Monday, October 31, 2011

Poll Results: Blizzcon Reaction

Based on an impression that the reaction to Blizzcon and Pandaria was generally strongly positive or strongly negative, I asked the following poll question:

What was your reaction to Blizzcon?
  • Pandas = Jumped The Shark. Will never pay Blizzard again. - 42 Votes, 32%
  • Signed up for the year-long subscription. - 28 Votes, 21% (includes my vote)
  • Something in between these two extremes. - 60 Votes, 46%
There is indeed a silent moderate plurality in between the two extremes, and it's possible that these folks would take the lead in a legitimate random scientific poll.  Even so, I wonder if Blizzard may actually be happy with these sorts of numbers. 

There's a solid core - larger than I had expected - who like the direction the game is taking enough to make the long term commitment.  There are a larger number, at least amongst those who are willing to come to blogs to vote and comment, who are dissatisfied, but how many of those were really going to be in Blizzard's corner for the long haul in any case? 

Where cash store mounts are concerned, I've long maintained that anyone willing to cancel their subscription over a cosmetic mount was already on their way out the door for other reasons.  An entire expansion of Pandaren may be a bigger impact on the tone of the game, but I think the direction of WoW (both in general and under the recent dev team) is reasonably well understood at this point.  Perhaps in this context, it actually makes sense that so many people already know what they think of the expansion.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

50/50/50 ROM Class Updates

Earlier this week, I hit 50 on my two "secondary" classes in Runes of Magic, Warden and Rogue.  Combined with my Druid levels (53), this means that I can finally have all of the 50/50 dual class elite skills for all three combinations.  (These previously required a lengthy group quest, but are now awarded by easy repeatable quest certificates as part of the game's accelerated catch-up zone.)  Here's what the six pairings do:
  1. Druid/Rogue (D/R): My original class pairing, this one is a DPS caster that uses the Rogue energy bar for spells.  This leaves your mana bar free for self-heals (slightly debuffed by your shadow damage form) and utility.  I really like how this class plays, finding this combination was a big part of what got me to stick around in ROM.
  2. Druid/Warden (D/Wd): This class is a hybrid-ish healer that also has some buff abilities, including a highly coveted buff to base magic damage levels.  Unfortunately, this pairing is nigh unusable because most of my skill points on my Druid are sunk into DPS abilities (in particular D/R elites, which I can't even use as D/Wd).
  3. Rogue/Druid (R/D): This was the pairing I had to take originally in order to be allowed to play D/R, because you had to get the Rogue levels somehow.  It's great at low levels when mobs die quickly and then you can heal the damage from a mana bar you don't use in combat.  Unfortunately, at higher levels mobs live longer and deal more damage.  Though Rogues do get to wear leather armor, the Druid casters actually feel more durable with cloth plus a shield and self-heals.  Because the R/D wants melee stats, the self-heals aren't going to be impressive enough to increase survivability or offset the reduced DPS for not having a more offensive secondary.
  4. Rogue/Warden (R/Wd): This build is a bit of a glass cannon of melee DPS, but it's a ton of fun.  Rogue energy regen is balanced assuming that you will be able to supplement your damage from your subclass (which the R/D cannot, since their general and elite skills are heals and buffs).  The Warden fits the bill perfectly, with a full blue mana bar to power additional melee attacks.  The 50/50 elite skill actually spawns a pair of Warden pets to do extra DPS for 15 seconds.  Unfortunately, there is very little in the way of survival, which hurts in a game that still boasts a healthy exp penalty on death.
  5. Warden/Rogue (Wd/R): This is an offensive Warden pairing that can burn mana very quickly for major damage, or throttle back and rely on the Rogue energy bar for more sustained DPS.  This was definitely the way to go for levels 1-32, as the Rogue secondary allows you to dual wield.  After level 32, Wardens can use 2H weapons, and their abilities are a bit more geared towards that approach. 
  6. Warden/Druid (Wd/D): This is a more hybrid approach to the Warden.  At low levels, the class is borderline painful to play because Wardens already burn through mana very quickly, and adding Druid spells only exacerbates this weakness.  Once you hit the mid-30's, things turn around very quickly. 

    To compensate for not being able to spam attacks, Wd/D's get a buff at 30/30 that turns their already impressive 2H autoattacks into massive magic-assisted strikes at no ongoing mana cost.  At 35/35, a newly revised elite skill turns one of the general purpose Warden melee attacks into a substantial AOE heal.  This allows me to choose the most offense-oriented pet/buff combinations (generally sacrificing the support Nature Crystal for more crit and then letting the Rogue-like Oak Walker add to my DPS), knowing that I still have my general purpose Druid heal available if needed.  The Nature Crystal, which provides buffs and cannot aggro (or be killed by) mobs is also a good choice in groups. 
Overall, the two pairings I enjoy the most are the D/R and the Wd/D.  I may or may not continue to level the Rogue, but I don't feel a ton of pressure to do so since I'm not planning to do much with the Wd/R and additional Rogue levels aren't going to upgrade skills I actually use on the D/R pairing.  The big issue is gear. 

My three classes span three of ROM's four armor types, and theoretically the Druid could use separate armor for DPS or healing (if I were playing D/Wd, which I'm not planning to thanks to the skill and gearing issues).  They also all want different weapons, which are the single slot (or slots) that has the biggest effect on DPS/healing levels.  Some gear can be shared, but the game supposedly gets increasingly gear dependent at higher levels (which I am going to hit very shortly). 

One one level, I do respect the idea of having players spend effort to specialize their characters.  I also think that the new third class option is still a huge improvement, since it gives more options to avoid a specific pairing that you do not enjoy (like the R/D).  Unfortunately, this all may mean that I'm going from six choices, half of which I enjoy, to maybe one that remains playable in a few levels.  It would be nice if there were some more middle ground. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

WoW Prices in October 2012

In my post about the WoW annual plan, Nils comments:
"If only Blizzard had known that lowering the monthly rate from $13 to $8 would make you subscribe for 12 months instead of 2-4 :)"
They almost certainly were aware of this, since it's basic macroeconomics that there will be a larger number of people who will buy a product at a lower price point.  The tricky part is figuring out when the increased sales to people who would not have paid the higher price are outweighed by the lost revenue from people who were willing to pay the full amount.  Perhaps their confidence in retaining subscribers is really low, perhaps they are concerned about the effect that the exodus has on the players who remains, or perhaps Tobold is correct that they hope that free copies of DIII will drive future RMT auction house fees.

All issues of why aside, there's an interesting quirk to this price drop in that it is temporary.  Come late October 2012, the rate goes back up to $13 (with the six month commitment).  A cynic could argue (Kring did in the comments) that the solution is to charge $60 for the presumptive first DIII expansion and just duplicate the plan out another year on the theory that it worked once. I'm just not convinced that a DIII expansion could be ready in time to fact into a purchasing decision in October 2012 (when it will be likely be just announced, trending towards a Q3 2013 launch).  Also, won't they want to actually be paid for their work on DIII at some point?

Will we see an actual cut to the multi-month fee?  Some other combination of incentives?  Is the plan to prop this thing up until it can be incorporated into the hypothetical Blizzard all-access pass with Titan?  Whatever happens, it will be interesting to watch. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Paying More For Flexibility

After deliberating the new "annual pass" to WoW, with the "free" copy of Diablo III, I decided to pull the trigger. 

Nils, despite his funny European currency, is not wrong when he points out that this is a bad "bet" if you look at it as a pre-order of Diablo III coupled with a longterm subscription at whatever is left over divided by twelve months.  Based on my past gaming habits, I would probably have paid for 2-4 months of WoW time - at a cost of $30-60 - between now and November 2012, had I not taken this "deal".  If the sole goal is to pay as little as possible, I may well "lose" somewhere in the neighborhood of $36-66.

What $66 will buy you
That said, I also think I'm getting more, as a result of being able to log in during the 8-10 months when I otherwise would not have been able to play for lack of a subscription.  A few examples:

  • This evening I am exploring the updates to WoW's Halloween event.  I would not have paid $15 to resubscribe for a month just for this project.  The Lunar Festival supposedly has similar updates.  Some of my "lost" $66 can cover access to world events.
  • My mage has yet to finish the regular heroic dungeons.  Once he's through these, it will be on to the two Zandalar instances.  Then there will be a third tier with the new zones in patch 4.3.  Finally, there will be the EZ-mode Deathwing encounter tuned for PUG's.  I would like to see all of this stuff at least once.  Could I have done that in a single month, by paying $15, clearing off my calendar, and spending every single night in randomly generated WoW dungeon groups?  Probably, yes.  Am I happy to spend some of the $66 so I can spread that experience out over a more leisurely pace?  Yes. 
  • I have no intention of leveling a Monk to the new level cap during the Pandaria beta, as I did with a DK during the Wrath beta.  Nowadays, my time is limited enough that I'm going to invest it on characters I actually get to keep.  That said, I expect that I will get some entertainment value out of being able to sign and preview mechanics changes, learn where flight masters are, etc. 
  • There's also a mount involved, which I'm assuming will be usable as a ground-capable flying mount.  Currently, both of my level 85's spend most of their time on the Horseman's mount, because I can't be bothered to write a macro or devote an extra hotbar spot to a second mount for locations that do not allow flight.  If the new horse is a substitute, at least I will have a bit more variety.  I would not have paid anything for this, but I will probably use it once I receive it.  
Like Anjin, who also signed up for the annual pass, it is not my plan to sign on every night, get back into raiding, or stop playing the other games I play.  Quite the opposite, not having a monthly timer on my WoW subscription makes me less concerned about taking time to do other things.  I could have had this deal at any time by paying the $156 for two 6 month subs, but that was more than I think it is worth.  By cutting it down to $96/12 months, the number becomes something I am willing to pay, especially with some extra's thrown in. 

(And yes, incidentally, this entire analysis assumes that Pandaria will not arrive prior to November 2012.  If the expansion arrives in August or something - earlier than expected, but the expansion definitely looked further along than past expansions at their Blizzcon debuts - suddenly I'm likely to be satisfying my "commitment" with time I would have purchased anyway.  Like the perks, I consider this possibility of actually "winning" the bet to be an extra, rather than part of the math.)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Poll: What was your reaction to Blizzcon?

New poll up on the blog, since I haven't done one of these in a while.  My impression is that the overwhelming majority of Blizzcon reactions have been extremely positive or extremely negative.  Your options (on the sidebar at PVD) are:

What was your reaction to Blizzcon?

  • Pandas = Jumped The Shark. Will never pay Blizzard again.
  • Signed up for the year-long subscription.
  • Something in between these two extremes.
I will probably only leave this open for a week or so, since I'm more interested in the immediate reaction than the longterm.  Go vote!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Blizzard's Panda Gambit

The major announcements of Blizzcon 2011 are in the books, and I made enough predictions over the course of four separate prediction posts that I was practically guaranteed to get some of the calls right by sheer force of numbers.  The reception amongst people who blog about how they are either no longer satisfied with - or indeed no longer playing - WoW has been predictably bad, though I will admit to a bit of surprise that this seems to have comprised almost my entire blogroll. 

Personally, perhaps because my expectations were so low, I am surprised by how much stuff the game is getting in the next expansion.  I'm even considering the year-long subscription deal, even though I hate long term subscriptions. 

Expansion basics
As I wrote in August when news of the trademark broke, in hindsight a new continent with five levels and neutral playable Pandaren were the obvious call - a return to the pre-Cataclysm formula.  I did not think we would see a new class in general, or the Brewmaster in particular due to the alcohol question, and I would have said that I did not expect a fifth tanking class if I had not already dismissed a new class.  Wrong on all counts (albeit with the Brewmaster as a spec of monks). 

While most melee DPS in WoW have some passive self-healing, a true melee-based healer is a niche that most other MMO's have and WoW does not.  Assuming they don't chicken out on the "no auto-attack" plan, a DDO-style martial arts class will fill a previously unoccupied melee DPS niche.  I still don't know what they're thinking about the tank tree, and they may not either, other than wanting the new shiny to be able to queue as tank to help queue times. 

Overall, this was precisely what people should have expected, other than people who are offended because they feel that the fictional pandas Blizzard created are inappropriate for the fictional world that Blizzard created and owns.  Personally, I see no reason to take the lore more seriously than its owners do.   

New features
What I really wasn't expecting was a number of new features.

Back in January, Tobold suggested the new expansion would have public quests, while my tongue-in-cheek response (and followup explanation) was that I thought WoW's dungeon finder could fill the niche for unscheduled group content.  Turns out we were both half right/wrong - the new PVE "Scenarios" will be set in world locations (similar to LOTRO skirmishes) but will be non-public and filled using the dungeon finder mechanic (and tuned to allow non-holy trinity groups to complete them). 

The Crab hinted at a talent revamp, and I correctly guessed that some key abilities would be automatically granted based on spec, but I didn't see the complete removal of trees coming.  Realistically, I think there will still be optimal specs in the new "six talent points at level 90" system, but I won't miss having to pick between interesting abilities and passive DPS. 

And then we have the Pokemon pet battle system.  This was a total surprise to me, and it is almost certain to be a huge hit.  Other games have tried stuff like this - notably EQ2's arena pets from 2005 - but layering this system on top of the existing minipets, when so many of us already have 50-150 of them, was a brilliant move.  The gameplay would have to be truly terrible for this to be anything short of massively popular. 

The Diablo III deal
And then, we have the curious package deal - players who commit to a one year subscription to WoW get a free copy of Diablo III and access to the Pandaria beta (and a mount, if you care about these things).

The downside is immediately obvious - Blizzard must be really nervous about retention over the next year.  Between SWTOR, possibly GW2, and the always slow end-of-expansion lull (at the end of an already poorly-received expansion, and with Pandaria possibly not even launching during the one year window), one can see why.  Viewed purely as a Veteran reward for a one-year WoW sub, this is probably a bad deal.

Then again, consider the cost.  One year of game time at the six-month subscription rate costs $156.  (Blizzard will allow single month and even game time card plans, but there's no reason not to take the best multi-month rate once you've already committed not to cancel.) 

Diablo III will MSRP for $60, and will sell well enough that you will have to pay that price if you want to play the game before 2014.  I'm not even that excited about DIII, but I'm sure I'll want to see the story at least once since I did love DII back in the day.  If you are going to buy DIII anyway, this deal is effectively one year of WoW, plus access to the Pandaria beta if you're so inclined, for $96, or $8/month with your paid DIII pre-order.

(Two bonuses for Blizzard - this effectively wipes out the secondary market for Pandaria beta keys, and it puts a lot of DIII pre-orders directly into their hands as digital presales, eliminating the retail middleman.)   

I do not currently have a WoW subscription, my last paid time expired in July, I don't know when I would next resubscribe at the normal rate, and I would very likely spend less than $96 on WoW subscription time between now and next October.  However, the way in which I would "save" that money is by not logging in when I wouldn't mind to visit Azeroth for a weekend, world event, or even a single evening, because I don't think I will extract $15 worth of value out of paying for a one month subscription.   At $8/month, WoW becomes a game I can log into whenever I feel like doing so, alongside multiple other non-subscription games where I do just that.

I'm not 100% sold because I doubt that Pandaria will arrive with much, if any, time to spare out of the year, but the deal is tempting enough that I'm definitely considering it. 

The WoW Outlook
Like many others, I'm not entirely satisfied with Cataclysm.  Blizzard did what people accuse them of not doing - they tried to do something genuinely different by spending much of their effort overhauling massive amounts of content - but the results did not work out that well.   In that context, I entered Blizzcon with unusually low expectations, and came out pleasantly surprised. 

Might I be underestimating the popular distaste for the Pandas?  Perhaps.  Might they fail to execute their ambitious plans, including yet another gutting and overhauling of the talent system?  Absolutely.  Are they likely to take until next fall, or even the holidays, developing an expansion that the game desperately needs before next summer?  Most likely. 

With all of those caveats, what they say they would like to do over the next year is for the most part what I want them to do over the next year.  Regardless of the outcome, my outlook for Blizzard is much more positive coming out of Blizzcon than it was going in - where this writer is concerned, Blizzard's Panda Gambit is a success. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Blizzard-style Marketing: Now SWTOR is the Master (but only of Evil)?

Blizzard's marketing department is somewhat notorious for attempting to steal other MMOs' thunder - I correctly predicted their Rift launch antics about a month in advance.  I suppose it was only a matter of time before one of their competitors returned the favor. 

With Blizzcon and the presumptive announcement of WoW's Mists of Pandaria expansion less than a day away, EA has dropped a press embargo on the SWTOR beta.  One of Bioware's folks was quick to point out that the drop applies only to press - as Syp points out, bloggers who do not make money on how many page views they get (or do not get) on embargo drop day because they were included (or not) have to stay silent a bit longer. 

Personally, I don't have a problem in principle with the strategy - Blizzard has earned whatever karma they get on this front.  That said, I'm not convinced it will work.  Even with the relatively controlled press audience, Keen reports that the reactions are mixed or even lackluster.  Perhaps there are some people who aren't aware that there is a SWTOR or that it is coming out at the end of the year.  These folks may remain ignorant after the new WoW expansion gets the front page of every news site tomorrow anyway.  I don't know if they're going to make it all the way to the keynote, but even getting to the night before without the full details of the expansion posted on MMO-Champion is a bit of a coup for Blizzard compared to past years. 

At the end of the day, I think the strategy is a bit misguided for the same reasons it is misguided when Blizzard does it to other companies - I don't think most players are making purchasing decisions on games that are out now (or shortly) based on things that may be worth playing in the future (e.g. SWTOR's December release, versus almost certainly 6-12 months for the WoW expansion). If SWTOR doesn't get all the coverage they otherwise would have earned (good or bad) because they got buried under Blizzcon news, well, I guess it's only appropriate since overcoming his old master only worked out so well for Vader. 

P.S. Yes, I still think that the expansion will be Pandas, come back and laugh at me this time tomorrow.  Based on the schedule for an entire panel devoted to talent trees, they're probably messing with that system again.  My guess is that they will re-open the system a bit to cross-spec points, but remove key spec-defining abilities to a separate category based on points spent in the primary tree, akin to Rift's "root" system, to prevent the old cherry picking issues.  In fact, the Crab had suggested allowing the 10 out-of-tree points to be spent anywhere in the other trees, not just in the bottom tiers; we may be looking at a system where tiered "trees" are removed altogether, with the remaining "non-spec-defining" talents freely available based on level (i.e. no wasting points on talents that modify level 60 spells before level 60).

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Triumph of the Leaping Lizards

In principle, I don't spend all my time earning raptor-related mounts, but that happens to be how things worked out this week.  There were two time-sensitive things going on in EQ2 at the moment - the always clever annual Halloween event, and the second part of an expansion prelude event that seeks to concoct a lore explanation for why we're suddenly getting Beast Lords. I'm not currently paying for an EQ2 subscription, but this is precisely the scenario where an EQ2X account comes in handy.  So, I dusted off my Inquisitor and got to work.

The Saliraptor, which comes in black for crafters and white for adventurers.
The events I came for were basically what I expected, but the visit reminded me that I had yet to obtain the game's new "leaping" mounts.  SOE promised that flight would remain an exclusive perk for high level Velious expansion owners, but they did also just spend a fair chunk of time redecorating most zones in the game to allow flying mounts.  The compromise was a new set of leapers for characters in their 30's, and "gliders" for characters in their 60's.  I never bothered to do these quests because Lyriana can already fly under her own power.  My mid-30's Inquisitor, on the other hand, was in the right level range, and promptly completed the questlines for both the adventuring and crafting forms of the leaper.

On the ground, including in areas that are not yet flight-enabled, leapers are slower than regular ground mounts.  The difference, in flight-enabled areas, is that they can jump.  Really high.  Like on top of buildings and up sheer cliffsides high.  The leapers also come with immunity to falling damage, which means that you won't kill yourself by leaping off a cliff or jumping towards a bridge and missing. 

It's an interesting mechanic - the jump is high and long enough that you can basically avoid combat almost as well as if you were on a flying mount, but this method takes a bit more attention to ensure that you don't fall off narrow landing spots, get stuck under terrain, etc.  Touching down on the ground also helps spot quest items, some of which aren't visible from too high above the terrain.

(The level 60 version supposedly adds a slow-gliding option that increases your travel distance and control.  I can see some value in this - when the leaper hits the end of its forward momentum, it basically drops straight down like a rock, in a way where a slow-falling mount would manage to coast across.) 

I've never been that fond of player-controlled flying mounts - I think that what we give up in terms of avoiding/trivializing content is not worth what we get from the experience of flying over the world, and I think that 99% of the benefits can be achieved with either NPC-controlled flight or player-controlled flight in specific constrained areas where being able to steer actually contributes to gameplay (e.g. airborne bombing runs).  As far as compromises go, the leaping lizard is not bad.   

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Triumph of the Rift Raptor

It's been another few months in the life of Rift, which means time for another World Event, and the game's third Welcome Back weekend.  Telhamat made good use of the time, advancing from level 43 to 48, collecting a complete set of the (conveniently green) rare Transplanar armor, and completing the world event's Raptor mount.
Disapproving raptor disapproves.
World Events
I haven't been present for all of Rift's world events, but the three that have happened during free retrial weekends have all been very similar - one easy daily in town, a couple of quests to close rifts in the world (with event-specific rift invasions which open in zones that might not ordinarily be invaded by that elemental plane), and a token vendor in town with various goodies.  This time was only unusual in that a single weekend was enough time to snag the tokens I needed for the mount, the non-combat pet, an epic hat, and a larger backpack off the event vendor in some future phase. 

As Chris points out in pictoral form, the bad guys don't seem to be catching on that a couple of invasions aren't going to turn the tide and let them win.  Then again, this may be the point.  NPC invasions function as an extremely tame substitute for RVR - unlike enemy players, the devs can be sure that the NPC's won't throw matches, and won't get upset that they always lose. 

Invasion population
In one weekend, I earned more than enough Rift currency to collect all six pieces of the Transplanar gear set, plus a "synergy crystal" to provide a choice of set bonus options.
I'm finally high enough in levels to do zone invasions in the well-populated endgame zones.  This also means that I'm high enough to partake of greatly increased reward ratios that were recently implemented to draw players back into the Rift content.  The high level rare and epic currencies have been merged, and it's not uncommon to obtain 5-10 tokens for a single zone invasion.  This has brought down the prices on the previously costly mid-40's armor set down to a single event per piece, but is apparently meant to encourage purchases of consumable endgame essences.  

Unfortunately, the resulting zerg experience is much like it was in the newbie areas during launch - massive. lag-inducing crowds of players, and mobs that either melt under insane DPS or have ridiculously high HP totals to try and keep them alive so that players who have to ride across the entire zone can get there in time to hit the boss a few times. 

If feels like there is an extremely limited middle ground between too deserted to actually complete rifts at all (mid levels) and so crowded that you spend more time traveling from rift to rift than fighting.  Trion is apparently working on a new endgame zone, and I can only imagine how overcrowded this area is likely to be, even though it will reportedly be twice the size of one of the game's current larger zones.

Meanwhile, in Telara
Fortunately, I've been pleasantly surprised by the non-dynamic portion of the game.  I just wrapped up Iron Pine Peak, and there will be large amounts of unused content I can complete for Planar Attunement/Alternate Advancement after I hit the cap.  I also healed a dungeon finder Lantern Hook PUG without a single death, and I genuinely enjoyed the experience. 

It does seem like the game may be falling into the same mudflation cycle that all MMO's are stuck in these days, with entire tiers of content falling by the wayside as new on-ramps emerge, but I might not mind taking a slower sight-seeing approach that lets me learn to heal in content that may be technically a bit below my level.  Whether I actually get around to paying money for the game again before another retrial weekend gets me to the level cap is an open question. 

Another bad guy who thinks he has a chance of winning.

Friday, October 14, 2011

PSA: Disable Blogspot Favicons (PVD re-declared safe)

Check the "icon" box now to add a security vulnerability to your blog, so that your readers can be hit with malware any time any site that you have linked to gets hacked.  Or do not do this.  Blogger opts not to advise you one way or the other.

If you host your blog on Blogger/blogspot and use the default blogroll widget, I strongly advise you to disable the "favicon" display (pictured above).  Users of other platforms are similarly advised to make sure your sites are not displaying blogroll icons.

Yesterday, the popular LOTRO podcast/news site Casual Stroll to Mordor was hacked and redirected to some sort of Russian malware site - see Google safebrowsing for more details. This attack pushed out a malware-tainted "favicon" - that's the little icon you see next to the links in many blogrolls, including the one that runs by default on Blogger/Blogspot - hosted on their site.  As a result, people who visited at least five Blogspot blogs, including Player Versus Developer, may have been exposed to malware.

According to CSTM's backup blog (ironically on Blogspot), the attack was discovered around 9 PM Eastern Wednesday (12 Oct), and they redirected their RSS feed sometime between then and the post (8:30 AM Eastern Thursday, 13 Oct).  Out of an abundance of caution, I'd advise that anyone who visited PVD (via the site, RSS readers should not have been affected) or any other site that links to CSTM between 6 PM 12 Oct and 6 PM 13 Oct (when I learned of the attack and disabled favicons from my blogroll widgets) to scan their computers for malware.  Those of you who also read/visited CSTM during that window are at a correspondingly higher risk. 

I'm not thrilled that this occurred, and I would not have clicked the "show blog icon" button (I think I opted in, though I don't even remember) if I had considered the implications of displaying a remotely hosted image on my blog.  I would strongly advise all of you who use Blogger to go into your blogroll settings panel and DISABLE icons.

The Google Blacklist
The other "fun" part of this is that Google flagged PVD and at least four other blogs as containing malware due to the tainted icons.  Web browsers that check Google's known malware API therefore displayed a warning to attempt to stop users from visiting the affected sites.    On one level, this is a well-intentioned service that Google provides.  On the other hand, I'm somewhat shocked at the power they wield. 

Getting the "suspicious" tag removed required that I register for Google Webmaster tools - never mind that this blog is hosted on a Google-owned site using my Google account - to manually request a review.  Hours after CSTM had been declared no longer suspicious (and after I had removed favicons), PVD remained on the Google blacklist (it was finally declared clean sometime after midnight, at least six hours after I requested the review), even though Google's own diagnostic indicated that the attack originated from CSTM's compromised server.

Maybe they would have automatically re-scanned the sites and declared them clean eventually, but it strikes me as odd that they can blacklist sites without any notice to the site owner.  I could see people who actually make money off their sites being seriously hurt by something like this. 

That said, I suppose a day of effective downtime is a small price to pay for the lesson not to display remotely hosted icons.  

Thursday, October 13, 2011

PSA: Possible Malware Attack On PVD

Google Diagnostic Report

I came home this afternoon to find a comment saying that my site had been flagged as unsafe for browsing due to malware.  As nearly as I can tell, Casual Stroll to Mordor got hacked this morning and was serving links to malware on their RSS feed, which appears in one of the standard Blogger blogroll widgets on my site.  My guess is that only people who actually clicked the link to the CSTM feed (or people with browsers that pre-load links) would have been infected, but I have no way to verify that at this time.  I also have no way to request a review of my site to determine if the infection is gone, because the problem report has not yet propagated to Google Webmaster tools. 

In the absence of further information, I can only recommend that readers (especially those that also read CSTM) do whatever it is they do to check for malware. 

Update: According to a commenter on the CSTM refugee blog, the "icon" on Blogger's default blogroll widget is the culprit.  I have disabled this "feature", and strongly advise anyone who would rather not have their blog blacklisted by Google to do the same.  

Info from Google Diagnostics

Monday, October 10, 2011

Opportunity Coast Bypass

My first two trips into the mid-30's in Runes of Magic took a year and half a dozen zones.  My third trip has taken 4 nights in a single zone, the new Coast of Opportunity. 

As part of adding a third class to the game, Runewaker had to offer some way for characters who had already completed the low level content while leveling their first two classes to get their new class off the ground.  Adding half again the current leveling content in the game wasn't really a viable option. 

The Coast of Opportunity was an interesting compromise - it's a zone where each individual quest is about as hard as a level appropriate quest elsewhere in the game, but with dramatically increased exp and gear rewards.  Where a player might get a level and a mildly usable piece of green-quality gear from a series of quests in the original content, a single foray into the new area might award an entire level and one or more pieces of blue gear.  Repeatable quests offer the training certificates needed to unlock your elite dual class skills far more easily than farming the old turn-ins (which are less reasonable now that each character can have up to six sets of elite skills).  

The system isn't entirely for the faint of heart - I'm earning skill Training Points faster than I can figure out what to spend them on, unlocking new skills left and right, and juggling my two secondary jobs on my fledgling Warden.  That said, the system works - I went in with two usable higher level classes, and I will emerge with three.  The old content remains in the game for players who want to experience it, with no need for massive nerfs to difficulty or exp curves. 

Overall, it's an interesting approach compared to the more traditional leveling content revamp/nerf as games age.  Instead of spending cost-prohibitive amounts of time actually removing old content from the game, the developer has simply allowed those who want to bypass it to do so.  It's still more elegant than outright starting characters at higher levels (e.g. WoW's Death Knights), and it doesn't really harm the previously existing experience for people who actually enjoyed it, the way that WoW's Cataclysm has.

I wonder if the hypothetical Pandaren starting area that may or may not be announced at Blizzcon will take this approach?  

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Mopping Up Mirkwood

The rollout of LOTRO's Isengard expansion is a bit unusual in that the level cap increase in included for all players.  As a result, all of the left-over content that I never finished in Mirkwood was now worth real live exp towards my next level (66, which I snagged tonight).  In the process, I also capped out the Malledhrim faction (the reputation of Mirkwood), which snagged me some Turbine points, a title, and the right to purchase a skill that teleports me back to Mirkwood once I earn enough daily quest tokens to do so. 

In an earlier post about the expansion pre-order plan, a commenter asked what the point would be of obtaining the ten additional levels in the expansion if you were not going to purchase the content that you would experience with these levels.  My answer would be to see the epic story, which is open to all players (provided you can attain the appropriate level).  The finely crafted story instance content - which does occasionally pop up in regular quests, but is primarily seen during the epic story - is one of the places where LOTRO shines.  The regular quests, which had my Champion greatly exceeding Legolas and Gimli's combined kill counts at Helm's Deep through sheer grinding, is less inspired. 

Ironically, I might enjoy the new portions of Middle Earth more if I did NOT have access to the epic story, so that I would just leave the uninspired kill ten wargs/goblins/orcs quests behind their paywall and only do the quests that matter.  Unfortunately, this does not look like the most practical option.  Turbine originally announced a cap increase of five levels, and doubled that to ten levels during the development of the expansion, I'm guessing in part to deter players from doing just what I'm suggesting. 

Detour to Enedwaith?
As an interesting side note, I'm faced with a choice of what to do next in game.  There was one new zone prior to the expansion, Enedwaith, which I declined to purchase as a non-subscriber because I was already at the level cap.   Now that I'm at level 66 and halfway to 67, there is a case to be made that I should just skip the entire zone, other than the epic quest line that runs through it, so that I don't hit Isengard content even further over-level whenever I decide to pay for the new expansion.  Then again, this would mean skipping a large chunk of content - the only content that was added in nearly two years between Mirkwood and Isengard - and missing out on deeds that I could be getting credit for as I work on the epic story anyway. 

If I did choose to stop in Enedwaith, there'd be a second choice - how to pay for it.  I could pay for a permanent unlock as a Premium player, which would cost me 695 Turbine Points ($7) before sales.  This would allow me to experience the content at my leisure, including the right to go back and complete kill deeds (though I haven't done this for large amounts of older content that I can currently access, because it's more boring than it's worth).  Then again, I have no intention of ever getting a second LOTRO character high enough to do this zone a second time.

As a result, this may be one of the cases where paying for a single month of LOTRO's subscription might actually be a better deal.  For $15, I would get rental access to the following for one month:
  • The Enedwaith zone, including the ability to complete any kill deeds that I start but do not complete. Unless this zone is much bigger than I'm expecting, a month should be plenty of time.  (Value: 695 TP)
  • Crafting Guild progression.  I currently have enough crafting rep to reach the new tier, and I would be able to keep the recipes after dropping back down to non-subscriber status - as the system currently stands, I wouldn't need to get access again until the next crafting cap increase.  (Value: 295 TP for "permanent" access to something that I may not need again for years)
  • 20 slots of cosmetic wardrobe storage.  If I understand the system correctly, things I put in the wardrobe would remain there until removed, even after my subscription lapses.  This would clear a fair number of items that I don't expect to need again anytime soon out of my bank and house vaults.  (Value: 495 TP grants permanent access to 10 slots worth of cosmetic storage, but the real value is getting this stuff out of my bank without permanently destroying it)
  • Rested exp - I had some on my character for some reason and was allowed to "spend" it, but my understanding was that ONLY subscribers are allowed to earn additional rested exp.  (Value: unclear, I guess I'd have to price it versus some sort of exp boost potion?)
  • +500 Turbine Points (monthly stipend)
As I've discussed at length, the Turbine point option for the expansion purchase is not that attractive, which raises the question of why I'd want Turbine points if they aren't useful for opening content.  That said, there are some decent permanent quality of life improvements, such as teleports to cities, additional hearthstone locations, additional legendary item slots, or even a trait that halves the cooldown on the hearthstone, all on sale in the 295-495 price range.  Less time traveling has a definite cash value, especially with LOTRO's emphasis on Fed-Ex quests.   

I don't think this is something I'm going to do in the short term until I'm ready to pull the trigger on Isengard, but it's interesting that there is a scenario where the subscription may still be useful.  I still think that LOTRO's subscription is not a great idea for long-term players, because you're re-paying every month for stuff you could unlock just once, but apparently even a high level player can find some value out of a single month of VIP every now and then. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

EQ2's Inexplicable Dungeon Progression

Feldon reports the latest in EQ2 itemization news, which leaves WoW's notorious gear resets looking gentle by comparison. 

The Velious Instance Game
EQ2's group game was in an odd position.  Even though the level cap did not rise in February's expansion, a gear reset effectively took all previous level 90 content out of the conversation.  Instead, non-raiders had effectively three tiers of group content, each consisting of a cluster of three 6-man dungeons. 

Progression from tier to tier is strictly gated by two stats - critical hit chance and critical hit mitigation - and eventually a fourth tier was added with such thresholds that it is difficult to even qualify for without raid loot.  On top of that, the tiers get increasingly difficult, even after you hit the minimum thresholds.  Like Feldon, my experience has been that players stick to the first two instance clusters (indeed, avoiding the final zone of the second cluster, which is noticeably harder) to maximize their shard/time earnings and minimize the chances of PUG failure. 

The Shards
All of these instances award a token called "Primal Velium Shards", which are exchanged for both loot and "yellow adornments" - enhancement slots found on group dungeon gear that can only be purchased with tokens, and which are essential to meeting the higher crit/crit mit caps.  Meanwhile, the loot includes three tiers of armor sets that can be purchased or crafted with some combination of shards, faction, platinum, and dungeon drops.  

I am currently working on the "Ry'gorr" armor (tier 2, even though it is associated with the third instance cluster).  Each time I obtain a rare gem, I need Velium shards (40 at the expansion's launch, 20 after an earlier nerf) to have it crafted into a piece of armor.  As a result, I am extremely reluctant to spend five shards on consumable yellow adornments, or even the "tier one" armor set, both of which would be wasted when I replace the gear as I can get the gem drops. 

The Changes
As Feldon's earlier commentary noted, SOE has removed the crit mit requirements from all nine of the launch Velious zones.  While this change does mean that an undergeared player will no longer be one-shotted in the instances, I agree entirely with Feldon's observation that such players are probably not going to be prepared to make a good contribution to groups in even the earliest zones (much less the later, harder ones).

I suppose we should have seen the next change coming - the latest test server build slashes prices on shard gear to fire-sale levels.  The first tier is available with no meaningful cost at all to anyone who can find a crafter with the appropriate book (or from an NPC if you want to grind up some faction and plat, albeit on a faction that advances very slowly).  The second tier will now only require the rare gem (which are apparently skyrocketing in prices on the broker).  The third tier is now available as outright drops rather than through a complicated crafting chain in which players had to obtain large quantities of loot from the fourth and hardest instance cluster just to break it down for ore and then combine it with shards to craft the armor.  

On the plus side, I no longer need to fret about spending shards on yellow adornments, since it doesn't look like they will be needed for much of anything else.  Also, to the extent that the problem with moving on to harder tiers of content is the difficulty of the content, rather than acquisition of gear, I expect that we will see some in-coming nerfs to some or all of the instances in the coming weeks.  The addition of an automated group finder in the coming weeks will only hasten calls for the content to get easier. 

The Fallout
In my experience with the Velious dungeon game, the issue was the attempt to force too many tiers into the available content.  Players were expected to spend a long time farming the same three dungeons repeatedly before leaving them behind to work on the next three, which gets old very fast.  If they had done only two tiers - the first 5-6 instances on one tier and the remaining 3 launch dungeons, plus the 3 newer ones, on the second - there could have been much more variety and much less tedium.

The changes they are making instead do little to fix this problem.  Instead, they remove the incentive to run any of the instances from the first half of the expansion, cramming all group players in to the remaining dungeons, which are still too hard to PUG effectively.  Moreover, how excited can I really get about farming up loot now, when the trend appears to be that it will get even easier if/when more instances are added?

Unless the plan is to force players into content that is over their heads in an attempt to sell the new expansion box with additional AA's, I don't see how this approach gets anyone where they want to go. 

Fewer Choices, More Impact

I was debating what to play last night, and Blue Kae suggested that I try logging into different games until something stuck.  The winner was Runes of Magic, where I finally got around to picking up my third class.
Halanna and her Oak Walker

Expanded options
Until the most recent Chapter update, Runes of Magic characters were effectively two classes in one - my character spent most of her time on her Druid/Rogue (a shadow DPS caster) and a bit of her time on her Rogue/Druid (a normal stabby rogue with moderate self-healing but poor DPS).  Under the new system, characters can still only use two classes at once, but you are now choosing from a list of three instead of a list of two, which means six class pairings.

I opted to pick up the Warden, a generally melee-based pet class.  Paired with the Rogue, the Warden is a dual-wielding (or 2-handed fighter if you prefer) flurry of blades, with additional damage skills powered by the rogue energy bar (a trait it shares with the Druid/Rogue, which was what really sold me on this pairing in the first place).  Paired with the Druid, the Warden gets a nice heal and some buffs, but noticeably lower DPS.

(I haven't used the Warden as a secondary yet because it still needs to be leveled.  Rogue/Warden will likely have the same offense for survival trade-off compared to the Rogue/Druid.  The Druid/Warden could be good for buffs and off-heals, but I won't really be able to use it that way because all of my skill upgrades have been spent on damage spells, and there is currently no dual-spec option for skills.) 

It's not everyday that the list of stuff that is broken is "everything".  (I'm only slightly bitter that I took several exp death penalties before giving up for the night because "everything" includes "emergency health potions".) 

Limited Flexibility encourages tradeoffs
As a solo player, it would definitely be easier to play if there was more of a compromise position where I could have some of each.  My first impression was that it was almost like a Rift soul tree with only three points to spend - two on my primary class and one on one of the two secondaries - when I'd prefer to spend one point on each of the three.

As I've gotten into the system, though, I actually find it interesting. Wardens have three basic pets - the Spirit of the Oak (a giant plant tanking pet), the nature crystal (a passive buff pet - specialty of the Warden/Druid), and the Oak Walker (a melee DPS pet.  (Warden/Scouts get a fourth pet, a Centaur archer.)  As you get to higher levels, you can have one pet active and a buff from "sacrificing" one of the other pets.  This means that I can make trade-offs between DPS and survivability per fight if needed. 

Sacrificing the tank grants me a massive boost to armor, which lets me off-tank mobs while the oak walker stabs them to death (very quickly) - on the Warden/Rogue, I'm finding that faster kills and improved durability more than outweigh the downside of tanking mobs myself.  The other two pet buffs grant offensive bonuses, so my Warden/Druid may be able to run more aggressively, knowing she has healing when she needs it.  (That said, the Warden/Druid ends up relying a bit more on autoattacks than I prefer, as Wardens abilities burn mana very quickly, even if you aren't also using the same bar for your secondary/elite skills.) 

Overall, I suppose the bottom line is that sometimes more limitations isn't a bad thing, if they present you with interesting tradeoffs and choices that are worth considering.