Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Farewell To Pet Battle Forfeit?

Gaming has been derailed by various real life, and as a result I've been back at work on Pet Battles after a brief visit to actually playing World of Warcraft proper.  I've been focusing on an incentive which will be going away in patch 5.2, possibly next week - in this case, a seemingly technical change to forfeiting pet battles. 

Why Forfeit?
Pet Battle Auto Forfeit, my personal choice amongst add-ons for this purpose
There are three main reasons why you would forfeit a pet battle, in roughly increasing order of why they would not be considered desirable behavior:
  1. Your pets were obviously and catastrophically inappropriate for the battle.  This is moderately understandable, as it is an account-wide system, so you can enter a level 25 pet battle zone and forget that you had your level 6 pets on your active roster.
  2. To get an advantage over NPC tamers.  NPC's cannot alter their rosters - indeed, you are free and encouraged to catch and level pets to counter their teams - but they often have some  variability in which pet they start.  If they go out of the order you expected, you can either continue knowing your counters won't be ideal, sacrifice a turn and allow your foe a free hit on your incoming pet as you swap in the correct pet, or just forfeit.
  3. Because the wild pet/group you attacked does not contain anything you wish to tame.  You might still want to kill the pets to farm them for exp, but this will take time you could be spending looking for other pets to tame.  This being World of Warcraft, with its sometimes notoriously open scripting system, players have naturally coded UI add-ons to automate the process of determining whether the enemy team contains anything worth capturing.
Currently, there is no penalty for forfeiting, and therefore limited reason NOT to forfeit when these situations come up.  With the patch, all of the player's battle pets will take significant damage as a penalty to discourage the practice.

Better Design As Intended?
As with most places where players are acting in ways the developer did not intend, some responsibility for the situation can be blamed on the game design.  The NPC battle teams are tough - often higher quality than anything the player can obtain - and having to allow them a free hit on your group can be the cause of failure. 

As to grinding for wild pets, well, here's where there is good and bad.  Pets come in qualities - grey, white, green and blue - and, for those who really care about how those stats are distributed, in specific breeds as well.  Setting aside the question of breeds, personally I won't spend time leveling anything that isn't blue quality, and you're going to be battling many copies of each pet to meet this goal - some estimates run around a 1 in 12 chance of encountering a rare pet, and some of these pets are somewhat hard to find in the first place. 

If you know there is no way the pets you're fighting are the pets you want, and there's a good chance that someone else is going to come along and grab the other spawns while you spend the time on the fight, all of your incentives are in favor of throwing in the towel.  (Ironically, world pet spawns are about as heavily contested as non-instanced content gets in a game that doesn't come anywhere near this level of competition for anything else in the open world.) 

The changes may not solve the whole problem.  In an additional tweak, any pets that people do run away from will respawn in the world so that others can try their luck.  Thus, more considerate tamers can leave poor-quality pets in the world for those who just want to catch a copy of a pet they never intend to use, just to fill out their journals.  In principle, though, this could open the door to forfeiting, quickly healing your pets from all the forfeiting, and re-engaging the same pet at full health.

In any case, I can definitely see why the way the system was designed led to the epidemic of forfeiting.  Until the patch closes the door for good I'll be hard at work filling out as many slots in my journal as possible with the coveted rare pets (especially for any creatures I actually plan to use in combat).

Friday, February 15, 2013

Mixed Early Thoughts On Pandaria

When my initial impressions of WoW's Pandaria expansion were primarily negative, I made a conscious decision to hold judgement - and not post on the blog - while I tried to figure out why. 

I knew some portion of the issue was a disruption to my routine - after spending the overwhelming majority of my time in WoW during the last two years either running random dungeon groups or working on pet battles, suddenly the five new levels stood in between me and what I was used to doing for probably the first time in my MMO career.  Some portion was the learning curve associated with yet another major overhaul to the game's class system.  Some portion was that the story simply needed time to ramp up. 

I'm glad I took the time.  Having cleared the Jade Forest, and hit level 87 in the process, I have found truth in both the mitigating factors but also potentially some degree of disappointment with the expansion itself.

Changing the time-to-kill
Over the years, I've found that I'm notoriously bad at predicting what class I am going to like in a new MMO.  Many things that sound good on paper turn out to be not so fun in practice.  The one indicator that works most of the time is the time it takes to solo an individual mob - a seemingly highly technical thing to look at but a major impact on my personal playstyle. 

When individual mobs die very quickly, I would rather play a ranged character so that I'm not spending all of my time chasing after my next target.  (This was a particular problem for SWTOR melee because your NPC companion switches targets automatically, while I'm still trying to figure out what direction to run in.)  When mobs take comparatively long to beat down, I often prefer to play a melee character, as they are better suited to being in melee range and spend less time and effort kiting mobs around in an attempt to avoid damage. 

WoW has historically been a game that tended very strongly towards short mob life expectancy - in Wrath in particular, solo mobs could take no more than 2-4 hits and live a total of 10 seconds each - really short compared to soloing in any other MMO.  As such, it makes sense that I tried melee and ended up sticking with a mage.  With Cataclysm - and now especially Pandaria - it seems that they have made a conscious effort to slow combat down.  Health pools for both players and mobs are larger.  The mage has been given the tools to deal with this - all three mage specs can now have a snare on their primary nuke spell and access to previously spec-specific defensive abilities. 

POM, Ice Barrier, and Living Bomb, now all on one spec
Still, it's a big difference in feel, and this threw me for a real loop when trying to get back into leveling content.  In any other game, I would probably just switch over to one of my several melee alts (85 Warrior, 70 Pally, 45 Rogue, and instant Death Knight on the server of my choice), but with so many years behind this particular character as my main in WoW, that's a bit of a tough sell just because the class design winds are blowing in a different direction this year. 

Atmosphere of Pandaria

Assuming you don't hate the stylized graphics on principle, WoW has been getting prettier with every expansion.  Cataclysm's approach of tacking on a few new areas to fill in gaps within the old world map made the expansion in some ways disjointed, but they did a very good job of making each zone feel like WoW's take on a specific environment (desert, undersea, etc).  With a new, thematically consistent continent, Blizzard has tackled one consistent theme - China - and done so with some of their best results to date. 

On the downside, the story definitely took a while to grow on me. One Pandaren in Warcraft III was cool, and the idea of an expansion of them sounded cool, but the reality of an entire continent of bears talking in Chinese-accented English going on about the serenity - and comic appetite - of their people may be overusing the gimmick after all. 

Meanwhile, the story has inadvertently driven home how absurd WoW's current faction setup really is.  The majority of the expansion's content, as with past years, pits players against common foes, often on behalf of neutral NPC factions.  There is a strong effort to push individual storylines for the Horde and Alliance, but this only drives home how these are NPC factions that players are forced to live with. 

Players have no more influence over the actions of "their" side of the conflict than they do over the numerous groups of NPC's.  It is immediately obvious from the narrative that enlisting the local population to fight a war on a land where negative emotions can take physical form with catastrophic results is not a good idea.  However, your NPC's are no less hapless than any of the others in avoiding this outcome, and for this we divide the playerbase permanently in half, only to once again be sent off to kill common enemies once the storyline is complete.  At this point, the game would be better served leaving the two sides in place and having player characters be a third faction who can hang out with whichever group of NPC's they prefer for story purposes.

Moving Onwards
With the preliminaries resolved - the initial zone, two of the five levels, and yes, incidentally, taming pretty much every battle pet that moves on the continent so that's no longer competing with PVE questing for my attention - it'll be interesting to see how the experience shapes up.  The thing that's odd about my Pandaria experience is that I'm clearly not tired of the sandbox PVE experience - that's what's competing for my time in numerous other games.  It's possible that in another month, I'll be back to my routine of hitting the dungeon queue and doing whatever else strikes my fancy while I wait for the group to form.  Or perhaps I need to face reality and switch to a melee character. 

Regardless, my path forward in WoW is murky in a way that it hasn't been for years. 
At least there are Chinese dragons to collect?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

STO's Buggy Anniversary

I haven't played much Star Trek Online since capping out one character on each faction last year.  I enjoyed the duty officer minigame far more than the space and ground combat that made up the traditional portions of STO, but I mostly ran out of stuff to do with my duty officers.  Thus, the annual anniversary event, with free starships for each faction as a rewards, was an opportunity for Cryptic to get me back into the game.  Unfortunately, they blew their chance to make a good impression through several bugs.

The Case of the Missing Bridge Officer Skills
Empty bridge officer skill slots - not a good plan, as you kind of need these.  (This was actually due to a second issue, see the end of this post.)
First up, I signed in to discover that none of my bridge officer skills were available in the space combat window.  I spent 10 minutes trying to mess with settings to figure out what I was doing wrong - time that proved unnecessary because the anniversary mission does not feature any combat in your regular starship, but that's beside the point - and eventually fired up Google. 

Apparently, this was an intentional bugfix of some sort made in a patch back in November but that incidentally requires that the player unassign all of their bridge officers from their slots once and then reassign them.  The comment from Cryptic when players complained on the forums was that they had mentioned this fix in the patch notes.  That would have been a somewhat unsatisfactory way to communicate if I had been actively playing at the time, but it was especially underwhelming several months later, when I could not find those patch notes if I wanted to read all of them. 

If you are going to break people's characters, however temporarily, you really need to provide some sort of pop-up notification that includes how to fix the problem.

The Mission That Would Not Complete
Having successfully reassigned the bridge officer skills that I turned out not to need, I headed off to complete the new anniversary mission.  A free ship is a reasonably big deal in a game where new ships are generally reserved for the cash shop.  In fact, the second anniversary festivities were what convinced me to try the game in the first place shortly after its free to play relaunch, and I was happy that I took part when I finally got to take my Odyssey class cruiser out for a spin at level cap. 

The new mission was a spinoff from a highly popular episode of TNG and featured a guest appearance by one of the show's original cast to voice their in-game character.  Most players had a good experience.  My experience was good... until I got to the end of the mission and did not receive credit for completing it.  I tried again, and was sent back to the mid-point of the mission to repeat a bunch of puzzles and story scenes... and not get credit again.  I tried and failed a third time. 

After this, it was back to Google for a second time in the evening.  It took a bit of digging to find the right search terms, but I eventually found half a dozen threads on the STO forums started by other players who got stuck in exactly the same place on the 3rd anniversary mission.  I saw no official confirmation from Cryptic that there was a bug or any plan to fix it, but a commonly re-posted workaround was to assign your NPC companions to tackle tasks that are NOT the tasks they say they are good at.  This is non-sensical, but it worked for me.  At least I knew the mission like the back of my hand at that point and was able to complete the Klingon version in under 20 minutes. 

As a little added thank-you bonus, the mission separates you from your normal bridge crew and therefore I ended the evening as I began it, with my bridge crew slots once again emptied for reasons beyond my control. 

Quality Assurance FTL?
Bugs happen, and sometimes Google is your friend - in my case, apparently the failing was to assume that I had done something wrong - twice in one evening - rather than immediately jumping to the conclusion that the game was broken and Google could tell me how to fix it.  I also get that you can't sell bugfixes for an additional fee in the cash store, and that is going to be the focus of a free to play game.

Even so, for an anniversary event like this one that is designed to bring back returning and/or curious players, a little quality assurance really might have made a difference.  If things had been fun, I might have settled in to work on some of the numerous missions that I never completed in my first trips to the game's cap.  As it was, I used up the extra time they could have spent trying to sell me on returning to the game trying to find workarounds for significant bugs.  I don't know whether that's more my loss or Cryptic's, but it's unfortunate. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Hard Sell for the NDA'ed Marvel Heroes

A few weeks ago, a $20 starter pack to the upcoming Marvel Heroes game was on the list of things I was thinking I would probably purchase later this year - I figured that if the game was worth my time at all, it was going to be worth $20 to play as the characters I like rather than the free characters.  Seeing how they've run the marketing campaign since calls into question whether the studio is pushing hard to make money now, before the NDA comes down.  It also leaves no question that they are treating their customers in a way that I am not willing to be treated.

Better buy fast, before we make the deal worse
The initial presale plans were announced on January 9th.  At the time, the $20 single-hero package was described as "over $30 in value" including one hero, two costumes (one of which presumably comes standard on the hero, so really 1 extra costume), $10 in currency, and $10 in "bonus currency" (the larger packages came with correspondingly larger amounts).  The announcement stated that it was a "limited time" offer that "won't last forever".  

Apparently, the "limited time" ran out two weeks later with no advance notice, on January 23rd, and the "bonus currency" disappeared from all of the packages without any announcement.  There was no public comment on the situation for a few days, and then the studio came back on January 28th with a new offer.  In response to "huge demand", they're adding only $5 in "bonus currency" back to the bundles, noting that the original offer was higher for their "earliest adopters".  

The new announcement specifically alludes to how short the first "limited time" was, but declines to provide a firm deadline for the new offer.  They also made the new offer retroactive to January 23rd, suggesting that some players paid for a package in the interim and only noted after the fact that there had been an un-announced change to what they got for what they got for their money.

Context: What is lurking behind the NDA?
While all this is going on, there is also some sort of testing conducted under a non-disclosure agreement.  All we know are a few tidbits from a press tour that did not go so well.  A few articles:
  • Forbes' Erik Kain: "Marvel Heroes fails to provide a rewarding, fun action game experience - at least so far."  
  • Massively's Justin Olivetti: "I recognized what it was trying to be almost instantly: a superhero-flavored Diablo.  And you know what? That's what it is. Whether that's a horrible, shirt-rending event or something that sounds like a cool mix is up to you. "
  • Massively's Eliot Lefebvre: "Marvel Heroes isn't a heroic marvel" (article title)
  • Rock Paper Shotgun: And throughout there was one thought in my head: why did they let journalists look at this now? It’s possibly not the most positive thought."
Almost all of the pieces make the point that the game remains in development and could improve (Eliot suggests the issue is a design flaw that may not be fixable).  Still, I'm struck by how consist all of the reviews were.  This mid-December press tour is all the information that we have about a game scheduled to launch in "Spring 2013".  If the developers know that what's hiding behind the NDA is not going to be well-received, that certainly puts a different spin on their push to collect people's pre-purchase money ASAP, and especially before they are forced to drop the NDA.

Purchasing decisions in the pre-purchase era
As a Marvel fan, I would love for this game to be fun to play.  Instead, the picture I'm getting is a game that is neither a good action game (too grindy - kill 100 mobs!) or a good use of the Marvel setting (characters that are basically cosmetic covers over a small handful of archetypes, even if that means the Hulk can't punch harder than a non-super-powered street thug).  On the merits alone, I do not think it is a good idea to make a $20 non-refundable purchase to secure an extra $5 in currency.

As to the marketing effort, pre-order and pre-purchase campaigns are relatively established.  Historically, these promotions could be good for the consumer in the specific case where resources were limited.  When the store is going to sell out of NES cartridges or the server is not going to have the capacity to handle the launch rush, it's perfectly reasonable to allocate these scarce resources to those who were most dedicated and most willing to sign up in advance.  Over time, though, we're seeing more and more deadlines like the one that Marvel is offering that do not appear to have any basis in scarcity or benefit to the consumer and do appear to be timed to encourage a decision with as little information as possible.  MMO players are as individuals critical thinkers who are seldom reluctant to share an opinion, and I continue to be surprised that we as a group tolerate this treatment.

(Tangentially related story - we are now a month past SWTOR's expansion "pre-order" deadline, with no release date and no meaningful information about the expansion's content.  Questionable reasoning aside, I suppose one cannot fault Bioware's communication - they said the five days of "early access" would be reserved for those to paid before January 7th, and there has not been any hint to suggest that customers who pay in full between January 8th and whenever the expansion comes out will be allowed into the new content any faster.  I suppose someone might spin this as an improvement over the game's original launch, in which players were admitted to the headstart in the order in which they paid, but with no transparency as to when exactly that was going to occur.)