Sunday, December 31, 2006

Craig's WoW in 2006 review

This year I didn't bother to write a review of all the games I played, because it basically would have said "I played World of Warcraft". But Craig wrote a long review of his year 2006 in World of Warcraft. An impressive raid calendar with up to 22 raids per month, and a slow progress from BWL to Naxxramas.

I don't keep records of all the raids I attended and what loot I got in each one. But for me 2006 started with my undead priest at level 42, and my level 60 warrior being semi-retired because nobody needs warriors. It ended with my undead priest in 5 pieces of tier 1 and 3 pieces of tier 2 gear, and my warrior having not advanced except for getting a high warlord 1h weapon from PvP. Instead I leveled a second priest to 60, Alliance this time and on a new server, but that wasn't a terribly bright idea, because having two level 60 priests is boring. I did spend quite some time raiding, getting up to the end of BWL, but due to Real Life ® preventing me from raiding every weekday, I don't think I ever did more than a dozen raids in a month.

How did your year 2006 look in review?

This blog in 2006

Every 31st of December I take a look on how my visitor numbers evolved over the year. This year's results are absolutely astounding, I had a 2000% growth rate from less than 3,000 readers in December 2005 to 56,000 readers in December 2006.
I think I can say that 2006 is the year where this blog really took off in visitor numbers. Another 20-fold growth in 2007 is impossible, that would be over a million visits per day. There aren't that many people interested in MMOs, and I doubt the free Blogger service allows that sort of traffic.

So I'm wishing a happy new year to all my readers who made this possible. I'm sure 2007 will be a very interesting year for a MMO gamers.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Inflating numbers

I ranted about it before, but Scott Jennings has a nice link to Clay Shirky's analysis of inflated Second Life user numbers and the media's reaction to them.

Second Life reports every character in the game as "resident", and then announces over a million of these "residents". Clay compares it to counting web site visits as "users". So if I used the same method that Second Life uses, I have over 350,000 "users". Which sounds like more than Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, or Everquest 2. But in fact I have zero paying customers, and my peak concurrent users number barely hits the double digits on a good day. Second Life has less than 10,000 peak concurrent users, and less than 30,000 paying customers, which makes it one of the smaller online virtual worlds. But by inflating their numbers, and the media buying those numbers, they manage to look like one of the big ones, and get more media reporting than lets say Everquest 2.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Five things you don't know about me

I hate chain letters. But Raph tagged me with this one, and now I have to tell you 5 things you don't know about me, and then tag 5 other people, or a terrible Egyptian curse will strike me down, or something like that. :)

1) I once destroyed a bus stop by driving my car through it. Fortunately nobody was waiting for a bus there. It was a cold winter's day, there was a large patch of black ice from a cracked water pipe, and I did the worst thing that you can do on ice: I braked. The car span out of control, hit the bus stop frontally, and broke through the corrugated tin wall, ending me in the ditch behind. I was lucky in that one, nobody injured, and the totalled car was old.

2) My first trip to the USA was to the University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, situated right at the Iowa River. Lovely people there, but they do need to work on that coming-up-with-original-names thing. I spent one month in a frat house, participated in all sorts of student activities, and got to know the real heartland America. Very interesting, it is hard to judge a country just from TV and books.

3) I worked as unskilled labor in a factory for 7 months. After finishing my Ph.D. in science I was unemployed, and at that time it was very hard to find a job with that qualification. So I had the choice between welfare and lower skilled work, and I much preferred to work. So I ended up mixing ingredients for dental fillings and doing a number of odd jobs around the factory. It turns out that if you don't have a specific diploma as a "skilled worker" in that area, you automatically count as "unskilled", even if you got a Ph.D.

4) I'm an "economic refugee", a migrant, working in a foreign country whose language I didn't speak when I came here out of purely economic reasons. Now fortunately I'm legally here, and with a Ph.D. in science you are a lot more welcome than as lets say a landscape gardener. But it still gives me a different view on the whole immigration debate.

5) I don't drink alcohol. No, no, nothing to do with temperance or a moral objection against alcohol. I simply can't stand the taste of it. I just don't like the taste of organic solvents in my drink or food. You'd spit out something containing acetone too. Evolutionary speaking, the tongue is designed to detect poisons and prevent you from swallowing things that are bad for your health. It is a curious development that most of humanity rather likes the taste of ethanol.

So now that this is done, I get to tag 5 other people with gaming blogs, who have to post 5 things we don't know about them. You better hurry up, because after 14 steps this method is covering 6 billion people, and then it will be hard to come up with a new name. I tag Grimwell, Michael Zenke, DM Osbon, Relmstein, and Xaylissa.

Outlook into early 2007

2006 is coming to a close, and I'm looking into what early 2007 will bring. And if all the announced release dates aren't just a bunch of lies, there will be three major events in the spring of 2007: The Burning Crusade, Lord of the Rings Online, and Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. Of course the Burning Crusade is a must-buy for me, but as I have no idea how many months that will keep me busy, I checked out the other two MMORPG as well.

I'm strangely excited about the Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO). Strangely because it is made by Turbine, which has yet to produce a game I like. But I watched the LotRO gameplay video from Fileplanet, and it is looking very good. I like the graphics, which are not quite so cartoony as WoW's, but not so photorealistically grey and washed out as those of EQ2. The user-interface looks clean, and the combat animations are fluid and good-looking. The whole thing is artistically pleasing. Of course in the video you can only guess about the flow of the game, but from all the leaked rumors from beta-testers that I hear, the game is better than you would think Turbine to be capable of. I think I am going to buy this one.

Fileplanet also has the option for subscribers to sign up for the Vanguard beta, which I did. But in this case its more a case of "try before you buy", I don't know yet whether I will end up buying it, I'm still sceptical. The much longer Vanguard gameplay trailer, 18 minutes with comments from the game producers, looks both less good and less finished than the LotRO one. There are a lot more races and apparently huuuuuuuge landscapes, but being bigger automatically results in the landscapes being more bland. And while you get a horse already as low as level 10, you will still spend a lot of your time just getting to where you want. On the positive side the huge amount of space allows player housing, although I reserve my final judgement on that until I've seen it. Being able to place houses in the landscape could be nice, but it could also seriously mess up the landscape and game. How close to monsters can you place a house? And will the best spots all be taken by hardcore players after a few weeks? Anyway, I hope I'll have the opportunity to test Vanguard, because up to now the reports from beta testers are rather negative, and they might either miss the spring 2007 release date, or release the game half-finished. Vanguard seems to be leaning far more towards the "world" side of things, but the big question is whether it will nevertheless be playable as a "game". The risk is that you have a huge world with houses, crafting, and everything, but players quickly grow bored of it, or frustrated with the slow pace, and the world remains empty due to lack of players.

So lots of exciting MMORPG coming out in early 2007, I guess we won't be bored. I'm not sure yet what I will end up playing in 3 months, or 6, but I am sure there will be some MMORPG around for me to play. And there will be more and more players in total playing this type of game, which ends up financing better and better games. The future looks bright.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Metal Gear Acid Review

My thumbs hurt, I've been playing Metal Gear Acid on the PSP so much in the last couple of days. Metal Gear Acid is a turn-based tactics game using a collectible card system to control your actions. The combination of collecting cards, building decks, and fighting turn-based battles in the secret agent Metal Gear setting is fascinating.

You play the main hero, Solid Snake, sometimes alone, sometimes with a second character named Teliko accompanying you. You start the battle with 6 cards in your hand, drawn from a deck of 30 cards. You can play between 2 and 4 of these cards per turn, that is Snake can normally play 2, but increase that number by using an Action+ card, Teliko can always play 3 cards. Cards represent weapons, equipment, special actions, bonuses, or movement. But you can play most non-movement cards to move 3 spaces as well, so you are never stuck without a movement card. Using these cards you play the game on about 20 different maps, doing missions that range from killing every enemy on the map, to finding things, to reaching the exit. Sometimes you need to hide and sneak, sometimes you need to use various weapons to kill the enemies. Each card has a "cost", which is a sort of time counter. The lower the cost you rack up to end of the turn, the faster it is your turn again. But if you use a lot of high-cost cards in your turn, the enemy can do a lot of things before you can act again.

Cards are drawn from a deck. In the first mission a standard deck is given to you, but from then on you can find cards on the maps, be awarded cards for doing missions well, or buy cards from the card shop with the points you get from doing missions. So between battles you can change your deck. At the start both the minimum number and the maximum number of cards in a deck is 30, but later the maximum goes up. Nevertheless, as any player of collectible card games knows, it is better to build only decks with the minimum number of cards. For the first few missions you can only get access to cards of the most basic set, called MGS1. Later other sets like MGS2, Chronicles and MGS3 open up. I'd advise you *not* to buy any MGS1 packs in the card shop, but to save your points until the MGS2 set becomes available, and then buy a lot of those.

The reason for needing a lot of MGS2 packs is the advanced weapon system introduced in that pack. In the MGS1 pack you shoot a weapon by using a simple weapon card, which is then discarded. The advanced weapons need several cards, one that you equip, and another weapon card using the same sort of ammo to load and fire the equipped weapon. You can also use various cards to give a one-time bonus to an equipped weapon, increasing your chance to hit, damage, or adding some other effect to it. You can still use the simple MGS1 weapons, but the advanced weapons are usually better, especially when you add some bonus to them. Equippable cards can also have arrows of different colors that increase the stats of the cards next to them. So if you equip a card with a red arrow pointing towards one of your already equipped weapons, that weapon now deals 10 more damage per hit.

Metal Gear Acid has a main story consisting of 25 missions in linear series. But you can always do random missions on previously visited maps to gain points and cards. The main story revolves around Solid Snake entering a heavily guarded weapons laboratory somewhere in Africa to get some secret data demanded by some plane hijackers. On the one side it is nice to have a story. On the other side the story is a bit over the top and not very believable, mixing a lot of supernatural nonsense into a modern-time secret agent story of conspiracy and betrayal. I never go around to play the Metal Gear games on the PS2 very much, but as far as I know the type of story is similar in the other games. The story is told in long dialogues. If you fail a mission you have to go through that dialogue again, but fortunately you can just skip it by pressing L, R, and X at the same time.

But the main source of fun of the game is the combination of deckbuilding and doing missions. You can load up your deck with lots of explosives and bomb your way through the missions, or you can use lots of stealth and try to never raise any alert. You can build a deck around different types of weapons, powerful but short range pistols, or long-range machine guns. There are 204 cards in the game, although some of them you can only get by entering passwords, which you can find on various cheat sites. I had a look at the password cards, and they aren't very useful, except for the XM8 weapon you get by typing the "Xmeight" password. Anyway, with so many cards the opportunities for deckbuilding are endless. But as you can put every card only 4 times into a deck, and you might not have the card you want 4 times, you never know whether you get the card you need at the good moment. The same mission can play very differently based on the luck of the draw.

Fortunately even with the worst of luck, you can't lose Metal Gear Acid. The worst case scenario is failing a mission, which gets you no points, and you'll have to do that mission again from the start. Between missions you always go to the "intermission" screen, where you can buy cards, build decks, save your game, and select your next mission, with the mission advancing the story line marked by a big arrow. Saving during a mission is also possible, but not recommended, because saving during a mission quits the game, and you need to reload the game every time you want to load that saved game. More of a useful feature in case Real Life ® interrupts your playing session.

Missions are varied, and most of the maps are fun. There aren't very many types of different enemies, but the enemy soldiers can have different decks and equipment as well. Like in most tactics games you move on a map divided into squares. You can press the triangle button to get an aerial view of the map, and if you select an enemy soldier in that view, you can check which squares he can see. That works usually very good, only on a few maps that are three-dimensional the camera isn't working very. In that cases you need to use the analog "joystick" of the PSP to wiggle the camera until you can actually see something.

I like Metal Gear Acid a lot, so much that I just ordered Metal Gear Acid 2 from Amazon. I do like turn-based games which actually make me think, instead of just react. And I especially enjoyed the deckbuilding part of this game, which adds a lot more variety to the tactics game genre. The setting and story might not be to everybodies liking, but it is easy to skip and ignore if you prefer to concentrate on the gameplay. The large variety of cards and maps gives Metal Gear Acid endless replayability. Recommended.

Burning Crusade fishing guide

I found this interesting site on Burning Crusade fishing. Apparently fishing is getting a lot more useful in the expansion. Too bad none of the characters on my main server have that skill very high. It is so boring to level up, and since I don't have the Tacklebox addon any more it takes too many clicks.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

World of Warcraft reduces downtime

About three months ago I wrote a blog entry complaining about WoW downtime, which got a heated discussion going whether the weekly five+ hours of maintenance are necessary or not. But this week Blizzard decided that they can live without that maintenance window.
On Tuesday, December 26 there will be no scheduled downtime for weekly maintenance. We will perform all necessary maintenance tasks while the realms are live. We are anticipating the possibility that we may need to perform rolling restarts off-peak if we find that a realm restart is necessary; however the downtime for each realm would be less than 10 minutes if it was required.
Apparently World of Warcraft can run without shutting down 5+ hours per week. Makes you wonder why it took them two years to get this going.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Santa brought me a PSP

My main christmas present was a Sony Playstation Portable. A really fascinating machine, I ended up playing for hours with it before I even put the first UMD game disc in. Unlike my previous Gameboy Advance SP, the Sony PSP is more than just a handheld game console. It is also a music player, video player, photo display, internet browser, multi media machine. So is that useful?

I was most fascinated by the PSP WiFi network connection, because I hadn't been aware of it when I bought it. As I have a WiFi router in my house, it was easy enough to set up. Only the 128-bit WEP key was annoying to enter on the PSP's virtual keyboard. And that problem continued, entering URLs or passwords or any other sort of text just takes forever on the PSP. So while technically I *could* have written a blog entry on the PSP, I didn't want to.

The PSP has both a internet browser and a RSS channel feature. I didn't get far with the RSS thingie, as it *doesn't* display RSS text feed, only audio and video podcasts. So I couldn't get for example a CNN news in text, but I could get the hourly CNN news podcast. And I found a World of Warcraft podcast called Taverncast.

The internet browser is pretty much a standard browser, with two important limitations: It supports only a limited functionality for the type of graphics and videos it can display (it *does* support Flash), and the browser window is only 320 pixels broad. Unsurprisingly most websites don't show up very well under these conditions. You can read my blog reasonably well, because I don't use much graphics. But any graphics heavy site usually becomes pretty much unreadable. I found some special "mobile" versions of sites, for display on cellphone browsers, but these apparently are only 120 pixel broad, and don't use all of the screen. Interestingly Google offers all of its services, not only the search engine, but also GMail and even the blogspot blogs, in a special "mobile" format, which displays well enough on the PSP.

What was really useful about the PSP WiFi connection was that I could use it to update the PSP operating system to version 3.03, and will be able to simply download and install all future operating system updates. The other internet browser and RSS functions are a lot less useful, for the simple reason that they require WiFi access. I travelled around enough with my laptop to know that finding a free WiFi hotspot is something which is still pretty rare. And paying something like $10 so I can read my GMail on the PSP isn't something I was planning to do. At home, where I have WiFi, I can more easily access the same content with a real computer. When mobile, where the PSP is easier to carry, I usually don't have WiFi access. That might improve over the years, but up to now this functionality isn't very useful.

So I looked at the other non-game functions of the PSP. The first curious thing is that with all the WiFi functionality, there is no way to transfer files onto your PSP by WiFi, except if you make a podcast of your files and save those. If you want to have your photos, music, or videos on your PSP, you need to connect the PSP to your computer with a standard USB-to-mini-USB cable, which is *not* included in the PSP pack. Fortunately I had one for my digital camera. Speaking of which, of course if you have a Sony digital camera, you can take the memory stick from the camera and put it into the PSP. But why would you want to? If you bought a digital camera with a reasonably large LCD screen, viewing the photos on a PSP isn't much of a improvement. Of course you can use your PSP to carry around the best photos of your loved ones. You can either store the photos in the original size and zoom in, or you first downscale them to 320x240 pixels, and use less storage space. Fortunately I got the PSP Giga Pack, with the 2 GB memory stick. All the multi-media functions of the PSP use a lot of storage, and the standard 32 MB memory stick isn't enough for anything.

I haven't even tried the music player functionality yet. I don't own any sort of MP3-player or IPod, I guess I'm just not a very musical person. And the PSP is a lot bigger and more expensive than the average MP3 players. But I did play around with the PSP video player functionality. That isn't easy, because first you need some software to convert whatever DVDs or videos you have to the MP4 format in 320x240 resolution for the PSP. I bought this one, which works okay, but sometimes has problems with DVD subtitles. Anyway, I took the whole setup through a test drive and converted the first disc of my CSI DVDs to the PSP. Now I got 4 episodes of CSI on my PSP, and the screen size and resolution is good enough for comfortable viewing. Each 45-minute episode takes a quarter of a gigabyte of storage space though, which limits how much video I can carry around with me.

And of course the legal situation is tricky. I'm a very legit guy, I don't download pirated music, warez, or videos. But having legally bought a DVD, I think I should be allowed to transform it to MP4 and watch it on my PSP, as long as I don't share the file with anyone. But do the lawyers agree? I think that whoever owns the movie rights would prefer me to buy both the DVD and the UMD with the same content. The UMD is called Universal Media Disc to hide the fact that it only plays on a PSP, so buying a movie on UMD isn't terribly clever. And the choice of UMDs you have is tiny compared to the choice of DVDs out there. So I think I'll just continue to rip my DVDs to the PSP.

So from all the multi-media capabilities of the PSP, I think the video player is the most useful. Nevertheless it is nice to have all that functionality in one machine. And that is besides playing games with it. I got myself a small library of PSP games: Everybody's Golf, Field Commander, Lego Star Wars II, Metal Gear Acid, Tales of Eternia and Worms Open Warfare. I started playing Metal Gear Acid, but I'll write about it another time. So I'm very happy with the PSP right now. The graphics are far better than the Gameboy Advance SP, and the PSP does so much more. Plus I still plan to buy a PS3 one day, and then apparently there is some functionality where you can connect the two. A very nice christmas present.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Added backlinks and better statistics

I studied the features of the new version of Blogger, and stumbled upon backlinks. I think the old Blogger had those, but not from the start, and so I never used them. Backlinks basically automatically uses Google Blog Search to find all other blogs linking to an article of mine, and links back to those blogs at the bottom of the comments page. Tell me whether you find that useful!

I also made myself an early christmas present and spent money on the upgraded version of Sitemeter, which gives me access to more detailed statistics. I now get reports about interesting things like what search words my visitors from Google used (current search word on top of the list is "decursive"). And while the free Sitemeter only listed my last 100 visitors, the upgraded version lists the last 4,000, and keeps the overall visit statistics for 6 years, instead of just 1. Nevertheless the upgrade is expensive and not totally necessary, so I wouldn't really recommend it for everybody.

Running with the lemmings

Hooray! I finally made it 22,500 honor points, and bought a High Warlord Bludgeon. Then I also got myself a Black War Kodo, to get rid of the excess marks of honor, and gave up on PvP. I just can't see the 3 battlegrounds any more. Not that I find 2 weeks grinding for an epic sword excessive, I just don't want to do it again for armor or a shield.

We all believe that in the virtual world we are doing what we are doing for fun, and out of our own free will. But looking at the current PvP popularity, I'm not sure it was my "free will" that made me play PvP. I think I was just running with the lemmings, doing what everybody was doing, whether it was fun or not.

If PvP was fun, then how come that so few people played it before the last patch? And how come that after the expansion comes out the battlegrounds will be deserted again? Apparently we don't play for fun, we play for phat loot. Whatever Blizzard makes the easiest way to get epics, people will follow it. A month from now the best loot will be found in BC 5-man dungeons, and everybody will be there. Aren't people wonderfully simple creatures, that they can be manipulated so well?

Blizzard bans 105,000 players in November

Another round of Blizzard bannings, quote:"In our continued efforts to combat cheating in World of Warcraft, more than 105,000 accounts were closed and over 12 million gold was removed from the game economies in Europe, Korea, and the US in the month of November. The closed accounts were associated with activities that violate World of Warcraft's Terms of Use, such as using third-party programs that allow cheating, and farming gold and items. These types of activities can severely impact the economy of a realm and the overall game enjoyment for all players."

Excuse me for being cynical, but if 105,000 gold farmers together have only 12 million gold, then each gold farmer has less than 120 gold inventory on average. So either these guys are selling the gold faster than they can make it; or more likely Blizzard only banned the bot accounts, and not the distributor account that holds all the gold.

I don't know what the current going rate for gold is, but it can't be far from $50 per 1,000 gold. So 12 million gold deleted sets the gold farmer back $600,000. And the 105,000 accounts at $20 the account cost them $2.1 million, money that goes directly to Blizzard. These bannings are quite profitable for Blizzard. The gold farmers will be back soon.

But through the law of unintended consequences, being banned is soon going to be a harsher penalty than before for a gold farmer. Because the maximum gold is earned at the maximum level. Raising the level cap to 70 means that each gold farming account needs to grind longer before reaching the cap and starting to earn good money. So every banned account is "out" for a longer time. Lets hope that this at least leads to gold farmers using less bots, as these are easier to detect than manual farming.

BorkWeb WoW 2.0 macro guide

Just a short link to a great macro guide for World of Warcraft after patch 2.0.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Best place to farm honor

My Horde warrior is up to over 18,000 honor points, and has over 30 marks of honor from each battleground. So which of these battlegrounds is the best place to farm honor? In my opinion Arathi Basin is the place to go. The reason for that is that in AB it doesn't matter much whether you win or lose. You get bonus honor based on the resources your side gathered. So if you lose, but have lets say 1,650 resources to the winner's 2,000, you still get 100 bonus honor to the victor's 120 bonus honor. Not much of a difference. Add to this the fact that it is nearly impossible to totally stall a Arathi Basin game, and you have a honor point farming winner.

Second best for honor is Alterac Valley. In the shorter AV battles both sides make as much honor as in Arathi Basin. On the AV bonus honor weekends probably even more. The problem is that in AV you only get good honor in the first half hour or so. After that most of the named NPCs that give 14 points of honor are dead, and for killing players of the other faction the diminished returns rule applies, giving less and less honor the more often the same guy gets killed. When an enemy player is worth only 1 honor point, regardless of rank, and there is no more bonus honor to gain, grinding AV for honor is not a good idea. When I join an Alterac Valley battle and find I've just joined a combat which has been going on already for over 1 hour, I just /afk out. The 15 minutes deserter buff is a less harsh penalty than staying in a long AV battle.

The worst place for honor is Warsong Gulch. This is due to the high number of premade groups in that battleground. If you are member of a pickup group and the other side has a premade group, it is quite possible not to capture a single flag, and thus get no bonus honor at all. Even if you are member of a premade group and get paired against another premade group, the honor yield isn't great, because two premade groups often stall each other and draw out the battle. That can be fun, but it isn't great from a honor grind perspective.

Following the wise advice from a reader, I also tried the battlegrounds with my Alliance priest, thus getting the other point of view. For WSG and AB that doesn't make much of a difference. In AV I did three battles, all three of which the Alliance won in 25 minutes or less, which obviously was good honor gain. But in the end farming Alterac Valley for honor as Alliance didn't give much more honor than doing it as Horde. Because as Horde I can join any battleground in under 1 minute, while as Alliance the AV queues I experienced were 10 to 12 minutes long, adding over half an hour of no honor gain at all to the total time spent in the three battles.

So to summarize "Tobold's Guide to Honor Farming", my recommendation would be to alternate AB and AV, and just doing enough WSG to have the marks of honor you need. Doing just Arathi Basin gives slightly better honor, but is getting repetitive real fast. Doing Alterac Valley as well is more variety, more fun, and nearly the same amount of honor. Stay away from Warsong Gulch, unless you have a premade group, and even then it isn't the perfect place to farm honor.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

New version of Blogger

The new version of Blogger moved from the beta to the release stage, and finally even large blogs like mine could move to the new version. For me the main advantage is that when I publish a post, it appears instantly on the blog, there is no more long "publishing post" waiting screen. But otherwise the new Blogger is very similar to the old one. And in fact for my readers nothing visible should have changed. If you notice any changes or problems, please leave a comment here.

I had to laugh about the announcement on the Blogger main site: The new version of Blogger in beta is dead!
Long live the new version of Blogger!
(P.S. The old version of Blogger is not dead, but it would like to retire for a little while... maybe go to Hawaii or play World of Warcraft all day? It begs you to let it play World of Warcraft all day.)


World of Warcraft as a retirement occupation, now there is a new idea.

A beta dilemma

A reader sent me this question: "I am facing a dilemma and I was wondering it might be an interesting topic to explore on your blog:

I got notified today that I've been allowed into the Burning Crusade beta. I am really enthusiastic about this, but I am also in doubt. I originally wanted to PvP until the expansion comes, thereby obtaining some nice gear which will make for easy/easier levelling. Since my time is limited, I obviously can't do both... hence the dilemma.

Maybe you could shed some light on this in your blog?
"

My take on that is that it is the dilemma between playing for the fun of it, and playing for the loot. Playing the beta is fun, but it doesn't get you anything, all your beta achievements are going to be erased at the end of the beta. Doing PvP on the real servers is maybe a bit repetitive, if you need many points for the reward you want, but you'll get to keep the rewards.

I have the same option, and what I did is play the beta until I had a good look around the first couple of zones and dungeons, and then went back to the real servers, where I am now doing PvP to get an epic weapon. I would definitely recommend having at least a look around Hellfire Peninsula, do a couple of quests there and explore the land. Because I'm afraid that when the expansion goes life that zone will be so overcrowded, that you better know in advance where to find those mobs. You might ride past their spawn three times and never see one alive, there will be so many players hunting all quest mobs. Knowing where all the flight points to tag are, and how to get to Shattrath, is definitely something that is going to be useful.

I never planned to play the beta until level 70, especially not since they made leveling so much harder in the middle of the beta. If I already knew everything about the Burning Crusade content, there would be nothing left to look forward to. So I was planning to take a break, when Blizzard came up with the 2.0 patch and the much improved PvP reward system. I'm still playing less than I used to, but when I play I mostly do PvP, with a clear goal of a High Warlord 1H weapon ahead of me. Of course there is a risk that the first time I enter Hellfire Citadel I find a better weapon than that. But for me PvP is nearly new content, I did it so little, so playing something I don't usually do, with a decent reward, sounds good to me.

Your time might be limited, but you *can* do both. Just set yourself realistic goals for what you want to achieve in PvP, play a bit of PvP every day towards that goal, and when you get bored of it (or the bg server starts lagging in the evening), you play around a bit with the beta instead. In the end all the rewards in WoW are just temporary, and the whole game is just for fun. You don't "need" epics, from PvP or raid, to level in the Burning Crusade. You'll be fine with whatever you manage to pick up while still having fun.

Raph Koster's Areae

After writing a book on the Theory of Fun, but failing horribly in the practical implementation, game designer Raph Koster has unveiled a new company named Areae.

Areae, Inc. is a company dedicated to taking the tired old virtual world and making it into something fresh and new. Something anyone can jump into. Something where anyone can find something fun to do or a game to play. Something where anyone can build their own place on the virtual frontier.
Note how he cleverly fails to mention what Areae actually is. So there is a long list of people speculating that it is some sort of illegitimate love-child between a MMO and the Web 2.0. Closer to a web-based Second Life than to World of Warcraft.

When will designers ever learn? User-created content hasn't made any money yet, except for the people who cleverly sold their worthless Web 2.0 sites for crazy amounts to very stupid investors. Second Life creates a lot of media hype, but no profit yet. Meanwhile World of Warcraft is making millions of dollars every month.

Back in my Grimwell.com days we used to debate endlessly about the relative advantages of "world" MMOs vs. "game" MMOs. Which is all very interesting from a theoretical game design point of view. But if you look at it from a business point of view, if you ever want to make money build a "game" MMO. As little information as we have, Areae definitely falls into the "world" MMO category. Expect millions of users, as long as it is free, and no profit for a long time to come.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Measuring blogs the VirginWorlds way

It seems that mapping the MMO blogosphere and ranking and measuring it is all the rage. Prognosticator from VirginWorlds.com (an excellent MMO news portal by the way) has come up with his own method. He simply types the MMO blog's address into Google, and sees how many hits he gets. Wow, apparently Google has just under 10,000 links to me, landing me on rank 19 of that particular list.

Now this is a method I can accept, within the obvious limits it has: You have first to draw up a list of what you consider to be a MMO blog, before you can rank them on a list. If you didn't know about a particular MMO blog, this method isn't going to find it.

I wish he hadn't called this a "pervasion rating", that is too likely to be misread as something completely different. :) But apart from that, "pervasion" hits the nail on the head, because your number of incoming Google links is a mix between your popularity and how long your blog has been around. Apparently 3 years is already a long time in the blogosphere, which explains a good part of my pervasion rating.

Anyway, whatever you think of the rating, the thing makes for a rather good list of popular MMO blogs and sites, which is already useful enough.

Monday, December 18, 2006

World of Warcraft not the end of history

Looking back to what happened in the MMORPG genre in the year 2006 the short summary is: Not much. World of Warcraft is dominating the market to a degree that other games fail to make news or take off. Is that the end of history? Have MMORPG stopped evolving? Fortunately not. Just 5 years ago it was Everquest which dominated the market, and today it's down to a 1.6% market share. World of Warcraft is just another Everquest, taking the center stage for a few years before disappearing into history.

While doomcasting World of Warcraft usually ends you up with egg on your face, I think that 2007 will be the year in which WoW peaks. Inevitably the Burning Crusade expansion will bring back a lot of people into the game who had stopped playing sometime during the last two years. So in the first quarter of 2007 the number of subscribers will hit a new record.

But by the middle of 2007 that growth will at least stop, or there will even be a decline, although you won't read about that anywhere. Blizzard isn't likely to release declining subscription numbers. You'll just notice a lack of new press releases announcing new records. There are two major influences that will stop the growth of World of Warcraft: The appearance of a range of alternatives, and the lack of content in the Burning Crusade.

I don't see any single "WoW killer" MMORPG appearing in 2007. Vanguard will probably be a total flop. And many of the other new games will just reach a moderate success, getting a few hundred thousand players each, enough to keep them alive but nowhere near the World of Warcraft numbers. But as there are many new MMORPG coming out in 2007, the sum of all the players trying out the new games will be a visible drain on WoW. The one game that has the potential to rival WoW in subscribers, at least locally in the US and Europe, is probably Warhammer Age of Reckoning, but that will only come out in 2008.

People will move to other games because they will quickly grow bored with the Burning Crusade. The Outland is a large continent, but in the end it is just 7 new outdoor zones and 8 new dungeons (including Caverns of Time and Karazhan). Sure, that will keep us busy for a while. But even the average player will have seen most of it after a couple of months. No way is the added content enough to keep people occupied for a whole year, until the next WoW expansion comes out. Once we reach level 70 we will again have the "treadmill" option of raiding, giving us the appearance of progress while not actually moving us forward. But by now there is a strong expectation that the next expansion after the Burning Crusade will again invalidate all raid progress. Having a short look at the endgame and then cancelling your account for half a year until the next expansion definitely looks like the more clever option.

Again, this is not a doomcast. World of Warcraft will have many million subscribers for years to come, and many more expansions. But while the number of WoW subscribers will stagnate or even fall a bit, the total number of MMORPG players will steadily increase, thus shrinking the market share of WoW to something less intimidating. World of Warcraft is a very good game, but it isn't perfect, and there is no reason to think that nobody else could make a similarly good or even better game. World of Warcraft is not the end of history.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

WoW Journal - 17-December-2006

Double honor weekend didn't happen, presumably due to the Winter Veil christmas events. But as I had already done all the christmas quests, this World of Warcraft christmas left me doubly unhappy, with neither presents nor double honor. Nevertheless the battlegrounds were still overcrowded, so I only could play PvP in the mornings. Later in the day they became laggy and instable, and after getting kicked out of a battleground several times without reward, I gave up.

On the positive side I visited the last zone of World of Warcraft that I hadn't seen yet: Naxxramas. Due to BWL raids not getting full any more, my guild wisely decided that killing trash mobs in Naxxramas was more fun, and doable with under 30 people. We cleared out the Deathknight wing up to the first boss, but the bosses were off limit to our small raid. We wiped a couple of times, but generally we were able to handle all trash mobs, except the gargoyles, who self-heal to full 6 seconds after going down to 30% life. You need a full raid to have enough dps for them.

We didn't get any epics, but that wasn't really the point. I'm happy to have seen Naxxramas now. Man, that place is huge. I wonder if one day we'll clear it out with level 70 characters for fun. There seem to be a lot of interesting encounters there. Too bad Blizzard wasted so much work on content that so few people ever see.

Well, back to honor grinding. I should be at 15,000 points now, two-thirds of the way to my High Warlord 1h weapon. I have 50 AB and 30 each of AV and WSG marks. So I looked around whether I could buy anything useful without spending honor. But you can only get useless tabards, and epic mounts for the marks. In the new system the PvP epic mounts still need the 150 riding skill. And post-patch that now costs 810 gold, because the previous 10% bonus from Sergeant or higher PvP rank doesn't exist any more. The 90 battleground marks only save you the 90 gold you would otherwise need to spend for the mount. And if you don't like the mount of your race, you can get a PvP mount of another race from your faction. So if I ever overflow with marks, I can always blow them on buying a kodo or riding wolf for my troll. I don't think he'd look good on a skeleton horse.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Decursive replacement

I went raiding yesterday to Molten Core with my undead priest, and with the help of someone from the guild found a good replacement for Decursive. And the beauty is that you don't even need to download anything, you just make a "Decursive 2.0" macro saying

/cast [target=mouseover] Dispel Magic

What that does is when you press the hotkey for the macro it casts Dispel Magic (replace with the name of your decursing spell if you ain't a priest) on whatever target your mouse is hovering over. You don't need to click with the mouse to decurse. In a big raid I just set up CTRaidAssist to display all curses that I can dispell and just whack-a-mole, hovering the mouse over the list of players and spamming the decursive macro button. In a small group I could even target the players on the screen, as curses change their avatars color. It isn't quite as fast as the old Decursive, but pretty close. Nifty!

Friday, December 15, 2006

I'm touched

The number of hits this blog gets has grown astronomically; just one year ago, in November 2005 I got as many visitors in the whole month as I get on a good *day* now. I watch these numbers, but at the same time I am now less proud of them. Because Sitemeter is telling me that over 90% of them have been sent here by Google, and are usually just looking for a specific solution to a specific WoW problem. They might or might not find it on the blog page Google sends them too, but most of them just leave in less than 1 minute and never read more of what I write.

So nowadays I get my motivation from those readers who stay around, who actually read my blog, and participate in the discussion by leaving a comment. And I am especially touched by those who say that I inspired them to write their own blog. This post is about two of them who started blogging recently:

Zoso is running a great blog called MMOG Musings. Scroll down to the 11th of December and start reading his series of posts on battlegrounds, it is good. And the blog is frequently updated.

Xaylissa has a MMORPG blog "about WoW, Other MMO's, Life and everything inbetween". Less often updated, but still good writing, for example about roleplaying servers.

You see, blogging isn't that hard. It's a bit like Field of Dreams: build it and they will come.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Choice vs. Random

So why am I doing PvP, if that isn't my natural favorite occupation and the honor points have been nerfed? Well, besides the fact that I already did everything else, the main attraction for me is that in the PvP reward system I get to choose what reward I want.

This contrasts sharply with raid loot, which is completely random. If I go on a raid, I don't know if something for my class will drop. And I don't get to choose which part either. I know which boss mob drops which part, I can only hope that when we kill the boss who drops the part I need, he won't be dropping the part for another class instead. When people complained to Blizzard about shaman loot now already dropping for Alliance and paladin loot for Horde, Tseric just replied with "Plain fact is that this is about production schedules and not about you." (and later deleted that post when he realized that isn't wasn't great customer service). But even before that move, which basically reduces your chance of finding raid loot by 11%, raiding for one specific item was an exercise in frustration. Especially getting an epic weapon is hard, because usually more people can use it, and weapons drop less often than armor.

In the new PvP, I can plan ahead to get the epic sword I want, without having to count on chance. My rate of progress towards that goal might not always be as fast as I wish, but I always know exactly where I am and how far I still have to go. I don't need luck, and there is no random chance that I get a mage robe instead of a warrior sword.

Which of course makes me wish that raid loot would involve more choice. And apparently even Blizzard thinks that this would be a good idea, and is experimenting. For example the Naxxramas tier 3 loot is based on tokens. A specific boss drops a token for a specific slot, but the token can be used by one of several classes. You get the actual item by handing in the token, plus wartorn armor scraps, and some crafting materials.

In the Burning Crusade it seems you get tier 4 tokens which are specific to one slot and one class, but not specific to a talent tree. So if you get a druid bracers token, you can choose between three different druid bracers, one for moonkins, one for feral, and one for restoration druids. That is a step backwards from the tier 3 loot, because you probably aren't changing your spec very often, and you still need the luck that the piece for your class and the specific slot you are looking for is dropping.

I wonder why raiding loot can't be handled like PvP rewards. Imagine you get "MC honor points" for every kill in Molten Core, plus *everybody* in the raid gets "MC victory token" for every boss killed. And then everybody just goes and buys tier 1 armor with a combination of points and marks. With every raid member getting the same amount of points and marks as long as he participates in the same amount of kills, guilds wouldn't even need DKP or other loot distribution schemes any more. It might not be as exciting as finding phat loot on a killed boss, but it is inherently a lot more fair.

WoW Journal - 15-December-2006

Came home late from work last night and only had 2 hours time to play. I went to Alterac Valley anyway, because I wanted to test whether AV is really the best place to farm honor. It isn't. The first battle we surprisingly won in half an hour, and I'm proud to say that it was me who struck down General Vanndar with an execute killing blow. The second battle never ended, because when we were just about to lose enough people teleported back, took all graveyards on our side, and kicked the Alliance back all the way to their home territory. That was kind of fun too, but after 90 minutes the game was still a solid draw, so I had to leave without a victory mark. No wonder defence isn't popular in AV, losing and restarting earns you more than defending.

More importantly I managed to do 144 honor kills, which is *exactly* the same amount of kills I got the day before in 4 hours of WSG. The 4 hours of WSG had given me only 1314 honor, and so by making the same amount of kills in half the time I figured I would get at least more honor per hour. That didn't happen. This morning I checked my score and only had 536 honor. I got *less* honor per hour in AV than in WSG, in spite of winning AV once and making twice the kills per hour. Apparently the bonus honor from winning the small battlegrounds counts for more than the number of kills. I had thought that the estimated numbers you can see in your combat chat window, giving you just 2 honor points for killing a sergeant and 6 for a field marshal was inaccurate. But apparently between 2 and 6 points per kill is exactly what you end up getting. Long way to 22,500 honor then.

Oh, and merry christmas, the christmas event in World of Warcraft started today. As far as I can see it is still exactly the same even than the last two years, so I'm not terribly excited.

Overestimated

I seriously overestimated my ability to gather honor points, thinking I could make 1,000 points per hour. That estimate was based on the 6,500 points I made on the weekend. But I'm not really sure I only played 6-7 hours on the weekend, and then there was the weekend honor bonus, giving double (?) honor for Arathi Basin, the battleground I did most.

So the night before the patch, without the weekend bonus but before the nerf, I made 2,800 honor points in 4 hours of Alterac Valley. Weekdays at least I know how many hours I play, 4 hours between coming home from work and going to bed. So pre-patch in AV I was at 700 points per hour, less than the 1,000 I had hoped for, but still okay.

Yesterday I did 4 hours of only Warsong Gulch. 5 wins, 3 losses, not a bad ratio, gaining me 18 WSG marks. But in terms of honor this was a catastrophe, I only made 1,314 points. Post-nerf, no bonus, WSG, 320 honor points per hour. Just one third of what I had been counting on. I have over 10,000 honor now, but still not even half the 22,500 points I need for that High Warlord blade. Nevertheless with another weekend ahead, which should be bringing double honor again, and the holidays ahead, I'm sure I'll get my blade before the Burning Crusade comes out. But probably not much more than that at this rate.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

What gear do you need for the Burning Crusade?

Kill Ten Rats has an article on the link between raid apathy and gear needed for the Burning Crusade. Basically if people expect to need epics to succeed in BC they would go raiding more, but if they expect lesser gear to suffice they would raid less.

An alternative explanation for less raiding would be the widely reported fact that raiding has become a lot less pleasant since the patch. Servers are less stable, Decursive isn't working any more, and when killing Nefarian with your Alliance guild you might end up finding two shaman breastplates (screenshot at MMOG Nation). But as the raid apathy started already before the patch, it is more likely that the expectations for the Burning Crusade are responsible, and not the WoW 2.0 patch.

The endgame of World of Warcraft is a game of diminishing returns. Improving your gear gets harder the further advanced you already are, and the improvements are getting smaller. Now lets assume you aren't totally burned out from playing WoW, and like most players you have several characters. In that case the decision which character to play depends very much on your expectation of what gear you will need to level in the expansion, and what gear would be a waste of effort to acquire.

My priest is on a break for two equally valid reasons: I got tired of raiding, and I felt that I had more than enough equipment for that character to start playing in the expansion when it comes out. Improving the gear of my priest would have been very hard, as only BWL and higher still yields items I could use. Meanwhile my warrior feels less than optimally equipped, with only a single epic, wearing mostly tier 0 or equivalent blue items. Doing PvP with my warrior both enables me to play WoW without having to raid, and enables me to equip him to a level where I'd be more comfortable with when starting to play him in the new content.

I'm not claiming that this is absolutely necessary. There are two major reasons *against* equipping a level 60 alt now: A) Green and blue items are probably sufficient to go questing and visiting dungeons in the Outland. And B) by the time you actually get around to playing your alt, the auction house is probably offering cheap green items which are better than anything you can acquire right now. So an alternative strategy to collecting gear for your alts now would be to farm gold now, and buy better gear after the expansion comes out. But hey, I'm financially prepared for the Burning Crusade, I stocked more metals and gems than I think I'll need to level up jewelcrafting, and will hopefully be able to sell the excess at a huge profit. ;)

So what gear do you really need for the Burning Crusade. My personal impression from the BC beta is: not much. I did quests and dungeons in the beta with both of my level 60 priests, the undead priest in full epic set, and the human priest in just-reached-60 green/blue gear. And both did just fine. Of course the priest is probably the least gear-dependant character class for soloing quests. And the tier 1 and 2 priest epic gear, which helps a lot for raid healing, doesn't improve my soloing ability by much. But I also saw a lot of other players with other character classes do just fine in green/blue gear. I even grouped once with a level 58 character in the Hellfire Rampart instance, without that causing too much of a problem. I don't foresee anyone being blocked in the Burning Crusade just because he doesn't have enough shiny epics to start with.

*Not* having epics at the start of the Burning Crusade has one major advantage: doing the quests is more fun. The earlier quests and mobs you kill drop green items which are "as good as" tier 1 epics, approximately. My epic priest found a lot of green stuff which he ended up not using, because it wasn't much better than what he had, and I didn't want to destroy the set bonuses of the tier 1 and 2 I was wearing. The same items were a huge improvement for my human priest, and getting a quest reward or drop which you can actually use is always more fun.

For me that means that playing enough PvP to get one epic sword for my warrior is probably a good idea. I get to experience more of the PvP content, which I don't know that well yet, and which is thus more interesting to me. And the dps for a warrior's sword should have some influence on how fast he progresses in the expansion, at least up to the point where he finds a better one. At the same time I don't feel that I absolutely *must* equip my warrior now. Even after the nerf getting the one sword isn't too much of an effort. Afterwards I can decide whether I want to continue doing PvP and get a bit more equipment purely based on how much fun I am having doing so. As soon as PvP starts feeling like a grind, I can stop without fear of missing some essential gear. That is a good situation to be in.

WoW Journal - 13-December-2006

I spent all of last evening in Alterac Valley with my troll warrior, doing PvP. This turned out to be a good idea, as this morning during the maintenance Blizzard nerfed the honor gain, so I hope I still get yesterday's honor on the previous scheme. I did AV because I already had far too many AB victory marks, and because I wanted to test whether I would also get about 1,000 honor per hour in AV. And because I like AV, it is fun, even if I rarely win.

My new arms warrior build, with the new BC talents, turns out to be pretty good in PvP. Especially useful is the talent Second Wind (Whenever you are struck by a Stun or Immobilize effect you will generate 20 rage and 10% of your total health over 10 sec.). As in AV I get hit by a stun or immobilize effect far more often than once every 10 seconds, this basically gives me a continuous health regeneration and rage gain. Nifty.

In 4 hours I did 4 Alterac Valleys and gained 4 AV victory marks, because we didn't win a single one. This bring me up to 10 AV victory marks, from 1 win and 7 losses. In Arathi Basin I got over 40 AB victory marks. I only lost a single complete AB battle since the patch, although technically I "lost" two more AB battles, because I joined battles which had already started and where the Alliance was several hundred points ahead. I don't mind, because a quick loss still gives one mark, a few honor points, and doesn't take up much of my time. But the fact that the Horde wins more than half of the AB battles disproves the theory that Alliance is better in PvP or better organized. If the Horde loses most AV battles, it must be related to geography.

The battles I participated in were of two types: fast or slow. The fast battles was when both sides rushed past each other, Alliance directly taking FW graveyard and Horde directly taking SP graveyard, without bothering with anything in the middle. Alliance wins those kind of battles even if Horde takes SP a bit earlier than Alliance takes FW, because for Horde it is much more difficult to storm the Alliance castle than the other way round. The fast battles gave one quick losers "victory" mark, but weren't that much fun.

The slow battles happened when one side decided to try to stop the other side. That works in all cases, but results in neither side being able to win quickly. I have a growing suspicion that in the end Alliance wins because they always control the SF graveyard in the middle. Both sides follow natural "paths" from their side to the other, and the SF graveyard lies on the Alliance path, but away from the Horde path. With the middle graveyard under permanent control, the Alliance is never thrown back further than the middle. But as Horde I often got killed at SH or SP and ended up far back in the starting cave, and then got bottled up there by Alliance players not letting anyone pass IB. So in a war of attrition the Alliance also wins in the end, due to shorter supply paths. I found the slow battles more fun, except for the one that lasted over 2 hours, because then you don't gain much honor from kills any more in the end. And of course you get very few victory marks like that.

I hope I got the 4,000 honor points I was shooting for last night, because that would bring up my total to nearly 11,000 points, half way to the High Warlord's Blade I would like to get for 22,500 points. As the blade besides the points only costs 20 AB marks, which are trivial to get, I don't mind how slow I get the AV marks. Maybe one day I end up with 25 of them, and can buy the Immovable Object shield, which only costs 7,000 honor points besides the 25 AV marks. It seems the battleground-specific items have a lower point cost and higher mark cost than the general PvP reward items. Unfortunately a first check didn't reveal any interesting items for a warrior that could be bought cheaply with AB marks, the level 60 weapons there are a casters staff and dagger.

The good news yesterday was that the battleground were relatively lag-free and stable, but that was because Blizzard had disabled the cross-realm battlegroups, and we only fought against people from our own server.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

This is too popular, let's nerf it

Blizzard found a solution to everybody doing PvP: they nerfed it. Honor gain is now 30% less than before. In case you are bad at math, let me run you through this. If you previously gained 1,000 honor per hour, saving up for an item costing 7,000 honor, you needed 7 hours to get it. After the nerf you only get 700 honor per hour, 30% less. So now you need 10 hours to get that same 7,000 point item, which is 10 divided by 7 = 1.42857 times as much, or 43% more. Lowering the honor gain instead of raising the prices has the advantage for the players that it doesn't affect previously gained honor. It has the advantage for Blizzard that most people can't do math and think they need 30% more time to advance now, while in fact it's 43%.

Don't get me wrong, I think the new "cost", the effort needed to get a specific reward, is better balanced. And by making PvP less popular, the load on the servers will be reduced. But of course the way Blizzard got to this result was probably the worst possible: First overshooting in their goal to make PvP more popular, showing everybody that the servers can't handle this, and then slapping a big nerf on it, making everybody angry. Imagine Nintendo declaring that they found their Wii console being too popular, always being sold out at the current price, and so they'll increase the price by 43% from now on. If Blizzard had tested their PvP better and put the new cost structure in from the start, it would have been a lot better.

Another problem has turned up with the PvP reward system: Items cost a combination of honor points and BG victory marks. And Blizzard considers every victory mark to be equally valuable, thus for example the epic PvP mount costs 30 each of the three battleground victory marks. But as you get victory marks only for finishing a battleground, in reality the victory marks from the much shorter battlegrounds WSG and AB are a lot easier to get than the AV marks. That is especially annoying for the Horde, which due to AV geography strongly favoring Alliance there very rarely wins AV. In the time it takes me to get 1 AV victory mark, I can easily get 10 AB marks.

I believe the honor gain to be essentially equal for all battlegrounds, although I need to test that. But although I spent less time in AB than in AV, I already have far too many AB marks, over 40, while still only having 10 AV marks. People who do most of their PvP in AB or WSG complain that they are reaching the stacking limit of the victory marks, while still not having enough honor points to buy what they want. For me that is okay, I actually like AV, so I'll just do my honor farming there. But if you would much prefer the other battlegrounds and are forced to do AV to get the victory marks from there very slowly, I can see how that wouldn't be much fun. Maybe Blizzard should introduce some possibility to trade 3 victory marks of one type against 1 of a different type.

Now more famous than Yahoo!

Any sort of mapping the blogosphere or measuring it, even on a limited subject, is bound for failure. The best approach would be to admit that it is really, really hard, and to give up on it. The worst approach is to post a Top 100 blogs for MMO gamers, based on a totally arbitrary method (based on bloglines feeds related to Broken Toys), and then proclaiming it to be 97% accurate (thought that might have been meant ironically).

You will find me at place 68, ahead of Yahoo! (76), the New York Times (80), or Raph Koster's blog (93). Yeah, sure. I'm sitting here by the phone, waiting for a billion dollar offer from Rupert Murdoch for my blog. What an utter nonsense!

Taking a small, arbitrary community and counting the RSS feeds they subscribed to is a method that is so inherently flawed, that the results are basically useless. If you absolutely had to rank blogs, you would first need to compile a list of all MMO blogs (which would already exclude Yahoo and the NYT), and then use something like an Alexa traffic ranking (today's Traffic Rank for tobolds.blogspot.com: 231,126 ) as a score. That would tell you that for example Raph is far more famous than I am (today's Traffic Rank for raphkoster.com: 68,457 ). Not to mention Yahoo, which today happens to be on traffic rank 1 of Alexa.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Will you reset DKP in Burning Crusade?

Now here is an interesting question for all World of Warcraft players that are part of a raiding guild: Will your guild reset their DKP system after the Burning Crusade comes out?

The basic function of a DKP system is that a guild hands out IOUs to members which put a lot of effort into raiding, but due to bad luck didn't get an appropriate amount of epics out of the exercise. That does make sense to a certain degree: if your guild is going to Molten Core every week, and you participate all the time, but no item for your class dropped, the least you would expect is that the day such an item drops you get priority over somebody who is on his first raid there.

There are a lot of different loot distribution systems, and not all of them hold up well over long periods of time. The good systems don't promise more epics to their members than they can deliver. A zero-sum DKP system automatically is always balanced. The even simpler Suicide Kings system just works with a list, with the person on top of the list having first right of refusal, and then dropping to the bottom of the list when he gets an item; so this system can go on forever as well. But lots of DKP systems end up giving out more points per raid than the epics in that raid cost. The inevitable consequence is that some members accumulate huge amounts of points. Even worse, if the DKP point cost per item is fixed, the guild ends up owing these people the equivalent of a dozen epics.

Many guilds already raid less than they used to. And when the Burning Crusade expansion comes out, there won't be many raids for quite some time, until the guilds have over 25 people that reached level 70. After this break some guild will find themselves on their first level 70 raid, finding their first level 70 epics, and some people are going to be rather unhappy about how these epics are being distributed. "What do you mean, you got 10,000 DKP and have first right of refusal on the next 20 epics that drop?"

Why should the fact that player A has been much more often to Molten Core with the guild than player B give him priority on more than one epic at level 70? Due to the raiding break between level 60 and 70, and everybody going into the level 70 raids with blue items from Burning Crusade dungeons, there is no more direct link between the contribution of player A in Molten Core and the success of the guild in the level 70 raids.

The problem here is that the people with the most accumulated DKP are likely to be the officers of the guild. I don't even know yet if I'll even dare to ask the question whether DKP are going to be reset for BC in my guild. Because the people who decide that are those that would lose most. Of course they would prefer to have first dibs on all the loot coming out of the level 70 raid dungeons, getting completely geared up before somebody else even gets their first epic. It would take some rather enlightened guild leadership to see that this wouldn't be in the best interest of the guild as a whole. But setting up a good transition system wouldn't be easy either. This is going to be difficult for many guilds.

So how is your guild going to handle DKP in the expansion? Do you have a system which accumulated a lot of DKP for some people over the last couple of months? Are you taking that system fully into the expansion, or is there some sort of reset?

Crafter's Tome

Found a new site with World of Warcraft tradeskill recipes, called Crafter's Tome. Very nice, I especially like the way how you can filter the items by slots. And they already have a near-complete list of all jewelcrafting recipes. Check it out!

Changing a virtual world

It is impossible to predict what one player in a MMO will do next. Most of the time he will probably just play the game "as intended" by the developers. But the next moment you might find him stripped naked dancing on the mailbox in Orgrimmar, or "singing" the national anthem in Barrens General chat IN ALL CAPS. But while individual behavior is unpredictable, the behavior of the player community as a whole reacts very strongly to external influences, to the rules of game play, and especially to the rewards that are handed out. Any changes to the game have a strong influence on general player behavior.

The latest changes to the World of Warcraft PvP reward system are a prime example. Before the patch getting a decent PvP reward was harder than getting a similar reward from other activities. Therefore a comparatively small number of people was interested in PvP. Blizzard had to introduce cross-server battlegroups with up to 20 servers per group to gather enough players that the battlegrounds stayed open most of the time. After the patch PvP was suddenly the easiest way for a casual solo player to gain epic items. And the reaction to that was very strong, the interest in PvP grew enourmously. When previously there were 5 Arathi Basin battlegrounds open, now there were over 100.

Don't get me wrong. In my "easy epics" article I wasn't complaining that people could now get epics in an easier way. Just the opposite, my warrior who couldn't get epics before, because he was not my "main" character in the guild is now happily participating in PvP to get some decent equipment. But it appears obvious that Blizzard totally miscalculated the strong effect that these rule changes would have on the behavior of the players. The hardware on which the PvP battlegrounds are run simply isn't adequate for the number of players now interested in doing PvP. They made PvP very popular, but at the same time they got many players cursing about Blizzard, because there is lag, players get stuck in battlegrounds, or battlegrounds have to be reset and everybody is kicked out in mid-battle.

These changes in the last patch also sabotaged the effect of another improvement, the much improved LFG system. The new system is a huge improvement over the old system, a very good change. If the improved LFG system would have been the only change in the patch, you could have expected an increase in the number of pickup groups going to places like Scholomance, just because the new system makes finding a more or less balanced group so much easier. But spending X hours in a PvP battleground without organizing a group at all is now more likely to give you a decent reward than spending the same X hours in pickup groups in Scholomance. Therefore less people than before are interested in doing 5-man groups. PvP has lots of advantages now, you can log on, sign up for a battleground, get into battle in less than a minute, and stay for as little or as long as you like, without having to organize your timing with others. It is a pseudo-solo activity. Organizing a PvP group might be more effective for some battlegrounds, and if that group is with your friends it might be more fun. But anything that can be soloed and gives good rewards will always draw a bigger crowd.

Now there is some hope that some people just did PvP right after the patch, because they want to try out everything that is new. And some other people might get the PvP reward they wanted in a week or two and then stop doing battlegrounds. But there is also a risk that the battlegrounds will remain overcrowded, laggy and unstable, with more people having time to play over the holidays. That would put Blizzard in quite a bind. Getting additional server hardware up and running fast isn't that easy. And with the Burning Crusade expansion coming out in 5 weeks it is likely that the next big change to the game will leave the battlegrounds much less popular, so investing a lot in hardware now might not even be wise. On the other hand Blizzard can't easily rectify the balance between PvP and PvE. If they put out another patch next week which doubled the honor point cost of all PvP reward items, a huge crowd of players would be *very* unhappy. Blizzard probably doesn't want better balance at the price of the players coming after them with torches and pitchforks. Their least bad option is to leave everything as it is, fix their server problems with bandaids as good as they can, and wait for the expansion to solve this particular problem. They *wanted* to make PvP more popular, but they succeeded a bit too well. Their beta test couldn't predict that, because there were too few people on the beta servers to fill a battleground, and there are no cross-test-realm battlegrounds.

So you see how changes can be dangerous to a game, because they can have unforeseen effects on the behavior of the crowd. Which is why the Blizzard developers reserve for themselves a monopoly on changing the World of Warcraft. In other games players can have a permanent influence on the shape of the world, for example by building houses. If on one Star Wars Galaxies world the top crafters of the server decide to found a player-run city and all open a shop at that one location, that is changing the travel patterns of the player crowd on that server. In a MMO in which guilds could conquer territories and structures, the influence of players on the behavior of other players would be even larger. Many players would like to be able to have such influence, but it is hard to develop a system which doesn't end up with some unintended negative consequences. Blizzard is carefully experimenting with introducing more player-controlled changes, like the ability to conquer villages for one faction in Outland. But up to now they haven't come up with anything that gives the players the impression to leave a permanent mark on the world, without ruining the game for others. Many players complain that apart from patches the world never changes, always remains the same or resets to the same state. But when I see what havoc the well-intentioned changes from Blizzard developers can cause, I wonder if Blizzard being careful with player-run changes to the world isn't the wiser approach.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Honor points gone crazy

I just did two hours of PvP yesterday, because besides the frequent lag in the battlegrounds in these two hours Blizzard had to reset the battlegrounds twice, kicking everybody out in the middle of their battles. As I was on the winning side in both of these battles, getting kicked out robbed me of my reward. You should have heard the choice language about Blizzard that could be heard in the warrior's hall in Orgrimmar to which all the battleground players got kicked. It seems periodically resetting all battlegrounds, unanounced, is Blizzard's "solution" to people getting stuck there.

I didn't play in the afternoon, but apparently my guild tried to raid and found that the raid instances were similarly laggy and unstable, and they had to cancel the raid. World of Warcraft is not in a good state at the moment. But while not being able to play, I had more time to think. And I started wondering how exactly the honor points are calculated. Because there are some rather weird things going on around the way you acquire honor points.

The first curious thing is that you don't get your honor points immediately. Instead you get an "estimate", which tends to be far too low, and then get your real honor points the next day. Imagine experience points worked that way! "We estimate you have gained experience for two more levels today, but come back tomorrow for the exact value and the actual reward." I wondered, if honor points are given out on an absolute scale now, why would it take one day to calculate the honor points? It's better than the previous once-a-week calculation, but still not very logical.

The other curious fact is that whenever you take part in a honorable kill, you get the same on-screen message as before, showing the rank of the player you killed. So you see the golden military rank symbol and a message like "HK Sergeant", just like you did before the patch. That suggests that the points awarded are still depending on the PvP rank of your opponent.

So I did a bit of research, and my fears were confirmed by a "blue name" on the official World of Warcraft forums: "Honor is given at different amounts depending on the opponent you defeat. Doing those calculations on the fly would be extremely taxing on the realms if they attempted to calculate everyone being killed and how everyone involved got parsed out honor and in what amounts. If we are ever able to get to the point where the calculations are able to be done live we would certainly do so."

While that explains why it takes a day to calculate honor, and confirms that honor points gained per honorable kill are still depending on your opponents rank, this confimation opens up a whole new can of worms: How can you have a PvP reward system in which the points depend on the PvP rank of your opponent, but there is no more way of earning or losing rank? Somebody who only started PvP after the patch and now plays PvP all the time will soon be as skilled and well equipped as somebody who did his PvP before the patch. But he will be worth very little honor points to his opponents, because his rank will never go up from 0. The longer this system is in place, the more illogical it gets. If this continues, in a year on the battlegrounds players will actively hunt down the few remaining characters with a PvP rank, because they are the only ones being worth decent points. We are playing PvP in a league in which all the ranks are frozen, but rewards are still given out according to that rank. Totally crazy!

Saturday, December 9, 2006

World of Warcraft's new easy epics to solo

The PvP reward system in World of Warcraft has fundamentally changed, and yesterday I tested it thoroughly, by doing battlegrounds with my warrior. My warrior only has one epic up to now, and the PvP reward epics you can get look pretty attractive for him. So my goal was working towards this equipment, while observing how PvP goes now, and what effect it has on the other players. The specific goal is getting a one-handed weapon like the High Warlord's Blade, which under the new system costs 22,500 honor and 20 Arathi Basin Marks of Honor.

I played a few hours of PvP on battlegrounds. I did 8 Arathi Basin battles, of which my side (Horde) won 7, for a total of 22 AB marks. That part of the requirements being fulfilled, I then did 4 Alterac Valley battlegrounds, of which my side won only 1, for 6 AV marks. In all of these battles together I did 259 honor kills, which is relatively low. I suck in PvP. And a warrior isn't the optimal class to kill stuff in PvP, especially not when its lagging and his targets seem to randomly zoom all over the place. My total honor point score for that one day of PvP was 4,390 honor points, about one fifth of what I need. I'm pretty sure that people who are better in PvP class could make more honor points, especially if they play a ranged dps class. But for me that score isn't that bad. Just 4 more days like that and I have my epic High Warlord's blade, which is significantly better than anything I was able to get outside of a raid dungeon.

And therein lies the rub. While previously getting a High Warlord's Blade would have required several months of daily PvP, I can now get the blade in 5 days. the entire epic armor set is 95,500 honor points plus 80 AB marks, 50 AV marks, and 30 WSG marks, thus you can get it all in a month now. And you don't have to play every day, not even every week, you don't lose PvP rank any more if you take a break. Getting epic PvP rewards is now significantly easier than before. And from the view of the casual player, who has problems getting into a raid, getting PvP epics is now significantly easier than getting any other epics. The new PvP reward system in a nutshell: Epics that you can easily solo.

Yes, I consider PvP to be a solo activity, because you don't need to organize a group or raid group to do it. You don't need to ask anybody for an invite, and there is no selection based on class and/or skill. You just sign up and will be automatically accepted for the next battleground. You don't even need to cooperate with the other players on the battleground, in fact few people do. You just become part of the zerg, and can still win. Organized groups would have an advantage, but there aren't many premade groups on the battlegrounds today, and you still have a good chance of winning certain battlegrounds if you play the faction that wins that battleground most of the time (Horde for AB, Alliance for AV. Who is winning WSG?).

Needless to say that PvP has become *very* popular. Who wouldn't want easy epics? During prime time I've seen more than 100 Arathi Basin battlegrounds being open at the same time, that is over 3,000 people playing AB in our "battlegroup" of 15 servers.

And the battleground servers don't handle that load very well. In the best of cases you just get lag, which can get really bad the more people play, up to several seconds of delay between pressing a button and getting a reaction. A far more serious problem is people getting stuck in battlegrounds at the end of the battle, unable to return. During the week that was so bad that Blizzard had to close the battlegrounds down and try to fix the bug. On the weekend that still happened, but could sometimes be fixed by logging off and on again. Once I had to log of for 1 hour before my character found his way back. And once I had a really weird bug: I entered the AB battleground and found myself all alone there, no other Horde or Alliance player. But the battle started anyway, I flagged all the 5 buildings, and received 3 AB victory marks and over 200 bonus honor points. Noz *that's* extreme PvP soloing. :)

I predict that PvP will remain popular and the battlegrounds overcrowded at least until the Burning Crusade comes out. There is a large population of players out there who never got more than a glimpse of Molten Core. The new PvP reward system is their best change to get a set of epics before the expansion comes out. While previously the PvP reward system was unbalanced to reward only the most extreme catass players, it is now unbalanced to give out easy epics to everybody. The reward to risk ratio for a solo player of level 60 is much, much better in PvP now than in any alternative game activity.

Friday, December 8, 2006

GameSetWatch about Tobold

Michael Zenke, alias Zonk, runs two blogs: MMOG Nation and Random Dialogue. He is editor of Slashdot Games. He writes for a number of game sites and magazines. And besides all that he still had the time to read and write a review about my blog on GameSetWatch.

His article has an interview with me, plus a very extensive selection of the "best of" my blog posts on World of Warcraft. I couldn't have summarized my blog better. Hmmm, that was supposed to be a compliment, but come to think of it I'm not very good at summarizing. :) Well, go and read the review anyway.

Wiirobics

Reports are piling up about people having problems with the new Wii controller. The New York Times reports "Wii have a problem", about people who use the controller with so much enthusiasm that they let go of the controller. With the wrist strap apparently not very stable, the controller then flies through the room and destroys stuff, even skewered a TV. The Wii sports bowling game is most effected by that, letting go of the "bowling ball" at the end of the swing comes a bit too natural.

Meanwhile the Washington Post reports on the Wii elbow, and other Wii related injuries and pains. Perrin Kaplan, a spokeswoman from Nintendo, responded with the unusualy frank statement of "If people are finding themselves sore, they may need to exercise more." Since when are spokespeople allowed to tell the truth like that?

Now I already said that I probably won't buy a Wii, because I'm not interested in this sort of "Wiirobics" sports, and I'm not too impressed with the other Wii games out there. I'd love to play the new Zelda, but I'm not going to buy the console just for that. Me not buying one doesn't change my earlier perception that Wii is winning the console wars. Because of price, and because a lot more people understand bowling with a Wii controller than understand how to use a dual shock controller. Now we just have to teach them not to let go at the end of the swing. :)

Everybody is cheating in World of Warcraft

I used to be a "DCI certified level 1 judge" for Magic the Gathering. Which means I took an exam on the complex rules of that game, and judged a couple of smaller tournaments, before being allowed to judge side-events at the World Championship 2000. Besides rules knowledge the job of a judge in a Magic the Gathering tournament is to prevent cheating, and to decide whether cheating was really going on when one player accuses his opponent of it. As you might guess, the rules enforcement level at a World Championship is pretty strict. And if you apply such a strict definition of what cheating is to World of Warcraft, you quickly realize that nearly everybody is cheating in WoW.

Magic has some team events. Communication between members during the event is strictly forbidden in many cases. If I had found a team using electronic devices to talk to each other during a draft, I would have had to disqualify them. Meanwhile in World of Warcraft it is perfectly normal for some teams to use voice chat, while other teams don't have it. Voice chat not only makes beating a raid dungeon much easier, but also gives a nearly unbeatable advantage in small PvP battlegrounds. Use of electronic devices for communication outside of the communication channels the game offers you: Cheating!

In Magic there are limited and unlimited events. Limited means that you can't play with your whole collection of cards, but you are assigned a number of packs of cards as resources, and you have to build a deck with them. And everybody has to play with the cards he received, you can't give any of your cards to a friend who is also playing or sell them to him. In World of Warcraft the situation is far more bizarre: You are allowed to receive resources, like gold, from somebody else, as long as you didn't pay him. Imagine me as a Magic judge would have witnessed somebody passing cards to somebody else. Under the Magic rules both players would have been banned, but under WoW rules I would have to find out whether any cash changed hands as well, which is pretty much impossible. One of your characters receiving gold or items in World of Warcraft from another of your characters, or from a friend or guildmate, or from a gold farmer: Cheating!

A Magic player using a computer during a draft to calculate probabilities of certain cards coming his way would have gotten kicked out of the tournament pretty quickly. You can only use your head to calculate when playing cards, not software to make your life easier. In World of Warcraft nearly everybody uses mods and addons to make his life easier, and only "hacks" and "bots" are illegal. And some addons have a huge impact on your efficiency, otherwise people wouldn't be so angry about Decursive being disabled. Using third-party software to increase you efficiency in a game: Cheating!

So why are so few people playing World of Warcraft totally legit, and why does Blizzard allow all these activities which are cheating by any strict definition? Some of them are allowed because Blizzard simply couldn't control whether somebody is using these methods or not. Voice chat is a prime example. Even if the Blizzard Warden could detect the voice chat software running on the machine on which WoW is running, people could simply run the voice chat on a second computer. Something which I do anyway, to reduce workload on the game PC. Blizzard doesn't even know if that team beating up everybody else in Warsong Gulch isn't simply sitting all together in the same room. There is no possible way to disallow communication.

But the underlying reason why nobody cares about most forms of World of Warcraft cheating is that it isn't really a competitive game. The latest Magic the Gathering World Championship awarded a total prize money of $250,000, so you better make sure that everybody is playing on an equal level. Cheating in World of Warcraft earns you nothing, except in cases where gold farmers use bots to make gold and sell it, and these *are* banned.

World of Warcraft can't really be a competition, because it is not inherently fair. Your progress and standing in the game depends to a very large extent on the number of hours played. Imagine a race that goes on over many days (like the Tour de France), but where the contestants don't all start at the same time, not even on the same day, and don't all race for the same number of hours per day. Did the guy who crosses the finish line first win because he was fastest? Or did he just start earlier than the competition and race for more hours per day than they did?

As soon as you start considering World of Warcraft not as a game which you can win, but more like a toy, a sandbox in which you can play, it becomes evident why the very concept of "cheating" isn't really appropriate. Of course people disrupting the sandbox play of others should be evicted from it, just as they are in Kindergarten. But if somebody is building nicer sandcastles than the other people playing in the same sandbox, because he uses a bucket and a little star-shaped form, is not disrupting the game, however jealous the other kids in the sandbox might be. You can't cheat in a game which can't be won. That is why Blizzard allows people to use addons or transfer gold to other characters: It makes playing for them more pleasant, and doesn't really disrupt the game play of others.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

WoW Journal - 8-December-2006

I hadn't played World of Warcraft all week, but of course I had to log on after the patch and see how it was going. On patch day I was online 5 minutes, then logged out to fix my addons. Bad mistake, because the logon server never let me back in, and later when the logon server was up, the server with my main characters was down. And I still don't have my addons back, because all the addon sites are down due to being overloaded. So right now I have only the Extended Quest List and Mobinfo2 addons, which I had downloaded before for the BC beta, and CTRaidAssist 1.6, from the CTMod site, which was up in a low-bandwith version. I would have loved to have Gatherer back, but the developers of that one decided to postpone release for two weeks. And I couldn't get Telo's Infobar nor Theorycraft in a 2.0 compatible version anywhere.

The day after the patch at least the servers were back up, although a bit laggy. So I joined my guild on a special event, killing Prince Thunderaan and getting Thunderfury, Blessed Blade of the Windseeker for our main tank. That is a nice 53.9 dps one-handed sword which is legendary (orange) and has some good stats. We were over 40 people to participate in taking Prince Thunderaan down, which made it nearly too easy. Besides the two legendary drops, you need 10 fiery cores from MC, 10 elementium ores from BWL, and 100 arcanite bars. That is between 3,000 and 4,000 gold worth of materials. I'm happy for the guy for having a dream come true, but personally I wouldn't have spent that much on a sword which is going to be replaced in two months. There are a lot of much better swords in the Burning Crusade, even before level 70. Okay, *I* spent all my gold on materials for jewelcrafting, which is probably going to be a flop, so I shouldn't say anything. In the end it is all about realizing your game goals, however silly they are.

I am thinking about getting a new sword for my warrior as well, by doing PvP. For 20 Arathi Basin victory marks and 22,500 honor points you can get very nice "High Warlord" one-hand weapons. The only problem is getting into a battleground. Yesterday the battlegrounds were crashing due to overload all the time, and some guildmate got a character stuck in a crashed battleground and couldn't get back into the game except with alts. Of course the "BC has better swords" argument is equally valid here, but PvP is something I haven't done very much in World of Warcraft yet, and could be a good way to spend my time waiting for the expansion. The sword would just be an added bonus.

My warrior originally leveled up with a protection spec, being a tank. That was useful for 5-man groups, but not so good for soloing, and really bad for PvP. And with the guild having enough tanks, I couldn't raid with them either. So I tried to switch to a fury build, but didn't like it much. So with the free respec from the patch I now went for a 41/10/0 arms build, going for mortal strike and the top talent in the arms tree. I should probably wield a 2-handed weapon in this case, but I'm still dual-wielding. I'll see how that works out.

Of course I also had to spend the talent points for my priest again, the patch having reset them. I put 23 points in discipline, just enough to get improved divine spirit. The remaining 28 points I put in holy, getting me up to spiritual guidance. These talents together give a nice boost to both my healing and my damage spells. I think with this sort of build I can level up my priest, both solo and in groups.

Kill Ten Rats on priests

Must-read article about playing a priest or similar support class on Kill Ten Rats, titled Priests and Bikini Waxes. It argues that playing a priest is like having a bikini wax: It hurts you and somebody else gets the benefit. It is a relationship-specific investment

Quote: "The first lesson of relationship-specific investments is that they create a weak bargaining position. If you are built around helping Bob, you cannot do much without Bob. You are Bob’s bitch. Bob can set terms, and either you take them or you don’t play."

So head over to Kill Ten Rats and read this.