitable, as Rogues were the only class left that did not have some way of healing themselves (or their pets, in the case of Hunters). Perhaps the intent is to make each individual class a bit more responsible for their own self-healing, to lessen the burden on healers and thereby lower the entry bar a little bit for players who are new to that role.

Even so, I'm a bit concerned that the homogenization is getting a bit much. It's starting to feel like all the melee characters are going to be played exactly the same way, with different graphics. What's the point of having so many classes if that's where we're going?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

One And Done

"I give every dungeon at least one wipe before leaving. This applies to my tank and other toons as well. If we do wipe, I evaluate how we did. Taking Halls of Reflection as the popular example, if we wipe before defeating the first boss, I'm out. If we wipe on the hardest/final waves, I'll give it another try and reevaluate the situation (kick as needed, etc.)."
- Bornakk, World of Warcraft CM, responding to a thread about what random dungeons scares players to the point where they'd rather wait out the 30 minute deserter timer than attempt the instance

I've been running some off-peak random dungeons of late, which has made for some odd demographics. My mage has a 4.8K gearscore (albeit inflated with some PVP items) and is good for somewhere between 3-4K DPS depending on buffs and group tactics. These numbers are at least double what a typical DPS would have managed at Wrath's launch, but now I find myself pushing to improve my play if I don't want to come in 3rd or even 4th on the damage meters.

Today's random daily group featured a trio of players from some raiding guild on another server. They arrived with gearscores in the mid 6000's and server first raid kill titles, and they proceeded to pull insanely large numbers of mobs at once (including trash with bosses, etc). Midway through the run, the tank noted that the other random DPS, a hunter, was doing less DPS than him. Now, in principle, less DPS than the tank is a bit embarrassing, but the tank in question was doing 2.5K DPS in HUK by pulling 10 mobs at a time and spamming AOE damage abilities (go go Pally tank). In that context, relatively few people can really fault the hunter for posting a "mere" 2.3K DPS in a random PUG attempting the game's easiest heroic 5-man dungeon.

I stayed out of the argument because there's no reason why the three raiders couldn't have kicked both the hunter and myself and finished the instance without us. The reality of the situation is that he was dead right when he said that something was wrong with this group - the three of them really did not belong in entry level 5-man content. The only reason why they were there was because Blizzard bribes them with Icecrown-quality raid emblems.

The sad part is that the queue times on lower level instances, where there is no raid loot to be had for showing up once a day, are only slightly worse in my experience than the queues for max level random heroics. In other words, Blizzard no longer needs to trivialize this entire content format in order to make it viable - the random cross server grouping system is doing enough to ensure that it is possible to run instances.

Reflecting on a challenge
I actually intentionally run the notorious HHOR once a day before my random daily, so that I can have the random shot of doing it a second time if it comes up as my random dungeon. Part of my interest in the zone is the loot - the caster off-hand is the only 5-man instance drop that would still be useful to me - but a bigger part is that it's the last real challenge left in 5-man content.

Because of this, it's pretty common for one or more players to immediately drop group the moment they zone in. If the group does wipe, we're certainly going to be looking for a new tank or healer, or disbanded. The only reason why a wipe is not an immediate disband is that many of the DPS are looking at lengthy queues to try something else, and a group that's missing one member gets top priority at replacements. I'm actually a bit surprised to see blue text admitting that this is how things are, because that's not exactly a selling point of the much touted dungeon system.

To be perfectly honest, I'm not the best player I could be, and I'm not willing to put in the effort that is required to beat the more difficult content. I was in a 40-man guild that killed Nefarian back in the day, and the experience of downing a boss just isn't worth multiple nights of wiping to learn a single fight to me personally. Even so, I'd like a bit more challenge than watching some raiders 3-man an instance.

Back before the random dungeon finder, it was not uncommon for a group to wipe once or twice on a boss before figuring out how to beat the encounter. Sometimes they just couldn't get it and the group disbanded, but sometimes that group, which was starting to look like a fail, managed to pull out the win. That's the level of challenge and investment I'm prepared to sink in this game, and it's a level of difficulty that the actual content - which has been largely unchanged over the last year and a half - is capable of supporting. Thanks to the way Blizzard has the incentives set up right now, though, that style of gameplay is basically dead.

This is disappointing. There is a need for an entry level gear path for newly level-capped characters, but I'm not convinced that teaching players bad habits in trivial content is the right solution to the problem. Unfortunately, it's both the easy solution and the popular one, so it's looking like it's here to stay.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Role of "Optional" in the Item Shop

"…these guys are still leaving plenty of money on the table still. If players will pay $25 for just a mount, can you imagine what they’ll pay for the next expansion pack? Wheeee. Come on SOE, make the next expansion pack worth $150. Come onnnnn. Doooo eeeet!! I’m just waiting to see how crazy they go with this."
- Darren, the Common Sense Gamer
"But the main thing to take away from the article is thus -- if you don't like the practice, don't buy into it. Don't angrily bitch to developers, don't slit their throats on the forums, and don't make a scene. You can let them know exactly how you feel by simply telling them that you don't want this in your game, and then by following through and not buying the item (or items) in question. If it doesn't sell, you can be sure that it won't be coming back.
- Serafina Brennan @ Massively

There's been a fair amount of blog fodder already on SOE's decision to release an item store mount for $25 - identical to what Blizzard decided to charge a month earlier. These two quotes from opposite sides of the issue - Darren thinks that the market is stupid for accepting this price point, while Seraphina admits to being tempted now that the $25 mount is something she actually wants - do a good job of highlighting what I believe to be the central issue in this story: the "optional" price increase.

The option and the vote
Darren's idea won't work for the simple reason that expansion packs are mandatory purchases. I like EQ2 reasonably well, but I would not pay $150 for a future EQ2 expansion. Without the current expansion, continuing to play the game would not really be an option either. As a result, increasing the price on this mandatory item would actually cost SOE revenue that they otherwise would have received - a $40 expansion box fee plus a $15 monthly subscription. Perhaps they're leaving money on the table from people who would pay $150, but the alternative apparently leaves even more money on the table from people who will NOT pay the higher price.

By the same token, the fact that this additional purchase is optional renders Serafina's point moot. The two options in this rigged election are to support El Presidente or stay home and watch other people vote yes. Not giving SOE and Blizzard additional money that you were not giving them to begin with doesn't register as a vote for the opposition unless you're willing to cancel your subscription outright. If people were doing that in any significant numbers, we wouldn't be seeing a proliferation of $25 mounts.

The problem, then, is where the impact on the actual game lies. On this point, the Cash Cat is far worse than WoW's Sparkle Pony.

What exactly are you buying?
WoW's vanity mount is pure vanity - it moves only as fast as the fastest mount the player already owns, complete with all of the level, cash, and achievement requirements thereof. On the other hand, the EQ2 cash mounts come with 65% mount speed and some increased combat stats, and are usable at level 1. If you want to ride that fast, you'll have to level to 80 and grind out some faction or run some raids - none of the character on my account currently have access to anything faster than the low 50's.

Back in the old days, where most leveling was done in grinding groups, mounts were more of a luxury item. By contrast, the modern questing model is literally built around the frequent use of travel time to break up the grind. I'd guesstimate that my EQ2 characters spend somewhere between a third and half of their time traveling places. Suddenly, a 65% boost to travel speeds is a pretty big deal - not only does it reduce travel times, but it increases the proportion of your gaming session that you can spend doing things that directly earn you experience (killing mobs, looting items, etc).

The good news is that the heirloom mount is actually a bargain compared to the other, more temporary forms of experience boost available in EQ2's cash store, as the mount is permanent and can be shuffled to your alts through the shared bank. The bad news is that this move illustrates a continuing trend to make the game's best incentives into optional cash store purchases.

Next stop?
This type of model has become increasingly popular because - for the moment - it appears to be free money. As I said, very few players will cancel a game on principle because of this type of transaction, and many more would consider canceling a subscription in the face of a price increase.

In the long term, though, I'm concerned that this type of trend diminishes the value of player accomplishments. The content difficulty treadmill ensures that you don't actually get more powerful relative to your latest challenge. In many ways, the cosmetic rewards - outfits, furniture, mounts, pets, etc - are the most durable incentive rewards in the game. In EQ2, all of these are now available as additional purchases, and the custom station cash versions are often more impressive and unique than their in-game counterparts.

The danger for the game is that seeing a price tag placed on these items will encourage players to consider their worth more closely. This could create a perception that choosing to do without is the thrifty thing to do. Sure, it might be worth $25 not to have to grind out that pesky faction, but, if I can somehow squeak by without a mount at all - perhaps by rolling up a class that has inherent runspeed perks and does not need mounts - I get to keep both my time AND my money.

In a genre that is so heavily based on incentivizing players to reuse content, encouraging them to put more thought into how much exactly they value those rewards may not be the smartest long term move.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Re-departing Outland

My long-neglected Tauren warrior finally hit level 68 this week, making him eligible to depart Outland for Northrend. I did all of the "Horde-specific" quests in Nagrand and Blade's Edge between levels 65-68, though the quotes are necessary because many of those quests were identical to their Alliance counterparts other than the questgiver saying "For the Horde" when you talk to them. I was very disappointed because I had always figured that my fourth trip through Outland (twice on retail, one in the Wrath beta) would feature new and different material, but instead I was simply killing the same mobs for different questgivers more often than not.

I did cheat a little bit in obtaining my Northrend alchemy perks early, but, even so, I was a bit surprised at how easy the content was. I had My Fury spec was less than ideal, but I suppose that the option of swinging a pair of two-handers and glyphing Bloodthirst for double healing didn't even exist back in 2007. I would have expected a cake walk on my home server with a full set of heirlooms across the board. Cut off from all those resources, and left with only the stuff I could pay for with gold from that particular character, the content was still a cake walk. If I want a challenge, I need to aim for mobs 2-3 levels higher than I am, so that the reduced hit rates can kick in and slow my swinging flurry of death down a notch.

In one final note, as nearly as I can tell, Netherstorm and Shadowmoon are both completely obsolete. I had just barely replaced my last pre-Outland item when I hit 68, and I didn't have any trouble jumping into Northrend (where I promptly upgraded those items even further). I remember this jump being tougher during the Wrath beta (I haven't tried it with a level 68 on the live servers), even with the then massively-overpowered Death Knight. Under the circumstances, there's no reason whatsoever to stick around in TBC content, gaining less exp and worse rewards.

Given how slowly Blizzard adds content, it will never fully make sense to me why they make such a point of aiming whole zones in each expansion at players who aren't already at the previous cap. Are there really players who gave up at level 68 and weren't willing to pay for Wrath until they heard that they could skip those last two zones? In Cataclysm in particular, with a relatively smaller amount of the new content allocated for max level characters to begin with, I'm concerned that this will leave not all that much content to go around for the leveling path to 85.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Failing Skadi For Fun And Profit

I've killed Skadi the Ruthless in WoW's Utgarde Pinnacle a few times, but never quite like the way we pulled it off in a random dungeon run this past weekend.

Skadi: Then and Now
If you're in a PUG with a tank who has not done the fight before, it typically goes something like the following:

- Tank gathers up the horde of flunkies, while the healer keeps him up.
- One or more DPS players grab harpoons from the fallen flunkies, loads them in the harpoon launcher, and uses them to kill the drake that the boss is flying on.
- The boss lands on the ground with a completely clean aggro table, aggros on the healer due to healing threat, and kills them before the tank figures out what's going on.

Step three results in a wipe, and I've had PUG HUP runs wipe repeatedly and give up after failing to get this particular stage of the fight under control. People even came up with a way to abuse the fight respawn mechanics in order to skip directly to the transition. Or rather, step three resulted in a wipe a year ago. This past weekend, the fight proceeded as follows:

- The dead healer was a priest, and therefore gets to keep healing as a ghost for 10ish seconds after his demise.
- The tank was raid geared, and able to stay alive for a while with emergency cooldowns even after the heals stopped.
- DPS has tripled over the last year, primarily due to massive gear inflation. Even the tank is now doing as much DPS as the DPS used to do a year ago. The boss' health, however, has remained constant (somewhere in the mid-400K range).

Between the decreased total burn time to kill the boss, and the increased amount of time we were able to stay up without a healer, this previously sure wipe turned into a win. Indeed, I've had a fair number of healer-less victories in PUGs of late.

The point of the entry level game?
The point of having all this gear inflation in the first place is to help new players get up to par to enter the raid game. Unfortunately, it's having a serious negative effect on the competence with which players approach dungeons (which were already AOE-fests with no crowd control a year ago).

The net result is that the few dungeons that are still vaguely difficult (notably Halls of Reflection) are very difficult to complete in a PUG. Players come in expecting to not be able to wipe no matter how badly they screw things up, and this does them a disservice in preparing them for situations where performance actually matters. I didn't have problems beating HOR the week it came out, and I came back months later to find that Blizzard had raised the gear requirements for the zone. Even with the higher (though easily met, thanks to more gear inflation) standard, it is still very difficult to get a group that is prepared to deal with a dungeon that makes them work.

Is this really doing the raid game any favors? It certainly isn't improving the quality of the experience for players who aren't looking to go beyond 5-man content.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Tips on Looking for Guilds

Ferrel and Karen took a chunk of the latest episode of A View From The Top to address a question I sent in about looking for guilds and recruits. Raiders have comparatively straightforward benchmarks to see whether a guild and an applicant are a good match, but things are less clear-cut for non-raiders like myself.

The podcast is aimed at guild leaders, so their advice was aimed at what a guild can do to make their advertising and outreach more effective. Even so, one of the tips seemed equally useful to applicants - think about what you want to be doing, and how many people it requires.

What DO I want in a guild?
The main things I look for in a guild are:
- Access to any unusually useful in-game perks (currently in EQ2 guild halls, planned for WoW's upcoming guild talents/heirlooms and DDO's forthcoming guild airships)
- People to talk to, more tolerable than the residents of public chat channels, but not so exclusive that they wouldn't let me in to begin with
- Groupmates on the rare occasion when I'm making plans to be on and attempting some specific goal at some specific time

In particular, I was thinking of how to go about looking for a guild when picking up a new game where I don't know anyone. My existing guilds don't look anything like each other, but they all work to address my priorities in the context of the specific game. When I do go looking for a guild in, say, DDO, the top priority will probably be size, because I'll want to be on a team that has a shiny airship and perhaps enough players to get some non-scheduled group content in.

I'm about as odd a fit as anyone demographically, since I spend enough time online to burn through content like a hardcore player, but I log the time on such a nebulous schedule that I don't normally fit in with the hardcore crowd either. Apparently, anything makes sense if you break it down the right way, though. Thanks for the perspective, guys!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Quel'Delar, The Cataclysm Preview?

As those of you who follow my twitter feed already know, I was fortunate enough to obtain a battered hilt drop in a random ICC-5 the other day. I debated whether to use it or sell it - the lowest buyout amongst the others on the Hyjal AH was sitting at 10K gold - but decided that there's nothing else I could do with the gold that would be more interesting than completing this relatively exclusive questline.

The story thus far...
Once you obtain the weapon's hilt, you can embark on an epic quest to reconstruct the High Elf blade. The reforged weapon must be purified in the reborn Sunwell, which means a trip to the old island of Quel'Danis, like most player have never seen it before.

Present Day Quel'Danis

Introduced with the Sunwell raid in patch 2.4 at the tail end of the Burning Crusade, the story unfolding on the island pits an alliance of Blood Elves and Draenei against the demons of the Burning Legion. Even after players permanently unlock the major quest hubs, portals and fel invaders remain to be battled on a daily basis. The Sunwell itself is occupied by the game's most challenging level 70 raid, which proved nigh unbeatable for many guilds that had cleared the other raid content. All of this is still in the game today for players who want to take a trip down memory lane.

This is now
Time, however, is advancing in Azeroth. Even though the old content remains, the lore says that the Blood Elves have finally pacified the island, and are rebuilding their civilization around the new Sunwell. And so, when I teleported over to Quel'Danis to continue the Quel'Delar quest, I was surprised to see a very different picture.

A more idyllic isle of the future

Gone were the demons and portals. In their place were craftsmen, rebuilding the remainder of the city. Eventually, I was granted access to the Sunwell itself, a location previously restricted to the very end of the high-difficulty raid. Inside, you find the leaders of the Blood Elves, including Lady Liadrin. Liadrin is head of the Blood Elf Paladins (and participant in a lore conversation in Shattrath City that continues on infinite loop to this day) teaching pilgrims about the new source of their power. All of this was accomplished through Wrath's phasing quest mechanic, and had reverted to its original state when I competed the quest, claiming my new weapon.

The future of Azeroth?
Though technically anyone can see this storyline with enough luck or gold, I was a bit surprised to see this much effort put into a storyline that many players will not see (if for no other reason than because people with access to raid gear can get better weapons and therefore might be better served selling the hilt if they obtain it). Then again, perhaps players will see, in 4-6 months or whenever the Cataclysm finally arrives.

Visiting an old stomping ground and seeing what has become of it over the last few years really was a unique experience compared to anything that typically happens in MMORPG's these days. If this is what it is going to be like to see the entire world when Cataclysm arrives, Blizzard's decision to invest in their quest revamp may pay off very well indeed.

[Quel'Delar, Lens of the Mind], the cool-looking reward for my efforts

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Latest Wintergrasp Revision

Above are the stats for Wintergrasp battles on my server, Hyjal US. Each side must by definition possess the same number of captures plus or minus one, since the zone cannot fall into NPC control (i.e. you don't get to take it again until the enemy has first taken it from you). So, the only meaningful number is the number of times defenders are able to fight off captures. In our case, the numbers show a massive advantage to the Horde, which has held the keep in over seven times as many defensive battles.

In part iterations of Wintergrasp, the Alliance on my server often showed up in superior numbers, granting the Horde massive tenacity buffs. Today, it is not uncommon for a prime time battle to turn into a rout, in which my normally squishy mage is running around with 20 stacks of tenacity and 90K hit points, demolishing enemies in 2-3 hits. While this is strangely addictive (I've gotten 50-100 honor per kill in some of those situations, thanks to the tenacity honor buff), it is very unlikely result in capturing the keep. What happened to shift the balance?

The latest rules
Since the last time I addressed Wintergrasp, a year ago, Blizzard has completely redone the zone yet again. The current model requires players to either travel to the zone or two a battlemaster in major cities to queue up for the battle. This can be done no more than 15 minutes prior to the outbreak of hostilities, and was intended to reduce overcrowding. There is apparently an upper limit on how many people will be brought into the battle, and, in Blizzard's defense, I haven't seen much lag in the zone.

On the opposite side of the coin, though, the balancing of the factions is left purely to the tenacity buff. We can have a battle in which there are seven Alliance in a /who for the zone and a decent sized raid group of Horde. Unfortunately, Tenacity does not do enough to enhance the performance of vehicles - a 100K HP siege tank is actually pretty squishy compared to a 15-million HP raid boss. Without vehicles, the attackers cannot win the battle. You can stick around to farm honor points and watch insanely large crit numbers, but that will only stay entertaining for so long.

It's certainly possible that the population balance of the server has changed over the last year in ways that make the Horde suddenly outnumber the Alliance, where the situation was once reversed. The bigger issue, though, is the one that always hits games with non-instanced (or, in this case, non-size-balanced) PVP; the outnumbered side starts losing and becomes less fun to play, and even fewer people show up, starting a vicious cycle.

Consequences of the NEXT revamp
Blizzard's plan for the expansion (to be tested in Wintergrasp and finalized in the expansion's new version of Wintergrasp) is to limit both sides to relatively equal number of players (with a minimum cap to ensure that one side cannot deny the other victory by refusing to show up and leaving the cap at some number that's too low to complete the objectives).

Like the last half a dozen iterations of Wintergrasp, this one has some problems. Off the top of my head, the more popular side may quickly realize that they are less likely to get in off of the queue due to their numbers and level alts on the opposing faction to enter the battle just to raise the population cap for their real comrades. With Blizzard's new account-wide chat feature, they can even be relaying intel about enemy movements through in-game whispers. There's no stopping players from using third party chat to accomplish this, but it hasn't been conveniently and officially in game before now.

The bigger issue, though, will remain how to keep this kind of PVP - in which one side, and often the same side, will lose more often than not - interesting enough for the losers to choose to continue. This is where Warhammer fans have always claimed that the game went wrong by not emulating DAOC's three-faction model; you might be outnumbered, but there's always the chance of the two smaller teams joining forces against the big guys.

In the absence of changing the system to make sure that victory is always somehow in reach, Blizzard has attempted to use incentives to keep the losing side happy. In Wintergrasp's case losers can snag maybe 1-2K honor and a token (good in quantities of 25 or 40 for a second-tier PVP item, and only redeemable if your side owns the keep), with additional points for any of the weekly quests you are able to complete. Apparently, in an era where all the other forms of gear have also seen massive inflation, those rewards aren't cutting it.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Earning Gear Offline

Age of Conan recently made headlines with a change that offers players free levels simply for having an active subscription. Not to be outdone, Blizzard handed me four major gear upgrades, just for signing back into the game.

Technically, the upgrades in question were more of a correct bet on the pace of gear inflation than a literal handout. Due to my Wintergrasp habit, I wrapped up the patch 3.2 era with 90 marks and 67K honor. Rather than spend them on items that offered minor upgrades, I opted to save them for the following arena season. Now I have cashed in these currencies for the ilvl 264 PVP bracers, ilvl 251 shoulders, and ilvl 245 neck and cloak - I had ilvl 200 or 213 items in these slots previously, so even the PVE->PVP swaps were major upgrades. The hardest part of this transaction was waiting for the apparently dispirited Hyjal Alliance to capture Wintergrasp for access to the vendor.

The irony is that I was actually willing to run a few dungeons for some gear. Prior to my shopping spree, there were a relatively large number of items in the ICC 5-mans that represented substantial upgrades. Also, the gear threshold on Heroic Halls of Reflection appears to have been increased since I beat it twice in random pugs on the week it came out - my gear was suddenly no longer good enough to guarantee an easy clear of the place until I cashed in those upgrades, and I otherwise might have had to grind out some upgrades to regain access to the game's toughest 5-man.

Looking ahead
Strangely, the previews for Cataclysm say that Blizzard is keeping this old system, in which players will be allowed to bank currencies that will be usable to purchase better items in subsequent "seasons". Moreover, the system is expanding from PVP (where it makes some sense - your opponents may be wearing the good stuff) to PVE content. The Wrath era has seen several rounds of emblem quality inflation for the same 5-man dungeons (which have gotten comparatively easier as players become more and more overgeared), but those changes have never been retroactive to currency earned in the PREVIOUS season in the way that PVP honor points are.

At the end of the day, I suppose the moral of the story is that players should do whatever they enjoy most and rest increasingly assured that Blizzard will somehow manage to award them with raid quality loot for doing it. Perhaps banking currency for the future is even necessary as a way to encourage players not to call it quits as the end of a season approaches if they don't have anything left to purchase. Even so, it just seems odd that, in this timesink heavy genre, the trend would move towards allowing players to skip a timesink by banking currencies for future tiers.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Quick Solution To WoW Goldselling?

Random thought of the afternoon:

What portion of WoW gold selling would be eliminated if Blizzard changed the character transfer service to strip your character of everything but the clothes on their back, and returned the balance of your inventory after 24-48 hours? Gold sellers depend on server transfers to move goods from compromised accounts to servers where potential customers are waiting. Most accounts that are worth stealing are worth it because they log in often enough that a character transfer would be noticed within a day or so.

Obviously, not having cash or consumables would be an inconvenience for players who legitimately want to transfer their characters to a new home (though really, routine questing does not require consumables, and I guess you could provide a 100G stipend for repairs and reagents). Then again, if you're moving to join friends or a new guild, someone can probably loan you the stuff you'll need for a day or two until your stuff arrives. Moreover, how many players would this really affect? How does that number of players compare to the number that are affected by the illicit gold trade? To the numbers who have had their guild banks looted, or had to wait for weeks for character restorations?

Don't get me wrong, I don't think that the gold selling problem can be solved entirely by impeding the transfer of assets. In this particular case, though, I'm wondering if the effect on legitimate players isn't so minimal that there is no real downside. Can someone point out the stupid detail I'm missing that argues why Blizzard shouldn't do this tomorrow?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Privacy Implications of Real ID

Consider the following two statements on a guild application:

- To facilitate contacting players as needed, all raiders are require to add the raid leader as a friend on their real world Facebook account.
- To facilitate contacting players as needed, all raiders are required to add the raid leader as a RealID friend on

The former statement would probably raise some red flags with most people, though Uncle Ferrel's stories from his days as an elite EQ1 raider suggest that they're not unprecedented in MMORPG history. By incorporating the functionality into the default UI using the RealID friend system, along with newly announced Facebook integration, Blizzard has legitimized the latter (which effectively leads to the former).

I've written before about real world privacy consequences of linking your gaming to your real life identity. This new push - all character alts in all Blizzard games will be included - adds in consequences for your virtual life as well. Spinks observes that we may be seeing the end of the virtual identity.

For some players, this type of functionality might be a good thing. I would be happy with allowing the raid leader in my WoW guild to contact me on my WoW alts in the event that there's a vacant slot in a raid that needs any warm body (the only circumstance under which I would potentially be worth bringing along). However, this would expose my real name to all of his realID friends, which I would be less thrilled about. And, as with any social networking oversharing, the consequences of making the "wrong" decision may not be immediately obvious at the time the player makes them, and may be hard to correct in any discreet fashion.

The unfortunate part is that there is nowhere for players to hide. Every game out there has its own web portal these day, and we can expect sites like Sony's Station, Turbine's (my.ddo and my.lotro), and Bioware's version (used in Dragon Age and presumably SWTOR) to include Blizzard's new features ASAP in a push to gather more marketing data. If the genre is changing for the worse, players have no alternative other than to give up gaming and go take up books (until someone starts releasing iPad and Kindle-only books that require Facebook integration, which may not be that far off either).

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Should Item Store Purchases Be Tradeable?

The current episode of DDOCast discussed whether there could be ways for players to gift or trade Turbine Points in the future. Could such a system be implemented? Perhaps, but it’s not quite so simple in practice.

The role of free players in a game with item shop trading
There are games out there that allow players to gift or trade items that are obtained via real currency. For example, Eve Online allows players to purchase in-game time-cards that can be sold to other players for in-game currency, allowing them to finance their subscriptions with the proceeds of their gaming efforts. In another example, Kingdom of Loathing allows players to sell or trade anything out of the game’s item shop.

These approaches have a major advantage – they allow the developers to monetize players who can’t or won’t pay directly. Players who have money to spare pay the developers for items that they can then sell off, purchases that they would not have made if the items were not tradeable. These players can then get their hands on in-game resources that they would not have wanted to farm or grind for on their own. Finally, cash shop items make their way into the hands of non-payers, who in turn are valuable to the developers because their presence in the economy drives sales by creating a secondary market for cash shop items.

Undercutters, Farmers, Botters and Fraudsters
Unfortunately, this type of plan does not work very well with free samples and sales. If Turbine points were tradeable players could potentially stock up during a sale and undercut Turbine’s own prices when things return to their normal price. In that case, money that would have gone to Turbine from players who were willing to pay instead winds up in the hands of resellers (who might also turn out to be fraudsters who pocket players’ money, as we’ve seen in WoW).

Another issue is with free samples. Each new Turbine account can pretty easily obtain almost 1000 Turbine Points ($10 at the most favorable non-sale exchange rate) just by making new characters on each server and advancing to level 4 or so. I’ve been doing just that recently, because I would have tried out those alts anyway, but the cost benefit in my view drops off very quickly once you’ve obtained those low-hanging fruit.

Even so, there are guilds right now that speed level additional characters to 100 favor for the 25 Turbine points (which can be repeated indefinitely). You’re talking about maybe $0.50/hour under ideal conditions, which is less than I value my time at, but that apparently does not go for everyone. Those numbers would only increase if the points could be resold, and, given the history of MMORPG’s, a large number of those farmers would probably be botting.

Finally, there’s a major account security issue in allowing players to trade their Turbine points in a system where credit cards are associated with your store account. If Turbine opens the door to point transfers, there’s be a major incentive for hackers to target DDO accounts and run up a balance on the account’s credit card.

This type of fraud apparently ended Runes of Magic's currency sales, which had been permitted via the in-game auction house until people started buying gold with which to buy item shop currency.

The Value Of Trading Vs Samples
Ultimately, I’d argue that the operator of a free to play game has a choice. You can go with free samples and free points, to show potential customers what they’re missing, along with sales to encourage impulse purchases, which is how DDO runs their store. Alternately, you can open up the cash store items to trading, in the hopes that this will improve the value of the potentially large majority of players who opt not to pay.

Personally, I have a slight preference for the latter model, because it feels more democratic; the risk with an optional payment system is that the non-payers become a less valuable demographic, and that creates incentives for the developers not to care about a major segment of the playerbase. Either way you go, though, mixing the two seems like a difficult task indeed.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Three WoW Pets for $15

Right now, paying Blizzard $15 would allow me to increase my WoW minipet collection by 3. Well, technically only 2, but they claim that they're going to fix the bug with the third. How is this bargain - half the price of the $10 minipet store - possible?

It's Children's Week in Azeroth, which means that it's time to escort orphans around the world in exchange for minipets. There are three sightseeing tours currently, one for the old world, one for TBC, and one for Wrath. (The latter is bugged and has not reset since its introduction late last year - I wonder if there's something specific about world event quests that makes them so hard to code, because Blizzard repeats this particular mistake every single time new once per holiday content is added.) With a flying mount, the entire tour takes less than an hour.

The $15 in question is, of course, WoW's monthly fee, which I am not paying at the moment. Most players don't think of this as a microtransaction - the nigh trivial amount of time that it takes to obtain these items in-game is still somehow enough to say that these pets are earned through gameplay, rather than a reward for subscribing to the game on a specific week in May. Even so, it costs real money for subscriptions and expansion packs to obtain these pets, just as it costs real money to click the purchase button in the Blizzard store.

As the old quip goes, we have already established the nature of the transaction, now we're just arguing over price.

P.S. This is the type of scenario I was referring to when discussing the EQ2 $5/3 day pass - good deal for the player, but perhaps less good for the studio in question.

A Tale Of Two Dragon RPG's

Having spent more time in DDO, I'm finding that it's filling a role in my gaming schedule that I'd thought would be covered by Dragon Age - a good, no monthly fee change of pace from the more involved MMORPG's I spend most of my time with. The two games actually have some interesting structural similarities:
  • Both games use off-camera travel between points of interest - there is a broader world map, but players are just a loading screen away from skipping from one quest area to another.
  • Both games offer multiple difficulty settings and different character classes for replay value. Depending on how you've built your character, you might find very different solutions to problems. (Aside: Both games also suffer from the flaw of information overload for newbies trying to figure out what skills to take.)
  • Neither game has a mandatory monthly fee, but both offer paid downloads that offer additional content, gear, and features (storage is an option in both games).
  • Dragon Age offers NPC's for all your tanking, healing, DPS, and partially clothed sex scene needs. DDO uses content scaling and NPC hirelings to allow players better solo capacity, but players are required to find their own groups for cyborz.

So why have I barely touched Dragon Age? I can't really credit the multiplayer aspects of DDO (economy, optional grouping) since I don't really take advantage of either. (DDO's auction system is a mess, incidentally.)

I think part of the draw is that DDO is probably the most friendly game I've seen for short play sessions. If a quest is rated "long", even if I haven't done it before, I know that it'll be 30-40 minutes to complete. If I don't have that much time, I know to go do something else. Each quest ends with a reasonably good stopping point for a session, if you're looking for a place to call it a night. Dragon Age will let you save and quit just about anywhere, but the main quest arcs can run for six hours plus between spots where the narrative really pauses, so you're always left feeling like you paused something partway through.

The other thing is that I'm not always in the mood for the interactive movie approach to gaming. If I want to watch a movie, I can watch a movie. If I want to play a game, I'm not in a mood to sit through dialog that I can't skip for fear of ticking off party members, accidentally cutting off quests, etc. (Also, frankly, DDO's mechanics are deeper and more interesting than DA's limited choices, which are mostly about combat style preference.) It's relatively rare that I'm in the mood for precisely the mix of the two that Dragon Age provides.

Then again, maybe the real problem is that I just don't care enough about the animated nudity.