Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Limited Impact of WoW's Extended Trial

People have inexplicably made waves with commentary about "free to play" WoW due to a surprise change to the game's free trial program.  There is no longer a time limit on the previously 14-day free trial, putting the trial on the same footing as similar programs in Warhammer and Conan (until that game's actual free to play relaunch anyway), but that change is less significant than it sounds. 

Extended capabilities?
As far as I can tell, the only real changes are that trial players now have longer to reach level 20, and that all players (trial or otherwise) now get access to the TBC expansion (including Blood Elves, Draenei, and the two starting areas that did NOT get revised in Cataclysm).  It sounds like "upgrading" to a real account permanently cuts off your "free to play" access to that account, so the real impact of these changes seems limited.  Trial accounts are banned from joining guilds or inviting other players to groups, so there's no real way for a community of trial-capped 20's to form and push the limits of what can be accomplished at that level; most trials will eventually have to convert or quit.  

That said, if you do not have an active WoW account, don't care about all the previously existing restrictions on trial accounts, are willing to put new alts on a throwaway trial account you may never use again to avoid sending Blizzard any money, and wanted to check out some of the new lowbie content in Cataclysm, this change may be for you.  You could have done all of this before by signing up for new trial accounts every 14 days, but I can imagine some advantage of a more open-ended timeframe in which to do so.   

If this is your plan, you may find my guide to Cataclysm starter zone revamps (no Goblins or Worgens for trial accounts) and old world leveling paths useful.  By my count, Trial accounts have full access to sixteen zones, plus however much of the content in the four level 20-25 zones you are allowed to access at level 20, so that's a fair amount of content to visit. 

Business impact
Free TBC, on the other hand, is potentially significant for retailers.  Basically every physical or online store that carries computer games has boxed copies of TBC, and it appears that these should no longer be sold to anyone because it is no longer possible to own a plain vanilla WoW account.  If this is the case, we might be talking about literally a million obsolete boxes at various stages of the retail supply chain, which likely puts this issue at an entirely different scale than previous cases of out-dated expansions or closed MMO's with boxes still left on store shelves. 

 That aside, it now costs $10-20 less to buy your way up to the current expansion, but my guess is that most people who wandered off before hitting level 20 and/or 2 weeks weren't coming back anyway.  There are a few folks who might finally make it to level 20 one hour at a time, and a few folks who choose to stay perpetually at level 1-20 for free, but I don't see this move making a huge difference to the subscriber count.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Incorrect Convention Predictions for Summer/Fall 2011

My track record for incorrect Blizzcon predictions is so epically bad - last year all my calls were proven wrong before the show even started - that I've decided to get a head start and expand my coverage to be sure that I can be totally wrong about even more 'con's.   Without further ado...

Inaccurate Predictions for SOE Fan Faire (to be disproved by 7-9 July)
The new EQ2 class will be the fabled Beast Lord, and the new expansion will have something to do with the destroyed moon of Luclin.  The new expansion will come out sometime later than previously (perhaps May 2012) and will NOT increase the game's level cap.  Given that EQ Next was no more than concept art last year, it won't be playable this year. 

There really isn't another choice of class that I've ever heard anyone suggest serious interest in.  Of course, I didn't hear much call for a premium vampire race either, but finding a home for a new class in a game that already has more classes than it knows what to do with is a bit more work than a mostly cosmetic new race.  It really wouldn't make sense to spend the time on something that no one would care about, the melee pet class is the only option I can think of that isn't covered by the game's two dozen existing classes, and the Beast Lord was tied to the lore of Luclin in the original EQ.

My guess on Luclin arises partially from similar reasoning - this game isn't getting any younger, so it doesn't make sense to save its most recognizable expansion ideas for some future rainy day.  There is the minor issue that Luclin doesn't exist anymore, but my guess is that this expansion will be very light on new content.  Smokejumper came out and said that he'd like expansions to be more about new features than new content, and I would guess that the additional content that is being added in the content patches of Velious is coming out of the dev time that would have been available for the next expansion.  In that context, a Cataclysm-like plot in which chunks of the old moon fall on underutilized zones may fit Smokejumper's plan.

Finally, the level cap.  I have not heard a single complaint that DOV did not increase the level cap this year, or a single desire for it to be increased next year.  Quite the contrary, the only thing we absolutely know is coming next year is the Qeynos revamp (following this year's Freeport revamp), and there was the whole kerflaffle about giving away max level characters, which only gets worse as the game accumulates more than its current 90 levels.  Meanwhile, last year's TSF expansion was a mess in large part because they raised the level cap far more than the limited new adventuring content could support, and nothing suggests a different scenario this year.  I guess they could go for 1-3 levels as Ferrel has suggested from time to time, but I don't see a real reason why there need to be any this year, and thus I'm predicting zero.

Inaccurate Predictions For Pax Prime (to be disproved 26-28 August)
I don't even know who is exhibiting this year.  I'm guessing that Trion and Turbine are in, since they were in last year, and that Blizzard and SOE are out, because they have their own events.

The Turbine booth will assuredly be busy hyping the new LOTRO expansion, but I don't expect major news to drop a mere month out from the expansion launch.  The real news here the mystery non-druid class to be added to DDO.  My guess here is a modified version of the pen and paper Mystic Theurge, which can cast both arcane and divine spells at the cost of reduced progression in both schools.  I predict that the DDO version will be a stand-alone class (i.e. does not stack with other classes) with a single set of spell slots for both schools (since DDO uses a more MMO-like SP system instead of DND spell slots).  Someone will find some creative use for it, and it will be easy for Turbine to make because it doesn't require large amounts of new mechanics; it's basically a Sorcerer with slower spell acquisition and a wider spell list. 

The Trion side of things is harder to predict - to my knowledge, they've said next to nothing about patch 1.4, other than the assumption that it will contain the guild banks that were not ready for 1.3.  At their current pace, patch 1.4 will be in final testing or live and they'll be hinting at the contents of 1.5.  Six months post-launch is too soon to be talking paid expansions, so it would surprise me if anything of the sort came up.

Incorrect Blizzcon Predictions (to be disproved 21-22 October)
Having been told last year that Diablo III will not launch in 2011 and Titan, the Mystery Fourth Project, will not be announced until 2012, takes much of the guesswork out of this year.  DIII will take center stage, accompanied by the SCII expansion (which finally got some face time this year). 

I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that Blizzard will opt NOT to announce the next World of Warcraft expansion at this event.  This would break past precedent - all three past WoW expansions were announced at Blizzcon, and you would ordinarily expect the new expansion to roll out at this con - 10 months post-Cataclysm - to start building hype for its launch at the 18-24 month post-Cataclysm launch.  The problem is timing. 

Blizzard planned 2-3 patches for Cataclysm before they ended up breaking 4.1 in half and spending seven months to get both parts out the door.  At their customary 6-month patch cycle, we'd expect to see the patch that was previously the second patch of the Cataclysm era hitting the test servers around this time, with the third patch and the final battle with Deathwing presumably at least six months beyond that (i.e. June 2012).  If that's the timetable, October seems a bit soon to be looking beyond the Deathwing era.  Maybe they can hold Blizzcon 2012 earlier, or announce the WoW expansion at some other event in early 2012?

Whenever they do get around to announcing the expansion, I predict that Nozdormu and the Infinite Dragonflight will be the stars of the show.  I do not expect any significant changes to the now out-of-date lore of Outland and Northrend, but we could see a slight tie-in where players heading to those unchanged continents are specifically told that they're being sent into the past to prevent the Infinite Flight from changing (relatively recent) history.  I'm also going to predict neither a new class nor new races.  Blizzard has said that they like to alternate because of art demands of a new race, but I just don't see a niche for a new class in a game that is already struggling to deal with the 30 subclasses of its 10 classes.  I predict that there will be five new levels - unlike EQ2, I think there is a demand for more dings, but I don't think they want the talent point inflation that comes with 10 levels.

And that's what I've got for the year's three big cons.  Have fun pointing and laughing over the next four months.  :)  


Monday, June 27, 2011

Ineffectual Cash Store Bitternesss

EQ2's Associate Producer, Emily "Domino" Taylor, is puzzled by player reaction to item shops - why, she asks, are players simultaneously angry that the shop exists and dismissive of its offerings?  The answer, I would suggest, can be found in her own long-running "what do players want?" series; players occasionally ask for things that may be both nonsensical and not what they actually wanted. The complaints about prices of cosmetic items are more of a pre-emptive sour grapes defense against an indirect price hike that the players are not willing to pay. 

The 68-dollar gorilla in the room this week has been Eve's new cosmetic monocle, which consumes items worth several months' worth of game time in exchange for a cosmetic item for one character.  The clever thing about this approach is that the price was never designed to target the player who actually opens up their wallet and pulls out $68 because they want a monocle.  Rather, the intent appears to be to encourage players with more in-game ISK currency than they know what to do with to destroy in-game-timecards, rather than allow them to get cheap enough on the in-game market that the average player can avoid paying the monthly subscription. 

Fair but unbalanced?
The in-game cash shop draws the level of bitterness that Domino and others observe because it is simultaneously egalitarian and undemocratic.  Until CCP sticks even more 0's onto that price tag, the cash store approach means that anyone who wants to pay can, and, at least in principle, can mean that those who are unwilling or unable can still play the base game for the old price.  In principle, the extra revenue could be the difference between survival or closing for your game of choice, which would seem to be a good deal for everyone.

At the same time, the process is inherently undemocratic in that there is no real way for those who are opposed to "vote against" the cash shop.  Unless you are willing to cancel your subscription altogether, your vote is +/- zero, and the guy who is willing to pay for the monocle's vote is +68, and the short term net total appears to be positive.  Meanwhile, the financial incentives will almost certainly drive future development in the way that the guy with the monocle wants. 

In the long term, I think it is possible for cash store creep to do long-term harm to a game's reputation; for example, I think the uproar over EQ2's new class was rooted in SOE's decision in December to add the game's first new race in three years to the game's cash store, rather than including it in the $40 expansion box.  Unfortunately, this impact is not going to be apparent immediately in the short run, and the result runs the risk of destroying the village not to save it, but as an example to other village owners.

Companies want to appear responsive to customer feedback, which is why protests sometimes work as Spinks notes (with the caveat that a PR event does not equal changing the policy), but there's very little even the large majority of customers can do if the company's minds are made up.  In this case, ineffectual cash store bitterness sometimes feels like all unhappy customers have left. 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Triumph of the Second Violet Proto-Drake

I wasn't that excited about the Midsummer Fire Festival, other than the prospect of collecting my second Violet Protodrake for my Horde Warrior.  The only real change since the last time I did this achievement run is that the timer on the torch juggling achievement had its timer slashed since 2009.  At 20 seconds, catching 40 torches required players to perform four actions per second, and I was able to complete it without issues.  At 15 seconds, the attempt was physically painful.  Fortunately, there's an addon for this problem

The final achievement I completed was already a four for one deal, since completing the continent completed the fires of the world, which completed the Fire Festival, which completed the holiday meta.  I decided to throw in one more achievement for good measure.  
What a long strange ding it has been
Timing this was more challenging than you might think - a single mob kill in Twilight Highlands is worth 11K exp, and a flame for the festival is worth only 30K, so I had to get within two kills of level 85, but it's as good a way to hit the level cap as any, I suppose.  The level 85 achievement made five dings for one turnin and a bonus achievement for dessert - you are awarded Master/310% speed riding when you actually mount up on your new protodrake, which requires 280% riding to use, so I was correct to pay for that upgrade earlier on. This marks my fourth current level-capped character across three MMO's - I haven't had two capped characters in the same game since Wrath launched. 

Overall, the holiday achievement grind was nowhere near as bad as it was back in 2009, when it pretty much literally drove me out of Azeroth to pick up EQ2 (which I suppose has worked out well enough). I'm still not convinced that limited time holiday events are a good place to put a grind, but at least the current system is something that you can do without going too far out of your way.  Other than the torch thing that I had to cheat with an add-on, and the hunt for a female dwarf for the creepy Easter achievement, there wasn't anything this time around that was actively non-fun to complete.  If you're looking for the occasional change of pace from the daily (quest/dungeon) grind, I suppose there are worse ways to go.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Trial Only Servers

Rift's previously announced free server transfers have gone live with some remaining kinks - for instance, the crowded Faeblight server was initially on the destination list, only to be removed by the time you're reading this.  That aside, there's an interesting detail that may have been previously announced, but was news to me - the game will now have "trial account only shards" where subscribers will not be allowed to create characters, and will be prompted suggesting that they remove any characters they made while they were trial accounts via the new free transfer feature. 

Cynical comments about EQ2X aside, I don't know of any game that segregates its free trial population in this manner.  There are very good reasons for doing so - beyond the traditional gold spammers and level 1-10 general chat trolls, Rift seems to plan on continuing to do one-time server events that encourage queues, and adding trial accounts to that mix is bound to leave someone unhappy. 

That said, what will the community be like on a server populated entirely with trial accounts (and perhaps a few rebellious players who make new accounts and convert them to paid accounts for the sole purpose of being amongst the few players on the server to go beyond the trial level cap)?  Will that environment be at all conducive to actually converting trial players into paying customers?  Will the current referral program allow players out of the newbie leper colony to play with their friends who are already in game? 

I'm not saying that it will work, or that it won't work, but someone who wants a sociology paper may have topic in waiting here. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Missing Midsummer Spark

WoW's Midsummer Fire Festival kicks off tomorrow, and I will be in attendance since I have an alt who is a couple dozen bonfires away from the holiday meta-drake.  This has historically been one of my favorite world events amongst all MMO's, but I'm not that excited about it this year.  

My favorite part of the event has always been the little nudge to experiment with some alts, as bonus exp abounds from bonfires around the world.  With Cataclysm's linear zone progression, this option is far less interesting - I'm already outleveling zones before I even get to see the new storylines I rolled up a new character to visit. 

It would be nice if I were pleasantly surprised - if nothing else, my mage is sufficiently undergeared that I might actually use the cool-looking Scythe staff if I can obtain it.  Guess I'll find out over the next week or so.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Earning My ROM Wings

I hit two milestones in Runes of Magic over the weekend - level 45 in my secondary class, unlocking a new 45/45 elite skill for my main, and 6000 Phirius Tokens, allowing me to purchase a pair of wings from the item shop.
Shiny wings have a shiny on-use ability
What are wings?
As a pure non-subscription item shop game that does basically nothing to force players to pay during solo leveling, ROM has to make its money somewhere.  The high end gear system appears to be one of the main money-makers.  There are large numbers of consumable item shop purchases that can be used to enhance players' gear, dramatically increasing its stats to a degree that goes far beyond what other MMO's offer through enchantments/adornments/runes/etc.  Some of these items are available for Phirius tokens - you get 10 per daily quest completed and can complete 10 daily quests per day - but the prices are such that I'd imagine any serious player is going to need to move faster than this system allows. 

Items that can be equipped in players' back slot - typically wings, though some are flowers or floating swords that follow you around - are exclusive to the item store.  These items have no stats by default, but they do represent another gear slot that can be enhanced, including a permanent bonus to exp and drop rates that is almost never found outside of temporary item store consumables. 

An example pair of fully-upgraded wings on the auction house, compared to my brand new statless version.
Pricing the wings
It's somewhat difficult to determine what wings are actually worth, because they are not included in the permanent stock of the diamond shop (the currency that you get directly for spending real money).  Typically you'll see wings go on sale once or twice a month for 3-5 days at a time for prices running around 150-300 diamonds ($7.50-$15 at non-sale exchange rates, price usually includes some items to get started on enhancing the wings as part of a bundle). 

Fortunately, there are a few other options.  There is a cash store item that allows players to unbind soulbound equipment and place it on the auction house, so you can pay gold for someone else's wings (which they hopefully are not getting rid of simply because they made poor choices in building them).  Another option, the route I took, is to plunk down 6000 of the Phirius daily quest tokens - 600 dailies/60 days worth. 

I would not do that many daily quests just to save a few bucks.  Fortunately, I didn't have to, as daily quests are a part of ROM characters regular progression, especially if you have a secondary class that you'd like to level without actively playing it.  The long-term goal of farming up the tokens over the year or so I've been playing the game was a good little nudge towards taking care of daily quests that the game expects me to be doing anyway.

I don't know how far I'm going to get in terms of upgrading the things with Nebula jewels and whatnot (I will be very cautious about putting regular stats on them, since I don't want to get stuck with bad stats), but I suppose that's a medium to long term goal for future Phirius tokens.  There isn't really that much else I need in that section of the item shop right now, other than maybe an additional storage chest for my house, but in the mean time at least I've got a pair of good-looking wings to show for my efforts.  
Fortunately, the shiny ball of energy between the wings doesn't interfere with the massive shadow energy from my shadow attacks - which, incidentally, were buffed significantly in this week's patch.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Legendary Dirge Boots

Lyriana finally obtained 40 Velium Shards - EQ2's level 90 dungeon token currency - and I was off to have her very first piece of endgame armor ever crafted.  Ironically, Feldon posted a guide the very next day that could have saved me some heartburn.  

Crafting your dungeon gear
The boots cost 47 shards if you buy them from the NPC vendor, but only 40 shards if you have them crafted.  That's 2-3 dungeon runs worth of shards, which is enough for even a lazy player like myself to go hunting for a crafter to have the boots made.  Fortunately, I found a helpful guy who was very patient with me as I didn't know a fair amount of things that theoretically I should have known. 

The armor also require a gem that drops in various Velious instances, and this ingredient is still required if you're having a crafter make them.   I've never seen the gem I would need drop, and was in for a bit of sticker shock when I visited the broker to see how much it cost when I found out I would still need one.  (There's a less powerful tier of armor that only requires shards, but this seems like a bad deal since the pieces cost more shards, are missing key abilities, and will be discarded as soon as you can upgrade them.)  Spending 100 plat on an armor component was painful, but in the end the component is worth that much on the open market whether I farm it myself or pay someone else to do it for me, and it's not like I generally spend money on much of anything else on the broker. 

Overall, the system is an interesting way to keep crafters relevant in a game state where the good gear is still primarily reserved for group content. 

A big deal for a support class?
The thing that really set my mind on farming up the boots, rather than some of the other options (made with cheaper gems), was the special focus effect.  EQ2 characters have five "concentration slots" with which to maintain buffs that require concentration.  Most classes do not actually need this many, but bards are a buff-focused class and actually do manage to fill all the slots.  Last expansion, a raid-only adornment (like a WoW gem, LOTRO relic, etc) was added that removes the concentration requirement from a buff that a Dirge will always want to be using.  This expansion, that same effect is available on all T2 and better class boots, such as the ones I just had crafted. 

As a result, I've now got permanent leeway to add another one of my buffs to the mix.  This is a piece of gear that I will almost certainly carry with me until I manage to replace it with another item that offers the same effect, almost no matter how much better the gear gets in the next expansion, because this makes me better at my class' core function - buffing the rest of my party - in a way that I can't replace by adding a few percent to my personal DPS. 

I'm not sure that this type of class defining perk is a good idea for endgame gear - eventually, it gets to the point where late-comers simply can't do what groups expect them to because they have not yet gotten a group to get the unique items they need.  That said, I'm definitely happy to have an upgrade that's more interesting than your average +1% crit or whatnot. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Blaming the Tool for the User

Lots of people have lots of ideas on what is to blame for the touted death of the PUG community.  Fresh in my mind since I just listened to the respective episodes are the Multiverse gang, who blame Gearscore, Deadly Boss Mods, and other addons in their latest episode, and Klepsacovic's appearance on the Twisted Nether Podcast, where he points the finger at cross server groups, amongst others.  I feel that this is blaming the tools for the actions of the tool users. 

Many major MMO's, including WoW, EQ2, and Rift, now offer tokens good for high quality gear rewards as an incentive to keep players running instances that they no longer need.  This is the exact opposite of what happens everywhere else in MMO's - both solo and raid content eventually all but stop rewarding players who have farmed them into the ground.  Instead, non-raid group content is pushed into an odd situation that Rohan discusses in which the participants have markedly different goals

(Ironically, Rohan's post responds to another post of Kleps', completing the bloggy circle of life.)  

If the only reason why players are continuing to run this content is to gain the rewards, it stands to reason that they will want to do so as quickly as possible.  If they don't need to use crowd control or tolerate newbies, they won't, because they're not being "paid" to do so, just for completing the dungeon.  This is not the dungeon finder's fault, or gearscore's, and would happen even if these things were removed from the game. 

As Rohan says, the real problem is the daily dungeon quest bribe, which exists because developers have yet to come up with a better way of making sure that late-comers still have people to group with for the entry level content.  The problem only gets worse in an endless cycle of vertical expansion Tipa terms "the Expansion Trap", and that I've been griping about on and off for a while now.  The further upwards progression climbs, the more damage to the existing game will be needed to get newbies up to the level they need to reach.

Blaming the tools for this is like suing the hammer manufacturer for your broken window when turns out that someone picked up the hammer and broke the window so they could dive into your house for cover because the management was shooting indiscriminately into the street. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

G&H, ROM, and Station Access

I don't often do posts of random odds and ends, but that's what I've got today.
  • I got some comments from the Gods and Heroes Team on my post about my brief visit to the game's beta.  I chose to play the game as a level one player would experience it at that point in the beta.  Massively's Beau Hindman went the opposite route, accepting a higher level character so he could get a better sense of the game's high end potential.  It hadn't occurred to me that you could get non-human minions, and that does indeed sound amusing.  In a few short weeks, we'll find out whether players are prepared to accept the possibly rough-around-the-edges experience in order to get at the more interesting potential at higher levels. 

  • It was another bonus weekend in Runes of Magic - triple exp AND TP this time - and I got in a few levels on my Druid (who is now 52 Druid/43 Rogue).  I've cleared out the solo quests of Dust Devil and I'm part of the way through Ravenfell.  I'm also slowly working on getting the Rogue side up to 45 so I can add the 45/45 Elite skill to my spellbook, since it has a marginally useful passive benefit.  (The 50/50 requires a questline that I am unlikely to complete anytime soon.) 

  • Sony also announced a cut in the price of the Station Pass, which now costs $20/month.  One can only speculate that relatively few players are actually using the service at the old price (and it's possible that many are/were EQ2 players who are only paying for the upgrade to rent extra character slots back when you could not purchase them). For me, that means $5/month for any second game in addition to EQ2, which makes some of the other options in the SOE stable more interesting. 

    I wanted to play DCUO on the PS3, but the PC version is so much cheaper - $40 for the box to start with and then effectively $5/month with this Station deal compared to $50 for the PS3 box and the full $15/month on the PSN - that PC version is starting to look like a no-brainer by comparison. 

    There's also the curiously en vogue Vanguard.  I've been feeling under-challenged by solo games of late, so it's possible that a game that's aimed more at small groups would actually be refreshing.  I would definitely play Vanguard differently than other MMO's - I don't think the game is going anywhere, but you can't be certain given how much population has dwindled, so my willingness to tolerate any less-fun segments of the game as an "investment" to get at more interesting high level content would be basically nil.  That said, for a low enough price point and some bonus blog topics, it might be worthwhile.  (Incidentally, does anyone know whether Station Access holders need to pay for an account key, or can you just download the client and go?) 
 And that's today in odds and ends here at PVD.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Two EQ2 Mea Culpa's

Earlier this week, EQ2's producer told Massively that the game would be getting a 25th class this year, and I promptly speculated that it would be headed to the game's cash shop.  I was not alone, and I was wrong.  This prediction failed out faster than usual because I'm not the only one with a mea culpa - Smokejumper revealed that he screwed up when he disclosed the class so soon. 

If he hadn't said anything, no one would have known that it had been a slip-up; developers drop this kind of hint all the time without elaboration.  The problem was that the morale of the EQ2 playerbase is so low when it comes to new features that the speculation that the new class was going to the cash shop became widespread in the absence of further information.

During the two evenings after the interview was posted, I saw about half a dozen conversations about the news in general chat.  Each one went about the same - someone expressed disbelief, someone provided the link that confirmed the news, at least one person suggested that the new class would be the famous EQ1 Beastlord, and then conversation turned to what the class would cost in the cash shop and whether it would obsolete any of our current characters in order to encourage sales.

It's hard to get an accurate feel of the opinions of the "silent masses" of MMO's, but my experience has been that any subject that comes up repeatedly in public chat channels is much more serious than your average forum thread.  My guess is that SOE did not like the way the conversation was going, to the point where Smokejumper had to issue a clarification that the new class - whatever its other merits or issues - will not be in the cash shop. 

Time will tell whether the class will be the oft-rumored Beastlord, whether it portends an expansion focusing on Luclin (which was blown up in between EQ1 and EQ2 lore) or how it fits into the game as a whole.  If the curtain actually is coming up at Fan Faire, I guess we don't have that long to wait. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Bringing Endgame To Leveling

I've been busy offline of late, which has meant short play sessions, and Runes of Magic daily quests have been beating out games where I'm actually paying a subscription for this limited time.  It's not exactly accurate to call ROM's dailies "grindy" because they're literally grind - you're in for easily 150-200 mob kills if you want to max out your daily allowance.  Moreover, if you're not supplementing your exp with dungeons or bonus exp weekends, you will have to do some amount of daily quest grinding to get the exp to keep leveling even one of your two classes. 

Quest designers these days build MMO leveling curves with the assumption that having solo players ever run out of non-repeatable quest content is a cardinal sin.  So why am I not only tolerating this mechanic in ROM but actively choosing it over other games that also offer daily quests?  At the end of the day, complaining about grinding in ROM is like complaining about shooting people in a first person shooter - if you don't like it, you're playing the wrong game, and I won't hesitate to leave my ROM dailies unfinished if I'm not in the mood or I have the chance to do something more interesting. 

In their Dev watercooler this week, Blizzard talks about the challenge of selling solo players on transitioning from one-time story-based leveling content to repeatable daily quest grinds at level 85.  One seemingly obvious solution that does not appear to be on the table is the one that ROM already has.  Instead of trying to transition players after months of playtime, offer the same experience - in this case, grinding daily quests for fun, profit, and exp - from the earliest stage possible.  That way, you can focus your development efforts on making that one type of gameplay as appealing as possible.

Blizzard appears to have chosen to go the other direction.  Based in part on beta feedback asking for more quests, they appear to have concluded they could sell more copies by covering the grind-like aspects of the genre behind a constant but unsustainable change of scenery after every 10 killed rat-equivalents.  The good news is that 11+ million players appear to agree, opening their wallets each and every month and handing over their local currency to choose Blizzard's product over the competition.  The bad news is that the content has to run out sometime, and the transition is that much harder because of the choice (which most other studios have copied) not to prepare customers for the change. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

EQ2 Plan: Subscription Content, Expansion Features

SOE wisely waited for the second day of E3 so that their EQ2 interview with Massively would have a bit more of the stage to themselves.  Unfortunately, their recent history has me a bit skeptical about what they're selling. 

What they say...
In the short term, low level players can get "leaping" and "gliding" mounts to tide them over until they qualify for flight.  (Personally, I think the leaping sounds cool and far less likely to trivialize outdoor quest content than flight, guess it's too late to trade the latter back out of the game.) 

In the medium term, Smokejumper envisions providing regular content in the quarterly paid subscription updates and concentrating on "adding features to the game" in paid expansions.  In the long run, the producer claims to be considering a la carte sales of the expansion features in lieu of fixed expansion sets.

What do they mean?
The catch is that having content in the content updates was something that the game used to do on a more regular basis in expansion eras past.  (In fairness, the leanest patches were probably set in motion before Smokejumper arrived.)  Meanwhile, earlier this year the game made a point of adding an expansion-ish feature - a new race - for an a la carte fee IN ADDITION TO the paid expansion box, which also contained most of the new content that the game has received over the last year. 

It's possible that they do legitimately want to run an expansion that focuses on the low to middle level range, which is presumably where free EQ2X players are petering out over on the game's new most popular server.  Currently, free players have no reason to pay for any expansions until they hit level 80.  Revamping Freeport and Qeynos into "multi-level quest hubs" fits with this theme, as does a greater emphasis on new features (since there is already a decent amount of content in the low levels).  Some of these - notably cross server grouping - are potentially a double edged sword when it comes to retaining current players, but I guess that's what they say about omelets and eggs.

Of course, they're going to want to sell expansions to veterans too, so the "features" might be expected to include something that gates content in practice (if not strictly by expansion ownership).  In that context, we get the last teaser - a game that already has 24 classes, which is arguably 12 or more classes too many for actually designing class niches - will be getting a 25th sometime this year. 

Much as I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt, a new class isn't content, and it isn't an expansion feature (since that is confirmed for next year), so it sure looks suspiciously like we're going to see a new class land alongside a new race in the cash store in a game that also charges a subscription and $40 per year for an expansion box regardless of how much content is ready to go in that box.  If there is an extra fee involved, the odds that the new addition will be on a level playing field with its 24 compatriots goes down rapidly.  I'll be happy if I have to quote this post and eat some crow in six months, but I think the odds against are pretty good. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

E3 Impressions

In the run-up to E3, Zubon looked at the slate and saw sequels, tie-ins, and remakes as far as the eye could see.  I didn't put that much advance effort into analyzing E3, but I did leave a few quips in Keen's liveblog of the Sony press conference.  I don't follow console news nearly as closely as I follow MMO's, so it's a pretty sad state of affairs when I mostly already knew about all the stuff that I was at all interested in.  A few random linkspams:

  • Sony's new phone/portable system seems ill-advised.  You can't sell games for a system that people don't own, which makes the system not worth owning because people don't make games for it.  If I were in a position to offer one piece of advice to someone trying to launch a gaming phone, it would have been not to make it an exclusive for AT&T.  Even the crowd of spoon-fed journalists did NOT react well to this announcement from Sony, and for good reason - the saga of how much iPhone users (and would be users) hated AT&T went beyond technology enthusiasts to the mainstream.  I'm sure not running out to pay $300 plus a data plan on a carrier I don't want, so I guess I'm just not going to be paying to play any of the game's they're making for the thing. 

    Note: Two commenters point out that the PS Phone (which was mentioned during the conference) is actually a separate device from the "Vita", which is available in wifi or 3G data versions (the latter shackled to AT&T).

  • Speaking of PS Phone games, they showcased a Diablo-looking "MMO" called Ruin in which one of the hyped features was that players would build their own "lair", and other players could attack your keep and you'd be "rewarded" for responding fast enough.  What happens if you don't answer the phone alert was not specified.  Where do I go to NOT sign up for the game where I lose my keep because I had my phone off while I was at work? 

  • Sony also unexpectedly brought CCP onto the big stage to announce that Dust 514 - the EVE-spinoff FPS - was bound exclusively for the PS3.  This game and the original EVE are in the same universe, and CCP has been saying since the concept was announced that battles in one game will affect the other. I have no idea how that will work (especially if there's a monthly fee attached to the PS3 game - will anyone stick around beyond the first month?), but CCP has been making stuff that wouldn't work for anyone else work for them for years now.  Also, I wonder how many people will "two-box" the FPS on the PS3 while their Eve ship does its mining-botting on the PC. 

  • The thing that I was most excited about was the Star Trek game trailer - mostly because I'd forgotten that there was another Star Trek movie coming out.  On the plus side, I'm sure 'shippers somewhere can do something suitably inappropriate with a Kirk/Spock coop shooter that includes Playstation Move (that's their version of the Wiimote, which will come in a phaser-shaped model for this game) support. 

  • Finally, in a bit of actual PC MMO news, Turbine has announced pre-order pricing and a September 27th release date for the Isengard expansion.  Doc Holiday has the important info - $30 for the expansion (three new zones and a higher level cap, though it's not clear how that will interact with free players), and additional packages that add $10 or $20 to the price tag in exchange for Turbine points, quest packs (if you don't already own them) and Rohirrim mounts/cosmetic outfits. 

    Personally, I already own the quest packs (from the old expansions) that might otherwise make the $50 a good deal for non-subscribers, and I don't care much about cosmetic mounts, so I'm inclined to wait and see.  In fairness, that's almost always my reaction. 

    (Note that these prices are in real world dollars, and may not be equivalent to post-launch pricing.  Turbine has not set a final Turbine Point cost for the expansion when it hits the in-game store, where it may be priced differently to account for TP sales.) 

It'll be interesting to see if anything more original emerges from the remainder of the show, but so far I'm relatively underwhelmed.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Digital Download Rising

One of the clever parts of Sony's PSN winback program is that it brings people into the PSN store.  I've been there a few times to pick up Rock Band songs or activate DLC that came with games, but it never occurred to me that you could download games that ship on Blu-Ray.  Turns out that they're actually smaller than your average MMO client. On top of that, some deals are actually competitive with discs - for example, Assassin's Creed 2 is available on the PSN store for the same price I'm seeing for discs online, but the PSN version comes bundled with all the DLC.  I don't know that I'd pay extra for the DLC if I already had the disc, but the digital version is a no-brainer if it comes with extra levels for free.

Digital downloads have been bumping up against retail for a while now in the MMO-scene.  I actually picked up Rift's digital download, and probably would have picked up the day 1 Cataclysm download if the local brick and mortar store hadn't offered a promo that beat Blizzard's price.  Last week we heard that EA is cutting out the digital middle-man for SWTOR, by reserving the game's download version for their own new download service.  I'm not sure what to make of this move, but I'll concede that I'm not sure what Direct Download contributed to my Rift download other than undercutting Trion's own price by 20%. 

I don't think we're going to see console games disappearing from stores the way that PC games have for years now anytime soon, but it certainly looks like the technology and the bandwidth are starting to catch up with the financial incentives - fewer middlemen and the ability to completely cut off resales - for this to happen. 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Single Player Kill Ten Rats

Seems like once a year or so that I clear out some time to work on console games.  In the last month, I've played through Portal 2 and now I'm working on Infamous (one of the free selections I took for the PSN hacking debacle.)  Like I the games I played last year, these both come from the school of cinematic game storytelling - attempt an objective until you succeed, see the next scene in the story, rinse and repeat.

Infamous has side quests, and I'm already finding types of "quests" that I'm not thrilled to be repeating.  The non-story missions come in a variety of flavors - rescue the hostages, destroy the truck, follow the courier on the rooftops, run a timed course across the roofs, and - my least favorite because the camera is your enemy - searching the walls of buildings for listening devices to destroy.  I'm enjoying the story and the game, but ironically I'm getting tired of the side quests faster than I get tired of the generally less varied "kill 10 rats, loot 10 foozles" model in MMO's.

Perhaps the problem is that this content feels like filler in between the more interesting story missions.  Alternately, perhaps the "persistent" social world of MMO's makes me more tolerant of this type of repetition.  Perhaps I was more tolerant of the same type of repetition in Assassin's Creed because the comparable missions that come up repeatedly (pickpocket, interrogate, eavesdrop, assassinate) are actually part of the main story (gathering information on your main target) and not just something that you do on the side because you're a nice (or evil) guy. 

Either way, variety apparently isn't everything. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Flight Of The Willfully Indifferent

Ferrel writes about what he sees as a growing trend of "willfully ignorant" players, who "don’t care enough to read, listen, or prepare for anything", but "always want in on groups and raids" despite this lack of preparation.  In his view, players who don't accept responsibility for preparing to contribute to groups should go back to soloing. 

I don't know that I quite reach the bar for "willfully ignorant".  In most MMO's I don't group at all, or only group if specifically asked by a guildie looking to avoid having to bring a PUG member.  I'm not afraid to say when I haven't run a zone before (which is often), and I do my best to listen to instructions if they are forthcoming.  In general, if the content requires more commitment than that, I probably don't care enough to do it.  Perhaps that makes me "willfully indifferent", and I have no problem heeding Ferrel's advice and going back to soloing. 

The catch is that developers are watching.  Case in point, the very next post on Ferrel's blog talks about how Trion changed Rift dungeon rewards from a model with highly challenging, highly rewarding dungons to less challenging, less rewarding dungeons that are more accessible to the willfully indifferent (and/or ignorant).  The same trend is going on in World of Warcraft right now, after the difficulty of the initial content in the latest expansion was higher than the willfully indifferent would tolerate.  In non-subscription games like DDO, Turbine can literally see by the numbers who is willing to pay for more solo content and unwilling to pay for more raids. 

If the majority of the market truly is making an intentional choice for the path of indifference and away from challenge, the motivated minority may need a better PR strategy than "go back to soloing".