Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Transparency In Loot

While I was out, Ferrel posted a survey on loot perspectives. I find the discussion as interesting for the perspective he attacks the problem from as a guild leader as for the actual age-old debate.  One of the questions posed is:

"Do you trust other players to award loot fairly or do you need to see some sort of tracking metric?"

As a player, my instinctive response to this question is that you're running with the wrong people, or at least the wrong loot system, if you think that transparency is the only way (or even an effective way) to protect yourself from being screwed over by your leadership.  In the ideal case, the value that I see for a tracking metric is primarily as a tool to help make decisions more quickly and in a way that results in an effective distribution of the loot. 

Based on Ferrel's longstanding interest in the leadership of guilds, I think he's coming at this from more of the administrative perspective.  In the real world, perhaps having more transparency might help mitigate the inevitable questions that get asked when the distribution of scarce loot happens not to work out in the favor of individual players. 

Interestingly, the survey responses are almost universally in favor of trust over accountability.  This is not a scientific random sample - in particular, a fair number of the respondents are in Ferrel's guild, which appears to be relatively free of loot drama - but I wonder if this is one of those odd cases where people on a whole distrust Congress but are fine with their particular Congressman (party affiliation permitting). 

Players, even when they're happy with their leadership, invest tremendous amounts of time, effort, and emotion in implementing loot systems that may or may not be any more fair/effective than using the in-game need/greed button.  I wonder whether it's really the resulting distribution that matters, or merely the feeling that players have done something to address the inequities inherent in assigning the scarce and random loot that plays such a large role in MMO incentives. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

End of the PAX Turbinica?

MMO News during the first half of my vacation was interesting enough to lure me out of hiding for a round-up post.  Spinks has a good summary of the news out of PAX week, which seemed like a slower convention by comparison.  What caught my eye was a pair of seemingly unrelated posts that suggest the honeymoon may be over for Turbine's touted and popular hybrid free to play business model.

Underwhelming DDO and LOTRO updates
Over in Middle Earth, players are concerned with what they're getting for their money in LOTRO's new expansion.  Syp's column at Massively calls Isengard "the Unfinished Expansion" and writes that it "feels a little weak" in comparison to the game's previous paid updates.  Turbine's CM's had to rush to head off a controversy by confirming that there would be no additional charge for the level 75 instances that would not be ready by the players who pay full price at the expansion's launch. 

Meanwhile, seemingly the biggest news for DDO out of PAX was that the new Artificer class will initially be limited to players who pay in the cash store.  The class will eventually be available as a favor unlock (think reputation or faction reward), but there will not be enough quests in the game to obtain the required favor until the next patch, which will presumably come 2-3 months after the class rolls out.  Non-subscribers should be relatively accustomed to this aspect of the DDO business model, but this marks the first time that subscribers will be forced to spend Turbine Points for access to a major character-building feature. 

Double-edged popularity?
One one level, I'm not sure how many stones should be thrown in this situation.  Both games are still delivering far more content to players than they were before their changeovers, and the premium options in both games allow players far greater flexibility to get by for less than $10-15 per month.  I would still prefer to pay a developer when they actually deliver something worth paying for, rather than paying a monthly fee whether or not they've done anything to earn it other than not kicking me off of the servers. 

That said, I think these two stories illustrate a shared flaw in the premium model used by both games, and one of my earliest observations of the DDO model - for a player who doesn't spend money on cosmetics and consumables, Turbine's monthly revenue will only drop each and every month as that player permanently unlocks the features they want and lives without the features they don't want.  This bargain is precisely the feature that makes the Turbine premium model so popular with players, but it leaves Turbine getting less and less money for the same amount of work as the playerbase matures.

In this context, it makes sense that Turbine would be interested in some combination of higher prices and less content.  Unfortunately for Turbine, players may not cooperate, and the flexibility of the models give players unprecedented leeway not to pay for stuff that isn't worth the price tag. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Vacation News Roundup

I'm still on blog vacation for another week and a half, but I've noticed a few tidbits that I felt like commenting on anyway.  Comments remain moderated, though I expect to be able to approve them over the next few days.

  • Disliking the fourth pillar
    Spinks' rundown
    of the SWTOR classes mentioned a detail that I hadn't considered.  Apparently, George Lucas is continuing to maintain that Jedi cannot get married without turning to the dark side.  This makes me less interested in the game - not because I really had my heart set on cyborz with my NPC's, but because the notorious forbidden love story from the second Star Wars prequel was not the one part of the Star Wars Universe that I've been dying to re-live in an MMO setting.  

    Specifics of this particular case aside, I see a potential issue with the "fourth pillar" approach here.  If you are going to put the story front and center, it becomes a bigger issue if players dislike the story you are trying to tell.  Moreover, I would imagine that Jedi who romance their NPC's are going to be the majority of players - the former because of the lore and the latter because that's what you do in Bioware games. If the gameplay impact of being a Republic-faction Jedi with Dark Side status turns out to be disadvantageous to game mechanics, Bioware will have some unhappy customers. 

  • WoW 4.3 update
    This week, we're hearing details of WoW's patch 4.3.  The mega-patch will include the now industry-standard cosmetic gear option that Blizzard has been resisting for about five years now.  There's a new storage system that will save Blizzard disk space by having a vendor who will create a new copy of item number whatever upon request, rather than storing all the details of your existing item (e.g. enchant, crafted by, what bank slot it is located in).  There will be new five-mans, which was basically expected.

    The one thing that I find surprising is that the patch will feature the Deathwing raid, and therefore will presumably serve as the Cataclysm finale.  I had expected this to be bumped to next year to shorten the window between Deathwing and the expansion now believed to be Pandaria.  While it's not uncommon for the last raid of a WoW expansion to sit for 9-12 months, Cataclysm is already somewhat widely viewed as a failure and nothing from this list sounds especially game-changing.  Unless Blizzard can finally deliver a WoW expansion in 18 months instead of 23-24, 2012 may not be kind to the WoW subscription count. 
  • Reinventing Warhammer
    Werit has the details
    of the free to play Warhammer spinoff. My view on this project echoes Tobold's.  Back in 2008, I genuinely enjoyed Warhammer's instanced "RVR" scenarios but generally found that the PVE game these battles were attached to did not compare favorably to the many other options out there.  On paper, ditching the PVE game allows Mythic to focus on balance, while opening up the door to more exotic races/classes/heroes/etc that might have been harder to fit into a holy trinity PVE game. 

    However, as Tobold suggests, this revamp almost certainly guarantees that I will never pay for the existing version of the game again.
Overall, it's been an interesting week.  We'll see if next week follows suit. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

PVD On Summer Break

Public service announcement: PVD is going on end of summer break for the back half of August.  Between vacation and various miscellany, I don't see a ton of time for either gaming or blogging about gaming in the next 2-3 weeks.  Perhaps I could have found time to sneak in a post or two, but it's easier all around for me to close up shop and not worry about "deadlines".  I should be back in time to wrap up PAX and laugh about how incorrect my incorrect predictions really were (hint: the main DDO prediction got blown out of the water this week, and even my Blizzcon predictions for October are looking shot). 

Comments will stay open until I actually hit the road, and I may or may not get in another post before the end of the week.  While I'm actually gone, all comments will be moderated for approval after I get back.  Have a good rest of summer, and I'll see you all around the beginning of September! 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

EQ2 Dungeon Tokens Testing Need Versus Greed

Lyriana's slow and steady journey through the instances of Velious is continuing, and I'm learning a bit more about the endgame armor system than I knew when I had my first piece crafted.  SOE has made some unusual choices when it comes to having items crafted from account bound group dungeon drops.  The system seems to be working, but it also blurs the lines between the traditional forms of need and greed.

Verifying Need
A tier three armor recipe
As detailed in Feldon's guide to Velious armor, there are three tiers of class-specific armor that can be crafted using tokens from the current expansion's single group (six players) dungeons.  All of these have in common the Primal Velium Shard, which will be familiar to players who are familiar with dungeon currencies in other games.  Your typical dungeon run awards somewhere between 3-5 shards, which are account-bound (as is most dungeon loot in EQ2, so that players with multiple level 90's can be flexible in which character they bring), and your typical piece of loot from the first two tiers will set you back between 20-33 shards, while the third tier wants as many as 45.

(In tiers 1 and 2, finding a crafter to turn your shards into armor saves you 5-8 shards off of the vendor price, and also excuses you from any faction requirements on the vendor.  Because you are going to need to farm up shards no matter what, and because the shards can also be used for higher tiers or "adornments" - EQ2's version of enchantments - most players head straight for the second tier; I've very seldom seen anyone advertise that they're crafting the tier one stuff.)

In tier two, also known as the Ry'Gorr armor because the NPC vendor is part of the Ry'Gorr orc faction, the player must supplement the shards with a polished gem.  The rough gems, which are account-bound, drop in regular instances and are rolled as regular loot.  However, as I learned when I went to get my first piece of armor, you can trade these items once a crafter has polished them - perhaps in part to protect players from being screwed by the random number generator (and the prospect that the gem will be a six-way roll if it does drop).

This means that we have a standard need before greed dungeon drop that sells for over a hundred plat on the broker.  In principle, you could inspect the players who roll need to determine whether they already have the piece of armor that can be crafted with that gem (or better).  Then again, is it legitimate to roll need because you can sell that gem for the plat you need to buy the gem for the piece you don't have yet, when you have no way of knowing whether the other rollers are doing the same?

The situation in the third tier gets even more complicated.  Instead of gems, the tier three armor costs the standard velium shards plus ore that is obtained by disenchanting regular loot items that drop in those dungeons.  In the tier one and two dungeons, I typically don't even roll greed on stuff my character doesn't intend to use, because someone else might at least have an alt that will use the account-bound gear.  In the third tier, I would need to obtain some of those drops to get the ore for my own armor, and, again, there's no good way to tell whether someone is rolling need for the gear, for the ore, for the cash to exchange for other ore, or just straight up for the cash.

Good idea?
On the one hand, I see where SOE is coming from with this system.  For the slots where I can have class-specific armor crafted, it's very rare that I'm going to want a generic dungeon drop, and that does reduce the system to a pure token grind.  That said, I don't know that I'm entirely comfortable with what this model does to the incentives in loot rolling, especially with cross-server grouping coming to the game possibly later this month.

Overall, the problem is a shortcoming of the genre-wide need before greed mechanic, rather than anything specific about EQ2's armor system.  I'm just not sure it's a good idea to have a system that tests community agreement of what constitutes need versus greed. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Pondering Pandaria

MMO-Champion reports that "Mists of Pandaria" is "extremely likely" the next WoW expansion.  While some folks are unconvinced, I'm inclined to trust the MMO-Champion track record

Hindsight is always easier than foresight - my best guess would be nowhere near the mark - but this makes a lot of sense in hindsight.  Regardless of the success or failure of Cataclysm's world revamp, which peppered with a few new zones in previously blank areas of map, the more traditional model with a new continent makes sense as a follow-up.  If Pandaria does turn out to be located on a previously unknown South Seas island, it is a logical battleground for an invasion by Azshara and the Naga.  There are relatively few other combinations of location and antagonist that players have heard of (especially through the Vashj'ir storyline in Cataclysm) and that are not similar to past foes (The Burning Legion again, or yet another Dragon Aspect gone evil). 

There are a few obstacles Blizzard has to deal with, if this is the expansion.  Panda haters are going to hate, and Panda lovers aren't going to be happy unless the race is playable for both factions, as Rohan suggests, which would be a first.  That said, I see no niche for a Brewmaster class, even if Blizzard does want to take the PR hit for marketing drunken cartoon pandas in a game that kids play, which might mean no new class.  WoW expansions have always included either new races or a new class, and Blizzard had previously suggested that two new races every expansion would be tough due to art requirements.  One new, neutral race mitigates that concern by halving the art requirements, even if two panda factions require Alliance and Horde colors.

There's also the issue of China, which was rumored to have prompted the removal of the Pandaren as the Alliance race for the 2007 Burning Crusade expansion.  Six months ago, I would have guessed that Blizzard no longer cared about China due to the likelihood that the government would refuse to approve the next expansion no matter what its contents.  However, after a rocky period that saw WoW China shut down outright and the Wrath expansion delayed by nearly two years, Blizzard seems to have finally mended relations; Cataclysm reportedly hit China a mere seven months late.  I don't have a good answer for this question, other than that Blizzard apparently thinks they can do something involving Pandaren - perhaps the Chinese version of the expansion will have all the Pandas find-replaced with Worgen? 

In the end, my guess is that Pandas, much like EQ2 Beastlords, will arrive because people want to see them.  Yes, some people will argue that this is WoW jumping the shark, but others have been asking for the Pandaren at every Blizzcon since the first.   By the time you're talking about a seven year old MMO, your target audience really should be your current playerbase.  Very few players who have stuck with the game through Cataclysm are going to walk off because they think Pandaren are a joke, while players who have already made the decision to leave are free to mock the move as validating their departure.  Sounds like as good a choice as Blizzard could make under the circumstances. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Visit To Tatooine

I recently had the opportunity to take that Star Wars MMO people are talking about for a spin.  Though I can't say that this was anywhere near the top of my priorities list, I decided to bite - it was a limited time offer that not a lot of people will get. 

There were something like eight character classes to choose from, but I didn't have that much trouble picking one given that this was not a character that is going to be around forever.  With respect to everyone who gets excited about Bounty Hunters, Smugglers, and Stormtrooper-equivalents (seriously?), if I'm going to spend an hour in a Star Wars MMO, I'm going to pick Jedi.  A couple appearance customization choices later and Farwel Stawag (Farewell Star Wars Galaxies - see what I did with those links?), an Ithorian Jedi, was ready to zone in. 

An eye trunk, my Jedi has.
I've never played SWG before, and I don't expect that I ever would have, were it not for the coincidence of upgrading to a Station Pass shortly before the game's final billing cycle.  As it was, I figured it was worth an hour of my time to take a quick look at the game before Lucas pulls the plug, if for no other reason than in case I decide I'd like to tourist the game's final world (galaxy?) events. 

I'm never going to know what this game was like before its notorious "New Game Experience", or even what it is now for those who still invest time in a product that is slated to come down in a few months.  Based on my early impressions, though, I can say that this is not the Star Wars MMO I would have been looking for if I was in the market for one. 

Why narrate the intro, when you have the Star Wars slanty text license?
Many details, including races, lore NPC's, music, and even the opening text crawl, are right out of the films.  Unfortunately, the feel of the game is about what NGE critics have always said - an attempt to retrofit a more action-based combat system onto a game that was not designed for it.  Tacking on a few quests to kill 10 Tusken Raiders does not bring this game up to par for what I'd expect of a modern quest-based solo MMO.  When I hear about what the game was before, it seems like a big price for SOE to exact from the players of that era for a revamp that would have faced an uphill battle even if the effort wasn't best known for driving the game's most dedicated fans away in dramatic fashion. 

My Jedi gained a few levels on the NGE's introductory space station, helpfully populated with lore NPC's and generic kill quests.  By level seven, I could throw my stick or knife (apparently handing out lightsabers to new Jedi is a line that even the NGE would not cross) and fire off force lightning.  In a game like WoW, this progression would have been fine.  In a world that is specifically set prior to The Empire Strikes Back, it seems weird to see Jedi of all shapes and sizes firing off force attacks every which way.  I suppose I should be grateful for the lack of lightsaber - I find the concept of whacking something with a blade of pure energy that can cut through anything and only doing 20 damage pretty darned stupid looking, whether or not they got the sound effect right. 

By far the more interesting part of my visit to the game came when I finally zoned off of the starbase and onto Tatooine.  There, I saw players with familiar vehicles and gear, going about their lives amongst NPC Jawas and Tusken Raiders.  Personally, I was a bit lost, since the highly structured introduction does very little to prepare the player for the wide range of crafting, factions, and other things that await in the game's real universe.  Even so, I have to tip my cap - this part of the experience was actually different from what other MMO's offer. 

(Aside: To the extent that this was not the Star Wars MMO I am (or am not) looking for, is whether TOR will be.  On one hand, I can definitely appreciate the concept of effective use of a license; Rift put a lot of effort into their original world, but I may actually have a better idea of what my level 7 Ithorian Jedi with an hour of play time is like than my level 40 High Elf with many more hours under her belt. That said, I remain skeptical primarily because I didn't enjoy the gameplay in Dragon Age, and nothing I've heard from people who have actually played TOR (as opposed to watching promo videos) reassures me that TOR will be different.) 

Regardless of what happens with TOR, the MMO community is losing a unique experience when SWG closes its doors in December.  Though this game is not something I was interested in, right down to the end, I still offer it a sad final salute.  No one wins when an MMO closes down, especially when even its revised state is still somewhat unique in the current market.  Moreover, SWG's continuing community demonstrates that some folks who have weathered all of this game's trials are definitely going to miss it when it's gone, and that's a day that none of us are eager to face.  
When riding off into the sunset, who needs a mount when you can have a speeder?
It hopefully does not smell worse on the inside. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

ROM Gear Lessons For Diablo III's Auction House

Much of the discussion of Blizzard's controversial decision to allow player-to-player item sales for real money in Diablo III has focused on the tired "pay to win" argument.  Like Ferrel, Keen, Rohan, and others, I'm not so interested in this side of the equation because how other players obtain their gear does not affect me directly.  I'm more concerned about the indirect effects of putting the developer in the business of making money when players replace their gear. 

Runes of Magic Gear Upgrades
The best example from my current experience is Runes of Magic and its cash store gear upgrades.  While both models do allow players to get what they want in-game with some (possibly prohibitive) amount of time investment, I would argue that the presence of gear boosts in the cash shop means that Runewaker/Frogster see more revenue specifically when new gear is added to the game, much as DIII's auction fees will almost certainly provide more revenue for Blizzard when new gear is added to the game.  Any MMO expects to make money off of new content somehow (box sales, renewed subscriptions, item shops), but this approach biases the payment model towards additions that replace players' gear.

If you look at ROM's content history, you'd see what my model predicts - compared to traditional subscription games, the ROM level cap has increased far more frequently, but with fewer additional levels at each increase, allowing players to park and farm up new gear at each new level range before the cap rises again.  There are benefits to this model - players get content more frequently, and all of the new content gets used while it is the current level cap, where games that raise the cap by 10 levels at a time often end up with underutilized content in the middle of that level range.   However, you also see insane vertical progression, with all the problems that this entails - my level 53 Druid has fewer than 3,000 HP in solo gear, while the Druid Encyclopedia recommends 5K-15K for dungeons in my level range. 

Moreover, you will also see dramatic swings in relative class balance.  The recently concluded Chapter 3 era saw Scouts topping the DPS charts by as much as 3-fold, while the talk in Chapter 4 is that Rogues are the new scouts, just as the game added a third class slot to let those disgruntled Scouts take up Rogue-ing.  Every game has class balance issues and flavor of the month builds.  Not every game makes more money when players replace their gear, and nothing makes ROM players replace their gear faster than changing archetypes outright. 

The Post DIII Era
Bobby Kotick's comments about exploiting his franchises aside, I don't expect that Blizzard would take this in a direction that immediately ruins a flagship product.  You can't sell virtual goods to people who aren't playing your game, and a game that's balanced assuming that players are fully decked out in the rarest of the low drop rate gear from the cash auction house will drive players away.  We can probably expect extremely rare items powerful enough to affect game balance, especially on higher difficulty levels, but that was a feature of the original game anyway. 

If anything, I think a fair number of would-be-Gevlons will waste a lot of time and real world money on posting fees - and, gods help them, attempts to buy low and sell high - as demand to get real cash for DIII loot outstrips willingness to pay real cash for all but the rarest of DIII loot.  That said, I think the longterm effects of having publishers demand the revenue from this feature will only worsen the vertical progression issues that are already causing huge problems in MMO's. 

Also, as Stabs points out, the legal implications are potentially staggering.  Can you sue a ninja looter?  How long before someone decides to test the EULA in court by suing Blizzard for a nerf or server crash that cost them real money?  Can Blizzard flag accounts to ensure that the rare drops go to people with a proven history of selling them, rather than keeping the loot and depriving Blizzard of their auction fees on an item that might not drop again for weeks?  Would they have to disclose it if they do so?  Is this system effectively online poker with the killing of monsters substituted for the random drawing of cards?

Though I don't think that pay to win is the direct problem, I think Scott Jennings is right when he says that this will take games in a direction that is bad for players, but that we've already lost the battle against it because the market will tolerate the new model.  It's not the apocalypse, but it's also not a good day for online gaming. 

Monday, August 1, 2011

When Stealth Doesn't Pay

Like many games, EQ2 has a dungeon armor currency.  Unlike some of those games, solo players can do a daily quest to obtain a shard per day - a reasonably generous offer given that prices on tier 2 dungeon armor have been slashed to a mere 20 shards per (if you have the requisite gem to have it crafted). 

In an attempt to try and provide some variety in the quest, there are actually three separate variants, all of which involve sneaking into a keep full of giants and generally messing with them.  The Rambo approach, in which you kill everything, gets you the promised shard, but there's a bonus (50 gold) for not killing the generic guards and an additional bonus (a gem worth 500 rep to the current expansion faction of your choice) for completing the quest without aggroing any of the generic guards. 

It's a good concept, but the execution is a bit flawed.  There are several ways to lure guards into other rooms, but certain random combinations of objectives can force you to summon guards into a room where you're going to need to sneak later on.  More to the point, the quest goes much more quickly if you disregard the optional objective not to be seen, because you can aggro mobs and run until they leash (preserving your 50 g bonus).  The difference is so great - especially if you get an unfortunate combination of objectives - that it's rarely worth taking the extra time.  If you need the rep, you can almost always get it faster by questing for that faction.

Guess this is the catch when you try and make things more interesting for players?