Sunday, April 29, 2012

Subscriptions - MMO's and Cable TV

A bit of travel and an impromptu spring cleaning weekend have added up to keep me out of town and away from my new gaming rig over the last week.  My old laptop will kind of play SWTOR, but I've definitely been spending less time in game than I otherwise might have as a result.  I knew this was a possibility when I picked up the game and started my 30 day subscription (which did qualify me for the "loyalty" minipet), but I find the contrast striking.
  • In LOTRO, I own access to the current expansion and all the high level content to consume at my leisure.
  • After a triple station cash sale in EQ2, I now have the balance needed to pick up the "optional" expansion (required for the current AA cap increase) and pay for either gear unlocks or even a brief subscription while exploring the new content in the new patch (which most likely would have been part of the expansion, had it been ready in time for the launch window).
  • In STO - which has been offering 50% bonus duty officer cxp this weekend - again, I can play at my leisure.
  • In SWTOR, I had to pay for this stretch when I knew I wouldn't be in game much, because it sat on days 10-20 of my 30 day subscription.
Bioware's people swear up and down that their model - effectively the 2004 model with few changes - is the only way to finance development on the scale of their game.  But is it really the subscription that's propping the game up, or rather the sales of more than two million boxes at $40-60 each in a market where most non-subscription customers never pay a dime?  Judging from their aggressive promotional efforts, Bioware's problem with SWTOR appears to be less about getting people to try the game and more about getting them to stay.

I recognize that there are still arguments in favor of the subscription.  Even so, I can't help but notice the parallels between my recent SWTOR experience and the reasons why we got rid of our cable TV subscription.  Much like the MMO subscription, we found that we were paying a flat rate for a large bundle of stuff that we don't care about packed in with the handful of shows we do watch.  Like the MMO subscription, we were forced to pay for many days when we did not want or use the service in order to have access when we did want to do so.  Much like the SWTOR story experience, there is some content that we lose out on because its owners have not seen fit to provide it through any other channel.

Like the MMO subscription or hate it, it's starting to feel like it's on the wrong side of history.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Star Trek Online At 3 Months

Since my Klingon alt hit level 50 in STO through the duty officer system, I have been spending much less effort on flying my intrepid crew of officers around the galaxy.  By design, this is not a system anyone will ever be "done" with, but I'm getting pretty darned close. 

I have finished all of the assignment chains (including all of the officers for critical colonal chain completion) and am sitting at rank 3 or 4 in most commendations (except exploration, which recently saw several mission rewards doubled because it is harder than any of the others and not especially rewarding).  I've got 33 very rare duty officers and counting.  I'm already at the stage where I only very rarely have to send a green quality officer out on an assignment, and I am steadily converting these officers into blue quality.  Even my alt is now hitting rank 3 and collecting blue officers. 

Technically, I suppose I haven't won until I max out all the commendations (which actually go to 150K/100K, presumably as a headstart against a future rank 5) and get to run with basically an all-purple crew, but I'm rapidly getting to close enough. 

Teaming Up
On paper, there's no reason why you ever need to interact with another player to beat the duty officer system.  You can buy and sell items that are used in missions, or even officers, on the exchange, but you can also get most of what you need solo given enough time.  However, it has been fascinating to see how the system is slowly accumulating a community following - and how the developers are supporting it.

All of the sector blocks in the game get new missions every four hours.  The best missions - depending on your current goals and crew, might be anywhere on the map, and I used to spend 45-60 minutes flying around to see what I could pick up.  Apparently, I could have been leaning on a pair of custom channels - DOFFJOBS and DOFFCALLS - along with the crowdsourced tracking sheet.  At all hours of day or night, players are manually distributing this information - albeit imperfectly since you can only see missions that you quality for (due to prerequisites and cooldowns). 

The new system of NPC's on your ship who offer missions has even added a social aspect.  Now it is possible for a player who has an especially rare/desirable mission on one of their bridge NPC's to invite other players to their ship.  The very last chain I completed was the 10-part Jem'Hadar mission, in which I was stuck on the very rare 9th part for a number of weeks.  The day after I joined DOFFJOBS, someone broadcast that they had this assignment available on their ship and I was able to finally clear it out.

The Business
With my one month of subscription time safely lapsed, I can confirm that I do retain all of the bridge officer and bank/inventory slots I unlocked while leveling as a subscriber.  I did NOT, however, retain the currency cap unlock - my balance remained where it was (above the 10-million energy credit cap for non-subscribers) but I was not allowed to earn any more credits.  Due to the lack of any indication that this was occurring, I lost probably the better part of 2 million credits before discovering that I needed to purchase this unlock.

That aside, there is very little else that I see myself buying with Cryptic points.  I'm happy with my current duty roster limits, and I have no interest in participating in the "lock box" gambling that seems to be getting the lion's share of the developers' attention - this system is now even getting exclusive duty officers and assignments, but it doesn't really bother me that there are officers out there that I will never obtain. 

I'm certainly not complaining about the value I got out of the money I've spent on this game - $11.40 for an old retail box along with the points I used to unlock the currency cap and the +100 duty roster for my main.  It will be interesting, though, to see where the game goes from here.  During the three months I've been playing, the price of cryptic points has gone from just above 200 dilithium to around 300 dilithium - suggesting that the number of players earning in-game currency but not interested in paying real money into the system is growing rapidly in the post-free-to-play era.  If the only places where Cryptic is actually seeing return on their time investment is $50 ship packs and gambling boxes, this game could become a place players don't want to do business with in a hurry. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Bypassing The Betas

There is a lot of beta going around these days, and I couldn't be less excited.  To name a few:

  • I've had access to the Pandaria beta for several weeks now.  Downloaded the client, copied over characters, have yet to log in.
  • The Diablo III open beta is this weekend.  In fairness, I suppose I would be more interested in this if I hadn't already made my purchasing decision on this game when I picked up the annual pass.  I've known for a while now exactly when my "invite" is arriving - the launch date of May 15th. 
  • Tera has a complicated rollout schedule.  The game is in open beta this weekend, with a pre-order promo allowing players to retain one character per server into the headstart (which will open it up to the full eight character slots per server) and launch.  I don't see it written down anywhere whether open beta players who subsequently pre-order get to keep their character, but I assume this is likely.  So, at least this pre-head-start thing will potentially not be wiped.  Even so, I'm not in any hurry.  My decision to wait on SWTOR paid off with a more polished game, a lower price tag, and a clear choice of which server to pick after the dust settled on the launch.
  • Further out on the horizon are more betas for games like Secret World and Guild Wars 2 (both of which are already distributing keys through various means), and more titles upcoming.
Don't get me wrong, I tip my cap to anyone who is still excited enough about some forthcoming MMO to spend their time dealing with bugs and crashes on a server that is going to be blanked before launch.  Personally, though, these things are making less and less sense for me as I juggle a large number of games that are already live, and as free trials become a required feature for even subscription games. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Awaiting The Plague

A crowd dutifully awaits someone infecting us all.
SWTOR became the latest MMO to try a plague-themed live event over the last week, rolling out an outbreak of the Rakghoul plague. 

I'm not high enough in levels to actually do the content associated with this event, but it is interesting to see how a heavily story-based game handles additional content - the story leading up to the outbreak and its aftermath appears to be unfolding over the course of the week.

The part I am able to participate in is repeatedly killing my character for DNA.  Samples of the plague DNA are the event currency, and one of the best ways to be covered in plague DNA is to get infected and explode due to plague.  This process takes about 45 minutes all-told - a good control versus issues that other games have faced, since being involuntarily killed once every hour at worst is not much of a griefing issue.  In typical MMO fashion, players, myself included, are helpfully gathering in large crowds for the purpose of infecting each other and AFK-farming the DNA currency. 

So far, I've snagged a minipet and a pair of plagued cosmetic outfits for random companions (unfortunately, of classes I do not yet have, but these are bind-to-legacy).  It's not deep, and I probably wouldn't even bother if it weren't for the fact that I can passively accumulate this while doing other things (eating dinner, surfing the web, writing this very blogpost, and - in an irony that may amuse or horrify Trekkies and Star Wars fans alike - resetting my duty officer missions in Star Trek Online).  Still, it's not bad as first world events go, and perhaps a promising sign of things to come.

Finally, infected!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

TOR Trial Thoughts

SWTOR's patch 1.2 finally landed last week, and I finally took the game for a spin.  A few thoughts on the experience arriving four months after the game's launch and playing the game through the 15 levels of the trial...

Getting In
For a game that seems to want new players, they appear to be trying everything except what all the other subscription titles (and most non-subscription titles) are doing - the one week trial requires a referral and does not offer any benefit to the person who sent sent you said.  Anyone who does not have someone to refer them needs to wait for fixed weekend events which are shorter than the referral trial.  While I guess I can see an advantage to making the community seem more populated by concentrating newbies into specific weekends, this process feels convoluted compared to basically all the other MMO's out there. 

Fortunately, hunting for someone willing to send an invite also allowed me to get a head start on the first and hardest irrevocable choice in the game - picking a server.  This turned out to be easier than I anticipated, as basically everyone I asked suggested the RP-PVE server Sanctum of the Exalted, home of the Republic Mercy Corps and numerous bloggers. 

Anyway, I signed into the game and rolled up a cyborg trooper named Aldebaran.  (In keeping with my custom, this is a location from Star Trek Online - the sector in which Deep Space K-7 resides in Eta Erdani block.)  I've previously said that I don't see why this class is even in the game - compared to Han Solo (smuggler), Boba Fett (Bounty Hunter), and people with Lightsabers (four of the eight classes), it wasn't clear to me why anyone would choose to be a cannon-fodder stormtrooper.  Setting that concern to the side appears to have been a good call.  I've found a fun story, and if anything perhaps it's easier to reconcile being one player amongst hundreds as a trooper than it would be as a Jedi given that so much of the movie lore revolves around a handful of force-users changing the course of the galaxy. 

Lore aside, this class is also one of the most unique I've played in MMO's.  The trooper's resource are energy cells for their weapons, which regenerate over time but at a slower rate as they are depleted - you can burst if you need to but there will be a longterm penalty to doing so.  The really unusual part, though, is that this is not your squishy ranged class.  In fact, I selected the Vanguard advanced class, which allows me to function as a full-fledged tank with damage reduction and short-to-medium ranged skills.  Meanwhile, many of my abilities can be cast on the run, rather than channeled, making it feel much more dynamic than your standard stand-and-nuke class.  Overall, several big pluses.

Firing on the enemy.  Note also my companion's mighty invisible gun, looks like he's killing foes via ranged pelvic thrust.
The Business
Bioware made some headlines last week with an odd promotion - a free month of game time for everyone who had already reached level fifty, an offer that was later extended to accounts that had hit Legacy level 6 in a move to appease alt-o-holics.  Azuriel has a good take on this odd move - it was pitched as a reward for loyalty by players, but it actually demonstrates the opposite sentiment from Bioware - cold calculation that something needs to be done to hold players who are hitting the end of the road from leaving and disrupting their communities. 

During about half of the trial week, I have gotten a character to the trial cap (currently level 15) and also reached the permitted levels in three crew skills (slicing for cash, bioanalysis and biochem for potions).  I could probably do the same on a second character, but I'd rather continue to advance my main and unlock the Legacy system first, so I can receive exp and perks for my future alts.  I see relatively little way in which Bioware would lose by making this an unlimited level-capped trial - yes, someone could in principle play all the newbie planets, but all of these are just the first chapters of stories that successful players will want to continue. 

Overall, my outlook on the game so far remains the same.  While I think this game is less vulnerable to churn than most MMO's because players will be tempted to come back to play additional stories, I'm already seeing where the focus on story may harm replay value.  In a very brief visit to the beta last winter, I played through level 6 or so on Ord Mantell as a Smuggler.  My trooper had different class quests but the same sidequests, and I already felt like I'd been there and watched these cutscenes before, even though it was months ago.  Legacy perks may help by offering the chance to skip more of the content on subsequent playthroughs, but this will also reduce the amount of additional subscription time that followup characters will require. 

This game is not in trouble yet, but I definitely can't blame them for being proactive in attempting to keep it from getting there. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

SOE: Anyone mind if we shoot that other guy over there who isn't you?

When EQ2 went free to play, certain gameplay-effecting items were removed from the old EQ2X cash shop.  The promise was that these would only be returned after considering the desires of the community through in-game polling, and SOE further promised to disclose the results publicly.

The poll has finally arrived, and features questions on how players feel about self-res items and cash store potions.  Each item is broken out into two questions - if the player is okay if the items can only be used solo and if the player is okay if the item can also be used in raids. 

Most reasonable people can probably agree that these items are less problematic if you keep them out of content that is actually balanced to be challenging - where their use would feel more mandatory.  However, setting up the poll in this way is designed to get a specific result - i.e. substantially higher acceptance of the items as long as they're kept out of groups, where a straight up "are you in favor of this item" would have drawn more "no" answers due to the group concern. 

More to the point, this poll gives everyone an equal voice on a topic that has dramatically unequal consequences.  In this particular case, there are probably substantial numbers of non-raiders who can agree that having these items is problematic.  However, imagine for a minute that the results do go in the other direction.  Imagine that about 10% of the playerbase raids and that 90.01% of the votes in the poll are for allowing the use of the items in raids as well.  Would anyone outside SOE's marketing department be comfortable using those results to claim overwhelming popular support for the potions? 

At the end of the day, the deck remains stacked against SOE because this is a non-random poll sample - players who want a specific result have an incentive to sign on to vote (and get their friends to do the same).  SOE also claims that this is a "poll" and not a "vote".  Even so, presenting data that lumps in the opinions of players who are not affected by the decision with those who are is misleading, and a tactic that only makes sense if the marketing goal is to obtain a more favorable result. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

PAX East 2012: Things to do, people to meet

As a first time convention-goer, I had very little idea of what to expect of the PAX East extravaganza in Boston.

In some ways, it was not what I expected.  There were no major game announcements that I'm aware of, and even the stuff on display on the show floor tended to be minor updates to information we already had.  The demos and panels that were present were trapped behind massive lines that required substantial commitment.  Meanwhile, though some MMO's had senior developers manning their booths, it wasn't really an opportunity to ask all the hard-hitting questions that professional journalists dare not mention - though satisfying the fans is a plus, these folks were there to promote their products.  Even the swag was relatively limited (though my decision to steer clear of lines may have influenced that, and the swag I did get was very good stuff indeed).

As the song says, you can't always get what you want.  Even so, the things I found were in many ways better than the the things I might have expected.

The Road to PAX
The lowpoint of my PAX experience came very early.  Given unlimited time and money, I would definitely have preferred to fly in a day early and take the show at a measured, easy pace.  Instead, I work up at 4 AM to fly to Boston and arrive at the show floor around 11 AM - already a non-trivial day.

I arrived to find that they had run out of the day's allotment of swag bags.  Concerned that the MMO loot might find a similar fate, I set off on a rapid fire run around the perimeter, snagging codes from The Secret World, SWTOR, LOTRO, DDO, and Tera (none of which, as it happens, were in any danger of running out).  The one advantage to showing up on the second day was that I already knew what to expect on the show floor - nothing major and new.

At this point it was lunch time, so I grabbed an overpriced and mediocre convention center sandwich and wondered whether I had made a big mistake in spending the time and money to come to a place that, on a first pass, didn't have much to see.

Hope in unexpected places
With lowered expectations, I began my post-lunch circuit of the show at the Turbine booth.  I had a brief conversation with some DDO folks - not really my primary objective since the expansion is really aimed well above my characters' heads - before getting in line for the LOTRO hoodie promo.  Anyone willing to wish LOTRO a happy 5th birthday on camera was given a free hooded sweatshirt.

I asked the guy in the WB Games shirt watching the line and greeting people whether he posted in the forums.  He said he did, under the name Berephon.  Yes, the lore lead for the game, maker of the famous timeline of events that the public can't have, was smiling and waving at dozens of people who had no idea who he was.

I promptly extracted a few chuckles out of the man by asking a question that I've been dying to hit him with for years - how much time it take a normal person in Middle Earth to do all the travel that occurs in the epic book questlines.  After a good laugh, he conceded that the travel time was something that they just had to let go of in terms of the game design and the lore.  I noted that Elrond was right when he tells the player, at the start of Volume 3, that they are the only one capable of gathering all the rangers in time. 

It was a small moment, but the start of finding the hidden little moments that made this show worthwhile.

Dancing on chairs, and choices about lines
After stopping to listen to a panel at the SWTOR booth, I headed across the floor to see the sights and make it to Ferrel's book signing.  I've been listening to the man on podcasts for years, and have even been on his show twice, but I'm not sure that I will ever be able to look at it the same way now that I know that the guy isn't kidding when he suggests things like dancing on chairs to entertain the masses.  Kidding aside, it was great to finally put a face to the voice of Epic Slant. 

From here, it was time to start making choices about what exactly I was prepared to wait in line to see.  I was definitely starting to get tired, I already knew I had more possible activities in the evening than energy and time to do them, and I didn't want to overdo the afternoon on the show floor.  I was definitely surprised by how much demand there was to attend even the smallest-seeming booths and panels at the show.  I've always heard that everything at PAX has a line, and apparently this was true.

The one line I finally decided to wait in was the one to get in the Assassin's Creed III threater.  All told, this took about 40 minutes, for a chance to watch a developer-narrated preview of the gameplay in a room decorated to resemble colonial barracks.  The playthrough of a single sequence in the game probably took a mere five minutes or so of gameplay, but the commentary actually did manage to point out some interesting tidbits I might not have realized I was watching - efforts to make the climbable trees look more realistic, numbers of soldiers forming firing lines and shooting in formation, etc.   I enjoyed the video, and collected an inflatable hatchet for my time, though I'll concede that I did not line up for any more videos or demos.

Partying with Turbine
Everything I'd heard said that Turbine throws a great party at PAX, so I'd made RSVP'ing a top priority and picked this shindig over the numerous others (including a blogger tweet-up, parties hosted by The Secret World, Curse, and Bioware, and a Jonathan Coulton concert).   In a world where I had more time, I might have left the show early to nap and save some energy to hit more than one social event, but I guess I had just come to terms with the fact that attending an event as big as PAX means that you will necessarily miss some things that would have been worth going to.  In any case, it appears that I chose well.

Lining up to enter the party, I noticed a familiar logo on the shirt of the guy who had walked in at the same time I did, and realized that his voice sounded familiar.  Completely by accident, I had run into Chris from MMO Reporter.  In addition to his role as the head of a Canadian MMO Podcast syndicate, Chris was covering the show for PC Gamer.  It was interesting to hear about what he had seen (which we can all do via the podcast and upcoming videos), and he had definitely lined up way more formal interview time than I got by wandering the floor, but I was a bit surprised to hear largely the same impression I'd gotten of the show - some interesting tidbits but relatively little major news.  Perhaps PAX has gotten so big these days that it's only worth paying the cost of exhibiting for the biggest titles that are gearing up their marketing pushes for launches later this year.

Chris was not the only famous podcaster in attendance.  Jerry Snook - founder of DDOcast and now a member of DDO's community team - was in the house, along with longtime DDOCast PAX East correspondent Steiner-Davion and frequent guest-host Rowanheal.   Meanwhile, Turbine spared no expense, booking the back room of Jillian's across the street from Fenway park, providing free drink tickets and high quality swag.  (The highlight - an actual real-world cloak.)  For extra amusement value, they had the TV screens that would ordinarily be showing sports in most bars in Boston playing the promos for the LOTRO and DDO expansions instead - quite an unexpected sight.

On top of all that, I ended up getting to chat with Executive Producers Fernando (DDO) and Kate (LOTRO) Paiz for the better part of ten minutes about their experiences running their games through their now famous free to play conversations.  As Fernando tells it, one of the first questions the marketing people asked was how quickly they could retrofit DDO to free to play.  His response was very quickly if you didn't care about the quality of the product, and fortunately a more measured response won out.

Many couples might have been nervous about working together on such a high profile, high pressure project, but Fernando claims that things very quickly got too busy for them to get in each others' way.  Kate covered many of the business model systems, while Fernando worked more closely on the design and engineering side, and both had plenty of work to do.  I asked whether Turbine's shared engine made it easier to repeat the process with LOTRO, and Fernando definitely agreed that having two major projects running the current engine made it easier to justify large investments in this technology.  (In general, he said that LOTRO gets upgrades first, though DDO got to be the first in line during the conversion.)

Following up on this discussion, I asked Kate about the shift to the larger scale expansions in both games.  She confirmed that having the highly successful expansion launch in LOTRO definitely helped make the case for undertaking the larger project in DDO.  I'm still not 100% satisfied with this move, as I feel it undermines the a la carte choice of the model, but at least I can respect that they are trying more ambitious things with the larger revenue that has come under the new business model.

Winding Down
I finally headed out of the Turbine party a bit after 10 PM - perhaps a bit early by nightlife standards, but it had been a very long day and I had many sore muscles to show for it.  (Ironically, Bioware may have been exceedingly clever in providing comfortable seating in a portion of the SWTOR "booth" that served as a lounge and venue for several daily panels/Q&A's.  On paper it looked like a lot of underutilised space, but I wouldn't be surprised if tired convention-goers spent more time in view of the promotional videos and panels because it was a good place to rest.)

Sunday had much smaller crowds - after both Friday and Saturday sold out, there were plenty of badges to be had at the door, and I convinced my wife to tag along and demo some tabletop (yes, non-video) games.  The con organizers apparently had set aside an allocation of swag bags for Sunday, so I was able to get the loot that I missed out on Saturday morning.  The table top section of the convention was a real pleasant surprise - you can read reviews and buy games anywhere, but it's not every day that you can get people to teach you dozens of them just to see which ones you find interesting.

Cell phone reception at the con was sluggish, leading to delayed text message times that had Riannon and myself criss-crossing the show floor in an effort to introduce ourselves before heading out.  Riannon and Pete are another duo of folks I've been hanging out with online for years, and it was great to meet them as well.  That said, we were all pretty tired by this point in the con, and we all headed out our separate ways back home around lunchtime.

Far and away the best advice I got on attending the con was not to have my heart set on catching everything that was going on, as this seemed downright impossible.  I know I missed any number of things due to conflicts and aversion to lines, and that was just something to come to grips with. 

I saved some money through my less than optimal travel arrangements and staying with a friend in town, and I spent surprisingly little at the event itself - the Turbine swag in particular included several free items that I would have considered paying for.  That said, the cost of the weekend trip still comes pretty close to the total of what I spent on MMO's last year.  If not for the fact that both PAX locations happen to be in cities that my wife and I have reason to visit anyway, this trip would be very hard to justify.

That said, overall I had a good time at the con - in some ways despite the con itself.  The moments that are going to stick with me are not the games or the booths, but the people.  Perhaps in the same way that some of the things we do in MMO's can become fun in the right company, some of the less desirable quirks of the convention - long lines and limited information beyond what you could have read online for a fraction of the time and money - are worth overlooking.

Monday, April 9, 2012

PAX East 2012: (Limited) News From The Show

I've survived my trip to and from PAX East.  I'll write more about all the cool people I met and stuff I got to do when I've had a chance to sleep the trip off.  In the mean time, just the facts on the limited news I was able to gather from the show.

SWTOR Legacy
I asked Bioware's Damion Schubert (lead system designer for SWTOR) about what happens to players who have invested a lot of work in a Legacy on one server and then want to play with friends on another.  He responded that implementing server transfers is a top priority for the team, and that these transfers will be "legacy friendly" when they arrive.

Not an entirely satisfying answer - nor especially complete without knowledge of whether they intend to charge for this service.  At best, you will have to manually copy your characters from server to server to update your legacies.  At worst, you will have to pay for this privilege.  That said, I suppose some way to rescue your legacy from a bad server choice is better than none. 

Turbine News
Most of my structured activities over the weekend were Turbine-affiliated, and they did indeed treat their fans very well.  On the downside, there was relatively little news, but some of it was at least news to me.

On the DDO side of the house, a dev confirmed for my sadly level 7-self that the forthcoming expansion (and its future quest packs) will primarily support level 20+ characters.  It's not as if the current distribution of content between high and low level content is especially unfavorable, but it is a bit disappointing to hear that what I see is what I get for the near-term future.  Interestingly, I mentioned the topic of true resurrection, and the dev (didn't catch his name) claimed that there may be additional benefits (grandfathered in for existing completionists) to carrying characters' TR lives into the epic levels.

I didn't hear any new in-game news about LOTRO, but they did show an exclusive teaser at their party of what appears to be some sort of live-action film intended to set the scene for Riders of Rohan.  At first I thought we were just looking at a motion capture session of some sort, but the room got pretty excited as we realized that this was looking more like a film.

Finally, I was talking with DDO's Executive Producer Fernando Paiz about some of the economies of scale Turbine has because they built their own engine, that they use on both DDO and LOTRO.  Paiz said that indeed the live games currently use something like version 3.6 of the Turbine engine, while version 4 was in development for an unannounced future MMO.  While I suppose this is no real secret, it's good to hear that they're still working on whatever it is they're working on.

The Rest of the MMO's.
I intentionally did very little standing in lines.  As a result, I think the only game I actually played at the show was the Secret World, because they had a fair number of machines in their booth and a relative lack of structure in how to get time on one of them.  Unfortunately, this demo may have been easier to access in part because it did not do much to showcase what makes this much hyped but little described title different from the rest of the genre.

The demo had players in what is otherwise indistinguishable from your standard modern zombie-infested town.  I did occasionally see players with story cutscenes on their screens, and perhaps these sequences explained who the characters/factions are, why they're all fighting zombies, etc.  Picking up wherever the last player left the keyboard, all I got was a very standard MMO combat sequence - my character had a hammer, which built "hammer points" that were then used to unleash flashier attacks on the hapless zombies.  Whatever depth or character flexibility this game has for more involved players simply wasn't apparent in the show floor demo.  (Massively's reviewer had some similar comments, as did people I talked to.) 

In fact, speaking more generally, I have to say that I was underwhelmed by the forthcoming MMO's on the floor.  I watched some people play the TERA demo, which takes the standard MMO and adds combos and collision detection.  I watched people play the two Perfect World MMO's on display - this was a small booth with prizes, so the lines were long - and both seemed like action-y MMO's.  None of the above really jumped out at me.

Ironically, the biggest lines of the MMO-like games on the floor were at League of Legends.  I'm not sure if the game was that much popular, its prizes were that much better, or if it just took longer to get to the front of the line, but they definitely gave the impression of being the in-demand MMO of the show.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Ending Enedwaith

My LOTRO champion hit level 70 this week while clearing out Enedwaith - a zone that now sits as an alternate leveling track through the early-mid 60's that was added in between the Mirkwood and Isengard expansions. 
The LOTRO ding graphic is now a giant incarnation of the White Tree of Gondor.
The level number makes it obvious that, as a premium player who pays by the zone, this was a very skippable chunk of content.  I was over-level when I started it since I used the last of the Mirkwood content to advance beyond 65 before moving on, and now I'm going to be even more over-level for the Isengard content I have yet to reach.  That said, if I erred it was in opting not to purchase and complete this content when it was in the correct level range, as it was high quality material and it would have been a shame to miss it. 

For better or worse, I'd imagine that most LOTRO players already know how many of the storylines are going to play out.  That said, Turbine continues to do a good job working around this challenge by weaving stories that are interesting in the spaces between the lore we know, while adding some original characters to give them some more flexibility. 

Bonus rewards
One final tidbit concerns Turbine Points and deeds.  In the course of completing the content, I completed many of the zone's deeds, awarding a grand total of 75 TP and 4 virtue upgrades along with some titles and exp runes.  Many deeds remain, and, judging from the past kill deeds in my tracker, I will never complete most of them.  (Two that I might snag are the reputation deed for kindred with the Grey Company and the Algraig.  Each grants 20 TP, and the latter also grants access to a teleport back to the zone.  I'm around 10-15 or so daily quests away from each.) 

If I had done the Epic book story and passed through the zone without paying for the quest pack, I would have completed some of these requirements and not received credit.  Instead, I paid 528 TP for the quests (after some sale discounts) and got back a small but non-zero rebate.  Those numbers would be even more appealing if I ever anticipated getting another character this high into LOTRO, but so far that has not fared so well.  Still, it's a reasonably good value for the money, and a nice little bonus to save up for the next paid content update.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Monetary Value of a Mistake

I've been wrapping up the old Enedwaith content in LOTRO - if nothing else, I'm embarrassed to show my face at the Turbine booth this weekend if I'm two years behind on content - and one of the epic quest chapters awarded a Second Age legendary item for my rune slot.  This should have been a huge upgrade - it was a ten level jump in quality as I had been using a level 55 rune from the Moria era, and a jump in quality from purple to teal (LOTRO's equivalent of blue to purple, or legendary to fabled).  Instead, it proved a bittersweet learning experience.

Cash Undo
LOTRO's legendary item system provides six slots for items, and it is generally advantageous to have items - even if they are low quality placeholders - in all six slots so that they can gain exp and transfer it to better items as you obtain them.   The shuffle to break down some old items for legacy scrolls and exp runes to kit out my new rune led to the predictable result - I slotted two tier 6 relics in a throwaway placeholder item that I put in the slot to bank exp. 

Something about this pairing does not go together.
Many LOTRO players have probably screwed this up at some point, and for the first few years of the system it was a relatively easy fix - you could pop your relics back out of your item every ten levels as part of the re-forging process, and you could recover all the relics when destroying a max exp item.  Turbine argued that this had to go due to relic inflation - everyone would eventually end up with maximum quality relics.  They're not wrong on this point, but their motives were called into question by their decision to implement a cash store scroll to replace the previously free-in-game unslotting feature.

In many games, a bone-headed mistake like this one could be sent to customer support.  Not so for the non-subscriber to LOTRO - customer service access is limited to 30 days after the paid purchase of Turbine Points. 

Which brings us back to the cash shop.  The relic removal scroll costs 195 Turbine Points.  The value of Turbine Points varies widely depending on how you obtain them.  Some VIP subscribers think of points as "free", even though they are part of the subscription package and are used to purchase things that would otherwise cost the player real money.  The smallest quantity of points Turbine will sell you in a bundle is 500 TP for $8, which would value the TP at $3.12, while there are larger bundles (for those willing to pay their "micro"transactions in $60 increments) and sales that can drive the exchange rate.  Then there is the ability to earn points in game, for those who value their time at pennies per hour.  Suffice it to say, the undo button for my mistake costs less than three dollars. 

Want to sell compromise on our principle against relic inflation, PST Turbine with your credit card number.
I could write more on this topic, but it ultimately boils down to this.  The relics that were in my inventory were gone.  I can buy replacements from the store for 195 Turbine Points, or I can save those points for something I actually want, such as new content.  The fact that the "replacements" are only available for sale at that price because I screwed up does not change the fact that I don't pay money for this sort of thing. 

A not-so-legendary epilogue
Having written off a pair of high quality relics, I sighed and proceeded to apply some scrolls from my bank - it wouldn't ordinarily make a ton of sense to invest in a level 65 item when the cap is now 75, but all of these scrolls were obtained from previous expansion items and capped at the lower level.

The good news is that the new rune, once scrolled and reliced (with my second choice relics), had all the legacies that I had on my previous rune. The bad news is that swapping out legacies leaves the new legacy at tier 2 out of 6, which greatly increases the cost of purchasing higher ranks.  The end result of this shuffle is that I ended up with a worse item than the massively out of date one I had, because I ran out of upgrade points much sooner. 

I suppose the only silver lining is that it will be that much easier to write this level 65 item off for the inevitable level 75 version.

I had assumed the new rune would be an upgrade due to double the base incoming healing rating and a bonus legacy that reduces power cost of some skills.

Monday, April 2, 2012


I've been following news at the major gaming conventions since there has been enough of a world-wide web.  I still remember the days when my issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly was worth the purchase even though I'd seen the info six weeks earlier online, because dial-up bandwidth meant that downloading high quality screenshots was a nigh-prohibitive activity.  This weekend, I'm finally going to actually attend one in person, thanks to a confluence of events that made it vaguely sensible to travel to Boston at the same time as PAX East. 

I'm primarily going to be at the show on Saturday, with some time on Sunday depending on how my schedule shakes out (and how much stuff I feel I missed out on during the more crowded middle day of the show).  I may not go to a single panel or stick around for much of anything that has a long line.  If anything, I'm more interested in community events, such as Turbine's annual shindig, the MMO tweet-up, and Ferrel's book signing for the The Raider's Companion.  If, incidentally to these activities, I happen to pick up swag from some major titles or details of some minor ones I haven't heard of, that will be a bonus.

That said, if anyone reading this has an event they would like to promote/recommend - either your own product or something that you've heard of elsewhere - feel free to leave a comment.  There's a lot of stuff on the map of the floor, and I can't promise I'll get to everything, but I won't complain about a suggestion or two. 

P.S. My only regret concerning my travel schedule is not being present for any creative protests at the Mass Effect 3 panel.  I have no desire to attend said panel for its own sake, but I can only imagine what creative mayhem players may inflict on the developers, who probably had no idea what they were in for when they booked the timeslot.