Monday, November 29, 2010

Scattered Shattering Impressions

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

The cinematic approach comes to level 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Worgen Are Amongst Us

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

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

MMO Things I'm Thankful For In 2010

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

Monday, November 22, 2010

EQ2X Status: Occasionally Playing, Not Considering Paying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Difficulty As A Motivation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 19, 2010

Taking Advantage of EQ2X "Free Gold Membership" Weekend

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

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

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Surprise! Cataclysm!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cataclysm Invasion Event Breaks Instance Limit

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Malygos and Wrapping Wrath

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 15, 2010

Separating Players By Server/Faction

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Triumph of the Horse Painted To Look Like a Deathcharger

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

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

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

At least the screenshots are pretty though. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

May-Ban Festival And Group Accountability

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

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

Public Groups and Exploits

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 8, 2010

Cosmetic Purchase Uptake

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 4, 2010

F2P Success Vs Price Drops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The AFK Invasion

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

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

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Missing Out On Mabar

Normally, limited time events are just about the top of my priority list, but DDO's Mabar Festival somehow failed to make the cut. 

The Mabar event appears to be as much of a tech demo for instanced public group content as an actual event.  Delara's Graveyard, which is ordinarily a public lobby devoid of anything hostile, is suddenly overrun by the undead.  Non-aggro mobs of approximately your level spawn near you when you enter the zone during the event.  They drop tokens which can be exchanged for loot.  When enough tokens are handed over to the NPC's, players can participate in a public raid encounter for more tokens used to upgrade the loot. 

On paper, it's nice enough, but the execution is a bit rough around the edges.  As a low level player, it's easy to get yourself killed because either you accidentally hit something much tougher than you (low level skeletons and high level mummies don't look all that different in the dark) or because you wandered too close to something that someone else was fighting and got one-shotted by its AOE.  Higher level characters earn "mote" currency more rapidly, and prices are set accordingly.

My guess is that this event is more fun as a max level character in a group.  Given that I had neither, I gave the event a brief try and called it a night.  For unknown reasons - perhaps related to server stability questions, as DDO has not previously had anything that puts this many players in a single combat zone - the event was very short, and ended before I got back to it.  Oh well, maybe next year.