Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Resolutions For 2011

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

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

Best wishes to everyone for a happy 2011! 

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cataclysm Mid-level Gear Resets

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Solo Vs Group, Vashj'ir Style

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 27, 2010

Early Impressions of the PS3 DCUO Beta

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Happy Holidays From PVD 2010!

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

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

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

Best wishes everyone!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Will Rift Focus Enough On Rifts And Souls?

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

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

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

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

DCUO Platform Communication Fail?

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 20, 2010

New Travel Philosophy For Cataclysm

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 17, 2010

Changing Approaches To Cataclysm

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

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

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

EQ2X Holiday Spirit Fail or Business Model Win?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Leaning Towers of Telara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 11, 2010

If you can't trust the news...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Should The Cataclysm Exp Curve Be Steeper?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Tradeoffs From Wrath To Cataclysm

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 6, 2010

From Shattering To Cataclysm

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 4, 2010

EQ2 To Charge Extra For Expansion Race?

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 3, 2010

F2P Sale Hoarding Fail

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

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

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

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Passing On Beta

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

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

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

WoW 2010 More Like 2008 Than 2004

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

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

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

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

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