Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Lessons from the Theme Park

I didn't get to play or blog much over the weekend due to an offline vacation that included a trip to an actual real life theme park.  How does the theme park MMO compare to the actual theme park?

Newbie Zone Needed
Our party had a hard time actually finding the entrance to a ride as we entered the park.  Once we actually found the line for the first event, there was a relatively logical geographic progression - back into line to repeat the same ride, or on to the next ride (usually within sight).  It took us a while to get to that first ride, though, and we ended up walking in a big circle around several water slides for no good reason.  You might think that this was a ploy to make us walk past various microtransaction vendors in an effort to get us to buy stuff, but there wasn't even anything for sale on the dead end path we wandered down. 

Nickle and Diming... er, $5 and $10'ing
The ticket to get into the park for the day cost $30.  Parking cost $10.  Fair enough, I suppose.  Then you go to rent a locker and they want $15 for that.  Really, that little locker is deserving of a fee half as high as the entire rest of the park?  The other impressive fee was literally $100 to rent a "cabana" tent by the wave pool.  I guess they're thinking that it never hurts to ask? 

Resist Gear Checks
The lockers in question were somewhat necessary because about half of the encounters in the park required water resist gear, along with towels for drying off afterwards.  (Our party opted to use consumable sun resist potions rather than tying up gear slots on suntan resistance.)  Fortunately, these encounters were mostly clustered in the "wet side" of the park.  We simply declared a bio AFK and hearthed out to change into our normal gear before returning to clear the dry side on a follow-up run. 

Non-instanced Content Off-Peak
Because we ran the park on a Monday, we basically never waited more than a minute or two on respawns.  The entire park was non-instanced/contested, and the park developers clearly put a lot of time and thought into preparing areas for players to wait while camping for their turn at each encounter during peak times.  Obviously, this arrangement worked out well for us, but I feel bad for anyone waiting 30+ minutes in 90 degree heat during the coming holiday weekend.

No Progression, No Problem
Technically speaking, all of the content in the park was rated with a "thrill rating" of 1 to 5.  In practical terms, this scale was not very informative, as even the Ferris Wheel somehow rated a 2, almost all of the roller coasters and water slides rated the maximum 5.  There also was no apparent progression path, other than going after the next nearest encounter after surviving the current one, as none of the encounters were designed to require gear or experience from previous encounters in the park.

All tongue in cheek aside, this is one area where the Theme Park MMO could learn from the actual Theme Park.  Want to repeat the same ride?  No problem.  Want to do each ride once and call it a day?  No problem.  Want to split your group or add more people?  No problem.  It would be nice to have that kind of flexibility in an MMORPG.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Connecting New Players With The World

Motstandet has a post up praising the immersion offered by FFXI's harsh travel system.  More than anything else, this system was the reason why my stay in Vanadiel back in 2006 lasted for a mere 5-6 weeks.  At the time, soloing was not really an option beyond level 10 or so and you could not get a group if you weren't in the correct zone (which may or may not be the zone in which the group would eventually be leveling).  As a newbie, I lacked both the knowledge and the resources needed to pull off this travel successful.  The problem was not that travel was hard, or that it was time consuming, but that it literally prevented me from getting where I would need to be in order to play the game.   

That said, I look at EQ2's new travel map system, and I'm not sure that they haven't gone too far in the opposite direction.

The New EQ2 map

You could argue that EQ2 travel was in need of a user interface overhaul.  If you were in Qeynos and wanted to get to the Enchanted Lands, you needed to know to take the boat bell to Antonica, from Antonica to Thundering Steppes, from Thundering Steps to Nek Forest, and finally from Nek to your destination.  (At least, I think that was the order.)  The process took about 10 seconds of gaming time but it also triggered a total of four loading screens, and a newbie might legitimately not have known which way to go. 

(Another absurd example: I could never remember what subzone of Freeport the Research Assistant lived in, so I would instead ride the carpet to Sinking Sands, carpet to Butcherblock, run to hills and fly to Gorowyn to use the RA there.  The lore openly weeps that I'd travel all the way around the world because the Freeport city guards could not tell you where in their own city the Research Assistant lives.  Then again, I suppose they might be mean enough to do that on principle.) 

In the new interface, you click on any bell anywhere in the world and get the above map.  You can pick any zone - including some inland destinations that did not previously have bells - and you'll appear right there.  Wizard and Druid portals also use this new UI, but offer slightly different destination (including newly expanded options from the last two patches).  If your guild hall has all three travel options, you can teleport instantly to at least one point, and possibly as many as three, in every single zone in the game. 

Location and Context
I will concede that it is more likely that I will correctly identify continents on a map of Norrath now that I actually look at one on a regular basis.  Given that zones were already broken up with loading screens that might encompass vastly different distances, the amount of additional harm done by moving to a single map is minimal compared to the previous clunky UI. 

At the same time, this approach kind of removes zones from their geographic context.  Previously, if you wanted to ignore the breadcrumbs and just go exploring, you knew that Nek and TS were your hubs and you could branch out to there in search of something in the right level range.  In a more-connected world like Azeroth or Vanadiel, you would literally walk to the edge of the current zone and the next zone over would be aimed at a higher level.  In EQ2 today, if you want to go somewhere new, you'll have to start clicking at random, load up the Wiki, or go to the new "storyteller" window of the quest log (which will flat out tell you where to go). 

At the end of the day, I still think that there has to be a system in place so that a player who has somewhere to be - especially because they're looking to join a group - has a way to get there quickly.  I'm not opposed to working for that privilege through rep grinds, consumable daily quest rewards, or gold or whatever, and I definitely support making players reach each location at least once on foot before they can insta-port there.  (This was part of EQ2's druid rings, and they removed it for the new patch.)  However, there are enough other obstacles in the way of group content without also having travel block access.

EQ2's solution may be better than WoW's approach, which is to literally teleport you instantly to a dungeon on a continent that you've never even visited, if that's what the random group finder picks.  Still, I'd be happy to give back a little of this arguably excessive access to get a little bit of that sense of zone progression back. 

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Re-Capping EQ2

Lyriana hit level 90 last night, meaning that I once again have capped characters in three separate games.  I've never focused on the race to the cap in EQ2, so it always surprises me how quickly I can actually advance when I get close enough that I set my mind to actually finishing.

I currently have 173 AA out of a current cap of 250 (69.2% of the max possible), which is actually an improvement over my status when I hit 80 last expansion with 127/200 AA's (63.5%). I can see that being a bit irritating for someone who wants to jump into group content, but that number will improve significantly if I finish out the remaining quests and run each single-group zone at least once.  I'm not sure that it really matters anyway.  I just unlocked some very powerful abilities, but the difference between 163 AA and 173 is much greater than the difference between, say, 173 and 200.  

TSF in hindsight
I am glad to report that quests in the Stonebrunt Highlands, the other half of the leveling content in the current expansion, do not share the first zone's flaws.  Quests routinely send players against even-conned mobs, and even the occasional group of mobs.  The quests are much less likely to hand out several percent of a level for talking to another NPC right next to the one you just did a quest for (though this does still happen sometimes).  There are also fewer trivial factions in the latter half of the expansion - in the first zone, I was capped out on three separate factions before I turned in my first daily quest, just from the initial storylines that everyone has to complete, which kind of defeats the purpose of tracking reputation in the first place. 

Unfortunately, the zone also suffers by context.  This is the only solo content available for levels 85-90, and I am not convinced that it would have been anywhere near enough if I had actually entered the zone at level 85.  Instead, I saved a significant amount of level 80 content from the previous expansion to do this time out, and then also gained a level or so by running dungeons with my guild.  As a result, I entered the zone most of the way through level 88.  Even with this massive headstart, I'd still managed to use up about half of the content in the area by the time I hit level 90.

Meanwhile, thanks to a new AA buff ability, Lyriana is now capable of hitting the 100% cap on double attack (normally her most valuable stat), wearing quest rewards from early in this expansion.  The EQ2 playerbase revolted against a gear scaling plan which would have allowed your crit, DA, and other percentages to degrade naturally as you gained levels (see combat ratings in WoW and LOTRO).  As a result, the entry level quests in the expansion's first zone had to hand out massive upgrades across the board for players who did not run raids and/or grind out void shard tokens in dungeons last expansion. 

Still, I'm not even wearing single-group quality gear yet, and I'm suddenly in a position of worrying about collecting side-grades for when I'm capped on my most beneficial stat.  Or I would be, except that it appears that someone improved the quest rewards in the first zone after they itemized the second zone.  The level 78 quests that kicked off the expansion loot run gave me better rewards than some of the level 89 stuff I'm doing now.  Overall, itemization could be a pretty huge problem for even the non-raid game going forward.

Was there a plan for the expansion on-ramp ?
In the end, this expansion's first zone was an odd detour.  On paper, it makes a lot of sense to have an easy zone that brings players who missed previous expansions up to par.  Many of us had a really hard time with the jump from the level 60's to the previous Kunark expansion, and I'm guessing that they did not want to repeat that mistake. 

In practice, that zone arrives 78 levels into the game, which means that players who had been somehow gaining levels under the old system will suddenly hit a single super easy zone that rewards overpowered loot, before going back to normal in the expansion's second half.  If that normal state was not satisfactory to existing players, they're not going to GET to the current expansion content in the first place. 

Unless they're planning a massive revamp of the entire leveling experience - a revamp that would leave the game significant less fun if all solo quests suddenly used underconned mobs, like the Sundered Frontier did - it just doesn't make sense to have the expansion on-ramp be so different from the remaining game.   I doubt that they actually have the resources to do such an overhaul anyway, so I'm left wondering where exactly they think they're going with this. 

Then again, this was also the expansion that made a somewhat inexplicable decision to add battlegrounds no one asked for that non-PVP'ers now can't get into because they get steam-rolled by the regulars.  And, as Ferrel notes, it seems like somehow no one saw this coming in advance.  During development of this expansion, the EQ2 was functionally running with an interim producer and supposedly had team members pulled off the game to work on Free Realms.  It's sad but possible that no one at SOE really knew where they were going with the end product either. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bonus Panda Abuse

Yesterday, I wrote:
There's apparently a cosmetic illusion that lets you turn into a Panda, so that bit of abuse is probably in Lyriana's future at some point down the line.
I underestimated the ease of faction grinding in modern EQ2.  Lyriana maxxed out her faction with the Pandas, and now gets to disguise herself as one.  Lyriana, show the good readers of PVD your new look!

I hate my life so much right now.

Come on, Lyriana, our faithful readers just want to see the latest incentives in EQ2!

I have no problem with stabbing you repeatedly using this glowing cosmetic katana of idiotic Panda disguising you're so fond of.

Aaaand that's all the time we have for today folks!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ending Panda Envy

EQ2's latest expansion features the Hua Mein, a race of intelligent Pandas.  As nearly as I can tell, there is no previous basis in the lore of Norrath for these guys.  Perhaps they were worried about NPC's leaving to look for work in other games.

When WoW's Burning Crusade expansion was announced at the inaugural Blizzcon in 2005, a suspiciously large number of magazines that had been invited on tours of Blizzard HQ reported that the expansion would add the Pandaren to the Alliance.  The Horde Blood Elves were both confirmed and playable at the convention, but the Alliance race was a mystery and there was no information anywhere in the public record to support this claim.  The rumor is that Blizzard was planning to add Pandaren, and even showed the journalists concept art, but subsequently reversed the decision because of concerns that China would disapprove.  Blizzard confirmed the China issues back at Blizzcon 2008.

Having actually visited a random village of walking Kung Fu Pandas, hidden deep in the mountains of Odus, I'm now wondering that China may have done Azeroth a favor.  The space goats that we got instead may have been a bit random, and required a re-writing of a major chunk of Warcraft lore, but they actually fit into the storyline of the expansion in a way that I don't think the Pandaren would have.    

Don't get me wrong, walking talking animals are reasonably well established in Norrath, which has giant frogs, rats, and cats amongst its playable races.  That said, the secluded dojo of somewhat pacifist martial arts pandas, complete with tea ceremonies and bamboo architecture, is a bit goofy for player characters, even for EQ2.  (There's apparently a cosmetic illusion that lets you turn into a Panda, so that bit of abuse is probably in Lyriana's future at some point down the line.) 

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Microtransaction Lock-In in W101, DDO, and soon LOTRO

Tipa took her second Wizard 101 account free to play (or "pay as you go" as they call it over there), and has run head-on into an issue I'm seeing the opposite side of in DDO.  Quoth Tipa:
"The problem with buying zones à la carte is that after, you’re locked in. If you change your mind and decide to subscribe once again, you’ve wasted all that money spent unlocking zones one at a time. The only possible way to protect your investment is to keep buying zones at $2.18 each."
This happens when a game offers a rental subscription option alongside the option to purchase permanent unlocks (whether of content or features).  As the player pays to unlock more pieces of the subscription, re-subscribing in the future becomes less attractive because there's less left for the player to rent that they don't already own. 

The Sub Vs Zone Balance in W101 and DDO
Unfortunately for Tipa's wallet, KingsIsle has priced W101's zone unlocks in a way that makes the subscription a much better deal for players who consume a lot of content.  On paper, a $2 zone unlock sounds fine compared to a $10/month rental subscription, but the crucial question is how long that zone will last.  Apparently the answer is not that long if you chew through content the way Tipa does - she ended up dropping $50 in two days.

Over in DDO, Turbine is having the opposite problem because their adventure packs are actually priced at a relatively low level compared to the VIP subscription.  Turbine has increased the monthly VIP Turbine Point stipend to 1000 TP for the summer in an attempt to sign up more players.  At the non-sale exchange rate, that's $10 worth of Turbine Points as a throw-in for the $15 all-access subscription, but I'm still not interested.  I already own access to 9 of the game's 23 adventure packs, along with the Monk class, the Warforged race, and several things that even VIP's have to pay extra for.   If I did go VIP, I don't think I'd even encounter any content that I do not already own during that first month. 

Why Turbine wants subscribers
Why, you might ask, should it bug Turbine if I keep buying things straight up instead of renting them via the subscription?  The problem is two-fold. 

First, DDO's currently high stated revenue is unsustainable because so many of the game's top-selling items are one-time purchases.  At the rate Turbine has been releasing new adveture packs, they're looking at $2-4/month in income from players who do not purchase anything more than the adventure packs, and even that is conditional upon Turbine convincing the player that they WANT this month's pack. 

To fix, this, Turbine would like players to get more into the habit of spending money on consumables, fluff, and other things that players might pay for each and every month.  This is why the subscription gives players a starter balance each month.  The store does not even allow players to see the prices of purchasing the content they are currently renting through a subscription.  Instead, they want to encourage players to think about other uses for their increasing stockpile of points that do not involves saving them to fund a future "upgrade" from the VIP subscription to a Premium Free To Play account with permanent access to all the crucial content.  Unfortunately, the problem remains - as long as I know that my points CAN be used to purchase new content in the future, it's going to be very difficult to convince me to spend them on fluff. 

(In fact, the purchase restrictions make me inclined NOT to subscribe temporarily, as subscribers cannot take advantage of sale prices on content that might no longer be offered when their subscriptions expire.) 

Lock-In or Lock-Out For LOTRO?
The real interesting question, though, is how this issue will play out when LOTRO becomes free to play.  I started writing this post under the assumption that LOTRO would naturally follow the same path that DDO does - with a cheap free-to-play option that leaves the subscription relatively unattractive.  After examining the retrictions on free players more closely, I'm no longer so sure. 

If you are a former subscriber, you will sign on to find that two of your five bags, most of your trait slots, some of your character slots (which you may or may not be using) and all of the content from 15-50 (other than some skirmishes and all epic book quests) locked. You will be stuck with a 5G gold cap, and will need to pay to unlock the new cosmetic outfit wardrobe storage system.  Once you pay to unlock these things, that investment might seem to create a lock-out incentive that renders the subscription obsolete.  However, does any of this stuff really matter enough to make players run out and fix it? 

I already own a horse and a house, and I cook my own food.  I don't need to buy gear from the auction house, so my only expenses are repairs, rent on the house, food ingredients, and occasionally Athelas potions.  I can cover those expenses with the free slots left in three bags, and the rest of the vendor trash can rot.  If unlocking the trait slots is expensive, perhaps I should take Turbine's acknowledgement that trait grinding is boring enough to be worth paying to lessen the pain as an invitation to skip the grind altogether, instead challenging myself with slightly tougher gameplay via a slightly weaker character. 

The fact is that content is the only thing that I'd think about paying money for under the free to play system.  However, here's where the differeing playstyles in LOTRO versus DDO change the situation.  DDO is designed around repeatedly running the same dungeons.  Between loot and the adjustable difficulty settings, there's plenty of reason why players would actually want to retain access to the content after they complete it once. 

By contrast, most LOTRO quests cannot be repeated, and there would be relatively little reason to do so if it were permitted.  In this model, the value of continuing to have access to the content is diminished.  Depending on how the prices work out, it might make sense to pay to rent content when I'm actively using it (either because there is new material available, or because I want to take an alt through the 15-50 range).  In that model, I'd basically be using the free access for permanent "welcome back" status for the purposes of talking to the guildies and whatnot, rather than actively attempting to obsolete the subscription.

(Also, LOTRO has several features - monster play and rested exp currently - that are not available to non-subscribers.  That could always change if there's a market for them, but it could also be an intentional effort to preserve the appeal of the subscription.)  

Anything is possible until the prices are finalized, but it certainly looks like Turbine has learned something from their first forray into Free to Play. Time will tell which version of the model they ultimately prefer. 

Friday, June 18, 2010

EQ2 Quests Need More Grind

Lyriana hit level 86 in the Sundered Frontier the other day. Since Blizzard will be stopping WoW's level cap at 85 for Cataclysm, there is a very real possibility that my little Fae Dirge will be my highest level character for the next two years or more.

Random numeric fact aside, I'm a bit disappointed to find that EQ2's latest expansion suffers from the same flaw as the game's new starting area.  Much as it shocks me to type this, EQ2's solo quests need more grind.

Mapping out a quest

On this map is one chunk of the Sundered Frontier zone.  In the bottom left, an arrow (Lyriana's current position) shows where the questgivers are located.  On the top right, the X indicates the cave that the monsters have decided to camp around (but not, for some reason, inside).

You can't tell the scale from the map, but it takes Lyriana (who hovers around at +100% runspeed at all times due to her class buffs) about a minute to cover the distance, ignoring all the mobs because she can simply outrun them.  I don't think that anyone makes it to level 80 without some means of moving faster than base speed unless they've done so deliberately.  However, if you were unable to escape the mobs, you'd be in for relatively short fights - these enemies are rated weaker than normal, to ensure that future undergeared characters don't struggle to start the new expansion (as happened to solo players attempting to enter the Rise of Kunark expansion content). 

Now that you have the context, allow me to summarize the questline (wiki link here):
  1. Run to cave, loot one object without fighting, run back to questgiver.
  2. Use the looted object right next to the questgiver, obtain another quest complete 10 second later for no good reason.
  3. Run to cave, kill six intentionally weak mobs, run back to questgiver.
  4. Run back to cave again, climb a ladder, kill one mob (of actual normal difficulty), run back
  5. Run back to cave, use item, run away and return to questgiver. 
    Alternately, stand still as about eight of the intentionally weak mobs descend on your position and attack, just because you're bored enough to see if you'll live if you fight them all at once.  For bonus points, take AFK time partway through combat, while the surviving mobs are still attacking you, to click on an item for a different quest that needs to be restarted every 7 kills. 
    In a bit of variety, upon returning to the questgiver after this quest, he will instead send you back to the city (2 minutes AFK-flight away) to talk to his boss for the quest complete.
  6. The boss wants to investigate in person, and gives you a quest complete for traveling back to the quest hub and speaking to him there. 
  7. Travel back to the cave, loot five objects (no mobs to fight), run to the the boss' office in the city (about 2 minutes from the cave for Lyriana, running directly towards the city and jumping off the cliff because she can glide safely down into the city on her wings) to talk to his flunkie, then fly the AFK flight back to the quest hub.  
  8. Back to the cave again, click on the pool of water that you've waded through half a dozen times already to loot a sample, back to the questgiver.  I wish I was kidding.
  9. Run back to cave, climb up the ladder from step 4, loot some items (still no mobs here), return to questgiver.  
The quest continues, and actually includes some combat, but the good news is that you're done with non-combat trips back to the cave.  The bad news is that you just spent 30 minutes on seven trips back and forth across an uneventful stretch of terrain in order to kill a total of seven mobs, most of which were intentionally trivial. 

If I believed that this garbage was the best that the current EQ2 team can produce - which I might if not for the fact that recent efforts like the Lavastorm revamp from last year have been massively better - I would be joining Ferrel on the "EQ2 solo quests are boring, trivial chores" lecture circuit.

What happened?
The sad reality is that this is not the quest team's fault.  No one decides that there should be a "quest" in which the player takes 10 seconds to walk across the room and click on an item.  This debacle is just a more extreme case of what happened in New Halas.  The developers ran out of tasks to assign the player before they had awarded a sufficient amount of exp to allow the player to leave the zone, so they had to create an entire series of increasingly trivial followups to justify awarding more and more quest bonus exp without requiring the creation of any more content.

In a game that actually had enough landmass to go around, this entire nine-part ordeal would have been a single "kill 10 rat-equivalents" and maybe a followup to kill the boss.  There's a reason why the cliche is to kill ten rats - assuming appropriate difficulty (adjust number of required kills up or down as appropriate), that's a number that justifies the travel time without feeling overly grindy.  How did a game called Everquest of all things wind up with too little grind?

The answer is in the relative weight of mob kills versus quest exp.  Quest turn-ins are worth drastically more experience than mob kills.  I'm guessing that they may be trying to avoid the situation that exists in WoW, where mob kills are worth more than quest bonuses to begin with, group dungeon mobs are worth more experience yet, and suddenly you're raking in 1% of a level PER KILL in 5-man dungeons with the appropriate exp bonuses.  Unfortunately, this means that you cannot compensate for removing half a dozen frivolous quest completion bonuses by simply doubling or even tripling the mob kill count.

Even so, something needs to be done about the state of these questlines.  Though each minor step does allow the writers to present players with another paragraph of quest text, that small amount of added story does not make up for the sheer pointlessness of the way quest series like this one play out.  

Thursday, June 17, 2010

How Not To Reassure LOTRO Players On Free To Play

Turbine is at E3 talking to people about the coming shift to Free To Play in LOTRO.  Right now, players are asking how this shift will affect them. 

As a LOTRO player, here are my personal top complaints about the game as it stands today, in order of the magnitude of their negative impact on the experience.

1. Content is added too slowly.
2. Travel requires an excessive amount of unattended AFK time watching your character ride an invincible auto-horse/goat somewhere, especially given how unnecessarily frequently quests require players to travel across multiple zones to deliver a message to an NPC and return with their response.
3. Endgame/alternate advancement mechanics, such as player traits and legendary items, lean excessively on extremely lengthy but completely uninteresting and trivial grinds, such as "go kill 1000 wargs for +1 agility".

Let's see how these issues will stack up in the new model.

The first bit of bad news was on the table up front - no new content until "fall 2010", potentially meaning an entire year with no significant content added beyond the paid Mirkwood mini-expansion.  Going back over a two year period from the launch of Moria, the game has received the portion of Lothlorien that was not ready for the Moria launch and a paid mini-expansion.

In the second tidbit, Turbine apparently gave Massively an exclusive map of the new zone that will be added when the free to play update goes live.  It looks very similar in size and scope to Mirkwood, complete with seven sub-areas that will provide the opportunity to offer players a variety of landscape for questing.  The other inexplicable bit that was already announced was that this area will be redundant with Mirkwood for the level 62-65 range.  My LOTRO character is already level 65, and hit that level well before completing the content in Mirkwood.  Why would I pay - whether a subscription or a one-time access fee - for additional content that will pose no challenge to me because I have already outleveled it?

Third, Turbine is apparently saying that players will see Isengard in 2011.  New content, sounds promising, right?  Thing is, this entire endeavor is a marketing presentation.  Players have been waiting for a Riders of Rohan expansion that covers the first half of The Two Towers for two years since the release of Moria.  You don't say that you're going to get players to Isengard if you mean that you're going to release Rohan, Helm's Deep, Fanghorn, and finally the fall of the White Hand.  It sounds more like players will get close enough to Isengard to see that there are orcs and then bravely run away because the defeat of Saruman is in another paid expansion and/or store unlock in some future year.

As to the other two points - travel and grindy alternate advancement mechanics - we're told that it'll be the cash shop to the rescue.  Of the three announced preview items, one is a temporary buff and the other two are consumable items that temporarily alleviate the mechanics in question in exchange for real cash.  For example, there will be consumable teleport - excuse me, off camera swift travel - maps available for all those times when a questgiver wants you to deliver a package to a location so remote that Frodo will have destroyed The Ring by the time you can return.

In the DDO Store (offsite wiki link because, like all item shops, the official website is loathe to disclose actual prices), a 50-charge consumable Rod of Greater Teleport costs 495 TP, or about $5.  Of course, DDO is a heavily instanced  game and nothing I've seen about the game's travel system through the low levels implies that travel ever gets as lengthy as what we get in LOTRO - the LOTRO teleport will save players far more time and may be priced accordingly.

This is, of course, the one thing that I really dislike about item shops - when the developer identifies an aspect of the game that is not fun, their incentive is to create a consumable cash shop item instead of actually fixing the problem.  The irony is that I don't mind the DDO store precisely because it does NOT pull this kind of stunt.... yet?

Rob-Goblin Raiding Comes to DDO Guilds
The other thing that LOTRO players are looking to for a preview of the future is the way that DDO is handling its thriving Free to Play shift.  Meanwhile, DDO is poised to be the first game that I am aware of to ask members of a guild to chip in additional cash to the developers in exchange for guild perks.  The fanciest airships and the earliest access to guild perks will require Turbine Points.  It wouldn't exactly be fair to expect the guild master to pay for everything out of pocket, so the game instead creates a sort of escrow account that players can donate to.  It appears that the system will also allow any guild member to pay the Turbine Point costs of renewing the rental contracts on the various amenities on the airship.

I really wonder whether Turbine has fully explored the issues that this system could create.  Don't get me wrong, there are design issues too, but the social - and potentially legal - implications are astonishing.

Gevlon the Greedy Goblin coined the term "Goblin Raiding" when he basically rented out a high end raiding guild.  He had earned the maximum amount of gold that a WoW character can hold, and he was able to basically ensure that an entire guild would never have to think about money again in exchange for giving a raid slot to a reasonably skilled player who otherwise would not have made the cut for the game's toughest content.

Do Turbine's terms of service permit a Goblin-minded individual to buy a raid slot by contributing Turbine Points to the guild's airship fund?  It would seem hard for Turbine to prevent this, since players could take the negotiations to private websites.  If Turbine does endorse the purchase of goods and services in this way (using Turbine Points purchased from them), is it permissible to advertise in public chat that you're selling raid slots/loot to people who will join your guild and contribute Turbine Points?  Will Turbine Customer Service (which, incidentally, is not available to free players) get involved in disputes over such transactions when one of the parties decides to become a "Rob-Goblin" and refuses to honor their end of the bargain after receiving the loot/Turbine Points?  If not, will we see guilds phishing in the newbie zones for gullible newbies who might be tricked into donating their new player bonus Turbine Points to the airship fund, only to be /gkicked immediately thereafter?

Maybe Turbine has an answer lined up for this, but I certainly haven't heard about it.  Having this situation blow up in their faces would not be a way to reassure LOTRO players.

Same Store, Different Outcomes
The irony is that I like LOTRO as a product, and I don't have serious problems with the DDO store.  Indeed, DDO's free to play shift was enough to convince me to spend money on a game that I have not previously tried.  Meanwhile, LOTRO's shift to the same model may ironically convince me to stop paying for a game that I have previously paid for.  When the main thing that Turbine wants to highlight about the store is the fact that I can pay to remove timesinks that I don't think should be in the game in the first place, that does not inspire me to want to give them money.

The secondary issue is one of expectations.  From what I'm reading and hearing on LOTRO blogs and podcasts, expectations are high that new content will be plentiful and that prices will be reasonable and low.  The reality may be the opposite on both counts.  E3 is a press event, and Turbine (or at least their new owners) are there to raise expectations among outside observers.  At some point, though, someone may need to consider managing expectations among the actual customers.

Sure, going free to play will attract some new customers.  However, where DDO lets players have fun and then charges for additional content, LOTRO will let players in but then charge to remove non-fun elements like tedious travel, grindy time-sinks, locked down access to features and character abilities/traits, and slowed exp gain (no rested exp for free players).  If you succeed in making the game non-fun for non-payers, you simultaneous remove their motivation to pay for more of the same.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Very Public Cataclysm Brainstorming

It was late August 2009, and the stage was set.  Ozzy Ozborne was in the house, and the new WoW expansion, albeit spoiled in advance was ready for its big unveil.  With a room full of frenzied fans and journalists, what better place to hold a brainstorming session to discuss ideas that may or may not make the expansion? 

Or at least, so it seems this past week with several announced features getting the axe in a pre-E3 press event.  The Path of Titans, a somewhat nebulous alternate advancement mechanic that would have struggled to strike a balance between useless and mandatory, is gone.  The new archaeology profession that was to unlock options for the Path will now be used to provide lore tidbits, similar to Warhammer's Book of Knowledge.  Guild talents have been replaced with a more traditional "gain a level, get a perk" system, similar to what Warhammer has.  The revamped heroic modes for iconic low level dungeons - the Deadmines and Shadowfang keep - have been punted to patch 4.1. 

In some ways, it's refreshing to see Blizzard willing to talk publicly about what they're thinking about.  At the time, patch 3.3 was still in the works and the expansion was over a year from launch, so they simply would not have had much to talk about if they hadn't been able to speculate.  Players continue to cite features that were never delivered, such as the original vision of Hero Classes and the Dance Studio, and that might have created even more incentive to clam up. 

Even so, it also feels a bit odd to see this level of what, in hindsight, appears to have been pure brainstorming speculation at a major media event.  The issue with guild talents potentially forcing players to leave their guilds to find someone who was talenting to support their playstyle was an extremely obvious one - it was one of my earliest reactions to the proposed mechanic - and it seems odd for them to be pulling the system over that very valid concern a year later.  Did they have some super-secret plan to address this issue that came up short, or did they literally throw it into a Powerpoint because it sounded cool and they figured they'd have a year to work on the details?

(Aside: In an amusing note, World of Raids learned that the new Guild Reputation, used to encourage players to contribute to their guild before gaining access to rewards,

"is not wiped immediately upon leaving or being removed from the guild; this is to prevent losing all your progress in the guild due to someone jokingly kicking you."
Ah, the joking /gkick, I guess they are playing the same game we are after all.) 

On the plus side, the speculation is now over, and the ramped up info releases seem to point towards the expansion hitting beta in the next month or so.  That said, it will be very interesting to see whether this affects the amount of information we get out of future Blizzcon-type events.

Reviewing New Halas

EQ2's most recent expansion was supposed to come with a new starting area, but it was not ready for the expansion launch.  EQ2 Wire's Feldon suggests on A View From the Top that SOE cannibalized the EQ2 team to make more Free Realms content (presumably since more content for that game translates more directly into additional revenue through item shop sales), and perhaps we have that to blame.

Regardless of the history, the new zone was finally delivered in a recent game update.  Unfortunately, it feels like something produced by a team that doesn't quite have what they need to get the job done.

The good, the bad, and the unfortunate
To lead off with the good, the zone looks spectacular compared to anything that was in the game prior to the current expansion.  I don't know what they're doing differently, but it's working.  From the landscape to the variety of creatures to the spectacular housing options, the entire zone looks excellent.  The new area is also much less of a sprawl than Greater Faydark, the only other option currently in the game for good-aligned characters.  (Qeynos and Freeport, the original starting cities from launch in 2004, were retired as part of this patch because the devs did not feel that it would be time-efficient to try and bring their level 6-20 areas up to current standards.) 

The bad is that the zone feels like it is approximately one quest hub too small.  The little hunk of ice that players use from levels 1-4 is positively tiny compared to what EQ2's other starting areas (including the retired introductory islands for Qeynos and Freeport) use for that level range.  The trend continues throughout the zone, resulting in far too much time spent at the third and fourth quest hubs, repeatedly hitting the same enemy camps to continue quests that would have been completed on the first trip in a zone that actually had enough content to go around.  (Pete at Dragonchasers made the same observation on his trip through the new area.)

I don't quite know how the area compares in geographic size to the other starting options in the game, but there simply isn't space for another quest camp as every bit of space that is not occupied by the city itself is used for one or more quests.  The unfortunate part of it all is that the quests themselves aren't poorly done.  In fact, if anything, some quests are shorter than they need to be - when you've got players in a field to kill 5 skeletons, it makes more sense to have them kill 8 and not make them run back to the questgiver only to return to loot the 5 weapons the dude forgot to ask for the first time.  I guess that the way the exp curve worked out, there's no substitute for the quest completion exp award if players need to somehow gain levels 1-20 in this one zone, even if that means making the quests feel both trivial and repetitive.

Too little park in the theme park

My experience with the current expansion in general to date is that the quality is excellent, but the quantity has been consistently lacking.  With the new max-level areas, SOE's approach was to actually leave them unfinished for the first three months of the expansion, rounding out the missing content in the expansion's first game update.  Personally, I was fine with playing other games while awaiting the patch, but obviously that approach does not work as well for newbies that you're actually trying to win over.  There had to be enough content to gain the required levels in this one under-sized zone, so the developers did their best to make that happen.

At the same time, as a gameplay experience, I would rate the new area third amongst EQ2's current starting zones, and it only avoids coming in dead last because Greater Faydark is one of the only zones in the game where I still get lost trying to get places due to valleys, cliffs, and branches players need to climb.   The entire purpose of the modern WoW-style/"theme park" PVE experience is to show the players the world and have them move on before they get bored and feel like they're grinding.  With only one relatively small zone to span 20 levels (LOTRO uses a separate area for 1-5 and then a starter area for 5-15, while WoW has separate 1-10 and 10-20 zones), there's just not enough park to go around.

The limited size also means that there isn't really room for much of anything in the entire zone that isn't quest-related.  You can expect to complete zone exploration achievement by the time you finish all the local quests, and will pass the spawn points of all of the named monsters who are worth AA in the process.  There is some "lore" in the zone as well - the Feldon/View from the Top interview suggests that this plot has absolutely nothing to do with the original Halas - but, again, it's all packed into the zone's dense quest progression.

Know your audience
If I wasn't already playing EQ2, I'd be the target audience for this latest addition - a primarily solo player of other MMORPG's, who would potentially be willing to try a new theme park.  The problem is, viewed purely on its own merits, this particular zone doesn't hold up particularly well against the competition (again, including EQ2's own older starting zones).  That would be fine if the starting area alone was sufficient to bring in new players, but those players will hit level 20 sooner rather than later.  When that happens, either they will or will not be satisfied with the state of the rest of Norrath.

The irony is that, when I started the game a bit over a year ago, I promptly moved Lyriana from Greater Faydark to the game's oldest content in Antonica and Thundering Steppes.  These two zones that were deemed sufficiently subpar that SOE has now made substantial efforts to prevent players from ever visiting them.  However, they were good enough to win over this particular player, in part because they were less of a guided tour than what you get in WoW and LOTRO.  More to the point, if those old zones had not been up to my standards, I don't think that New Halas and the minor updates to the mid-level game would have cut it either. 

More polish is seldom a bad thing on principle, and I'm sure everyone is a bit self-conscious about how their mid-level game is going to compare to WoW now that Blizzard is spending a whole expansion on updating it.  Unfortunately, polish takes time and effort that it appears the EQ2 team is extremely short on these days.  If they really are at the point where they're evaluating the cost-benefit of everything they're working on, projects like this one really deserve a closer look. 

Sunday, June 13, 2010

New Template @ PVD

I finally took the time this weekend to sit down and update the template on the blog. 

If you're reading this on a RSS reader, you shouldn't notice any difference.  If you're viewing individual post pages because you clicked on a link (on the feed, or from another site), the text should now occupy a wider portion of the screen (a long overdue improvement), and the list of labels has been sent to the footer.  If you go to the http://playervsdeveloper.blogspot.com, the other difference is that I can now use a "read more" link to abridge lengthy posts.  This is useful so that I can post seven pages of character fiction from time to time without having that push everything else off the front page.

At the end of the day, I assume that most people are reading this blog for the new posts, not the appearance of the front page.  (The sorry state of the old template is pretty good evidence in support of this.)  I've considered moving to the more powerful Wordpress platform (I even registered the appropriate address just in case), and I've been using Feedburner since day one, but I don't know that I would be getting enough use out of the upgrade to justify the hassle of changing URL's. 

Anyway, let me know if anything looks broken, or if you have any other feedback on the layout. 

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Ratonga and the Prowler

Here is the first part of a story about my latest EQ2 character, Samarya the Ratonga Monk. There is no MMORPG analysis here, and I've attempted to use Blogger's post truncation function to keep this from taking up too much space on the front page. If you're on the blog proper and actually want to read this thing, there should be a read more link below the second picture. If you're on an RSS reader, this monster just filled nine pages of your RSS feed, sorry about that. :)

Shout-outs go to Stargrace, whose contest inspired this story, and to Lessah and Samius of the DDO cocktail hour, for being an entertaining duo with a good pair of names to stick on two protagonists of a story.

The slums of Freeport
Samarya finished lashing the pad of hay onto the wooden pole, and stood back to examine her handiwork. The stick, now adorned with a crude pad and a helmet, vaguely resembled a target dummy. She smiled, and her whiskers twitched. It would be good enough for her.

“Hi-ya!” she shouted, lashing out with one arm and then striking the dummy again with the palm of her other paw. She spun her whole body around to give the dummy a good swift kick, but she had spun awkwardly, too fast, and so her tail whipped around and slapped her in the calf as she landed. She winced but stopped herself before she could cry out. A true master would never show pain. She took a step back to unleash a final attack. “Rising dragon kick HIII-YA!!!” she shouted, as she leapt toward the dummy with a flying kick.

Friday, June 11, 2010

How Often Should The Level Cap Rise?

Tobold is once again complaining that Blizzard should produce annual WoW expansions instead of taking two years per expansion. I think he's a bit unduly fascinated by the $40 box with the coaster and the card that has a 20-digit alphanumeric key on it. The real question to ask is what benefit players can expect from more frequent expansions. In particular, Tobold assumes that the level cap would raise in each of the annual expansions. Does anyone actually want this?

Who wants a level cap bump?
At the risk of generalizing about a demographic that I'm not a part of, I never get the impression that raiders are super thrilled about a level cap increase. Tobold is arguing that the damage is already done by having mid-expansion gear resets, but we've been seeing those MORE than once a year, and I don't think anyone would raise the level cap that frequently.

Meanwhile, increasing the cap retires content just as surely as gear inflation does. If you're queueing up for a random 5-man dungeon, would you rather have the same list of 12-16 dungeons for two years, or a list of 8-10 that expired every single year? I've done this experiment on my Warrior, who only has access to half of the dungeons due to his level, and I'd vote strongly in favor of the broader list, even if it meant fewer dungeons overall. If you've only got half a dozen dungeons to choose from, you're almost always repeating one that you did just a day or two ago.

Finally, we come to solo content. This is the area where, as a non-raider, I should be the most solidly behind Tobold in support of the annual cap increase. Solo players got a moderate amount of repeatable daily content in patch 3.1 and 3.2, a year ago now, and have not seen anything since. However, like group content, solo content also thrives on variety. If you're pushing to produce annual expansions, whether they are five or ten levels, the trend is going to go towards producing just enough content for characters to make it to the new cap, so that you can declare victory and go work on the next expansion. This will ultimately hurt the quality of the solo experience as well.

Horizontal or diagonal expansion?
If you look at games that actually pull off approximately annual expansions, like EQ2, the trend is strongly in favor of mixing in horizontal expansions along with the vertical ones. This still retires some content - in general, players ran the content from the Kunark era (raised the cap to 80) once to complete quests and spent most of their time in the Shadow Odyssey (horizontal expansion, which kept the cap at 80 and added bunches of new dungeons) due to better loot. You would then want to add some sort of alternate advancement, but WoW already has talent trees and glyphs, and may (or may not) get yet another system in Cataclysm.

The other issue is that a horizontal expansion is generally not going to do so much for solo players. EQ2's TSO added a new leveling zone and some new reps, including a solo daily quest that dropped tokens for dungeon loot, but I didn't bother to do any of it until the next expansion arrived and increased the level cap. There wasn't really any reason for me to do so, as the previous expansion's content was enough to let me reach the level cap, and it's not like I would have been aiming to do something with the dungeon loot if I'd obtained it.

In some ways, Cataclysm may be Blizzard's attempt at a diagonal expansion - not entirely horizontal, but not entirely vertical either. There's less vertical movement, and Blizzard is using the time to polish up existing talent trees (only including five new points allows them to avoid adding a new tier) and holes in existing content experiences. That said, this expansion's longevity may be heavily dependent on players' willingness to re-roll to see how the world has been shaken up. If players tend to stick to blazing through the new stuff on an existing main, this model could also feature the worst of both worlds, leaving players done and ready for the next expansion even sooner than the previous editions.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Are you really sure that you want to betray us?

EQ2 has a feature that allows characters to betray their chosen faction. As part of this process, the player is thrown out of their home city and is given the opportunity to grind their way to friendly status with the opposing side. As one of the last aspects of the good/evil alignment system that actually matters, this process can force the player to change sub-classes (for example, there are no good Shadow Knights and no evil Paladins). This also requires blanking the player's entire spellbook, since most of your spells will be replaced.

I don't know that it's necessarily a good thing that players have gotten into the habit of declining to read the quest text. Even so, the way that the betrayal system was previously structured made it a bit too easy to accidentally start down the road accidentally. In Neriak in particular, the betrayal questline started right next to the newbie player housing and is not entirely easy to distinguish from an ordinary quest that the player is actually supposed to complete. Though you're supposed to be doing the quest because you want to switch from evil to good, the quest NPC's actually present their discontent with the status quo as dissatisfaction that the city is straying from its evil roots. In particular, newbies who do not know the lore have little way to realize that they're backing the wrong faction.

To fix this problem, SOE implemented a large number of confirmation boxes that pop up during the process in ways that ordinary quest text does not, including one quest that requires the player to type the character's name for confirmation.

One minor absurdity with the new system is that the helper NPC's are relatively oblivious to the fact that someone has walked up to them to discuss how they can more effectively betray and depart their homeland. This is handled as best as the story permits - the clueless Ambassador doesn't realize that he's pointing the character towards the one truly dissident person in the entire city in an attempt to bring them back to the path.

The other quirk is that SOE never took the time to implement questlines for earning the trust of the two newest starting areas, Gorowyn and this patch's addition, New Halas. The officially endorsed workaround is to join one of the other two cities of the correct faction first, and then ask the NPC's for a more routine intra-faction change of citizenship once you're done. This would be fine, except that there are a number of players, myself included, who took the introduction of the new starting areas as a great occasion to bring an evil-aligned race over to the good side.

The result is that, after a relatively brief process of grinding up some faction with the good city of Kelethin, and swearing my allegiance to the same, I then went back to the same NPC I had just been talking to and asked him to ship me off to New Halas. I guess that guy has been getting that a lot this month, because it didn't seem to surprise him in the slightest.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Triumph of the Cash Cat

I'm not sure that I'd ever be inclined to spend $25 on a mount, even if, like EQ2's "cash cat", it offers an in-game advantage. As a player of four MMO's and counting, I'd much rather spend the money on more time with a second game than on an optional transaction in a single game. If I'm able to win the mount in a contest at Stargrace's place, however, all bets are off. As a result, I am now the owner of a very blue/purple giant glowing cat mount in EQ2.

As promised, the mount offers a 65% speed boost to level 1 characters. It also offers small amounts of skill bonuses to EITHER your casting or your melee skills (you have to pick one or the other, I opted for melee). Finally, the mount item is flagged heirloom, which means that it can be passed to other characters on both the same account and same server via the shared bank.

I didn't think of testing the heirloom feature before getting kicked out of Neriak (as promised in my contest entry), temporarily cutting off my access to the shared account bank. Though SOE appears to be hoping that some people will buy more than one to get the alternate colors and stats, I don't think it would be too difficult to pass the one mount off to multiple alts as they need it.

All that said, I'll concede that this mount isn't really all that game-changing. My alts that do not have inherent runspeed buffs can now travel at 75% speed (the mount plus the Shadows mount speed AA), which is almost as fast as Lyriana's Dirge buffs, only the mount suspends indoors. It's a huge step up from not having a mount, but I don't think the jump from, say, a relatively accessible 40% mount would be as impressive.

If nothing else, the big blue kitty has given me the inspiration for a character story/background, which I'll be working on and posting here in the near future, so that's a pretty big win in any case.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Balancing Guild Rewards

DDO's guild airship/housing has gone live on the game's test server, and players have dug up the list of rewards. All of this is obviously very subject to change (at the moment, the most efficient way to level your guild is to farm kobolds for reknown items in level 1 quests, which was not the design intent), but we're seeing enough to get some idea of what the trends are going to look like.

Guild rewards are a challenging design area. On the one hand, players are supposed to want the perks that come with being in higher level guilds (otherwise, they wouldn't really be rewards). On the other hand, guild features are supposed to enhance the guild experience and encourage players to form social ties. If the perks to guild membership are too substantial, the developers risk creating an incentive to leave your guild for the largest, least personal guild you can find, so long as they have the requisite perks.

What's on your airship?
That said, the perks in the DDO version don't look that game-altering. There are the requisite bankers, storage boxes, auctioneers, and teleports, but I've never actually felt that I was really missing these perks in the game as it stands today.

There are "crafting" stations, used to combine raid drops into raid gear, but it seems like players with access to the ingredients should be able to reach the crafting stations as well - from what I've heard, the limiting factor is raiding enough to get the materials, not actually going to do the crafting.

Finally, there are a variety of miscellaneous buffs, the most significant of which is an exp bonus that goes as high as 5%. These aren't trivial, and may be more important for players who are working on the tougher true resurrection exp curve, but nothing I'd panic over missing out on.

I'm still a bit concerned that the system as is heavily favors large guilds, which appear to have more rapid access to the most powerful rewards. Even so, if you look by comparison to EQ2, where guild rewards include teleportation to multiple locations in every zone in the game and the complete elimination of the need to harvest as a prerequisite for crafting, DDO's rewards don't feel overly game-defining.

Choices for guilds
On the plus side, low-key rewards also mean that DDO guild leaders dodge a bullet in terms of deciding what to put in their guild's limited amenity and crew slots on their airship.

If there's one thing that concerns me about WoW's upcoming Cataclysm, it's the guild talent point system. EQ2's rewards are massively significant, but there aren't that many of them, so even a small guild can quickly obtain the most game-affecting ones. If WoW's housing-less take on this type of system features more choices, and some of the choices force guilds to choose between, say, raiding and leveling alts, that could have some very unfortunate effects on guilds. Who makes that kind of choices? The officers? The whole membership? The members who contribute most to guild leveling/exp? These are tough questions that could make guild features more divisive than beneficial.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Examining F2P LOTRO

So Lord of the Rings Online is apparently going free to play. Given how satisfied Turbine has been with DDO's shift to that payment model, it was probably only a matter of time before they found a way to make it work for LOTRO. Key information available so far include a chart of F2P vs subscription benefits and a compliation of forum question and answers. What have we learned so far?

Trying to close the free leveling loopholes
Unlike the heavily-instanced DDO, LOTRO has a seamless non-zoned open world (like WoW). I'd thought that this would be the largest obstacle to taking the game Free To Play - for example, how would you even get to Angmar if you didn't already own the North Downs?

To address this problem, Turbine is going with an odd compromise. Players will be able to travel through the entire Shadows of Angmar world, regardless of subscription status. Instead, all of the QUESTS in a given zone will be bundled together into "quest packs". All players will get the three newbie zones (good for levels 1-15 or so), but will need to pay to get the quests from level 16-50. (It is not yet clear whether this includes the deeds in any given region, such as explorer and kill deeds.)

There are several quirks to this model. First, it sounds like there will NOT be a level cap on free players - if you want to grind mobs for exp, you'll be able to. To counter this, only VIP's (subscribers) will be allowed to get rested exp. In my experience, it's relatively hard to run out of rested exp in LOTRO, so that's basically a 50% nerf to combat exp. Skirmishes would be another loophole, so Turbine will be limiting free players to four of the game's pre-Mirkwood skirmishes.

The last issue is the previously paid expansions. There's no helping this one if you're Turbine - players have already paid expansion fees for no purpose other than access to the content and expansion owners will therefore be granted permanent F2P access to the relevant content. The odd result is that players who own Moria and Mirkwood (including the Mirkwood storyline skirmishes) can level as free players from level 50 to 65 without paying anything. Turbine is trying to discourage this too by requiring players to pay to unlock all of their trait slots - irritating to be sure - but it certainly could be worse.

Note that this MAY mean that buying a super cheap clearance Moria expansion box if you can find one will be a more cost-effective means of getting access to that content than buying it through the LOTRO store, we can't be sure yet.

Some head-scratching moves
There are a few things that don't make sense to me at the moment. A few:

- Monster play is being described as subscriber-only. Are they worried that free accounts would be used to spy on the opposing faction? I can't see any other reason why this change makes sense, as player versus player only works if you've got players in the zone.

- As Doc Holiday notes, the announcement confirms that the game will not get ANY new content until the F2P rollout "this fall". At that point, the game will be getting what sounds like a Mirkwood-sized miniexpansion, but it will be for levels 62-65 with no increase in the level cap. First, this means that I will have limited reason to purchase this content, especially if the epic book portion of the zone is free to play. Second, I'm not even convinced that the game NEEDS more content in this level range. I hit level 65 very early in Mirkwood, albeit with the benefit of rested exp (which a Premium player won't have). I'd be willing to grind out some extra skirmishes and daily quests if it meant not having to pay for a new miniexpansion just to finish out a level or so.

- Mind-bogglingly, Turbine points will NOT be universally usable in both DDO and LOTRO. If you play both games, you will have to maintain separate balances. Then again, I'm already stuck with two Turbine accounts because they don't have any method to add a free DDO account to an existing LOTRO account, so I would only be in for a headache trying to get that fixed if they did allow a common balance (as SOE does with its Station Cash).

- There's also a gold cap, and it's very low for free players (2 gold) and somewhat low (5G) for premium non-subscribers (anyone who has ever paid real money for something, such as the current boxes). At current prices, neither player type can purchase the larger of the game's housing and free players cannot pay for their level 35 mounts.

- Finally, I don't see any reason why I'd pay for a LOTRO subscription at any point between now and the F2P rollout. There won't be any new content for the next 3-6 months. There will be ways to earn LOTRO Turbine Points in-game, but there will be no retroactive credit for doing things now that will be worth Turbine Points in the future. This means that, if you're thinking of subscribing for a few months to "rent" the content you'll need to get some alts from level 15-50 before "downgrading" to F2P using the expansions you currently own, you may be better off waiting for the F2P rollout to do so.

(Turbine is offering a stipend of sorts for current subscribers, to be paid in Turbine Points when F2P arrives, but the maximum rate for non-lifetime subscribers will work out to fewer points than the cost of the subscription, assuming DDO-like exchange rates. Unless you're planning to actually play in the interim, you're better off buying the points directly when the time comes instead of paying for a subscription to get some points thrown in later. Lifetime subscribers, who seem to be making out reasonably well in this whole deal, need to read the fine print and log in at least once a month between now and the rollout to get all their points.)

Bottom Line
Personally, I'm reasonably okay with the way DDO's store works, so I'm cautiously optimistic for this roll-out. I'd much rather pay for what I use and not get locked into a monthly fee, especially now that I've branched out into four MMO's and counting.

That said, this change also means that it is relatively unlikely that I will ever take a LOTRO alt beyond the newbie zones. I'm not going to want to pay to unlock all of the mid-level content that I've already done on my main, as that would stick a huge price tag on leveling alts that I'm not that interested in from 15-50. For most other aspects of the game - housing, cosmetic outfits, storage, etc - Turbine has done a reasonable job of ensuring that the entry level content is free so that they can sell upgrades in the store. I guess that the fee has to come somewhere, but it does seem to discourage alts.

Also, like the DDO store, it sounds like the LOTRO store will be heavily stocked with one-time purchases. That may or may not be a long-term problem, since LOTRO already has so many lifetime and discounted subscribers anyway, but it's something worth watching in the future.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Followup Triumph of The Solo Cross-Faction Chocobo

Apparently the RNG thought it owed me a favor, because I couldn't make this up if I wanted to.

Yes, I just got both the ZG Raptor and White Hawkstrider from Kael'thas in the space of three hours. The shock of soloing a raid boss to claim a mount I've coveted since 2006 had not yet worn off, and I wasn't even going to bother continuing to farm Kael'Thas after getting the raptor. But I had a half-cleared save (I'd bailed out to reset a bad group of adds on the third boss) and figured I might as well go for my fifth solo Kael'thas kill. The bird is listed at a 3% drop and the raptor at about a 1%, so the odds against my getting both back to back like this are pretty astronomical.

(And yes, I'm still thinking about my response to the LOTRO news. Turbine really overshadowed me on the blogosphere today. I guess I'm just going to hop onto my Hawkstrider and ride off to the top of the nearest hill, where I'll hop onto my raptor and ride off into the sunset. Also, I'm guessing that most of you hate me right about now.)

Triumph of the ZG Cross-Faction Solo Raid Mount

Blizzard historically makes it very difficult to obtain mounts that are traditionally used by the opposing faction, unless you happen to be a Horde character who was around for the inaugural Brewfest. You're typically looking at a 1% drop rate, and sometimes a lockout of a day or longer on repeating the instances in question. Also, if you need help to beat the bosses in question, you're in for a roll-off if it finally drops. Going for these mounts is something to do for fun and/or out of boredom, but not because you seriously think you're going to get one.

Thanks to insane gear inflation in Wrath, I've been curious to see whether I could SOLO bosses from previous expansions who drop shiny mount rewards. Over the weekend, I learned to take down the 5-man heroic Magister's Terrace, where Kael'thas has a chance of dropping a white Blood Elf chicken. It takes me the better part of an hour to make the run, but it's actually challenging, so I enjoy the effort.

With that out of the way, the next question was the level 60 Zul'Gurub 20-man raid. I ran this place into the ground at level 60, and never even saw the Raptor boss drop the Troll raptor mount. However, I read that the fight was soloable, so off I went to ZG. It turns out that yes, the raptor boss can be soloed by a mage. He has a habit of stopping to whirlwind and generally running slowly, so you can kite him around the instance until your cooldowns are ready, pop the water elemental and mirror images, and do a bit of damage. It took over 17 minutes, but I was able to kill the guy.

Wait a minute.... what the heck is that second item that dropped?!

This was the mount that I've always wanted the most, but I hadn't even considered that I'd ever actually get to own it if for no other reason than because of the 3-day raid lockout. I even farmed up the rep on my Tauren because I figured that would be as close as I'd ever get. Some days, the RNG decides to smile on you, I suppose. I'm not sure if this technically counts as having dropped on the first try, since I have killed that boss a few dozen times in raids, but I'll take it.

(P.S. Of course, we would have major breaking LOTRO news come up literally as I was taking my celebratory screenshots. Go ahead, Turbine, take the spotlight, really. ;))

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Frostfire Niche Fail

Apparently, there is a perceived lack of quality WoW mage bloggery. I can't really fix that personally, since WoW is one of four MMORPG's I'm currently playing, and I don't even spend all of my time on my mage anymore. However, I have had a bit of time to respec the mage yet again (currently arcane for PVP and random instances, frost for soloing dungeons from the previous expansion), and that got me thinking about niches.

History of a new toy
The big shiny toy for mages in the current expansion was Frostfire bolt. Mages traditionally throw balls of either frost, fire, or arcane energy. Blizzard decided to shake things up in the new expansion with the "Frostfire" ball, a snowball that someone light on fire. Frostfire bolts are simultaneously frost and fire spells, which meant that they would benefit from talent enhancements to BOTH schools of magic. This put the spell in an awkward position where it would either be too good, or not good enough.

At Wrath's launch, the scale had swung too far in the "too good" direction. Fire-based Frostfire specs delivered almost as much damage as pure Fires specs, while offering greatly improved mana efficiency and solo capacity. (Remember, dual specs did not arrive with Wrath's launch, so this was actually a non-zero issue for the pure fire spec in the days before gear inflation broke the difficulty curve.) No one used Frost-based Frostfire specs because Frost's damage was already low. This was a very good thing for mages in the longterm, because Frosty-fire delivered even more control than a pure Frost spec, and something besides impact would have gotten nerfed if it had been more popular.

Anyway, it didn't make sense for one spell to obsolete both of its parent specs, so changes were made. Pure Fire specs got better mana regeneration and more damage, rendering Fire-based Frostfire obsolete. Pure Frost got more damage and a new replenishment ability that specifies that it only works on frostbolt. Today, the main highlight of getting Frostfire Bolt at level 75 is that it turns your Brain Freeze fireball procs blue.

Failing to find a niche
I've actually spent some time with all six possible primary tree + off tree combinations during the Wrath era, and Frostfire specs always feel like they're competing with the pure elemental specs. Pure frost has a niche in controlling foes. Fire has a niche in raw damage. Arcane has a niche in speed and efficiency when burning through encounters quickly. There isn't really room for a Frostfire niche, and, indeed, it's not entirely clear what the developers intended for one.

This type of challenge is not at all unique to WoW - take, for example, EQ2's struggle to find niches for six tanking classes when raids don't need that many tanks (and certainly not the sub-optimal ones). It just raises an interesting challenge. Someone had a creative, if perhaps slightly unusual idea and turned it into a spell, but it doesn't seem to have anywhere to go from there. Maybe the spell will get reworked from a primary nuke into something more situational in the future. For now, though, it appears to be a solution to the non-existent problem of what to do when facing an enemy that is immune to your preferred element.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Balance Versus Investment

The latest episode of DDOCast ended up spending an entire hour discussing a proposed change to DDO's two-weapon fighting system. There's an interesting philosophical question here on how to balance the need to fix server issues and game imbalances against respecting player investments in the way that the system has been run for years.

The change... and the other target
Apparently, someone implementing the combat system back when the launch level cap was 10 decided that it would be a cool idea to have the server run a second "physics check" 0.15 seconds after your mainhand attack to determine whether the enemy had wandered out of range before you swung your offhand weapon. Because of the comparatively low level cap, players were only able to get so many offhand attacks to begin with, so no one noticed.

As time went on, however, the cap moved up to level 20, and Turbine added additional classes (Monk) and prestige enhancements (Ranger Tempest line) that added many more offhand attacks. Moreover, the way the math works out (in part due to the pen and paper rules), the full two weapon fighting line turned out to be hands down superior DPS to the alternatives (primarily two-handed weapons). Suddenly, everyone was swinging two weapons and getting tons of extra attacks. This meant lots of extra and largely unnecessary calculations for the server to process, and apparently has gotten so prevalent that it actually causes lag in raids.

To reduce server load, Turbine is proposing to remove the second physics check, and revamp the two-weapon fighting system into something more closely resembling a crit or a double attack percentage. The reason for the controversy is that this change will apparently - and INTENTIONALLY - decrease the DPS of two-weapon fighting.

Is the right call wrong?
Personally, I won't shed a tear for two weapon fighting. The stats requirements for the feat line require some unpleasant building choices. Dexterity is not a useful stat for many classes, but failure to spend those points means permanently and significantly reduced DPS potential. Two-handed weapons should be a viable alternative for characters who are not going to pursue the full two-weapon fighting line, for whatever reason. The fact that this type of change also fixes a poorly-coded mechanic that was causing server issues makes this a no-brainer.

However, I also recognize a sticky situation here because the current state of two weapon fighting is not some new tweak from the most recent patch. The game has been balanced in favor of this combat style for a long time, and many players (even myself, in the mere two months I've been playing the game) have made the decision to pursue the style based on that reality.

How many characters with months or years of investment have been built around a combat style that they might not have chosen if they knew that the long-term goal was for parity? Is it fair to players - some of whom have paid real money for Dexterity enhancing tomes to meet the stat requirements - to turn around now and say that they should simply rebuild their characters (lesser resurrection tokens also available for real money in the DDO store, or via more time-consuming in-game means)?

In the end, this is the correct business decision - it solves a technical issue and a quirk of the character builder that was, frankly, a bit irritating to this particular new player. Very few players will actually quit playing the game over this change, and some may even spend additional money on respeccing or re-rolling the new flavor of the month when the dust settles. This makes the question of whether this type of change is sufficiently large that it should not be made to a post-launch game (see also, Champions Online's notorious launch rebalancing efforts) somewhat unfortunately moot.