Friday, July 30, 2010

DDO Podcast Month

It hasn't been the cheeriest week in news and commentary here at PVD, so thanks go out to DDO Producer Glin for offering up a lighter story by declaring July Turbine's Official Unofficial DDO Podcast Month.

When you follow as many games as I do, podcasts play a crucial role in keeping up with the news.  Even so, DDO seems to have an unusually robust podcast community for the size of its playerbase.  There are any number of possible explanations for this.  Perhaps DDO's demographics skew older due to the DND license, and this somehow means that the playerbase is disproportionately capable at podcasting.  Perhaps Turbine's support (Glin personally appeared on two podcasts this month, and other Turbine devs have visited both DDO and LOTRO podcasts) helps foster the community.  Perhaps Jerry Snook, the host of the 177+ episode DDOCast, is such a DDO institution that he inspires everyone else to offer their own take on the DDO-related podcast.

Whatever the explanation, the result is an array of entertaining and informative podcasts that any developers should be proud to call their own.  Even so, it's a bit unusual and refreshing to see a developer acknowledging the full range of the community, including shows like Psycho da Angry Drow and the Rant Squad (home to expletive-laden critiques of Turbine's work) and the DDO Cocktail hour (where every episode is a drinking episode).

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Conflicting EQ2 Payment Models In Action

A conversation over at Ardwulf's place helps point out how counter intuitive SOE's decision to offer F2P EQ2 alongside its subscription parent really is.

In the currently announced model (which could be changed during the Alpha/Beta), non-subscribing players are completely forbidden from equipping group dungeon drops.  There is no option to pay to unlock this ability, group content rewards are simply irrelevant to anyone who does not want to pay the $15 monthly subscription.  Non-subscribers are also unable to purchase the ability to access the broker or carry more than 18 plat (at level 90), both of which are all-but necessary for repairs and consumables at endgame.  This makes no sense for a traditional free to play game.  If you want to sell players increased power, you have to allow access to content that actually requires more powerful characters.

The Gear Dilemma
The problem is that EQ2 is not going to be a pure free to play game.  If you could unlock the ability to equip Fabled loot, such as through the one-time Silver/Premium account upgrade (conceptually similar to what DDO has), raiders who are currently paying the monthly fee could sit down and calculate the cost of dropping down to free to play.  $35 to copy over their characters, some amount of money if their current race/class is not one of the free options, maybe the $10 silver upgrade, and suddenly a couple months' subscription fees are looking like enough to raid the latest content (expansion boxes will cost F2P players extra, just like the traditional sub players) in perpetuity, without paying any more monthly sub fees.

The purpose of going Free to Play is ultimately to make SOE more money, but their decision to hedge on the two payment models has put them in between a rock and a hard place.  Without the restriction on gear, they could lose the fees from existing raiders.  With the restriction on gear, they lose out on potential item sales as players on the free servers either avoid dungeons (why run a dungeon when you can't equip the loot) or jump to the paid servers (with their less "robust" cash shops) in search of a more group-enriched community.

Meanwhile, the free servers will be left heavily skewed towards the free classes and players who have too many restrictions to do group content long term (why stay on a server that charges extra for standard features like races once you're paying the same fee?).  This will damage SOE's ability to convert new free players into longtime customers. 

If only....
Whether or not you agree with the decision to offer a free to play option for the game, that decision has been made.  Now that it has, segregating out group players to a separate set of servers does not make sense.  Most of the problems I'm describing could have been mitigated by absorbing the PR hit of taking existing servers F2P (somehow, Turbine seems to have survived this) and designing a payment model that does not need to be designed to keep current subscribers away.

If they had taken the existing servers free to play, the influx of free players could have been directed to underpopulated servers (basically all of them other than Antonia Bayle and Nagafen) with existing communities that could have helped SOE convert the newbies into longtime players (and maybe even subscribers).  Instead, it now seems almost certain that SOE will have to eat the PR hit for merging these servers, which will only exacerbate the perception amongst existing players that they are being neglected and cannibalized in favor of the shiny new cash shop server.

UPDATE: Feldon reports that SOE is also adding in-game merchants that sell items for station cash to the regular (non-free-to-play) servers.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

EQ2's Unsustainable F2P Divide

"A house divided against itself cannot stand."
- Abraham Lincoln

Everquest 2 is joining the free to play bandwagon, but with an unusual twist.  SOE has opted not to jump into the F2P pool with both feet.  Instead, the current stated plan is for the game to maintain the existing subscription game as a parallel separate service to the new "EQ2 Extended" F2P model.

This model is untenable and a bad deal for both free and paid players. 

A hollow win for the solo player
Any time you add a new option for paying for an MMORPG, there's going to be someone, somewhere, who comes out a winner.  On paper, that winner would be the solo WoW Tourist demographic, like myself.  If you are prepared to settle for one of the extremely limited number of free race/class combinations, or to pay a one-time fee to unlock something more interesting from the full list, you can have the entire game up to level 80 indefinitely, for free. 

(By "extremely limited", we mean that 15 of the game's 19 playable races and 16 of the game's 24 playable subclasses are locked down.  This leaves free players to choose from four races and eight classes for a total of 32 out of the 456 race/class combos in the full game.)

As a solo PVE experience, this content was good enough that I was willing to pay to level through it last year.  On paper, I don't think that I absolutely needed anything on the list of paid perks to level.  However, the reality is that I spent a ton of time on my trip to level 80 working on crafting (pointless, the free tier can't even use the expert-level spells that I went to so much trouble to craft), leveling alts (locked down by an extremely low character limit and the race/class restrictions), and running the occasional group content with my guild (more on this in a minute).  Without these things to break up the grind, I don't know that I would have made it all the way to the cap.

Buyer's Remorse for the Free Player?
If that's the story of the winners in this transition, the losers are anyone who intends to continue playing beyond the most cursory sightseeing tour of the leveling content.

As the system is currently described, all non-subscription players are completely barred from equipping legendary quality items (and, of course, the higher quality Fabled).  In the 70's and 80's, even the solo quest and rep rewards are legendary.  This also rules out literally all loot from group dungeons.  That's right, a game called "Everquest" just banished all group content to a subset of players who choose to pay a recurring subscription, which rings in at the same $15/month that everyone else has to pay. 

So let's say that, after a few weeks of using the new Free to Play version of the game as an extended trial, you decide to pony up.  The subscription offers temporary rental access to the 16 locked down classes, but you'll STILL have to pay individually to unlock the 15 races that are included FOR THE SAME PRICE in the original subscription game. 

Worse, your options if you actually decide to go looking for groups are going to be hamstrung.  Free players have zero reason to ever join your group, as they cannot equip the loot that drops.  On top of that, the free class selection deliberately focuses on the most basic options, leaving out popular group classes like Bards, Enchanters, and Shamen.  Even if you chose to unlock one of these classes, earning yourself plenty of group invites, your groups may struggle as the population skews strongly away from the other utility classes that you need to complete the content. 

Maybe all of these drawbacks are making you reconsider your choice to play the free to play version of the game after all.  If that's you, kiss all the time and money you've spent on the game so far goodbye, as characters cannot be transferred to the subscription game and anything that you pay to unlock (other than future paid expansion boxes, which both payment models are required to purchase) will be irrelevant if you switch over. 

Given that option, you'd have to love the game a whole heck of a lot before you even consider paying SOE to start over. 

Abandonment of the existing servers
Meanwhile, what of the existing players?  Well, they're to be left alone, exactly as they are today, out of supposed deference to the wishes of existing players not to have items that confer in-game power sold through the item shop.  (This deference excludes experience boost potions, which have been available in the "cosmetic" item shop since day one.) 

The problem here is that new players will be funneled first to the free to play model, and those that decide to upgrade will want to jump to the most populous server possible.  SOE might as well go ahead and merge all of the servers besides Antonia Bayle (the game's most popular) and Nagafen (the last surviving PVP server) now, because populations everywhere else will only continue to dwindle. 

Meanwhile, with group content so heavily locked down on the free servers, the game's demographics will likely shift dramatically away from players who group. The addition of new content to the game will follow the money.  That's not a good thing if the reason why you are playing EQ2 is for the group content.  Perhaps this is as it should be, if the numbers who aren't doing group content represent more money in the long term.  Unfortunately for SOE, attempting to shift a six year old game away from its strength and towards things that other games do better (solo, PVP) is a very risky proposition that will only pan out if the game can stand up to head to head scrutiny against competition that focused on those areas from day one. 

Ending the hedge
Personally, the argument that they're leaving things separate out of deference for existing players would ring more true if SOE didn't have a consistent track record of pushing through unpopular expansions of RMT and item shops in defiance of those same customer expectations.  I think that it's more likely that they're just holding off on sending the golden subscription goose to the butcher for as long as possible so that they can get a better idea of whether people will actually pay to see the golden wolf cub they're planning on feeding the carcass to. 

Perhaps there would have been turmoil and upheaval if SOE had instead chosen to rip the band-aid off.  That said, as with previous expansions of RMT in SOE games, relatively few players would have actually followed through on threats to quit (and many of this vocal minority may quit anyway, seeing which way the wind is blowing in this compromise).  More importantly, with all players under the same roof, SOE would have been forced to confront and address the problems that everyone faced together.  Instead, the team will pit the two sides against each other to see who can bring in more money. 

The irony is that the damage this struggle is likely to cause may ultimately leave the game - along with its market and brand name - weaker for the lack of resolve.  

Monday, July 26, 2010

The ROM Exp Curve As A Loss Leader

“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.”
- Me, talking about the LOTRO Free To Play transition, as quoted by Syp

I hit level 20 Druid/20 Rogue in Runes of Magic over the weekend.  The dual class system remains interesting - for example, my Druid has gained "elite" skills as part of her Rogue subclass that allows her to cast shadow spells fueled by her rogue energy bar as primary nukes, leaving most the majority of her druid mana bar available for heals. 

Meanwhile, though, I've started to run into an issue that various commenters have been pointing out since I started posting about the game.  Parts of the game experience are beginning to reflect the game's business model.

Scrounging for Exp
ROM actually offers a total of three sets of quests for getting from level 1-10 - one zone aimed at each race, and one additional zone for players to move to for leveling their secondary class.  I've cleared out all three.  Somewhere in the mid-teens, I found that I was bumping up against quests that were giving me some trouble, and it made more sense to burn through the content I wasn't using for some quick additional exp to get a leg up.

Of course, every game has some neglected mid-levels, but I've never found myself scrounging for exp before level 20.  In any other game, the solution would be a simple design decision - add more quests or decrease the number of quests needed to level.  In this game, though, the entire game and all of its leveling content are a loss leader designed to get players into the item shop, which is the sole source of revenue since there are no charges of any kind for access to content, classes, levels, etc. 

At level 20, none of this is a big deal.  I'm here to sight-see, and I'm accomplishing that.  In the long run, though, players report that the game becomes much more grind-focused with every additional level range.  The intent is to drive sales of exp potions, daily quest reset tickets, death penalty removers, etc, but the net effect is that scrounging for exp is an intentional feature of game design. 

Side note on the death penalty
Speaking of the death penalty, on paper it's a relatively mild thing - about (exactly?) 5% of your exp to level in "exp debt" which takes 70% of all earned exp until it is paid off.  (Some of this debt is forgiven if you touch your tombstone, located at the place where you died, but note that this ONLY removes debt - if you paid off the debt before reaching your corpse, e.g. by turning in a quest to a questgiver who happened to be near the respawn point, that exp is lost.)  The thing that I find frustrating is the manner in which I die. 

I've died about 10 times to date, and almost all of them have been due to one of the two reasons:
  • Elite mobs that look identical to the non-elite mobs they're standing next to, other than a slight increase in size.  When you're chain pulling 20 mobs that are dying in 15 seconds each, it's very easy to fail to notice the only visual warning, the eagle on the mob's portrait, until it's too late.
  • An odd terrain bug/feature where mobs abruptly start doing about double damage and taking about half damage from my attacks.  My best guess is that this is a bonus for being above me, as it happens most frequently when the mobs are flying or when the ground is not perfectly flat and the mobs are ever so slightly above me, and it goes away if I kite the mob to more level ground.  If this is intended behavior (either for tactical reasons or anti-exploit), it isn't documented anywhere and the only way to tell that you're doing it wrong is to look at the size of your incoming and outgoing damage numbers before it's too late.  
Maybe these are bugs, or maybe they're an intentional effort to kill players more frequently to drive sales of death penalty removal items.  I don't think either mechanic would be left in their current form in a subscription game. 

An Uncertain Early Verdict
ROM seems to be a relatively polarizing game even within the opinionated spheres of MMORPG discussion.  The game's fans sing its praises, based in large part on the general quality, non-existent entry barrier, and relatively unique class structure.  The game's detractors have taken it upon themselves to warn the masses about an increasing grind (which I'm starting to see), poor customer service (my account was not yet able to purchase diamonds during a sale, and account services helpfully informed me that my account was no longer broken after the sale was over - I declined to buy anything at that point), billing issues (which I avoided by not purchasing anything, but am prepared to believe), and the well documented fact that the game offers straight up power for cash. 

From my perspective, the game is still winning my playtime at the moment.  My visit to Taborea was motivated in part by market research, and I am indeed learning things I did not know or expect about the business model.  (For example, I'd expected travel to be much more of a pain, but it turns out that I can instead use a daily quest alternative to get a temporary mount, and I've gotten way more than enough free samples of the cash shop teleport runes to carry me through a number of levels to come.)  Watching the dual class system come into its own has also been worth the price of admission (in time, not money) to date.  My outlook might be very different if I was looking for a longer term home, but ROM is certainly shaping up to be a decent vacation spot. 

That said, though I expect to continue playing this game until it stops being fun, I am starting to think that I am unlikely to pay for the privilege.  I'd be happy to pay for one-time purchases, such as the mount, but the developers are apparently so uninterested in such a small sum of money that they've made it easy to avoid paying it.  I'd be willing to pay for additional content, as I have in DDO, but the game doesn't offer any.  The main option for supporting the game - paying to lessen a grind that exists only to try and drive payments - simply doesn't appeal to me. 

Friday, July 23, 2010

Could GW2 Self-Heals Backfire?

The gang on the Multiverse did a rundown of upcoming MMORPG's this week.  They noted that there seems to be a general trend of backlash against class-based games in general and the "holy trinity" in particular these days, and they blame the rise of solo play.  I'd suggest that their cause and effect may be reversed.  In my view, the holy trinity mechanic complicates the process of looking for groups to point where developers are forced to offer more solo options as a concession to the difficulty of finding a group. 

As the gang reminded me, the forthcoming Guild Wars 2 will supposedly eschew the traditional dedicated healer class, instead giving all character the tools to watch their own health bars.  This might sound like a way to address the problem of the holy trinity, but I'm wondering that the devs may be giving players what they say they want instead of what they actually want.

Causes of "LF2M tank and heals"
In every game that I've played, the most common difficulty in assembling a group is finding players to fill the tank and healer slots of the "trinity".  People who are down on solo play will jump to blame it for this problem - DPS characters often solo faster, they would argue, and therefore the system encourages players not to play tanks and healers.  The truth is more nuanced than that. 

I only lasted a bit over a month in FFXI back in 2006, which was about as solo-unfriendly as games have ever been.  The tank and healer shortage was in full effect in that game, and I'd routinely see groups spend so long looking that the four bored DPS would try asking more DPS with tank or healer subjobs to try and fill the missing roles (which tends not to end well when the group also insists on trying to pull the toughest possible mobs for max exp). 

Meanwhile, over in WoW, the fact that it's easier to level solo is nigh meaningless, because dual spec allows players to switch from the best solo spec to the best tanking/healing spec at the literal touch of a button.  As Spinks points out, there are other issues involved in picking up WoW tanking at this stage in an expansion cycle (chiefly the learning curve), but I don't think you can argue that solo leveling alone accounts for the fact that tanks get groups nigh instantly, while DPS wait for 15-30 minutes. 

The dirty little secret is that DPS IS EASIER.  As a DPS, you need to know two things: what order to push your buttons in, and where to stand.  The order in which you push the buttons may vary slightly based on the situation (perhaps you're saving cooldowns for a burn phase, or AOE'ing adds), but that's usually not that unpredictable.  The where to stand part means being in range of the boss and not standing in the fire, and even the second part of that role is more than many DPS (myself sometimes included) can handle. 

As a tank or a healer, you still need to be aware of the two things DPS need to know (what buttons to push, and where to stand) but you also need a far greater awareness of what the other members of the party are doing.  I was once the last player capable of removing a curse from the main tank left standing in a 40 man raid, and that one minor responsibility - far less than a real healer would have to handle - was enough to make that fight the most stressful experience I have ever had in an MMO.  Being a tank or healer is harder, carries more responsibility, and many players simply do not want this level of complexity to their hobby. 

Distributing heals, responsibility
So back to GW2's little revision, in which everyone has to heal themselves.  The practical effect of this change is that, instead of one player shouldering the responsibility for everyone's health bars, everyone has to add their own self-healing on to their other responsibilities.  If I'm right, this means that GW2 DPS WILL BE HARDER than DPS in other games due to the additional task.  The really good DPS, who always top the meters and move out of the fire and do whatever misc utility their classes have, will really shine under this system.  Those of us who struggle to react quickly enough with someone else watching our health bars may not fare so well. 

The point of asking for the removal of the trinity is to make it easier to assemble groups.  It's simply not fun to have five people lined up outside a five player dungeon only to be told that they all have to sit on their rears because none of them is a healer.  However, the new problem may be that this system further emphasizes the difference between a good player and an average one.  The average player no longer does average DPS, they do 0 DPS because they failed to watch their health and they died.  The irony is that this may leave players - especially the good ones - unwilling to do PUG's at all.  If that's the case, a change that was intended to facilitate grouping may actually make it more difficult. 

Thursday, July 22, 2010

ROM's Take On The Daily Quest

As you can see, I've currently got 70 of a daily quest item I need 10 of.  The teeth, sandals and pelts are also worth daily quest turnins.  The scary part is that I got most of those items in the course of doing routine quests in Runes of Magic. What exactly are they trying to accomplish?

Self-completing daily quests
WoW uses daily quests as a way of delaying players from completing endgame rep grinds.  Because you pay Blizzard by the month, they'd much rather have you spend 20 hours over 20 days than even 30 hours over a weekend.  So, the daily quest offers larger payouts in exchange for limiting players' income.

By contrast, ROM offers its version of daily quests starting at level 1.  Unlike daily quests in other games, these dailies can be completed more than once a day - the limit is 10 daily quests per day, and that can be 10 different quests or the same quest 10 times.

Also unlike typical MMO quests, the items for these quests will drop from the relevant mobs whether or not the player is on the quest (or has already farmed enough drops to complete it).  It seems that there are daily quests pointing at most quest areas, and it's not hard to hit ROM's cap of 10 daily turn-ins in an hour or two of normal gameplay.  If you're playing more than that, or find yourself farming mobs that happen to drop daily quest trash for other reasons, you might end up with more tokens than you can turn in.

ROM Daily Quest Incentives

ROM daily quests do award exp and TP (skill upgrade points). As Indy points out, players who don't like playing the optimal secondary class for their preferred role can instead farm up the daily quest tokens on their main and switch over to the secondary for the turn-in credit.  Even so, the real draw to the system seems to be the "Phirius Tokens".

With perhaps a few exceptions, each daily quest awards 10 tokens regardless of what level the quest itself is. The system appears to be designed so that players who spend 1-2 hours per day online will be pulling down most or all of their daily allowance (up to 100 tokens, some group dailies excluded) every day. These tokens can then be used to obtain effectively free samples of cash store items.

The token shop carries exp potions and consumable item enhancement tools, and, most intriguingly, a 30-day rental of the famous $10 mount for 1400 tokens. In other words, if you complete 50% of the maximum daily quests every day (or 100% every other day), you can avoid paying for the mount, which many people view as the one nigh indispensable item in the shop.

Do the devs win?
I'm guessing that the developers' theory is that impatience will win out over frugality.
  • Perhaps players won't want to set aside such a large portion of their tokens (and wait two weeks before securing their first mount rental). 
  • Perhaps players will get in the habit of using the other consumables like teleport runes or item enhancers with the other half of their tokens. 
  • Perhaps the knowledge that you've got a stack of monster pieces that you can turn in right now if you pay to reset your quest limit is more tempting to some players than getting the same bonus via paying for an exp bonus potion. 
  • Perhaps the sheer quantity of drops will clog player bags until they give in and pay to rent additional bag space.  

Then again, all of these scenarios revolve around the assumption that the player is looking to play normally every day. Without the monthly access fee, that's not necessarily a safe assumption. If you're the type of player who spends different amounts of time online each day (or juggles multiple MMORPG's), it's easy enough to farm up several days worth of turnins in advance and sign on each day for just long enough to collect your tokens.

I do see a decent number of the more exotic looking mounts, which are only available via the real money side of the item shop, in game, so clearly some players are opening their wallets to pay for these prettier, slightly faster rides.  For that matter, I'd be willing to pay not to have to do daily quests every day just to retain mount access if the daily quests weren't literally throwing themselves at my feet.  I wonder what this does for the game's bottom line, though, because it seems like I can have the one thing in this game so far that I would have considered paying for without going out of my way to pay for it. 
Oh hai, naked chick on a flying ferret courtesy of the item shop.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Early Impressions of Runes of Magic Classes

As is somewhat traditional, I've spent my first few days of investigating Runes of Magic on trying out all of the various character classes.  This takes on special significance in ROM because each character gets to pick TWO of the game's eight classes.  You can switch out which class is your primary class in town, and your secondary class offers some of its own abilities as well as some unique variations on your primary class themes. 

Without further ado, here are my initial gut reactions having taken each class through to level 10 (a bit over an hour).  The list is arranged in approximately the order in which I enjoyed the classes, take that for what you will.

The Warden primary is ROM's pet class.  They can also use some mana-based melee attacks (these are available to your other class when Warden is your secondary).  Because the Warden is an elf-only class, it cannot be combined with the human-only Priest or Knight.

Unfortunately, this class left me feeling like my job was to serve a support role for my NPC pet.  The pet's autoattacks do more damage than my Warden melee abilities, and it was actually more time efficient for me to act like a ninja looter and go loot corpses and quest items while the pet did the fighting.  I paired this with the scout and found myself leaning almost exclusively on the Scout's cross-class abilities for personal DPS over the Warden's own attacks.  (Perhaps a second melee class would have been a better choice.)

The Scout is an archer ranged dps class, with abilities powered by a "focus" bar (starts full, drains and refills rapidly, like a WoW rogue's energy bar).  As a secondary, this class confers the ability to equip bows and use some of the Scout's attacks.

Unlike your typical MMO archer, this class is perfectly happy to continue shooting arrow attacks while mobs are in melee range.  I'd thought that the Warden melee abilities would be useful while waiting for focus to regenerate, but I found that they did too little damage to be worth using.  Supposedly this class also gets some good synergy with the healing classes via higher level elite skills.

This class is a melee DPS, powered by a rage bar that builds up while dealing or receiving damage.  You have a variety of one and two handed combo attacks, where one ability chains into another for greater impact. 

I was very underwhelmed with the way that the rage bar works in ROM.  It feels like you both gain and lose rage very quickly, and end up either watching autoattacks while waiting on rage or suddenly staring at a full bar just as the mob dies.  I think I'd like this class better paired with another class that offers melee attacks (Rogue, Warden, Knight) so that I'd be able to use the resource bar for the other class while waiting on the rage bar. 

This class is the human racial take on healing.  It's also a popular secondary choice because it grants access to healing abilities.  (In particular, Warriors, Scouts, and Rogues don't use mana for any of their class abilities, so that mana bar is fully available for low downtime self-healing while solo.)  This class is human-only, and therefore cannot mix with Warden or Druid. 

I had a lot of trouble playing this class, which was the only class where I died repeatedly.  Like the mage, you're completely dependent on your mana pool.  Unlike the mage, your spells don't do a ton of damage, so you can simply end up screwed if you get into trouble with a low mana bar.  Many players pair the mage with the priest (or the druid) because the two are pure casters that offer each other good passive bonuses to their primary roles.  The issue is that this also exacerbates the weakness of being mana-dependent. 

If I ever try this class again, it'll be paired with a non-mana-user.  Even then, I might end up dreading the time I have to spend leveling the priest side of the character. 

ROM rogues need to wait for higher levels to get the abilities to stealth and dual wield, but otherwise will be familiar to anyone who has seen WoW's take on the class. 

I don't really have much to add to that.  The Rogue melees well, and is powered by a rapidly regenerating energy bar that leaves your mana bar (if applicable) available for whatever your other class does.  Works as advertised.  

This is your caster DPS class, offering some utility spells as a secondary.

As Yeebo told me a year ago, this class is comically overpowered at low levels, killing foes in one or two shots.  It is mana-dependent, but that matters less when you only need to scrape together enough MP for one or two spells to make it through a fight. I might be inclined to pair it with the knight for additional durability (and also for the Knight's own sake), because a caster really isn't going to be set up to take advantage of melee/archery when they need a fallback plan. 

This is a heavily-armored mana-based tanking-focused class, with holy damage and a variety of aggro management skills. As a secondary, it offers boosts to survivability and healing.  It's also the other human-only class, so it cannot be combined with Warden or Druid. 

This was probably the biggest surprise of the eight classes for me.  I looked at the spell list and was mostly ready to write the whole thing off.  The crucial thing I missed was that the class has not one but two combo point mechanics, one of which passively regenerates mana.  This means that you can spam attacks until you're running low, switch into pure regen mode for a mob or so, and then jump back into the action with a full mana bar.  Assuming you're not paired with a priest, you have no inherent means of regenerating health, but you're designed to tank, so you can mow through a bunch of mobs on one health bar. 

Though the priest is a tempting combo - with self heals, you go fully zero-downtime while soloing, and the priest secondary does offer a token ranged spell for pulling - I'm thinking mage as a pairing for this class.  The two complement each other very well - the mage gets durability and a holy-based nuke, while the knight can actually afford to USE the more costly mage utility spells. 

The druid is the elves answer to the Priest.  Druids have many more offensive spell options and slightly fewer healing options.  There's also a "nature's power" combo mechanic that is built up by casting certain basic spells and spent on more powerful abilities (most or all of which are high level).  Can't be paired with Priest or Knight. 

This was my overall favorite.  The spell casting power level feels about right in a niche between the mage and the priest.  As a secondary, I have a melee accuracy buff and a nice heal+regen spell that will make a melee character very happy.  Since I can't pair it with Knight, I paired this with the Rogue, and found that I was satisfied with both sides of the pairing.

The combinations
Overall, it's an interesting system.  If I was going to play four characters covering all eight classes, they would be:
1. Druid/Rogue (my probable main, at least for now)
2. Knight/Mage
3. Priest/Scout
4. Warrior/Warden (my two least favorites in the pairings I tried them in, but they actually might play well together, since you could open combat with the Warden's mana-based attacks and switch over to Warrior rage attacks later)

That said, there are subtle or not-so-subtle advantages to other pairings that could shake up the experience without having a system that is so wide open that it takes forever to find a good spec.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Pondering DDO Veteran Status

DDO is running a special where a different item goes on sale for 50% off each day in July.  This coming Sunday will discount the "Veteran" account status to 498 Turbine Points ($5 at the 5K/$50 exchange rate).

To Buy or Unlock
Veteran Status allows new characters to start at level 4 (more significant than it sounds because the DND ruleset caps out at level 20, I'd guesstimate that we're talking about something like 5-10 hours of solo play).  This option can be unlocked on a per-server basis by earning 1000 favor, but I'm not entirely satisfied with that approach for several reasons. 

First, I'd have to earn 1000 favor - my highest character so far has 300, and it gets slower and more difficult as you go because it's more difficult to solo the hard difficulties of upper level quests. 

Second, I'd have to focus on a single character instead of messing around with alts, which is the opposite of how I've been playing the game so far (and would probably require more content purchases, since I've focused on lower level content unlocks to date). Moreover, any alts I create in the mean time would not have access to the Veteran unlock, so I'd want to do that sooner rather than later. 

Third, the unlock version is limited to a single server, and I have characters on all seven servers. 

Finally, I'd quickly bump up against the character slot limit (you get a total of 4 if you've ever paid) if I was trying to roll all my alts on the one server where I hypothetically had Vet status. 

But is Vet Status a Good Thing?
Overall, I'm reasonably convinced that it makes more sense to pay to unlock the Vet toggle if indeed I want it. So do I want this unlock?

My original reaction was that this seemed like a silly thing to pay for.  Level four doesn't take that long to earn, I might still want to go back and complete some of the lower level quests for gear (you get a lackluster starting package of equipment) and favor, and, ultimately, why does it make sense to pay to get out of playing the game?

The thing that has me reconsidering is now that I actually have a fair number of charaters in the level 3 range with 50+ favor (in fact, only one of my 15 characters has made it past the level 3 wall).  I've seen the content enough times that having the option of starting with higher level stuff sounds more appealing. 

There's also the matter of the poor scaling of the Dungeons and Dragons Ruleset.  Whether you're planning to multiclass or just a late bloomer, there are any number of reasons why a low level DND character might just be too fragile and not so fun to play.  If you start out four levels ahead of the curve, you get to skip past some of the less pleasant short term consequences of longterm decisions. 

Lastly, there's the difficulty of re-specing characters.  This too can be blamed on the ruleset, but that does not make it less irritating.  Of my 15 attempts at characters, a dozen are not worth playing beyond their next favor award because of character decisions that did not work out so well.  With Veteran status, I'd be able to take new alts on a test drive and immediately pitch them (or do a delete and re-roll "respec") without having to sink a fair number of hours into seeing whether my crazy new idea even works. 

I haven't made a final decision yet (I have until Sunday, since that's when the sale is), but I'm leaning towards taking the discounted paid unlock.  I'm going to spend more money on the game eventually (things like the Half Orc race and the new Red Fens AP are going to cost more points than I have, and sound like they'll be worth the money), so the main opportunity cost is that this would clean out my existing point balance.  Even so, discounts of 50% don't happen that often, so I won't cry too much if I miss a 30% sale on a single adventure pack because I spent the last of my points on this upgrade (assuming I don't earn more while trying out new alts).

Sunday, July 18, 2010

First Impressions of Runes of Magic

Runes of Magic has been vaguely on my watch list for a while now, partially because the game sounds interesting and partially because you need an account to even see what the game's prices are, which I'd like to be able to do for commentary purposes.  A Massively item code giveaway this weekend convinced me to go ahead and sign up.  What have I learned so far?

Apparently, they're not out to take all of my money... or any of it
Strangely, even after making an account, downloading, installing, and updating the client, and rolling up a character, I still can't prove what the item shop Diamond currency actually costs in real money.  When I attempt to access the payment page, I get an error that is supposed to go away when you actually create a character.  According to the support forums, there are multiple people having the same issue with new accounts, though the first form email support ticket response I got claims that there is a completely undocumented level 10 minimum for actually spending money on the game.

(It's worth nothing that Diamonds are on sale this weekend - albeit not an especially uncommon occurrence.   I doubt that they'll honor the sale prices later if they don't get around to fixing my account before the sale ends, not that I can be sure I'd want to buy any since I don't know what the sale prices are.)  

Content Fees No, Power Fees Yes
ROM is notable amongst "free to play" games I've looked at (like Free Realms, W101, DDO) in that there are no fees in the shop to unlock content or higher level caps.  Instead, those who are actually able to pay for the game pay for convenience and outright power.

Yes, ROM unabashedly allows players to spend exponential and unlimited amounts of cash on gear upgrades for higher stats.  If you want to play the game competitively, whether in PVP or group PVE, this may very well be a deal-breaker.  Personally, I'm interested in the game to explore the solo content and the dual class system, so I'm not too concerned about being forced to pay the theoretially insane prices to continue advancing.

Travel For Sale Or Grind
Most notoriously, ROM sells travel perks including the famous $10 horse and a variety of teleportation options.  Players can "mark" locations using a cash store "marking ink" (relatively cheap) and can then use cash store runes (a bit more expensive) to teleport to those locations (up to 49 of them if you are willing to mark that many locations) at will.  There's an additional item used to teleport to player housing (where you can swap out your primary/secondary class and access your bank and house storage chests).

My impression is that playing this game without any kind of mount will not be a lot of fun due to the sizes of zones.  Beyond turning in quests, many smaller hubs do not have any vendors for selling your stuff, you get a lot of junk (especially crafting ingredients), and you will want to switch between your two classes every so often in order to keep their levels similar. 

However, there are in-game options for obtaining mounts.   Short term rentals (15 mins and 2 hours) are available in towns for in-game gold.  A 30-day rental is available for a special currency from completing daily quests.  You can do up to 10 dailies per day (more if you purchase a cash shop item to reset the turnin cap) earning a total of 100 tokens, and it takes 1400 tokens to purchase the 30 day rental. 

That said, these tokens can also be used to purchase other cash store items, including teleport runes (30 tokens per marking ink, 80 per teleport rune, 40 per rune to port to your house), gear upgrade items, respec tokens, and exp/TP boosts.  I might be more inclined to spend the money on the big ticket item up front and save the smaller change for these more convenience-oriented items that I would be less willing to purchase a larger diamond bundle for.

Actual gameplay
There is actual gameplay, though I'm hesitant to get too far into the game until support can verify that my account is not FUBAR.  I've got a character to level 12 Warden/11 Scout.  Generally, the game seems polished, with reasonable graphics and combat.  So far, I'm reasonably happy with the game's dual class system, in which you pick two classes, swapping between them at your house, and gain some of the secondary class abilities.  For example, the Warden is a melee pet class who can use Scout skills to shoot arrows, while the Scout is a pure archer who gains melee attacks from the Warden.  It's certainly a fun change.

I do think that there are limitations that are designed to make players bump up against things that cost real money.  For example, you start with 60 inventory slots, which sounds like a lot until you see how many different types of crafting items drop from mobs and how many quest items take up inventory spaces.  (Many games, including LOTRO, Warhammer, and EQ2, now send your 10 rat tails directly to the quest log.)  Added to the lack of vendors, and the long distance between you and the nearest vendor if you do not have cash store boosts, and you've got a minor irritant that might not have been as severe if the developers weren't charging to make it less annoying.  (There is a separate backpack for your item shop purchases, so these do not eat inventory space.) 

That said, so far I haven't hit any real deal breakers.  Probably my biggest complaint so far is that it appears that most purchases, including mounts and even currency balances, are bind to character, so I'll want to make up my mind what classes to play before I start spending.  However, with this in mind, the game appears to offer a ton of character slots (where other games that don't work this way charge for them), so I guess that all balances out in the end too. 

As long as the base game remains fun to play, I'm prepared to tolerate - and maybe even pay a bit for - the actual business model.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Financing the Neglected Middle-Game

It has been mathematically proven that DDO has a significant lack of quests for the mid-teens (the game's level cap is 20).  You might think that Free to Play is the model that would solve this problem, as there would be a market for content to fill that gap.  Instead, the most recent adventure packs have focused on level 5, levels 6-8, and soon levels 9-12.  What's keeping them from addressing the more pressing level range?

The issue is one of numbers.  There's always going to need to be some attention to endgame, because players at max level have nothing to do if you're not adding endgame.  There's always going to need to be some attention to the early game because new players and alts have to get through that range, and might give up if the content is not good enough.  This leaves an unfortunate neglected middle ground that's just temporary enough that the developers don't feel they can spend too much time on it, and just high enough into the game that it isn't really going to be a make-or-break selling point. 

For example, I don't have any characters above level 6 at the moment, so a new level 15 adventure pack isn't going to be driving my purchasing decisions in DDO for the time being. When I do get up that high, I might start thinking about trying to save my Turbine Points for endgame content, rather than spending them on a level range that I might not make it back to a second time. 

Coping with the middle-game
Every game has this sort of murky middle ground.  Often, it'll be found towards the upper end of the levels that were available when the game launched (e.g. 40-58 in pre-Cataclysm WoW, the 40-68 range that SOE's been slowly working on in EQ2, 30-50 in LOTRO).  My gut says that the challenges may actually be worse under the DDO model because the game's income is so directly tied to whether people want to pay money for the new content.  In response, Turbine has been trying to have it both ways by implementing content that is designed for low level characters and then offers a scaled up version for endgame players, with the middle game left as the odd level range out.

Interestingly, a solution to this problem for the DDO model might be lurking in one of the game's least well-regarded adventure packs, the Devil Assault.  This pack gets raised eyebrows because it consists of a single quest, which sounds vaguely like WoW's Violet Hold, with the player standing still in a room defending it against attackers.  The thing that makes this quest unique is the level range options.  Typically, the optional harder difficulty settings on DDO quests bump the level by 1 or 2 above normal.  In Devil Assault, the levels jump from 6 to 12 to 18. 

If Turbine is really struggling to make one content pack fit all level ranges, they should consider using this approach with future adventure packs; have a low level option and a level 20 epic option, as they do currently, but add in an additional option in the mid levels.   DDO quests are worth less exp each time they are repeated (with the exception that you get the full award for the first time you complete the quest on each difficulty level), so there's relatively limited danger that players will be able to ride a handful of adventure packs all the way to the cap with this approach.  Meanwhile, it would make the new packs attractive in a way that yet another addition to the already crowded 1-8 level range simply is not these days.

Cataclysm Post-script
The quirk to Blizzard's decision to spend so much of WoW's new expansion working on the previously neglected level range is that they're really not going to have much of a hole left in the leveling game by the time they're done.  Some people are adamant that the TBC-era content from 58-68 is markedly worse than the Wrath era content from 68-80, but the difference in quality is FAR less than the difference between sparse zones like Azshara and Felwood in the 40's and Outland in the 60's.

Ironically, if Wrath is any indication, WoW's neglected middle ground post-Cataclysm may be for non-raiders at the level cap.  If you're actually looking to raid, it sounds like the options will be comparable to what we've seen in the past.  By contrast, there will only be 8 five-man dungeons at Cataclysm's launch, down from the twelve that Wrath had.  It sounds like Cataclysm will keep the system of bribing overgeared raiders into these instances for daily rewards, so this may once again mean that they're not all that interesting for anyone who regards them as the final destination, rather than a temporary waypoint en route to the raid game. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Carrots For Account Identity

I didn't comment on Blizzard's ill-fated effort at attaching players' real names to forum posts last week because there wasn't an incentive design issue to discuss.  But perhaps there should have been. 

DDO, WoW, and EQ2 all have bind-to-account/heirloom items that cannot be given to other players but can be transferred to your own alts on the same server.  In WoW, one of the uses for this mechanic is to pass along reputation-only head and shoulder item enchants that can only be obtained through grinding factions to your alts once you have completed the grind once.  EQ2 allows basically all dungeon loot, along with dungeon and world event tokens, and some faction rewards to be transferred. 

Most interestingly, a newly added EQ2 feature lets you short-circuit the lengthy scavenger hunt needed to learn the Draconic languge (needed for epic weapon quests) once you have completed it once.  Blizzard had expressed a desire for a similar method for raid attunement quests, but never implemented this feature and, instead, took the easier step of slashing reputation requirements before removing attunements entirely for almost all dungeons. 

If you were looking to convince players that they want to switch over to some sort of account-wide identity, the way to do it is not with the implicit threat that someone will find your real world home.  The way to do it is to say that publicly linking your characters to your account identity allows you to share certain achievements, like raid attunements or heirlooms.  (After all, it's only fair that other players can see why it is that this particular character gets to skip a major timesink.)  Then, provide a peer-to-peer comment moderation system to mod down trolls, with posts that aren't linked to an account identity (including your non-identified alts) starting out with less benefit of the doubt. 

The real trolls won't care about trashing their account's reputation, but they were equally unconcerned about this when it the identity in question was their real name.  For everyone else, you get 90% of the benefit of reduced anonymity with 0% of the potentially serious issues raised by RealID.  Meanwhile, players might actually like the feature because it comes with a benefit, rather than a vague and hypothetical improvement to the quality of the forums that might not have been effective in any case. 

Monday, July 12, 2010

Early Review of EQ2's Dungeon Game

Among people who are not currently playing WoW, it is taken as an absolute given that Blizzard's game is devoid of all difficulty.  Having arrived at EQ2's endgame in time to actually run some recent dungeons (I did hit some at level 80, but that was a mere month or two before the end of an expansion cycle when the content was no longer challenging), how does that perception actually measure up?

Before you walk in the door....
Even before the advent of WoW's much touted dungeon-finder, the game actually had a decent LFG system.  As nearly as I can tell, no one uses EQ2's LFG UI, so it's off to the public channels to listen to trolls joking about domestic violence (yes, I've seen this go on for 20 minutes at a time) if you want to find a PUG.  Moreover, EQ2 dungeons take significantly more time to clear than WoW dungeons, partially because they're actually longer but more often because trash mobs that don't appear to actually be threatening to kill anyone have enough HP to stand there non-threateningly for a few minutes each.

The ironic result is that I spend far more time grouping in WoW than EQ2, because I almost always have the hour it takes to run a heroic dungeon, and I relatively rarely have the 3 hours to find a group and complete an EQ2 dungeon run. 

Sources of difficulty
WoW and EQ2 are in an unfortunate footrace for whose itemization is more screwed up by hyperinflationIn WoW, the result is that 12 of the 16 dungeons in the random heroic dungeon finder are generally pretty trivial during these final months of the expansion cycle, as average DPS has literally doubled during the year and a half since this content was challenging.  If you compare the newer dungeons in Wrath to the new endgame in EQ2, though, the difficulty feels relatively comparable.  (Random WoW dungeon runners don't necessarily appreciate this challenge, and it's entirely common to have one or more players drop group and take a 30 minute deserter buff when they discover what dungeon they've been placed in.)

If anything, I've been pretty surprised at the portion of EQ2 dungeon fights that are reduced to a simple tank-and-spank DPS check.  In WoW, even the 5-man dungeon fights are relatively heavily scripted, if you're not so overgeared that you can ignore the failure conditions and burn through the mobs anyway.  My experience has generally been that, if you're wiping, it's far more likely to be because someone isn't switching targets or moving out of the fire or stopping DPS, or whatever the other conditions of that fight happen to be than because your group simply lacks the firepower to be capable of defeating the boss.

Now, in some ways, "you need to be doing more damage" is more of a fair reason to punish the party with a wipe than "you didn't figure out the latest gimmick fast enough".  There is a skill factor involved in getting the most out of your character, and I can honestly say that I'm learning more about the correct order to use abilities so that the cooldowns will be ready faster.  On the other hand, there have been a number of fights that have left me feeling like I've been beating away at a target dummy for five minutes, which doesn't feel especially challenging even if it does take 2-3 tries to come up with the right DPS rotation.

A rejection of the PUG?
WoW's old world dungeons feel similar to what I see in modern EQ2 dungeons, especially in terms of amount of trash.  It takes a pretty darned long time to solo a level 20 dungeon at level 80, one-shotting all the mobs, for the achievements, much less clearing it on level. 

Since then, however, Blizzard deliberately cut the no-wipe clear time for its single group dungeons to about an hour in the game's first expansion, and cut it again to the 30 minute mark in the current expansion.  The news from the Cataclysm beta is that those old world dungeons are being chopped up into similar bite-sized, dungeon-findable chunks.  Turbine tells Massively that LOTRO's lengthy old dungeons will also be divided into short-sesssion clearable wings.  This shift is absolutely crucial to being able to run dungeons quickly and repeatedly, which in turn is necessary to being able to find groups efficiently and in a timely fashion. 

At the end of the day, I'm left wondering whether EQ2 dungeon PUG's are non-fun because they're not supposed to be.  Lyriana's last name is "Lockbreaker" because her disarm trap skill is atrociously low, and she's constantly doing large amounts of damage to our guild by accidentally detonating chest traps.  That kind of in-joke isn't possible in the faster paced WoW heroic dungeon setting, and in any case isn't meaningful to people who haven't taken large amounts of trap damage repeatedly over the past year.  When you're running with people who you actually know, you can be entertained by the company rather than the content.  The EQ2 content feels relatively well suited to that purpose. 

If this is the case, though, SOE may be doing themselves a disservice by moving the game more and more towards the WoW model of daily dungeon quests rewarding tokens towards high quality gear as a carrot to get players running the content on a daily basis.  Right now, everything else about the way the endgame is set up (at least on my server) appears to be working against a thriving PUG dungeon scene. 

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Best Buy Journalism Fail

Best Buy - yes, the US consumer electronics chain - has decided to try and launch a gaming magazine.  Now you might be wondering whether a company whose businesses include selling games would ever voluntarily give a bad review to a product that they carry.  Well, this crucial issue of integrity made the first issue's FAQ, which assures us that, should the reviews appear overly positive, it is only because they've got limited space and therefore have opted to highlight "games that are worth your time and money". 

Thanks to this hard hitting journalism, I'm now aware that the worst features of Lego Harry Potter include "Having to wait for the next installment", while the top issues with Crackdown 2 are "At some point, the game will end, and you'll be done" and "In September, Halo:Reach will come out, which is great on its own, but not for those who want to keep playing Crackdown 2".

The sad part of this endeavor is that I at least glanced over the entire free launch issue (which I received for being registered with their website) from cover to cover, including the ads (such as an ad for the official WoW magazine).  I can't think of any other medium where I actually pay any attention to the ads these days, but there's still some value in the glossy still screenshot in depicting the potential of a game.  You'd think that someone would want to see this thing delivered to my mailbox every month simply because I'd be willing to read it if it arrived.

At $20/year for a subscription, though, I'd be surprised if this thing gets very far. 

Friday, July 9, 2010

When Gear Scaling Arrives Too Late

When Lyriana attacks an enemy she always crits. Twice. With each hand.

The punchline is that my little Dirge is not relying on top end raid gear, or even group dungon loot, to transform into a walking Chuck Norris fact. The majority of her gear consists of quest and faction rewards from the solo quests of the current expansion. She's been on three successful dungeon runs and got a few pieces of level 90 loot. Apparently those first few pieces were enough to make me bump up against 100% for both crit and double attack chance.

(The DA number includes a 15% buff that I can only cast on a single person at a time, and would most likely go to a pure DPS or tanking class rather than myself in a group setting. The crit number is a also technically a soft cap because it takes more crit to affect higher level boss targets in EQ2. Even so, I'm not yet doing dungeon runs in earnest and I'm already starting to swap out gear to shift away from the stats that I'm capped in - the "crit bonus" stat that improves the amount of damage you do on a crit is comparatively more valuable when EVERY hit is a crit.)

This situation arrived in EQ2 because the game was desperately due for a gear scaling adjustment with the last expansion. Unfortunately, the developers managed to get browbeaten out of doing so by community outcry, and the result is a situation where, as Ferrel notes, we're left to wonder what will happen next expansion, triple attack and extra critical hits?

The problem is that, once the situation gets this badly out of hand, the solution is bound to be painful. WoW's gear situation may be almost as bad after the game had to add multiple tiers of additional hard mode loot to the current expansion. The rumor out of the Cataclysm alpha was that combat ratings will decrease in effectiveness by a whopping six-fold between level 80 and level 85. Part of the idea there is to leave room for future expansion so that the next time the curve does not need to be so steep. In this case, it might actually be difficult to keep players from actively becoming LESS powerful when they gain levels in the Cataclysm era.

The challenge, then, is to scale gear downwards BEFORE things get so out of hand. That, apparently, can be easier said than done.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

WoW To Replace 10 Classes With 30 Subclasses

World of Warcraft's Cataclysm expansion is quietly shaping up to be almost more of a sequel than a traditional expansion.  We already knew that they would be replacing the existing game world with a new one set six years in the future from the game's original launch.  Earlier this week, in a story that no one on my blogroll has commented on because of the uproar over RealID, they announced a change that may have equally major implications - a complete overhaul of the game's talent system.

Under the new system, Blizzard is essentially replacing WoW's 10 classes with 30 sub-classes

The state of the trees
The modern WoW talent system gives players one point for every level starting at 10, for a total of 71 points by level 80.  These points are divided amongst three trees that are unique to each class.  The final point in each tree requires 50 points spent, so typical builds take 51 or more points in a single tree and split the remainder amongst the low hanging fruit of other trees.

Philosophically, talents are about specialization, rather than alternate advancement (as seen in EQ2's AA system or LOTRO's traits).  Every character of a given level has the same amount of talent points, which are granted automatically upon leveling.  The cost of spending 51 points in a tree is not getting the abilities that cost 21+ in the other two.  This approach creates two issues.

The first is that tree-defining talents must be placed deep in each tree.  Anything in the first 20 points can be obtained by other specs.  For example, melee Enhancement Shamen currently cannot get the ability to dual wield until their 31 point talent at level 40, because the other two specs of Shaman are spell casters.  No other caster can dual wield, and it is not worth the bother of balancing around exactly one spec combination of one class (e.g. Elemental caster Shamen who happen to have taken Enhancement with their leftover points) carrying around two spell power weapons.

The consequence is that a leveling enhancement Shaman needs to use a 2-handed weapon for their first 39 levels.  Many classes need to wait as long 60 levels to obtain 51-point talent abilities that will be the core of their damage rotations at level 80.  If you care about new and low level players, which everyone does these days, that's way too long to make players wait to actually play their class.

The second issue is one of balance.  The addition of even a single talent point allows specs to reach previously unattainable 21-point talents in their off-trees.  Worse, each tier has to be more powerful and more defining than the previous tier if Blizzard does not want players to start going with hybrid 2-3 tree specs.  It's hard enough for Blizzard to balance a role for each of the existing 30 trees without worrying about the prospect that some obscure 41/30 spec will turn into an overpowered/broken combo.

What is changing
Under the new system, players will effectively choose a sub-class - one of their existing talent trees - before spending their first talent point at level 10.  Choosing the subclass will immediately grant a previously exclusive talent ability that will not be purchaseable by the other subclasses for any amount of points, even if the next expansion adds a thousand of them.  For example, the melee Enhancement Shaman will immediately receive the dual wielding ability, along with a previously 36-point off-hand attack. 

Speaking of points, there will be way fewer of them.  No tree will go further than 31 points (down from the current 51), and players will receive only 41 points by the new level cap (down from the current 71).  To further constrain things, players will not be allowed to spend a single point outside their chosen tree until they have spent 31 points in the main tree.  Effectively, players will have a mere 10 discretionary points to divide between the two off-trees and/or additional points in their main tree.

The end result is a dramatic reduction in the range of customization options at players' disposal.  The variations between specs of a subclass will be much more akin to the variations on a theme in EQ2 subclass AA trees.  The theory is that, in exchange, each subclass can be more unique and better balanced against the other 30 subclasses. 

Why and How
All these problems were well known, but Blizzard's initial plan was to ignore them and blaze ahead with five more talent points for the five new levels.  To be honest, I didn't think they had the nerve to mess with something so fundamental.  Perhaps they didn't until they actually tried the traditional tree revamp and were unsatisfied with the results.  Apparently reaction to an initial preview of the new trees was enough to steel their resolve to burn the system down and rebuild it from scratch.

In the short term, this will be a mess.  We are probably no more than four months from the retail launch of the expansion, in a public, no-NDA closed beta.  It is almost certain that the system will need some work at launch, and I'd imagine that Ghostcrawler and his team won't be getting much sleep during that time.  In the long term, though, this change could have a huge positive impact on the game.

The fact is that a wide open system means that most of the options will be bad, and the few unexpected gems may be in line for balance nerfs.  In exchange for that limited freedom, the developers can improve the experience for the subclasses that are left.  The new system will also do a better job of scaling with future expansions, which might only add 2-3 additional points.  Either way, this is one change that looks to live up to the Cataclysm name.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Trials of the Defiler

I spent the other half of the EQ2 holiday bonus weekend working on a new Defiler alt.  As is my habit, I named the Ogre Narache, after a Tauren newbie village in WoW.  (I dubbed the wolf Cairne, a less obscure reference, but I figure that relatively few players will be thinking in that direction, and the ones that do can't claim that it's not a fantasy-appropriate name.) 

My road to the defiler
The defiler is notoriously one of the worst solo leveling classes in EQ2, to the point where the standard advice is to start as or betray to its good-aligned counterpart, the mystic, and switch back at the level cap.  I'd actually considered a Mystic when I was trialing melee-spec priests back in the day, but I went with the Warden instead in large part because the Mystic's wolf is a ghost wolf, and I'm not that impressed with its appearance. 

In the interim, I've tried half a dozen of EQ2's caster subclasses (the fury druid, and all but the coercer amongst the mages) but none of them have really stuck with me.  If you've played a WoW mage, "root+nuke" simply feels inferior to "nuke and incidentally root as a bonus effect".  I was interested in field testing either a defiler or a templar (which also has a reputation for poor DPS) because these two healer classes rely on spells for DPS but do not have traditional root/kiting tools.  The defiler gets a nice looking black wolf and a giant spear, and is available to evil races at creation (I've been avoiding Tolkien races, I already have a Fae, and the Froglok hopping animation looks atrocious with runspeed enhancements), so Defiler it was.

Woes of a low level priest
As advertised, the DPS is pretty bad at the low levels.  In particular, all priests really suffer for DPS in the thankfully-brief level 6-10 range, because their spell lists focus on healing at a time when most characters are going to be trying to get by on solo DPS.  (The game's next patch will supposedly add another attack for all healers in this level range to try and improve this situation.)  Your damage spells consist of a DOT and a nuke, each of which has a cooldown.  If you aren't aware that casters can autoattack in between spellcasts without losing casting time or that you can combo those two spells together with the poorly described "heroic opportunity" for a bit of additional damage, you might actually find yourself failing to kill under-conned mobs.  (This was my experience on my very first day in EQ2.) 

Fortunately, the pampered Narache is not my first character.  I had Samarya, who is going to be a Woodworker, craft the new guy some pikes.  Lyriana produced some jewelry, a mastercrafted ranged slot item, and all of the spells (including a few key mastercrafts) for the trek to 20.  I was aiming Narache himself at the Armorer profession, so I powered him through the crafting tutorial and promptly crafted a full set of Defiler-appropriate chain armor.  I also picked up my first AA to acquire the dog, who serves as a reasonable off-tank and DPS.  Though a more DPS-oriented class would be even more impressive in that setup, suddenly DPS was no longer an issue. 

Overall, I like the flavor of the Defiler as a caster class.  The pet is an effective addition without requiring micromanagement or making the actual character feel like their job is to provide support for an NPC.  If attacked by multiple mobs, I can make a point of attacking a different foe from the one the wolf has chosen, relying on group-wide cures or damage wards to heal us both.  Maybe it won't scale well into the higher levels, especially if I'm unable or unwilling to keep twinking it out in the best gear.  Then again, quest content doesn't take any huge jumps in difficulty until Kunark, and level 68 would make this far and away my most successful EQ2 alt to date. 

Most of all, I think it's unfortunate that a relatively unique class, which is actually well-desired in groups besides, is hamstrung by being given low DPS in the name of "balance".  Unlike the melee healers, this type of character doesn't get to just add most of its possible to DPS for free while simultaneously healing (remember, in EQ2 you can autoattack at no penalty between casting, including casting heals).  I don't know who exactly wins by having the classes balanced in this way, but people who are missing out on the Defiler because of the bad solo reputation are clearly losing out.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Independence Bonus Weekend And The Role of the AA

When the July 4th holiday in the US falls on or adjacent to a weekend, you can count on two things:
- Lots of offline plans (e.g. painting our dining room, which is now yellow, while not painting the dog, who remains non-yellow despite her mischievous curiosity)
- Bonus experience in games like EQ2 and DDO

The difference between this and previous EQ2 bonuses is that this time, I'm actually at both the level and the trade cap on my main.  Typically, I use this sort of time to grind away at tradeskills on my alts, but that seemed relatively pointless since my army covers all of the gear and spell-crafting trades up to levels that are substantially higher than my highest alt. 

So, I decided instead to simply use the time "normally". 

Regular activities, bonus rewards
I've never paid much attention to bonus AAXP, but this weekend convinces me that I should.  Lyriana gained 8 AA, hitting 184 (significant because I can now respec without having to juggle trees to keep the TSO endlines) from some routine questing, a few misc dungeon runs with the guild, and a PUG that made it as far as the second named in DB (which was as far as I needed to go for the epic weapon questline update anyway).

I can start to see a bit of why long-time players, especially the more group oriented ones, are frustrated with the way that the EQ2 AA system works out.  I've been 90 for a bit, and did most of my leveling via quests, and I'm still 66 AA from the maximum AA cap.  Zippy bonus weekend gains are great, but they also call attention to the fact that I can expect a greatly diminished rate of advancement going forward as I chew through one-time bonuses for quests and the first pass through each dungeon. 

Then again, the sad part is that I can see the remaining places to spend my points, and I don't see anything on the list that will really change the game.  The 250 AA sound like a lot, but every tree has its useless branches.  With a fair amount of room to go, I already have the most significant abilities.  Each additional AA ding will take proportionally longer, while adding less and less power until I'm left with just about everything that I would actually want.  It would be nice if the way you build your AA's had a greater effect on your character, but I'm guessing that they're having a hard enough time finding niches for 24 subclasses without giving each one two or more AA spec variations to play with. 

World of Warcraft's forthcoming expansion was originally going to include a "Path of the Titans" alternate advancement system, which was axed before the beta to some degree of outcry.  Seeing how this type of mechanic is playing out in EQ2 today, I'm not convinced that WoW is missing out. 

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Canada Day Resolutions For 2010

It's Canada Day, when PVD traditionally honours the home and native land of Stargrace, the guys from LOTRO Reporter, and the moose that was promised to us by Ghostcrawler with a look back at the old New Year's Resolutions.

How have my goals from January worked out, and what am I expecting for the rest of the year?

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

Step 1 is well underway, as Greenraven has moved from level 65 to level 77 and completed the Wrathgate. I still plan to hit 80 so I can solo the group portions of the Thrall/Nagrand storyline, and I will of course check out the pre-Cataclysm world events. Malygos may or may not happen, basically, he will have to come up as the weekly raid boss on a week when I happen to be subscribed to WoW so that I can attempt to PUG him.

Two new goals here:
- Northrend Dungeon Master on Greenraven, thanks to the magic of the random group finder (I'm already more than half done, and would like to complete this before 80 if possible)
- Outland Dungeon Hero on Greenwiz, soloing all of the dungeons just to say I did it

4. Finish the quests of Mirkwood on Allarond.
5. Complete as many of the game's epic books as possible. (The entirety of Volume 1, the pre-Moria epic books, are supposed to be soloable as of February's patch.)
6. Level a new Runekeeper alt through the re-vamped leveling content (currently through the Lone Lands, slowly expanding outward in each book patch).
I've done many, but not all, of the quests of Mirkwood, and I did complete the newly soloable portions of Volume 1.  Unfortunately, the surprise announcement that there will be no new content until the free to play revamp arrives is probably going to keep me away from Middle Earth for most of the rest of 2010. 

7. Try to finish Lyriana's fabled epic weapon questline (that's the non-raid version).
8. Bring Lyriana from 80/80 to 90/90 with the new expansion.
9. Possibly mess with one or more alts.
Resolutions 7 and 8 have been completed, and 9 was nebulous enough that it too has technically been satisfied.

New resolution here is to complete the "Epic Repercussions" questline, which will grant Lyriana the previously raid-only buff from the Mythical upgrade to her epic weapon.  That aside, I generally haven't been big on setting specific benchmarks for success in EQ2 and I don't see any reason to start right now.  I've been happily wandering in and out of Norrath from time to time and doing whatever I feel like doing for over a year now, and I expect that to continue for the rest of 2010.  My specific goals might also get tweaked based on the expansion announcement coming up later this summer. 

Post-Cataclysm WoW
10. Get Greenwiz to level 85 with the new expansion.
11. At a minimum, try a Worgen Druid and a Goblin Shaman (the two classes I have the least experience with in retail WoW) through their new starter areas, which always tend to be well-polished.
12. Tourism on one or more other alts (either the new races, or perhaps Cheerydeth the third).
No updates here since Cataclysm has yet to launch.  With today's rollout of the closed beta, I'm guessing that a 2010 release, and resolution number 10, are nigh certain.  Anything else will have to wait and see.

Other Games
13. Watch for developments in FFXIV, possibly trying the game out if I like what I'm hearing.
14. Perhaps try one or more other games - Runes of Magic is probably the only one that jumps out at me, but we'll see.
15. My Christmas haul included a new PS3, and I intend to put it to good use this year. We also got the New Super Mario Bros for the Wii, and I'm having fun carving out some time to play that with my wife. Hopefully that, and/or some other joint gaming tradition (perhaps Rock Band), can continue.
My interest in FFXIV is greatly lessened by the revelation that it will barely run on my current machine.  In principle, I could attempt to play it on the PS3 instead, but this has definitely moved down to "wait and see" status. 

DDO, which was not on my watch-list, has managed to leapfrog its way to the front of the pack and is now my fourth major MMO.  I've had a lot of fun so far in Stormreach, though (for reasons that are long enough that I should make another post out of them), I might very easily have half a dozen characters halfway to the level cap before I have a single character to DDO's level cap.

Other MMO's on my watch list include Runes of Magic (I'll get to it eventually, really), Allods Online (the cash shop fiasco only mattered because people thought it was a good enough game to be upset over), and Star Trek Online (mostly because the prices on surplus retail boxes are bound to drop down to impulse buy levels eventually).  The Agency might get a look on the PS3, and perhaps I could take another crack at converting my wife to Free Realms if the game finally makes its long-overdue arrival on the console.

Upcoming MMO-watch aside, the PS3 has been a bit of a disappointment.  We did indeed get Rock Band, and it did indeed rock, but that hasn't turned into a weekly activity.  I never really got into Dragon Age, with DDO filling the niche I'd expected that game to occupy, and thus I haven't even really considered other PS3 RPG's like FFXIII.  I did enjoy Uncharted 2, and expect to play some other games in the cinematic action genre (e.g. Assassin's Creed, Arkham Asylum), but that's a comparatively expensive habit that I haven't had the time or money to budget for ($60 MSRP on a game that might run 10 hours at best). 

The Blog
16. Stick with a reachable goal of 250 posts in 2010. 17. Sadly, my work schedule has made it hard to keep up with my blogroll and commenters. I'd like to do a better job with this next year, but we'll see what time permits.
18. Once again thank all of my readers for putting up with me, and wish all of you the best for the new year.
Work situations have been busy, and 250 posts may or may not happen this year (I'm slightly behind pace, 116 at the halfway mark).  I never seem to have the time to be proactive about seeking out new blogs, answering comments, etc. 

That aside, I remain grateful as always to my readers for putting up with me, and adding insightful discussions that I don't always have enough time to acknowledge.  I've learned a fair amount from all of you over the years, and I think that it has helped me both with the blog and with writing in general (always a good skill to have).

Happy Canada Day and best of luck for the rest of the year!