Thursday, April 28, 2011

Early 4.1 PUG Impressions

I hadn't bothered to do much dungeon running in Cataclysm because of the lengthy queue times - an hour in the queue plus at least that long to clear the dungeon when the expansion was still new was longer than I could commit to.  In the two months or so I spent away from Azeroth, the situation has changes substantially. 

In the regular five mans, it does not appear that the touted "call to arms" feature is active on my server, perhaps because the queue times are already very reasonable.  My guess is that the non-heroic level 85 5-man experience is now very tightly focused.  At Cataclysm's launch, your level 85 in the queue for a normal 5-man had a 40% chance of being tossed into a level 82 dungeon that offered you almost no possible benefit.  At some point between then and now, the list was narrowed to just the three normal dungeons that are actually level 85. 

The bad news is that there isn't much variety.  The good news is that you can gear up and move on very quickly - I completed each dungeon once, with an extra run through Grim Batol, and I was at the gear threshold to LFG heroics.  Maybe this tier is now much less over-crowded with DPS now that the majority of endgame players are already 85 and in heroics, compared to when everyone was leveling. 

When I queued for a random heroic (T1, the new ones are at a higher tier), both tanks and healers had the "call to arms" bonus and queue times were indeed back down to reasonable levels.  I'm not sure that Call To Arms can be credited with this - when I've encountered players who said they haven't done much tanking or healing and asked whether they were trying it for the loot, they had never even heard of the system before.  Perhaps overall gear inflation and greater familiarity with the encounters is making the dungeons more palatable once again. 

You're still looking at about an hour and a half to two hours counting queue times to run a dungeon, which is twice as long as it took in Wrath and long enough that I can't necessarily get a dungeon run in every evening that I would like to run one.  That said, the compromise between difficulty and time is much more tolerable, especially since gear inflation in the next patch will likely speed things up further. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Revenge of the Creepy Bunny Ears

Taking a bow after downing yet another world event
It's Noblegarden time in Azeroth, and I've got an alt who is now most of the way to the holiday Proto-Drake, so it was off to give the holiday a whirl.  It hasn't changed much since its 2009 debut, though this time I got relatively lucky with item drops out of the eggs - don't know if drop rates were changed or what, but I looted darned near to the minimum possible after obtaining all of the required items including the minipet out of random eggs.  

The only thing that kept this from being a one night event were the seemingly low populations on US-Quel'dorei, where my horde characters live.  There's an achievement for slapping bunny ears on female characters (only level 18+ mind you) that has gotten substantially harder now that the majority of both factions aren't hanging out in the neutral city of Dalaran.  In particular, female dwarves seem to be very hard to find.  

I thought this achievement was at least somewhat creepy the first time around - there is at least a possibility that a female character is actually being played by a female player who might not appreciate a crowd of guys looking to tag them with a Playboy bunny reference.  Without a neutral city to work with, further stalking measures were necessary this year.  

I ended up camping the Stormwind auction house in ghost form for about two hours (spread over two evenings) before finally finding a female Dwarf who didn't already have a pair of ears on her head.  (Following one who already had ears until they expired was not an option because my life expectancy upon reviving was not long enough to wait out the timers.)  There's also a macro on WoWhead for determining the race and gender of characters, since you often can't tell under the armor.  Overall, I could probably have signed up for a free trial account and leveled a female dwarf alt to 18 during the time I spent looking.  

Oh well, guess it serves me right for taking part in this particular WoW holiday ritual.  Next up, the dreaded Children's Week.
Camping the AH for a female dwarf.

Monday, April 25, 2011

EQ2 Destiny of Velious Month 1 Impressions

I have never played the original Everquest, and this is both an advantage and a disadvantage for EQ2's take on the continent of Velious.  On the one hand, I lack the context for events that are based off of the original game, which I would imagine have more meaning for those who actually played it.  On the other hand, I don't need to be offended when the new version is inconsistent with the old (or at least my memory of the same), and I can still recognize that the lore has the polished sense of having more behind it than the paragraph in the quest journal, even if I don't know all of it. 

Perhaps this opportunity to judge the expansion on its own merits is ironically the best approach to the new content.

Expansion Content
The adventuring content in last year's Sentinel's Fate expansion really suffered from SOE's decision to increase the level cap by 10 levels without the content available to support that many levels.  As a result, the new content had absurd quest hubs where you got nine quest completes for killing seven mobs, because there was no other way to hand out that much exp in that little content. 

DOV did not increase the level cap, and, with that constraint removed from content design, the new outdoor solo content returns to the higher level of quality from pre-TSF expansions like ROK and TSO. I'm pretty much done with Great Divide now, and it looks like there's a fair amount of content to do in the next zone. 

I've also spent a fair amount of time in dungeons, having completed four of the expansion's nine heroic single group dungeons.  A big part of this is because I'm fortunate enough to have picked a class that plays like a DPS but gets group invites like a tank.  I'll also concede that the content is occasionally buggy - especially when it comes to giving everyone in a group credit for certain updates, but sometimes with more serious issues as well - but I've had a decent time despite this.  It's very uncommon for original, high quality solo content to become something that I do to kill time while looking for a group, but that's exactly where I've ended up in EQ2.

New Features
I've written about the new flying mounts, and I remain unconvinced that player controlled flight is a good idea in this type of game, but at least they're well implemented and people seem to like them. 

The other big new mechanic is Norrath's take on the public quest. On the plus side, these things do give players a reason to group up in the open world.  Unfortunately, I can't really recommend them.  Instead of offering a fixed challenge (like Warhamer) or a scaling one (like Rift), this version simply starts out at raid difficulty and fails as many times as is needed until the number of players present are able to defeat it.  With a large enough group, victory becomes a certain, if laggy, proposition.

It's not a horrible diversion, the best loot is a bit beyond what you can get in solo quests, and you are also guaranteed a gem worth a daily quest's worth of rep with the faction of your choice, which allows you to do PQ's in place of other ways of pursuing rep.  That said, I can't imagine that this version of PQ's is going to convince anyone to pick EQ2 over Rift, and one has to speculate that this was part of SOE's motivation in implementing it.

The Business Model
I don't really enjoy writing about SOE's usually inscrutable business decisions, and this expansion hasn't done that much to change this. 
  • They released a new race at a separate (and large) charge from the $40 expansion box, which are already the most frequent fees of that size amongst major recent MMO's.  
  • The game's most populous server is the separate free to play server, with a population that is predictably and horribly skewed towards low level characters of free races and classes - last time I did a /who all 90 dirge on Freeport during prime time, there were only 6 online (compared to 40+ on Crushbone) which can't be fun for trying to get a group together. 
  • All the trivial solo quest rewards have been upgraded from "treasured" to "legendary" quality (think if WoW removed greens and had only blue items) because non-subscribers in EQ2X have to pay per the item to unlock these.  Ironically, it's cheaper to play the game as a raider than a non-raider, because a raider gets their best in slot item and keeps it for months, while solo gear may last for only the next quest chain.  
Then, there was the much-publicized public brainstorming session in which the producer suggested giving out level 90 characters as a "winback" bonus to returning subscribers, and the internets exploded.  The thing that didn't get talked about was what they actually did - wait for six weeks after the expansion launch to ensure that returning players like myself had already bought our expansion boxes before announcing a promotion for former players that included a week of free time and $15 worth of station cash (which can be used to buy future expansion boxes). 

SOE either did not know or did not care how this would look to people who came back voluntarily.  Likewise, the idea that some existing players might want to jump on the free level 90 alt bandwagon supposedly did not even occur to Smokejumper (unless he was fishing for this request to claim that there's demand for level 90 premades in the game's cash store). 

There's a line between smart price discrimination and making your existing customers feel that you value potential customers over current ones, and repeated incidents like this over the past year have left many current players feeling that the line has been crossed.  If you're selling a single player game and never expecting another dime from your customers, that's your prerogative, but it's less advisable in a genre where you're asking for more money each and every month. 

What I've seen of Velious so far is a definite upgrade from last year's effort, though that says as much about the poor quality of TSF as about DOV.  SOE has now kicked off a publicity campaign promising to deliver the remaining content of the Velious story arc - which many of us feared would be put off to a future paid expansion - as regular content updates.  After last year, they haven't exactly earned the benefit of the doubt, but the three new instances in next month's patch are a decent enough start. 

Overall, I'm not sure how to recommend this expansion.  On the one hand, it's good quality content that I've enjoyed playing so far, and expect to get at least another month out of.  On the other, the expansion is completely useless until you've reached level 86+, and the bugs that I've seen in the early content are apparently nothing compared to the issues in the high end game, where mandatory progression bosses are still routinely removed from the game for weeks at a time due to bugs and where veterans are strongly displeased with both class balance and itemization.  It's never a good sign when your strongest advocates are all off playing Rift, and that's precisely where many of EQ2's strongest former partisans are now found. 

Seeing Ferrel, Jaye, Feldon, Starseeker, et al in Rift over EQ2 is seems as odd as Otter/Frog romance.

At the end of the day, I suppose my best advice if you're on the fence is to wait and see how the promised changes play out.  Who knows, there might even be a free level 90 character or other exclusive discount offers available if you just hold out a bit longer - perhaps not in the game's best interest, but this is a bed of their own making. 

(P.S. I picked up something like 17-18 AA's during the last month, but I'm still at only 209 out of the current cap of 300.  This is a problem, because raiding guilds expect 250+ AA's, and the rate that I've been earning them at is not sustainable once you run out of non-repeatable awards for quests and first-time boss kills.  I'll be out of content AND even geared for raiding well before I hit the 250 mark.)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Weekly Dungeon Quest One-Upmanship

One of the dangers of taking a similar feature from a competing game is that your version 1.0 may be up against the original game's 3.0 by the time you get it out the door.  Well, whatever else you want to say about Rift, Trion has become one of the fastest studios out there when it comes to fixing this sort of complaint.

The case of the dungeon quests
Case in point, Trion significantly reduced the "plaque" currency awards for its max level expert dungeons shortly after launch.  To compensate, they increased the award from the daily dungeon quests - in theory, infrequent players would now have more of a chance to catch up, while players who grind out multiple dungeons per day would take longer.

One of the issues with this approach is that each day's quest is use-it-or-lose-it.  If you run only three dungeons per week, but all three are on Saturday because that's your free evening, you only collect the bonus once.  If you sign on one evening and you choose to do something else that keeps you from getting around to your daily dungeon run - perhaps helping a friend, visiting a world event, etc - there's no way to "make up" the missed plaque stipend, it's simply an opportunity lost.

The competition over at Blizzard, which has had these types of quests for years, decided to make their token grind a little more friendly by changing the daily dungeon quest into a quest that can be repeated seven times per week (as part of patch 4.1, supposedly hitting WoW servers on Tuesday).  By comparison, Trion's emphasis on the daily version felt out-dated.  So they're fixing it.  By two weeks from now.

The sharp-eyed folks at Rift Junkies caught an interesting detail from a Massively interview on Friday - Rift will now allow you to "bank" up to seven day's worth of quests to complete at your leisure.  I prefer this version to WoW's not-yet-released variation, because it is much more flexible in letting you work off your backlog at a reasonable pace.

Improved competition?
Beyond Trion's impressively fast reaction time, I'm hopeful to see this kind of competition in the future.  Blizzard has been free in the past to let changes like this take months on end, with routine gaps of six months between patches, because there hasn't been anyone who could be seriously thought of as competition.  Everyone else has felt free to let their patch cycles drop to quarterly at best because that's the bar set by the industry leader.  While it's still a bit early, it's certainly looking like Trion may make a real run at forcing developers to pick up the pace a bit, which would be a win for players everywhere. 

P.S. Unfortunately, like WoW's system, Trion is offering a large currency award to convince players who no longer need Tier 1 Expert dungeons to continue running them daily.  I maintain that this is a misguided approach to filling groups that harms the quality of the experience for all concerned, for reasons I've discussed previously.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Rift To Get Appearence Armor Slots?

Rift Junkies reports that some sort of cosmetic armor set/wardrobe feature seems to be coming to the game's alpha server. 

LOTRO's outfit panel, back in the old days
I sympathize with folks who want the coolest looking gear to be saved for the truly challenging accomplishments.  If anything, cosmetics are one of the few places where a developer can save a little something extra to reward the hardcore crowd without keeping the best portions of the game locked away from the majority of its customers.  Also, as Ferrel noted a bit ago, it's very easy for developers to take cosmetic slots as an invitation for cash store abuse... and/or bleeping chainsaws if these Aion shots Chris posted really aren't a belated April Fool's thing. 

That said, the demand for this feature is significant and growing.  Developers can shake their heads at players for demanding it (as Scott Jennings does, to comic effect), but I do genuinely view LOTRO and EQ2's cosmetic systems as big assets to the respective games - even gear that I have no intention of using can become an exciting reward if it happens to be just what I needed for my latest coordinated outfit.  This feature also makes me more willing to grind out seasonal or world events for cosmetic outfits, where in WoW these items will just take up space in my bank since I can't ever wear them without losing massive amounts of stats. 

If Rift really is aboard the cosmetic train, we're probably never going to see another major MMO try to do without this type of system in the future.  On the plus side, this may solve the case of the missing extraplanar pants

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Soloable Core Story, Group-Based Epilogue/Finale

Over the past few days, I spent some time in LOTRO completing the newly soloable Volume 2 Epic quests. With this set of changes, LOTRO has completed a shift in its storytelling style in which the game's core story is open to all players via soloing, while group content is presented in optional epilogues or side-quests. 

Revamping the content...
In more traditional MMO fashion, the story quests of Volumes 1 and 2 were designed with the intent of luring solo players into group content in order to see the unfolding story.  Unfortunately, for reasons I've decried at length, this approach didn't really work because the solo and group player demographics just don't match up. 

Starting with the Mirkwood expansion and the final Book of Volume 2, Turbine presented the epic storyline as soloable content, with a group epilogue that allows players to go back and tackle foes that the solo players could not conquer alone.  They also announced a change, implemented a few months later, which would revise the Volume 1 content from the launch game to allow players to complete the content without the need for groups of players that simply could no longer be found.  At the time, I wrote that it looked like Turbine was going to be using this approach going forward. 

It took over a year after that to finish the job, but last month's patch finally gave the non-soloable portions of Volume 2 (Books 4-6 and Book 8) the solo treatment.  The new Volume 3 quests that have been released since then have also been solo content, with a new optional side storyline leading players into the newly introduced group dungeons from the latest patch. fit the audience?
Lord of the Rings Online is not a game that has had an overabundance of development resources; their decision to spend that limited time on removing the need to group for the game's core story strongly implies what those of us without access to the internal numbers can only assume from anecdotal evidence - that the audience for the game was simply not using the most crucial content because they were unwilling or unable to group to do so.  Moreover, the decision to continue this process book by book for over a year until the work could be completed implies that they liked the results they saw with the earliest changes. 

The MMO market in general, and LOTRO in particular now that it offers a non-monthly-fee option, is not what it used to be. Like it or not, the majority of paying customers are not interested in committing to raiding schedules that more closely resemble a job than a game.  The longer this goes on, the less willing the market is going to be to tolerate being told that they don't get to see the central story of the game they're paying for. 

This trend hit LOTRO first and hardest because it has always been a slower paced game that is more likely to appeal to a laid back solo player than a highly dedicated group player (who would quickly run out of content).  That said, the competition is starting to respond in a similar, albeit less drastic, way to the same problem.  If you look at the quests in the new zones of World of Warcraft's Cataclysm expansion, or in the newly-launched Rift, you will see an increasing push for exactly the same kind of storytelling - self-sufficient soloable zone storylines with the option to return for group content later. 

In some ways, it feels like MMO storytelling is shifting to be less like chapters of a book and more like episodes of a TV show - the new storylines appear meant to stand on their own merits, rather than merely setting up the real story for the few who beat the toughest dungeons.  Time will tell whether this compromise will prove satisfactory. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Discordant Lore

Something in Tipa's writeup of the Rift world event issues stuck me as odd and potentially concerning for the game in the long term.  No, it wasn't the 8-hour queues that caused players to miss the 30 minute one-time-only event, though these were predictable given the design and perhaps not the most prudent choice to showcase Trion's heavily hyped dynamic world technology.  The passage from Tipa's post that made me scratch my head reads:
"They respawned again, and then one last time, now with the leader of the Defiant faction there as well. They chatted for awhile, Alsbeth had some threats, the Guardian leader had the Vigil in the form of divine angels save the Defiant leader from Alsbeth’s attack. They moved on her; Alsbeth fled into the River of Souls, and the event was done."

This detail seems odd given how much effort Trion has put into depicting these two factions as diametrically opposed.  

Divergent Paths
I don't know whether other games have taken this approach, but Trion opted to have two separate lore leads for the game's two factions.  (The guys at Rift Watchers interviewed the two of them a while back if you're curious.) 

The good news is that each side has a very distinct identity, with a person whose job it is to pull for them and make sure that their story is as cool as the other guys'.  The bad news is that the lore sometimes feels disjointed, even more so than you would expect of what two warring factions would think of each other.  From the earliest levels, Defiant content portrays Guardians as vicious short-sighted zealots, while Guardian lore depicts Defiants as reckless amoral maniacs.  Even the game's opening cinematic shows a Guardian who is apparently willing to risk letting the Plane of Life have a foothold of Telara if it helps him beat a pair of Defiants. 

All of which is well and good I suppose (assuming that people don't get too mean on Twitter, as Pete observed) until the minor issue arises that these two divergent stories are nominally occurring in the same world.  There isn't really enough dev time out there to make separate raid content for both factions.  However, if this and future content is going to emphasize the common threat of Regulos, Trion risks blending the factions, much as Blizzard has done with the Alliance and Horde (who also continue to coincidentally fight and kill the exact same foes, despite a cosmetic effort to reinvigorate the faction conflict in Cataclysm).

If this is indeed the trend, I wonder whether Trion will regret their approach to building faction identity. 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Triumph of the Winged Fairy Who Needs a Winged Mount To Fly

Lyriana can now fly.  Well, she could kind of fly before, because she has fast runspeed from her bard class abilities and safe fall/gliding from her racial abilities, which meant being able to spend a lot of the time in the air if she was able to find a tall enough place to jump off of.  Anyway, the new expansion added a new flying mount mechanic to deal with the pesky problem of gaining altitude. 

My perspective may be skewed because of my race/class, but I'm not sure that this is a feature the game was missing.  Having a flying mount means being able to go safely overhead above any threats, dropping in for just long enough to loot a quest item before taking to the skies again.  Yes, sometimes you can find something interesting on top of a mountain that you didn't think you could scale before, but there's no reason why that problem couldn't be addressed with NPC-controlled flight paths/teleports.  If the game isn't going to go out of their way to include content that actually incorporates flight, I'm not entirely convinced that the value added is worth the value that is lost by no longer needing to pay any attention to travel.

(That said, again, bards have it pretty good because we can outrun most anything and stealth past a lot of other stuff, even before you include Fae wings.) 

We'll see whether EQ2 manages to make this mechanic worthwhile.  One place where it could be a big deal is for non-adventuring crafters, who could have a much easier time harvesting or getting to daily crafting quest hubs without worrying about mobs they can't kill.

Unlike WoW flying mounts, EQ2's will go into a dive-bomb animation if you fly straight down.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

PAX Prime Questions

Two quick off-topic-ish questions for the weekend:
- Who is thinking about heading out to PAX Prime in Seattle this year?
- Is it difficult to get into the Jonathan Coulton concert (assuming he continues to be the musical keynote, of course)?  Last year's FAQ's said that there were VIP entrance bracelets at the morning sessions and everyone else has to wait in line, but I haven't seen anyone mention whether people actually get turned away. 

I've never been that big on cons for news value, since everything gets posted online pretty quickly, but it sounds like there was a lot of fun blogger/MMO events at PAX East this year, and we've been meaning to get out to Seattle for a while now.  I'd definitely be curious to hear what you all think.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

LOTRO Legendary Customizeables Re-re-revised

Back in 2008, Turbine said a lot of good things about the forthcoming Legendary Item system.  The items were described as "mobile quest hubs" that would grow and stay with your character, much like the signature weapons carried by the Fellowship of The Ring.  What we got instead was a random item generator expressly designed to churn players through an indefinite number of disposable "legendary" items in the hopes of one day obtaining the perfect setup.  The game's most recent patch has finally replaced that system with a mostly time-based item customization system. 

Legacies Before And After
Allarond's rune is now fully customized with maximum bonuses to Ardour stance for soloing.

Since the LI system revamp in the Mirkwood expansion, your new item would start with 2-3 "major" legacies - upgradeable stats that generally improve DPS.  As you gained item exp, the item would get 3 additional legacies, which would typically be "minor" legacies that do more quality of life improvements (e.g. decreased cooldown on a Champion's sprint).  There was a chance that you would instead get an additional major legacy, but this didn't matter that much because the odds of having four random major legacies actually be useful weren't that great.   

With the changes, items will always start with 3 major legacies, and continue to have a random chance of obtaining an additional major legacy in place of a minor during the early levels.  Now, however, you can salvage the legacy of your choice from an item that has reached at least level 30 (relatively quick) and use it to replace a legacy of the same class (major replaces major, minor replaces minor) on a different item. 

You now definitely want an item that has a fourth major legacy, and you're slightly better off if the item comes with at least some of the legacies you want, since replacement legacies start at a low quality tier that will limit your ability to upgrade your weapon (until you grind more tqo upgrade the legacy quality).  That said, everyone can now have items with four major and two minor legacies of their choice given a relatively finite amount of grind time. 

Relics, Currencies, and Scrolls

The other big change to the system is a revamp of the relics used to fill the slots on your items.  You still obtain these relics by destroying priceless "legendary" items you have leveled, but there are now more stat choices available spread across fewer tiers, and there is a currency associated with the system that can be used to counteract the random number generator. 

Before the change, obtaining a specific tier 6 relic meant combining an exponentially increasing number of lower tier relics until you got lucky.  Now, you get a "shard" currency for breaking stuff (legendary items down into relics, and relics down into just shards) which can be used to pay to exchange your relic for the one you want.  The same system can be used to obtain most of the hard-to-get item scrolls (which have also been added into the cash shop, gogo free to play), and even new legendary items to level. 

(Speaking of the shop, the ability to unlock a seventh and eighth slot for additional items is cash store exclusive.  The formula for dividing item exp amongst your items awards more total exp for having more items equipped, so these additional slots ultimately mean faster acquisition of relics and shards.) 

A change in perspective

There was always an odd contrast between the ideals behind LOTRO Legendaries - in Middle Earth, a sword that glows and does +1 damage to orcs is a heirloom to be named and handed down for generations - and the disposable nature of gear in an MMO. Much like Moria's other major new mechanic, the hated Radiance system, the implementation fell far short of Turbine's aspirations.  When Narsil was broken, they saved the broken pieces for hundreds of years until there was a worthy heir of Elendil who deserved the reforged blade.  You don't replace that sort of thing with the first random quest drop you see. 

Under the circumstances, changing the system from a mostly random time sink to a mostly time-based time sink is an improvement.  While this does mean that weapons can now have cookie cutter builds, which would have been highly improbable under the old system, I don't quite know of anything exactly like this in other games.

That said, I can't help but look back and what might have been and feel that what we got here may not have been a fair trade for what we once were promised. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bring the loot, not the fun

"Unfortunately, most people (myself included) are not running heroics for challenge, they are running them to get loot. "
- Anonymous commenter on my Friday discussion post
MMO players pretty universally blame WoW's dungeon group finder, introduced in Patch 3.3, for a variety of social ills; players relying on the "anonymity" of cross server groups to misbehave, class role imbalance, and decreased dungeon difficulty are blamed on the system, and players of games that aren't WoW dread the day that their game gets a dungeon finder. 

I would argue that my anonymous commenter's point, not the dungeon finder, is the real threat.  Daily dungeon quests designed to bribe overgeared players into trivial content they no longer need in order to fill groups for late-comers have reduced a once fun activity into a grind that is only worth the time if the run is quick and successful.  A working dungeon group finder could be the cure to these social problems, rather than the cause. 

Fallout of the Crusader
In patch 3.2, Blizzard abruptly upgraded all the emblem drops in the Wrath dungeon game.  The same dungeons we had already beaten six months ago would now drop emblems good for loot from two raid tiers above the difficulty of the content.  The daily dungeon quest would now drop emblems for three tiers above the content.  (Both drops would be upgraded an additional tier in patch 3.3.)  In the comments of that post, I wrote:
"The issue is that this change reduces the entire pre-Ulduar game into an exercise in maximizing your emblem/time ratio. Players who actually need loot from 5-mans are undergeared, potentially slowing players progress, and therefore won't be welcome in groups. You can't entirely blame elitist players for this - the way RaidID's currently work, you don't get to form a second group and try again if your first group downs at least one boss in the daily dungeon but fails to finish the zone.... Convincing raiders to run trivial 5-man content appears to be the point, not an unintended consequence. "
(I get a lot of predictions wrong on this blog, but I feel pretty good about that one in hindsight.)

The massive item inflation had become necessary because Blizzard was itemizing four sets of loot per dungeon, to accommodate both regular and hard modes in both 10 and 25 man content.  Before this change, it had actually started to become difficult to find groups for five-man content because anyone who raided at all no longer had any need to use the content.  This left fresh level 80's stuck with extremely limited options to get starter raiding gear - some three or more tiers above what they had when they hit 80.  Blizzard decided to approach this problem in 2009 much like they're continuing to approach a variation of it in 2011 - attempting to bribe players (in this case, raiders) to carry newbies to their entry level loot rewards. 

The dungeon finder, introduced a patch later, may have exacerbated these issues by adding the anonymity factor to the groups.  More important, the popularity of the now extremely easy content - a single DPS character in Icecrown raid gear might do as much DPS as all three of those leet 2K DPS players from a year earlier in the very same content - popularized the idea that players should be rewarded for trivial content on the off chance that someone in the group still needs the loot drops. 

Was there another way?
I actually enjoy reasonably challenging single group content.  Blizzard's decision to prevent players from ever graduating from this content removed the challenge not by changing the content itself, but rather by ensuring that groups would be overgeared.  In turn, the system itself only worked because the content was so easy - demolishing these old dungeons isn't that much fun, so it was ONLY worth doing if you were nigh certain of the rewards.  Now that dungeons are hard, the groups are a much tougher sell. 

I've done low level dungeons using the system, and you do sometimes get overgeared players (usually decked out in heirlooms), but usually you get a relatively reasonable group.  The problem was that there simply aren't enough players of a specific level/gear range on a single server to reliably fill out groups. Perhaps a cross-server dungeon finder WITHOUT a daily dungeon quest would attract players who actually need the content but don't overgear it to such an extent that they can afford sloppy gameplay if they wish to succeed. In the long run, this approach might have been the far less harmful solution to the problem. 

Friday, April 8, 2011

Tank Solution: Larger Groups, More DPS Slots?

Tank motivation is a pretty popular topic in the wake of Blizzard's latest bright idea, so here's a quick drive-by musing for folks, so here's a drive-by discussion point. 

Rohan suggests that distributing the responsibility of the tanking (and healing) roles among multiple players might lessen the pressure and therefore make players more willing to tank. He suggests that 2 tanks, 2 healers and 2 DPS might work.  Chris@Game By Night's experience with public rift groups suggests otherwise, as players would rather wipe and fail than switch over to healing, even when most classes have passive healing options that play almost identically to DPS. 

What if we went in the opposite direction?  The current holy trinity calls for 1 tank, 1 healer, and 3-4 DPS, but it seems that far more than 60% of players only want to DPS.  If you're not going to blow up the entire holy trinity/aggro concept (which no current aggro-based game can do in a patch), and you can't convince players to move over to the tank category, why not change the numbers to match how players actually behave?  Perhaps 1 tank, 2 healers, and 7 DPS would reflect the actual preferences of the population. 

There are problems to overcome.  That said, pretty much all of these games already offer a raiding format that is about twice as large as the default group but only utilities a single tank - if anything, this would lessen the degree to which single group content fosters 2-4 times more tanks than there are slots for in raids. 


Thursday, April 7, 2011

WoW Tank-Finder Incentives

Blizzard has announced plans to "bribe" (as Tobold points out, their words) players to tank 5-man heroic dungeons in an effort to address "unacceptable queue times currently being experienced by those that queue for the DPS role at max level".  The bribe will consist of gold, stuff that can be bought or sold for gold, and a chance at rare cosmetic pets or mounts.  This is like giving an aspirin to someone who just walked in with a gunshot wound; I don't know that it will cause significant harm to the game, but I also doubt that it will solve the problem. 

What It's Not: Gear
Blizzard chose not to include gear on the list of rewards, and I agree with their reasoning.  Tanks (and, to a lesser extent, healers), already get groups faster and thereby obtain all of the existing loot faster than DPS can due to shorter/instant queue times.  Paying out more "valor" currency per dungeon run will help existing tanks finish getting all the gear they want and then stop running dungeons entirely at a faster rate, but my guess is that people who are both interested and capable of switching to tanking for faster currency gain have already done so. 

Perhaps adding raid-quality DPS loot (tank loot is not an incentive for people who don't want to tank) might convince more DPS to make the jump, but that way lies the item inflation that trivialized the group content of the last expansion.  More to the point, as I've argued in the past, offering this type of incentive does not magically convince players that they like an activity that they previously disliked.  Instead, this is precisely what leads players down the road of viewing gameplay as something to be gotten over with as quickly as possible, with all the negative community effects that brings. 

What It Is: Optional
So, instead of gear, Blizzard is offering minipets and non-raid dungeon mounts (of which there are about five in the game).  I don't have a problem with this, but I suspect that many players who actually care about this sort of thing already have large collections of each.  In order to increase the tank pool, you would need significant numbers of DPS who are capable of tanking and enjoy having cosmetic stuff but don't enjoy obtaining them through the currently available methods.  I'm sure the number is non-zero, will it be enough to reverse a trend that has seen queue times triple or quadruple since Cataclysm? 

This problem begins and ends with the fact that modern holy trinity based MMO's require players to tank and heal in proportions that do not reflect player willingness to assume these roles.  I have yet to see any evidence these "bribes" do anything to resolve this problem.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Instant "Queue" Difference

Since I've been back in EQ2, I've been surprised to find myself running group content on an almost nightly basis.  EQ2 dungeons can be lengthy, and I really struggled to ever complete any group quests on the old, underpopulated Lucan D'Lere server.  On my newly merged home of Crushbone, however, I'm finding groups nearly instantly, and that's apparently enough to convert me into a primarily group player overnight. 

Lord Bob would prefer if I go back to soloing stuff, since he's pretty sure that I can't solo him.

EQ2's Dirge class plays pretty much exactly like a typical DPS, but it's actually a buff-based class.  My personal DPS would not be great even if I was as experienced and well-geared as my PUG peers, but I offer substantial buffs to the team just for being present.  How significant?  It's not uncommon to see groups that ALREADY HAVE A TANK AND HEALER advertise that they're LF1M Dirge.  I've posted that I'm LFG for a specific instance and been immediately invited to a group. 

As a matter of game design, this is probably not a good thing, and I'm sure it would irritate me to no end if I were playing any other class.  As the recipient of the free instance invites, I'm glad that more people haven't figured out how all you're really giving up is your spot on the damage parse in exchange for non-existent "queue" times (not that EQ2 has a dungeon group finder queue, but even WoW's queue doesn't do much better than having groups advertise that they're LF1M: you). 

More to the point, I'm pugging instances and enjoying it.  I've done five PUG's of level 90 content in the last two weeks, four of which were successful and the last of which broke up at the last boss primarily because a bugged door caused a member of the group to be stuck outside the instance.  A few years back, I would have told you that solo content was an absolute requirement for me to play a game, but dungeon finders and public rift groups and instant Dirge queues are telling me differently.  I don't dislike groups, I just dislike spending time that I would like to spend playing the game on LOOKING for groups. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Lessons From A EQ2 Harvesting Donkey-Bot

The new EQ2 expansion added another chapter to the famous "Gathering Obsession" questline, in which players are tasked with harvesting large quantities of everything that isn't nailed down for a kid named Qho Augren.  The reward is your very own, developer-sanctioned harvesting bot. 

The new chapter
I'm told that once upon a time, the Gathering Obsession line could only be started at max crafting level, and was at least partially designed to get players to harvest some of the less desirable resources just to get them out of the world.  I could see how this might get irritating.  Fortunately, the modern version of the quest can be worked on as you level, advancing harvest skills that you already want anyway.  (Ironically, I now intentionally don't harvest bushes and dens after I complete my quest updates, to leave them for people who need them for the quest.)

The new update has the kid sending the player an in-game mail asking for a harvest pass through the content from last expansion.  This is much easier than the mid-level versions, because modern zones are designed with specific types of harvestables concentrated in specific subzones.  When you finish the mining updates, you leave the mountains and head to the forest, where there are fewer rocks.  So, despite the high numbers (50 of each resource, with 2-4 resources from each type of node), the harvesting portion of the quest goes by quickly.  

I snagged two rare harvests while I was out gathering, one of which I crafted into an upgrade for one of my key buffs.  The rest is an amusing sight-seeing tour, that ends with the player receiving one of the Augren family pack mules.  The mule, like a previous guild hall amenity, can be tasked to harvest for you in any zone from 1-90 every two hours. 

Two design points
There are two things that I take away from this exercise.  The first is the somewhat odd quirk that EQ2 harvesting is in a place where it is perfectly acceptable to task it out to an NPC.  The real money is in rare harvests, which the NPC's do not find (or perhaps keep for themselves ;)), so apparently it's just assumed that the basic materials for leveling and quest recipes are going to fall into your lap.  Most of the current tier materials aren't even found on Velious with the new expansion content.  It's an interesting case study in NPC-automation, as, for example, SWTOR plans to task out the actual crafting to NPC companions. 

The other thing is that a seemingly odd task - getting players to clear out unwanted harvesting nodes (rather than, say, not having the bush of berries no one needs share a spawn with the node of ore that everyone does) - becomes more entertaining when you do weave a story that comes back to the player level after level.  MMO's have always had significant NPC's, but it feels like there is a growing recognition that relationships with NPC's matter.  Qho - the somewhat notorious kid that people alternately tolerate or love to hate - literally makes the new chapter of the quest, which would have been pretty pointless (gather some stuff from zones you've outleveled, run around, pay some money for a final reward). 

As an added bonus, now I don't need to loot my guild harvest box for low level materials if/when I go back to do some of the new low-mid level tradeskill quests.  :)

True to her word, Lyriana proceeded to take Qho to the Forgotten Pools to introduce him to Lord Bob, an experience that sent the kid crying back to his mom across two zones and an ocean.  Lyriana claims that she knew nothing bad would happen to him, and points out that she did indulge his remaining requests afterwards.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Attack Of The Dice

EQ2 is one of few games that has an in-game excuse for April Foolery - Bristlebane, the god of mischief and thievery comes out to play for a world event that includes killing 10 rats (multiple times), chests shaped like the Companion Cube from Portal scattered throughout the world, and the opportunity to win various Dungeons and Dragons Dice in honor of the late Gary Gygax. 

The holiday was actually one of my first serious experiences with the game back in 2009, and it's gone through only relatively minor tweaks.  Every year seems to add another quest or two - this time out, it was two additional types of dice and a literally rainbow colored horse.  It's random, light entertainment, but it's fun.  Sometimes that kind of laid back activity is a good change of pace for an achiever-oriented genre.