Tuesday, May 31, 2011

ROM Exp Curve Post-40

Last weekend was another double exp event in Runes of Magic.  My character entered at 40 Druid/41 Rogue and came out the other side at 47 Druid/42 Rogue. I've learned several things from my trek into the 40's. 

How to stop worrying and ignore the Rogue
Your two classes in ROM have separate exp bars, and it's your choice how you choose to deal with this.  You can attempt to level each class separately, which becomes more and more grindy as content starts to get low at higher levels, or you can park one of the classes and use it to turn in daily quest items farmed up by the other. 

The pairing I really enjoy in the game is the Druid/Rogue, which is a DPS caster with a focus on DOT's and a primary nuke spell fueled by the Rogue's energy bar (a relatively unusual mechanic in an MMO).   By contrast, the Rogue/Druid side of the house was a very good combination at lower levels (it's a rogue that can heal itself) but has become more and more frustrating as my levels advance. 

Rogue energy regenerates at a slower rate than you see in other games because players are intended to use attacks from their secondary class (i.e. Warrior rage, Warden or Knight mana-based melee, etc) to fill the gaps in their rotation.  The Druid side of this particular pairing does not contribute any attacks that are useful in melee gear, so I find myself in combat taking hits and waiting for the energy bar to regenerate.  Anyway, I looked ahead and the 45/45 Elite Skill for the Druid side is not a high priority and the 50/50 Elite is only usable in groups, so I decided to park the Rogue side and wait for daily quest exp to push that bar along. 

Perhaps this will change when I can pick up my third class if I take something that plays well with the Rogue, perhaps not.  If not, I'll get by somehow. 

Cash or Grind
The other thing that's really noticeable is that with double exp, the amount of experience from doing regular quests (and dailies that are sitting next to regular quests) is enough to level a single class.  At the normal exp rate, it looks like I'm either going to have to do extra grinding of daily quests or pay for exp potions. 

I'm not necessarily opposed to paying - my guesstimate is that this will run me about a dollar a night.  Then again, I'm also not necessarily opposed to grinding a bit.  I'm not always in the mood to log in and slaughter 150 mobs in rapid succession, but some days that's the level of brainpower I'm willing to spend.  Otherwise I might sign on for long enough to do 10 trivial dailies to collect my daily tokens at best (or not at all).  Or I might just wait until the next bonus exp weekend. 

In a system where I pay for the amount I play (if I pay at all), rather than a fixed monthly subscription, I'm okay with this.  It'll be interesting to see if this whole excursion grinds to a halt as I get beyond the launch level cap and into content that was balanced around superior gear (which I am unlikely to either earn or pay for), but ROM remains a nice secondary MMO in the mean time. 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Picking Amongst the Free

Earlier this week, Spinks asked whether there are now so many non-subscription offerings that the model is no longer a selling point.  If and when we get there, I think this will be a good thing. 

For now, we're looking at two trends.  First, games that do choose to stick to the old pay to play model are meeting a higher bar, and it seems to be catching some of them unexpectedly on the chin.  Being free to try is not necessarily a huge selling point, but being pay to try may be an increasing detriment in a world where even the paid games have free trials. 

Second, the non-subscription offerings that are out there may be increasingly fighting for time in gamers' schedules.  Over in EQ2 (both the subscription and non-subscription sides), we've had large cash store sales.  However, exactly as Spinks predicts, this fails to interest me because I'm not in the market for cash store loot, and I am in the market for bonus exp.  This was absent from EQ2 (which usually offers bonus exp on holiday weekends but just came off a welcome back bonus week), and present in Runes of Magic this weekend, so that's where my time went. 

At the end of the day, a sale or a discount (including all the way down to "free admission") is still only a good deal if you actually want the thing that's on sale - the biggest wastes are the things you purchase on sale (whether in cash stores, as Nils points out, or in traditional stores) that you don't end up needing.  I, for one, look forward to the day how a game makes its money can take more of a backseat to whether it is worth the money. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ill Omens for Gods and Heroes

Gods and Heroes is a standard fantasy MMO set in a version of ancient Rome populated by such mythical creatures as Minotaurs, Harpies, and (playable) female Roman Legionnaires.  It also has the distinction of having been canceled, disappearing for a good long while, and resurfacing recently for a second chance at a launch, which would usually mean that the worst can only be behind it. 

Unfortunately, this game is not looking like it's ready to compete in the crowded pay to play subscription MMO market place, which bodes poorly for the game's second lease on life.

I named my Roman Dasypodidus.  He is green.  I blame Tipa.
Early Impressions
I was contacted by the game's marketing team, who offered me a beta invite.   Pete at Dragonchasers was apparently also on the email list

I decided to accept the beta invite, because I was vaguely a fan of ancient history back in middle school, and I was curious how the game turned out.  I have put a bit more effort than usual into this post and I will leave it to the reader to decide whether that amounts to me being cautious not to be the blogger who gets blasted for criticizing a game they haven't played "enough", or whether I'm giving Heatwave special treatment for giving me a beta key.  (I'm not too worried that anyone who reads the entire post is going to think the latter.) 

Rolling as the Romans Do
The first concerning sign is at the very first screen, where two of the game's six planned classes are greyed out.  A brief search through the forums indicates that these two classes were not going to be ready, so the developers dropped them to focus on the remaining four (which sound like the standard tank, healer, melee DPS, and caster DPS). While I respect the devs for making a tough call where needed, this is what the Romans would call an ill omen.

(I don't know when exactly in beta this change was made, but it seems strange for the very first thing a new player sees when they sign into the game to be that a third of the classes didn't make it for release.  Perhaps they're going to make a new character generation screen before launch that removes the unfinished classes, or perhaps they're just that honest.) 

Beyond your gender (no playable non-humans here) and your class, you will be asked to choose a deity from the Roman Pantheon.  Each class has two choices, but I was not able to tell whether the differences are primarily cosmetic.  If this is an irreversible choice that affects gameplay, there's not nearly enough information to make it (nor, in fairness, is the character generator a good place to present that level of detail). 

Other than that, you pick the colors of your outfit - which I presume are overlaid onto any gear you obtain, as well as your NPC minions' appearances - and customize your character's body and then you're ready to zone in. 

Kill 10 Romans
Invisible Roman:
Due to some display bug, equipping the belt I received as a reward from the first quest in the game caused my character's body to disappear, leaving only a floating sword, shield, and hairdo (but no face).
If you've played any MMO's recently, you'll have a decent idea of what to expect when you do zone in.  Gods and Heroes has questgivers with floating icons above their heads, hotbars, global cooldowns, and quests to kill various numbers of the local mobs.   There's a map, which shows your quest objectives.  Newbie mobs will drop bags for your empty bagslots (which the developers named in pseudo-latin by sticking a "us" onto the end of "sack" to give you the red, green, and leather "saccus", which is not in an Latin dictionary I remember).  And so on.

It was hard to tell how the game's combat is tuned, since the starter quests top out at level 3 and I reached level 6 with a minimum of unnecessary bloodshed.  I was mostly spamming a single attack button for most of the levels, until finally obtaining a carbon copy of the World of Warcraft Paladin mechanics from 2004 - a judgement-like spell that removes my 30-second self damage buff to do additional damage.  This is no longer the way WoW Paladins work for a reason, but I may have myself to blame for picking the tank ("soldier") class. 

There are some neat UI tweaks to be had.  For example, the level up window provides a clickable version of your new skills that you can drag onto the hotbar button of your choice rather than having to open a spell listing or having it dropped randomly in an empty slot.   Overall, though, the basics mechanics are familiar.

Roman Suicide Squad
My Poke-Romans: Let me show you them.  Also, don't click the red exclamation point on the right side of the soldier's box - it may show you their stats or it may crash the client. 
One place where things are different is the game's "squad" system for NPC helpers.  The UI informs me that there are 127 soldiers I can collect for my army, and it appears that they're going to come in all the major character archetypes.  It appears that your minions will automagically color coordinate with your chosen colors, and each has a brief story blurb.  (A female tank I recruited in the intro has a story which says that her father didn't want her to become a gladiator.  I wasn't aware that any Romans voluntarily became gladiators unless they were already slaves or prisioners, but more power to this early pioneer of women's rights.) 

The two soldiers you get at low levels are a tank and a healer, but you are limited to only one minion out at a time until you reach some higher level.  I'm not sure how many you can eventually use at once, whether these replace the need for partying with other players, whether each human player gets their full army of NPC's in groups, etc. 

I will say that the pathfinding AI on NPC soldiers is less than ideal.  If you jump off something, your dude will get stuck.  If you run too close to a wall in an attempt to avoid fighting mobs, your dude may get stuck.  They'll eventually teleport to you, and there are AI settings (with the caveat that the "aggressive" setting's tooltip says that it is not currently working), but I could see this being problematic if you're highly dependent on multiple minions and they all have pathing issues.

An Unfortunate End of the Line
I was about to get poor Dasypodidus off the newbie island and to his housing estate - supposedly a major and interesting feature of the game - when disaster struck. 

Quest mobs are located in the non-instanced world, and take several minutes to respawn.  When I saw another player running towards an area with a mob I needed, I invited them to a group in the hopes that we could share the kill credit.  He accepted the invite, but apparently didn't need this quest (or declined to complete it), as he ran by the mob's corpse and took the boat on to his estate.  I waited for the respawn, turned in the quest, and took the boat to my instanced estate. 

Then I noticed that I was still in the group with the random guy, who was probably as puzzled as I was at how to leave.  After digging around for a bit, I found the leave group button in the social panel and clicked it.  I received a message saying that I would be removed from the instance in a minute if I did not rejoin.  I did not think anything of this.  60 seconds later, I was ported out of my estate.  Apparently it didn't know where else to send me, since I had yet to zone into the real world, so back to the newbie island I went. 

The problem is that it does not appear to be possible to get back into the zone where the boat off the island was, because I had already completed that quest.  A forum poster informs me that has been seen previously in beta, and it means that my character is trapped. Hopefully a GM or someone would be able to deal with this type of issue in a live paid service, but it's still pretty concerning that something this show-stopping has gotten this far into the beta, which ends on Tuesday.

Caveat Emptor - Buyer Beware
I am not a journalist and this is neither a review nor a preview.  I cannot claim to have scratched the surface of what the game may (or may not) have to offer, and it is certainly possible that the game will improve between now and its June 21st launch date. All I can report is one player's experiences during one set of play sessions. 

Based on 2-3 hours, six levels, several bug reports, and an issue which left my character permanently stranded on the newbie island, I cannot recommend paying the $50 box fee on launch day.  Given the state of the beta, the relatively low $10 monthly fee feels more like an admission that the game would not be competitive at a higher price than a genuine bargain.  If there legitimately is a unique, interesting game lurking behind the rocky introduction (an area that's usually the most polished in a game as MMO's hope to pad their review scores), you will hear about it because people will be playing it.  If not, those who pay up front will be out $50.

As the Romans say, caveat emptor - let the buyer beware.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

EQ2 Pre-Raid Progression In Practice

One of the big complaints about EQ2 today is that the current cap - level 90 - is not really the end of pre-raid progression.  I must be in a weird demographic, because I'm perfectly happy with the way things are running right now. 

Beyond Levels
Key, class-defining abilities are handed out through the game's alternate advancement system, and it is very easy to hit the game's level cap with a substandard AA count, especially if you didn't spend time farming AA's at some previous level cap in expansions past.  I hit level 90 last summer with 173 AA out of 250, a cap that rose to 300 in the new expansion.  Raiding guilds are currently asking for players to have 277, as required for access to the top ability in the "Heroic" AA tab added in the expansion. 

(Only this last ability is a real choice - the rest of the 50 point tree are small passive state increases.)

On top of this, there is gear progression.  In the new model, critical hit chance is a contested stat that is mitigated by a boss mob's resistances, which means that values greater than 100% are once again in high demand.  I have been told that I did not meet the gear check bar for an instance group because my crit percentage is too low, but all of the "upgrades" I have seen include Critical Hit Bonus (which magnifies the size of the Crit, once you have guaranteed it) which does nothing to help me meet the bar for higher instances.  These upgrades are sitting in my bank as a result in favor of objectively worse gear that contains the crit chance I still need. 

That said, where am I in progression right now?  I have currently run six of the nine single group instances in the current expansion.  I did Pools, Shadowed Corridors and Ascent three times each (one of the Ascent runs broke up on the final boss due to bugs), but I have only completed the other three dungeons (Umbral Halls, Haunt, and Spire) once each.  I have yet to max out any factions, half of the quests in Eastern Wastes (and a few in the dungeons I have cleared once) are still incomplete, and I have yet to complete a single piece of Shard reward token gear (though I'm definitely excited that one of the pieces will remove the concentration requirement from one of my buffs, a previously raid-only perk). 

I'm now sitting at 225 AA's and gaining about one per dungeon run (more with bonus exp).  Now 40-50 dungeon runs does sound like a bunch, but I also gain AA for any number of other things I'm working on, and I'm maybe 1-2 gear upgrades (if I find any that have crit chance instead of crit bonus) from qualifying for the final three instances, which I have yet to see.  A new patch slated to hit in the next few weeks will then add three more. 

The bottom line is that it's my own fault for focusing on the easy stuff if I run any content into the ground before I hit the bar that qualifies a new character for raiding.  I don't really care about that mark because I'm not looking to raid.  The group that is not happy right now are the folks who would like to skip over the single group dungeons to join their friends in raids (an issue we're also seeing in Rift). 

There are real problems - including itemization woes and instance-killing bugs - in EQ2's single group game.  That said, as a player who enjoys running moderately challenging single group PUG's, I am literally picking EQ2's instance game over both WoW's (my mage has only cleared a single heroic) and Rift (where I left my Cleric at level 35).  Either I'm doing something wrong or they are doing something right, but I'm having fun either way. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Quotes On Rift Server Transfers

Last week, I posted about how server walls keep people from playing with their friends and create population distribution issues - I suggested in a clarifying comment that the solution might be some form of free, unlimited server transfers to allow players to move to visit their friends. 

Today, Trion announced what they're referring to as "free server transfers", and Massively quotes Scott Hartsman in the press release as saying:
"MMOs are all about playing with your friends no matter which server they're on, and that's why we're offering this as a free service to our subscribers."
No matter which server they're on, huh, guess that makes sense since MMO's are all about playing with your friends.  But what is this fine print about transferring to "select shards"?  The FAQ has the answer:
"We want the shard you select to provide the best experience possible. It is important that there remains a balance between Guardian and Defiant players and to that available shards do not become too over populated or unbalanced. For this reason you will only be able to move to specific shards we’ve selected to accept new transfers, please note the shards available for transfer may change over time.
So, I can play with my friends so long as we all mutually agree to transfer to another server with no guarantee that we will be allowed to return to our original server.  That would be the opposite of being able to play with your friends no matter what server you are on, because transferring would cut you off from the other friends who convinced you to roll on that server in the first place. 

So what's really going on here?  Let's ask Wilhelm:
"Announcing server mergers is always viewed as bad news.

But announcing free server transfers, that is a huge win.  Not only will your population take care of your server mergers for you, how and when they want to (some people love to play on nearly deserted servers), but the good publicity makes Rift look like a game you really want to play."
My guess is that doubling your server count in the first week is actually a very bad plan in the traditional server model.  The only people who are able to change servers just because they don't like their queue times are the tourists who are arriving with no social ties, who are the most likely to leave their new servers deserted at the 30 day mark.  This approach was bound to leave them with some servers that are empty, while others remain too crowded to actually allow the kinds of unrestricted transfers Scott is talking about. 

Leave it to the clever folks at Trion's marketing department to find a way to spin population redistribution as a revolutionary new feature.  That said, I wonder if they may have gone too far this time - the reality is so far from the market-speak that some players may end up feeling burned, especially if they only learn the true nature of the restrictions after unwittingly taking a one-way ticket off their home server.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Draw of Bonus Weekends

Two weekends back, a bonus weekend got me back into Runes of Magic for the first time in a while - I've since gained ten levels in both of my two classes.  This week, SOE's winback double exp week has gotten me back into EQ2, where I've gained 12 AA's and counting, with an evening left to go.  (There hasn't been any announcement, but SOE often opens up bonus exp on holiday weekends as well, so next weekend is a possibility.) 

As an MMO tourist, I'm probably amongst those players most likely to wander back to a game for this type of event - for most of the regular residents, these things provide an occasion to perhaps put in a little extra time, but probably not any significant purchasing decisions.  Still, I suppose it's a good thing overall.  Perhaps a bit of extra money for the developers, and otherwise just a little something for everyone else to remember. 

I'd write more, but there are dungeons to farm for AA.  :) 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Breaking Down Server Walls

I'd suggest that Blizzard's decision to charge an extra fee for their new cross-server friend-list queueing feature is drawing ire because it calls out precisely how absurd it is that picking the wrong server at launch means that you can never group with anyone who went elsewhere.  Between phasing, cross server queues, cross-server chat, and now cross-server grouping, Blizzard has already blended together its servers to such an extent that this feels like this should be a core game feature. 

Beyond that, you have to wonder whether any future MMO will ever go with the fixed server model again going forward.  Get the number of servers wrong and you either have unhappy customers stuck on deserted servers or unhappy customers stuck in queues, either of which will get you bad launch press.  Get it right and you have unhappy customers constantly pestering you to make it easier for them to actually play with their friends in a nominally social genre - let's be clear here, this new feature will take Blizzard some amount of time and therefore money to implement, and none of this would be necessary with a more flexible server model. 

Community is a big part of what keeps players involved in MMO's.  As MMO's make more use of soloing and instances, there's less and less community on any individual server - the old EQ server community model is already dead.  This story is just another chapter in the tale of why fixed servers are now more trouble than they're worth. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Win Back At Sony

As Ardwulf notes, SOE's winback campaign is underway now that the services are back up.  Change your Station Account password and then check your subscription statuses - you likely have 45 day pending subscriptions for all SOE games that you have ever paid for.  This deal must be claimed by August, but extending it to former customers seems like a smart move - it costs them nothing if the player does not take them up on it, and the amount of time involved is long enough that they could potentially win back some former players during that time.  (Besides, they coughed up former player data alongside current player info.) 

EQ2 players are also getting a variety of goodies, including 30 days worth of rent deposited to their houses, 35 days worth of spell upgrade research time, and about two weeks of double exp.   (EQ2X non-subscribers get 30 days of Gold time, so load up your broker slots early and often.) 

On the PS3 side of the house, they're offering up two free downloads from a list of five games (US list here).  Again, the cost isn't that impressive - we have two greatest hits games with recent full-priced sequels and several PSN-only games that Sony is probably hoping will convince people to consider buying more in the future.  Longtime players have probably played the ones they wanted, but relatively recent PS3 owners who spend most of their gaming time doing other things (like MMO's) are likely to find something nice in the care package. 

(Infamous was on my want list anyway, and I'm sure I'll get at least some mileage out of whatever I pick from the others - probably Wipeout, I liked F-Zero back in the day, and this looks vaguely like F-Zero with missiles.) 

On top of this stuff, they're reportedly working on identity theft protection for everyone affected, which is the most obvious direct remedy to the actual harm that people potentially suffered.  I can think of any number of times when some third party has disclosed my personal info in ways I would have preferred they not do and I've walked away from the deal with a lot less to show for it. 

Will it be enough to convince players to put this all behind them?  Not counting folks who were looking for an excuse to cut their ties with the company anyway, I think they've done what they can.  Even if their reputations are mostly back, the cost is substantial, and time will tell what the impact of that is.  Still, I think it could have been worse - hopefully we won't have to find out. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Gearing Up For Raids In Single Group Dungeons

I've been writing recently about what I see as a conflict between solo leveling and getting new characters to max level so they can join in group content.  Solo players actually want to do the content, while group players find it a dull but time-consuming chore en route to endgame, and I'm starting to feel that both groups are getting the short end of the stick.  Reading Ferrel's post about Rift's Expert Dungeon plaque changes in patch 1.2, I'm seeing some strong parallels. 

From Ferrel's perspective as a guild leader trying to get his team geared up and ready to raid, decreased dungeon token income is a disaster, as it means that the guild has to spend more time farming content that has long since ceased to be interesting.  He assumes that everyone who is farming expert dungeons is doing so for the same reason - to get the gear to be released from this purgatory as quickly as possible. 

The reality is that there is a growing segment of the market for whom single group dungeon content is the end of the line.  There's a big difference between clicking the automated group finder button at a time of your choosing to farm a 90 minute dungeon and committing days in advance to show up to a scheduled 3-4 hour raid.  The old model of high difficulty, high reward dungeons does not serve Trion's long-term interest in retaining this demographic - infrequent players probably won't be able to find groups that can beat the content, and, if they do, they will run out of stuff to farm pretty quickly. 

Developers are in a tough spot here. The majority of the content needs to be aimed at the majority of the customers - which means solo and maybe easy group content - because those customers have plenty of options to take their money elsewhere.  However, taking the very top end of customers and letting them skip the 95% of content that is below their expertise is a good recipe for having those players run out of things to do exceptionally quickly.  The result is what we have now - players forced to do things that they do not enjoy as a pre-requisite for things they would like to do, because that's the way the developers are getting paid. 

Somehow, this does not seem like the best longterm plan. 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Challenge As Intended

My last post stated that leveling content in WoW was too easy to be fun.  A commenter called nonsense on this idea, arguing that part of being a soloist includes seeking out challenges.  I agree, but I argue that this point actually proves mine. 

(I would attribute this comment, but it is missing from the post, and I don't know whether the author removed it intentionally for some reason, or whether it was eaten by the Blogger outage this week.) 

The new leveling game
The revised leveling content in WoW is highly linear.  The intent is for players to do the quests of each zone (50-100 typically) one after another, using the gear awarded from previously completed quests.  The problem is that, even without twinking or heirlooms or anything else, the exp curve makes it nigh impossible to complete a zone without over-leveling it, trivializing its content.  You can try abandoning quests as you outlevel them, but this means missing out on the new storylines that, for me at least, are the reason why I was interested in leveling new alts in the first place. 

I am not saying that there is no challenge to be found soloing in WoW.  I am saying that playing the solo leveling content in the way it was designed and intended no longer produces a satisfactory level of challenge, which is a problem in an expansion that created so much of this content. 

When intentionally sub-optimal becomes uninteresting
Late in the Wrath era, I spent about a thousand gold on BOE's and gems to assemble a melee set for my mage, because daily quests were so trivial at a 5000 Gearscore that I figured an autoattacking mage who did not use any damage spells could beat them.  I was correct, and my choices did succeed in increasing the challenge of the quests, which took about 10 times longer as a result.  I would argue, though, that the content no longer functions as intended when the only way to make it interesting is to have a caster who doesn't cast spells.  

It is indeed always possible to make life more challenging for your character by making sub-optimal choices in game.  You could argue that the entire existence of soloing in MMO's was originally based in part on skilled players choosing to see whether they could push their limits and defeat content intended for full parties.  (Soloing old instances in WoW remains some of the most fun that I've had in MMO's.) 

However, while we've always had naked warriors and melee hunters and characters who did not complete a single quest or kill a single mob, once upon a time you did not need to do these sorts of things to enjoy the leveling experience.  At some point, you're no longer making interesting choices to challenge yourself.  Instead, you're making bad choices to try and remedy a design issue in the game's difficulty.  If you are the kind of player who enjoys making intelligent choices and being rewarded with greater success, this removes a huge part of the fun from the game experience.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Self-Reinforcing Cataclysm Subscriber Speculation

Over in the comments at Spinks' place, a blog-less poster named Simon Jones suggests that we're all treating news of WoW's subscriber blip as vindication that our personal complaints about the game are felt universally, and are responsible for the decline.  Fair enough.

My personal pre-conceived concerns about Cataclysm are:
  1. That the solo leveling content that Blizzard spent so much effort on is too easy to be fun for people who actually like solo leveling because group players need to be able to get it over with quickly to reach the cap.  
  2. That the opportunity cost of spending all that time on low level content was less content available at max level.  (This causes several additional problems - for example, dungeon difficulty gets harder to manage with fewer dungeons and therefore less room for difficulty tiers.)  
I would elaborate further, but Eric at Elder Game has done a pretty good job of beating me to these points. 

The interesting question is not what everyone with a blog thinks, but what other MMO developers think when they see Blizzard throwing cataclysmic amounts of money at revamping the neglected mid-game only to have endgame players run out of content and quit at a faster rate.  My guess is that the odds of anyone else trying anything as ambitious as Cataclysm in the near future just went down. 

Monday, May 9, 2011

Triumph of the $5 Mount

It's been two years since Darren made Runes of Magic's $10 mount famous, and I've finally shelled out for a ride of my own in the game.

It happened that last weekend combined double exp (relevant only in that it got me back into the game in the first place) with a double "diamond" sale and half off permanent mounts.  As a result, I was able to snag something significantly beyond what $10 bought back in 2009 - Darren's mount is a plain brown horse that goes at +55% speed, while my new ride goes at 70%, can supposedly carry a second passenger, has a fancier animated texture, and can hover over water without dismounting, all for $5 after the sales.  As always, it pays to wait when cash shops are concerned. 

In some ways, the way in which the deal got better drives home Darren's point about how arbitrary the digital horse sale is.  On the other hand, the $10 I spent on a pre-paid card (which got me some bonus goodies, and ensured that no one involved has any credit card info they can cough up in the event of a hacking debacle) is the only money that I've spent on the game thus far, and I've gotten well more than that much entertainment out of it. For the most part, I'm regarding the money almost as a gratuity, with the fact that I no longer need to worry about 30-day mount promos expiring as an added bonus.

Revisiting the item shop
After the last time I wrote about ROM, I basically decided to take a step back from the experience rather than push forward and end up with burnout on the game.  The experience is unapologetically a grind, which routinely offers nominally higher level quests that send you back to fight low level mobs you were grinding on a few quests back.
Read carefully, this text is your only warning that this particular quest may spawn an elite mob who will one-shot you and give you exp debt.
This is okay - sometimes it's fun to sign in and beat down several hundred mobs in a weekend with zero downtime and relatively little risk, just for a change of scenery.  The problem is when the exp curve causes you to run out of even this content, and you're left with the frustrating experience of trying to beat higher level stuff you can't handle and incurring substantial death penalties in the process.  Apparently, double exp from the bonus weekend was the difference between struggling, as I was the last time I played, and having fun for a weekend of gaining levels at a steady clip (10 levels of Rogue and 7 levels of Druid, ending at 40 Rogue /37 Druid).

If you're bent on never spending a dime on the game, this gets irritating really quickly.  That said, now that I have a relatively firm idea of what the currency is worth and which bonuses I consider necessary to have a fun experience, it looks like a night's worth of solid entertainment in ROM will cost me about $1.  That's more than the cost per night on a subscription MMO if you're playing every single day, but much less than you pay per night if you only play one or two weekends a month.

(None of this considers the prices on the game's potentially pricey cash store item enhancements, which I haven't needed for solo play thus far and would probably price me out of the market relatively quickly.)

Overall, I think this is a game I will revisit from time to time.  In particular, I'm curious about the planned addition of a back-up secondary class to the game.  My current balance of diamonds and potions (from promos etc) will see me through a fair chunk of that from the back of my blue winged $5 horse, so I'm not complaining.

P.S. The prepaid card I redeemed supposedly comes with a 30 day promo mount code that I now no longer need since I own a permanent mount.  I make no promises that any of this functions as advertised (in particular, I'm pretty sure that this only works on the US servers) , but I will be happy to send the code to the first commenter on this post who wants it and provides instructions on where they want me to send it.  The winner: it's Xax.
On the plus side, ankle-deep water does not frighten this horse away.  On the down side, after playing several games with real flying mounts that have less fancy wings than these, I occasionally expect my new ride to be able to take off.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Dark Times For DCUO?

The DCUO Unlimited Podcast has a new episode up today, and the tale is a bit sad to listen to - it's only May, but it's looking like a shoe-in for roughest launch of 2011, if for no other reason than because of the sheer number of things that have gone wrong. 

Back in December, I had moderate expectations for the game - I wasn't expecting it to have much content or staying power, but I figured that I would probably pick it up, play for the included month, and maybe come back for another month sometime later in the year after a few patches.  However, the more I heard about the game - and, just as notably, the LESS I heard about the game as very few blogs I read covered it in any way - I began to think that the price tag was a bit high, especially given reports of lack of polish. 

Wilhelm saved for posterity one of those John Smedley quotes that makes you wonder how this guy can still be allowed to talk to the media.  Asking console players for a $15 monthly fee was always a tough sell, but Smedley insisted that SOE understood the obligation to provide players with "a lot of new content" for that price tag.  First of all, SOE's current PC subscribers don't really get "a lot of new content" each and every month.  More importantly, though, this kind of statement makes you look bad if your planned monthly patches immediately drop to six weeks in frequency.  And that was the good news. 

Then the DCUO team got hit with an undisclosed number of layoffs in the March bloodbath.  Meanwhile, players must have concluded that they were not impressed with what was in Smedley's touted content patches, because the game opened this month testing plans to merge down to the bare minimum four servers - one for each platform (PC, PS3) in each region (US, EU).  It's not even clear how they will handle PVP or not with that few servers remaining.

Of course, four servers will be four more than are available right now - as Wilhelm's new sidebar graphic notes, today is the 17th day of downtime for the Playstation Network (and all PS3 DCUO players) and the 4th day of downtime for SOE's PC players (who got to keep playing for the 13 additional days it took Sony to realize that SOE had been hit by the hacks as well).   

(It is vaguely appropriate that Wilhelm is taking a page from Walter Cronkite's book - if you've lost Wilhelm, you've probably lost middle Blog-merica, as Lyndon Johnson supposedly said after Cronkite's famous editorial comment on the state of the Vietnam War.) 

The downtime is not the fault of the DCUO devs, but, as the DCUO Unlimited gang noted in the discussion, the timing could not have been worse - some players who were on the fence to begin with may not be back after the hack debacle, and the incident does not inspire a lot of confidence in theoretically potential customers.  Games that have limited amounts of content are simply a tough sell with a full price box ($60 for the PS3 version) and a full price sub ($15) given all the free to play and formerly pay to play options on the market today.  You have to wonder how much the decision to launch the game at this price point may have hampered their long term potential. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Children's Week Revisited

Children's Week is back and seemingly less impressive than in previous years.  On the plus side, this week is good for as many as three separate minipets (with new options added to the classic and TBC editions this year) for anyone who collects them.  
Of the six achievements, three are pretty trivial, and one requires only some pastry purchases from the AH and/or vendors.  Of the two "real" achievements, one is the dreaded PVP battleground grind, which can go very poorly if your entire PUG is ignoring the match objectives in the hopes of getting the achievement (ironically making the achievement harder to snag for all concerned). 

I made a point of not advancing my warrior from 84 to the current cap at 85, just so I could stay out of the max level PVP bracket for this achievement, and it looks like it paid off - I got all four battlegrounds done in a single match each and didn't even have to behave too badly in order to do so (excepting Eye of the Storm, there's really no sugar coating that one).  It's still a bad idea for an achievement, but at least it wasn't actively painful - the Horde even won half the matches I fought.  (Perhaps the numbers of people who still need this achievement are dropping over time?) 

Ironically, the one I had the harder time with called for the death of King Ymiron in Utgarde Keep.  This dungeon was popular and reasonably easy back in the Wrath era, but level 84 characters are too high level to queue for it, which makes it very challenging to find a group.  I tried asking in general chat for a while.  Then I tried soloing the place - I actually killed all the trash and Skadi on normal mode, but the final boss was more than I could take - perhaps with that last level and better gear I might have managed.  Fortunately, I was able to identify a group of achievement-seekers with an empty slot (not many 80+ characters in that area anymore) and got the missing achievement. 

Now my Warrior lacks only the Midsummer Fire Fest for my second Violet Proto-Drake. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

A Case For Paid Max Level Characters?

The blogosphere all jumped down Smokejumper's throat for the suggestion that EQ2 might give out max level characters, in no small part because we don't trust SOE not to monetize such an offer in ways that no one would enjoy.  Looking back on the controversy, like Massively's Karen Bryan, I'm starting to wonder whether selling max level characters for cash would actually be less damaging than the current approach to vertical progression. 

Solo content in big budget MMO's is not going anywhere so long as the majority of the revenue comes from players who would rather solo. At the same time, the communities that make MMO's worth a solo player's monthly fee are built around players who tackle repeatable group content week in and week out, and those communities seem increasingly threatened by the sheer number of barriers - server, faction, archetype and level - that stand in between players and the friends they would like to group with.  Even solo content is suffering from constant reductions in difficulty that are needed to keep the leveling time for new group players in line. 

We already have a de facto split where the leveling game is primarily solo and the endgame is primarily group-based.  Perhaps it is time to make it official, allow group players to buy their way out of the "chores" they don't want to do anyway, and go back to balancing solo leveling content on its own merits, rather than on the basis of how much leveling it is fair to force group players to endure.