Saturday, April 29, 2006

WoW Journal - 30-April-2006

I did my first real Onyxia raid this weekend, previously I had just snuck in once and looked around. We had 35 people, and if I understood it correctly, some of them had been there before, but never successfully. This time was no different: In 3 hours we wiped 5 times, usually getting Onyxia to something like 35%. We had the first phase under control, finishing it with full mana and rage. The second phase was more problematic, we usually lost a couple of people to one or two Deep Breath attacks which we couldn't totally avoid. And in the third phase we just died. Over and over.

Doing it one evening long was fun. But I don't see the point of doing it again and again, even if obviously one day you are going to succeed and get some purple items. It is a bit like a ballet, you practice enough until all the movements are perfect, but even then you're just a bunch of guys in pantyhoses hopping around on a stage. There is no deeper point to it, you don't learn to play your class better, you just learn to kill Onyxia. You earn a few epics per week, but divided by the number of raiders that isn't very much.

I think I have a different view of "achievement" in MMORPG than the people who love raiding. Not even getting some epic loot this weekend changed my mind about that. It was a lot of effort for a very small improvement to my power. For me character advancement is only meaningful in as far as it allows me to go places where I couldn't go before. And leveling a second or third character to 60 opens up a lot more new content to me than spending my time raiding with the old characters. I can see how it would be nice after several wipes to beat Onyxia, but that is not something I wish to spend the majority of my time on.

Friday, April 28, 2006

My first raid epic

Sooner or later it had to happen, I went on a raid and actually won an epic item in the loot distribution. We went to MC, and Lucifron dropped the Gauntlets of Might. Three warriors needed it, master looter called "roll!", and I rolled a 34. So I thought I had lost, but the other two guys obliged by rolling an 18 and a 23, and I got the first raid epic of my long World of Warcraft career.

More warrior stuff dropped later, but we had a simple "if you win one epic, don't roll on another one" loot policy on that raid, and I passed on everything else. Statistics being strange, as usual, this time lots of warrior stuff dropped. The might pants were rolled on by two warriors, with one of them beating the other with a roll of 11 to 8.

We did okay without any DKP system. We are doing raids with other guilds on an irregular basis, and working out a loot system between three guilds with different numbers of participants is too complicated to be worth it. The "don't roll for more than 1 epic per raid" system is easy and works well enough for the purpose.

Second Life hits BusinessWeek

I was a bit surprised that an article about the business opportunities in Second Life made the cover story of BusinessWeek. As casual player of mostly mainstream MMORPGs I consider Second Life a bit of an oddity, not really a game at all. But of course being a "real" estate agent of virtual property is totally legal and possible in Second Life, so it makes a better story than the black market in WoW gold, which is undoubtedly a lot bigger.

One day I'll have to try out the free trial for Second Life, but right now I'm too busy playing actual games. I discussed how important social interaction is in MMORPGs, but of course the game is even more important. Virtual worlds that don't have a game don't really interest me all that much, and they have a totally different target demographics.

Paris holiday

I just came back from a small holiday in Paris. We stayed in a hotel south of the Seine, in the Quartier Latin, which was a good location. Close to the Sorbonne the area is very lively, and has lots of small shops and restaurants. It is also close enough to the Louvre and Notre Dame to visit on foot.

The hotel room was small, not large enough to swing a dead cat, but as I hadn't packed a dead cat in my luggage, that was okay. Hotel rooms in Paris are generally small and expensive, and the restaurants weren't exactly cheap either. But we had a good time, visiting the city and a couple of museums. The Louvre was a bit disappointing, you could barely see the paintings through the huge crowds of tourists. The Guimet Museum of Asian Art was very nice, and had an excellent exhibition of chinese imperial paintings, depicting one hunting trip of some emperor over 4 rolls of 16 meter length, very impressive.

I didn't take any electronic devices on the holiday, so it was a holiday from World of Warcraft and blogging as well. But now I'm back for a long weekend of playing, as Monday is a public holiday over here. I never understood why "labour day" is a holiday instead of a work day, but I'll take it anyway.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

WoW Journal - 24-April-2006

I played several different characters in World of Warcraft over the weekend, but mainly the lower levels. With my level 60 priest and warrior I only did short dungeon trips, one into Scholomance, just killing Rattlegore for some shaman quest, and one into BRD, just visiting the forge at Incendius for somebody to smith dark iron at. I also grinded to honored faction with Thorium Brotherhood for Raslebol, which is a horrible carpal tunnel syndrome inducing click-feast.

So I had more fun with the lower level characters. My paladin leveled to 26 in the Wetlands. I tried to access the Wetlands by a new way, jumping of the Thandol Span dam, over all the waterfalls. Unfortunately there were too many jumps, and I ran out of physical damage protection spells, and died on the last jump. But it was kind of fun anyway, I don't like running through the winding tunnels and mountain paths much. I then proceeded to kill different gnolls and murlocs. Seal of Justice, with its judgement that prevents monsters from running away, is highly useful against those.

The one thing I'm not sure about my pally is whether I should stick with blacksmithing, or whether I should abandon it and switch to engineering. Smithing was useful up to now, making a lot of lower level armor for myself, and earning money selling daggers. Unfortunately I'm stuck in it now. The next armor to smith is made out of iron, and iron is only found in places guarded by level 30 mobs, still a bit too high for me. But if I wait until I have level 30, the armor will probably be outdated by then. Plus in these levels there are more dungeons to visit, and blue gear from dungeons is generally better than most smithed items. Switching to engineering might be a good idea, because I could still keep my mining skill. And with engineering I could produce bombs, mines, and grenades, which would address some functional shortcomings of the paladin class: ranged attacks for pulling, damage dealing, and area of effect damage. But maybe I'll still get my smithing to 180 first, and make myself a green iron hauberk, unless just buying one is cheaper.

Waldin, my shaman on Runetotem leveled to 38 this weekend. I had done several levels without questing, just grinding yeti and ogres in the Alterac area, where killing mobs goes well together with mining iron and mithril. But that gets boring after a while. And because I still hate Stranglethorn, I moved to Desolace for questing. Good choice, as it turned out. I had been in Desolace often, but mostly with Alliance characters, so I still found some Horde quests I didn't know. And then I always had helped the Gelkis centaur to kill the Magram centaurs, so this time I did it the other way round, and also got quests I hadn't done yet. One centaur-killing quest was too hard for me, level 42 elite, so I got my wife to help me with her level 48 warrior. Pretty cool, you have to blow into a huge horn, shaking the ground and summoning the khan of the enemy centaur clan, who attacks your position in several waves.

Now both of my lower level characters have used up all of their rest xp bonus. Which is good, because I'm traveling this week, and won't be able to play them (nor blog) before the weekend. Not being able to play WoW is easier if you know that at least you are accumulating xp bonus. :)

Dire Maul bug

Something fishy is going on in the World of Warcraft. If you do a "/who Dire Maul" you see players like level 45 hunters in DM, which should be way too high for them. And the auction house is full of Foror's Compendium of Dragon Slaying, which should be a rare drop of DM north boss mobs. They used to sell for over 1000 g on my server, but the prices are rapidly dropping, now at 800 g and falling.

I wouldn't be surprised if soon we hear that there is some bug / cheat / exploit which allows people to loot DM north bosses without fighting.

Friday, April 21, 2006

WoW at 60 review

I found this blog entry from two fellow blogspotters writing a review of World of Warcraft at level 60. Well, it is more a rant than a review, but interesting to read nevertheless. The two writers seem to very much part of the previously mentioned "dark matter", preferring to solo World of Warcraft, except for being more vocal than others. Unsurprisingly they don't like WoW at 60 very much.

What I found interesting is the very Tobold-like approach of counting how many hours it would take to get the Helm of Valor, the Darkmoon Amulet, or The Unstoppable Force. The first is gained by doing Scholomance on average 16 times at 3 hours each, the second is done by handing in a megaton of Thorium Widgets, and the third is done by grinding honor in PvP. Easy to see how neither of these options is highly desirable to a casual player.

Me, I'm more middle-class than casual, and I do like 5-man groups, so at least the doing Scholomance and other dungeons option doesn't sound that bad to me. I wouldn't try to grind the Darkmoon Amulet, but I am grinding Thorium Brotherhood faction for the moment, which is only slightly less annoying. In PvP I never got past Sergeant rank. A bit further into the game than the writers of this review, but not all that much. So I can only applaud their advice to the WoW player at 60:

You have nothing to prove to the cyber community. If you stay true to what you want, and don't over commit your WoW time, you can still have fun, you just won't look as pretty.

If you love PvP, start making a Horde character

Gaming Steve has a story about World of Warcraft's upcoming massive battleground improvements, joining up servers in groups of 16 and allowing players from these different servers to fight each other on the same battleground. That makes it very likely that even places like Alterac Valley will be open all day long, every day, and not only during prime time on some days.

Does that solve all battleground problems, and all waiting queues? Of course it doesn't. Because on all servers the ratio of Alliance players to Horde players is about 2 to 1, and bundling them together doesn't change the ratio. If previously Alterac Valley didn't open because there were 20 Alliance players but only 10 Horde players in the queue, now we have 16 times those numbers, 320 Alliance players and 160 Horde players. Thus we will be 4 open Alterac Valley instances. Great. If you are Horde. Because 100% of the Horde players will be able to play in this situation, but 50% of the Alliance players will *still* be stuck in some waiting queue.

If PvP is your most favorite activity in World of Warcraft, and you don't want to spend your evenings in waiting queues, I can only recommend making a Horde character, if you haven't done so yet.

Banning as publicity stunt

Recently Blizzard announced 5,400 World of Warcraft accounts banned and over 10,000 suspended "for participating in activities that violate the game’s Terms of Use, including using third-party programs to farm gold and items".

The announcement was a masterpiece of marketing spin. The people that were banned were those that used bots, automated programs that played the game for them. But by putting phrases like "Please note that selling World of Warcraft content, such as gold, items, and characters, can result in a permanent ban of the involved accounts from World of Warcraft." into the announcement, Blizzard made it look as if the banned players had been the widely hated gold sellers. Now certainly it is very likely that a large number of the people that were banned for using bots to farm gold are also selling that gold for dollars. But they weren't banned for selling, they were banned for botting. The difference is that botting can be detected, while selling gold is impossible to detect.

The problem is that one character sending another character 100 or 1000 gold is perfectly allowed within the terms of service, and Blizzard can't ban either the sender nor the receiver for that transaction. The bannable offence is the other transaction taking place in the other direction, of the buyer sending dollars to the seller via Paypal or similar means. Blizzard has no way of seeing that part of the transaction. A 1000 gold transfer looks suspicious, but if the sender and the receiver claim to be real life friends, with the one helping the other out, there is nothing that Blizzard can possibly do.

The famous (or fabled) chinese sweat shop where 3 guys play 8 hours each on one account and farm gold 24/7 using cheap labor instead of cheating with a bot program is not affected at all by this banning action. They are not doing anything forbidden in the game, and the forbidden stuff they do outside the game is invisible to Blizzard.

If Blizzard wanted really to stop the real money trade (RMT), where some people farm gold and sell it to others for cash, they would need to other things. For example a Google search for "WoW gold" gives nearly 3 million hits, and 11 sponsored links. If Blizzard would just visit the 11 sponsored links and sue these 11 companies, that would already stop 90% of the WoW gold trade.

But as their legal position in this is questionable, Blizzard prefers the publicity stunt way. Instead of banning people when caught, they wait until they have a large number of them together, and then ban 5,400 players at the same time, with a big press release. 5,400 players is less than 0.1% of the current subscribers, and most of them will just make a new account with a different credit card and carry on cheating, so Blizzard doesn't lose much money. And while this is totally ineffectual to stop RMT, it looks good in the press, and gets a lot of positive news coverage.

Even if they could, Blizzard would never ban all the buyers and sellers of gold. There are many thousands of sellers accounts, and for each seller there has by economic necessity to be several buyers. I wouldn't be surprised if there are several hundred thousands, or even a million people out there who already bought WoW gold. Banning them all wouldn't be economically viable for Blizzard. Banning the 0.1% of botters a few times per year is enough to keep their image clean and cash register ringing.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

GTA made me do it

More on the evil influence of video games: An 8-year old boy steals his teachers car after playing GTA. Makes you laugh, until you start wondering how an 8-year old gets hold of a Grand Theft Auto game, which is rated "M" for a mature audience ages 17 and older. GTA San Andreas is even rated "AO", adults only, although that is due to the "hot coffee" mod that opens up a secret sex scene in the game.

I played GTA Vice City. I liked it, but no way would I let a small boy play that game. You don't need to be an expert in video games to read the rating on the box, and look a 5 minutes of gameplay to find out that this game is unsuitable for small children. If parents totally neglect their children and don't take the least bit of interest in what they are doing, the children might well end up as criminals, with or without GTA.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The dark matter of WoW

My wife plays World of Warcraft too, since a year now. She took a break recently, to play Dungeon Siege II, but now she is back in WoW, with a brand new character, a gnome warlock, having lots of fun. I sometimes like to watch her play, because she is playing this game in a totally different way than I do: She never chats, when somebody sends her a tell she has to ask me what the key to reply was again. :) She never groups, except sometimes with me when she needs help with something. If it wasn't for the auction house, WoW might as well be a single-player game for her.

So I'm wondering how many other players are there like her. In cosmology there is a theory about dark matter, a substance that can't be detected directly, but whose presence can be inferred from gravitational effects on visible matter. Players that don't interact with other players in WoW are a the dark matter of this game.

The dark matter players can explain some numbers, which are otherwise not as easy to explain. For example the famous number of only 3.6% raiders in WoW. If you read blogs, game forums, or guild websites, the whole game seems to be about raiding. But the dark matter players aren't blogging, aren't discussing on game forums or guild sites, they are just playing the game solo. So when watching these sort of secondary game commentary, they are invisible. But when PlayOn actually counts people online, they show up as a large part of the 96.4% of non-raiders.

The other number discrepancy that can be explained by dark matter players is the over 6 million subscribers of WoW, compared to the 400,000 that games like Everquest had. Where are the 5.6 million additional players coming from, and why didn't they play EQ? The answer is that many players don't enjoy the forced grouping and raiding of Everquest, but would rather just like to solo and minimize their interaction with other players. World of Warcraft gives them this opportunity, which they didn't have in previous games.

Now I'm not saying that all of the 96.4% of non-raiders or 5.6 million new MMORPG players are dark matter players that only solo. But I do think that there are a significant number of them. Blizzard's accountants sure detected the huge piles of money that come from them. But are the developers fully aware of who is actually playing their game, or do they just see the more visible type of player who posts on the WoW message boards?

Video gamers are evil

I like the TV show CSI, the original series playing in Las Vegas. But of course I also watch the spin-offs, in spite of them being less good. Yesterday I watched one episode of CSI Miami which was really horribly bad, plus being quite insulting to video gamers. I was about to tell you the story, but somebody at Salon already reported it long ago.

While the guy playing 70 hours of video games straight and dying from it actually happened in Korea, that death only got about 1 minute of the show. The rest was about the much more unlikely case of a group of students re-enacting scenes from a video game with a strong resemblance to Grand Theft Auto in real life. They even carried little counters to count their 2,000 points for shooting a real bank cashier, only intent on winning "the game", not really interested in the money they robbed. Machine pistols provided courtesy by the game companies manager, as a marketing tool.

Now I don't belong to the people who deny that video games can influence people. Positive influence of video games, for example in improving your eye-hand coordination is scientifically proven. Learning game software is a multi-million dollar business. If you believe that a medium can influence somebody to some good purpose, you need to accept that it can have a bad influence as well. Media are just blank slates, good and evil depends on the content depicted on them, not on the media itself.

I do believe that violent films and video games can change a teenagers general attitude to violence. And him watching too much porn is likely to change his attitude towards women. Nevertheless nearly everybody is able to distinguish reality from fantasy. While overexposure to violence in media might change somebodies general attitude, it is highly unlikely that he will want to re-enact Pulp Fiction or Grand Theft Auto. The very few isolated cases that can't tell reality from fiction are just as likely to jump of the roof trying to play Superman as they are to play Dirty Harry. Making violence in media illegal to save a handful of nutters wouldn't work, and would be more likely to make people unable to deal with the all too real violence in the real world.

As the Salon article said, it is kind of ironic if a TV show which is full of violence (the episode before that had somebody shot in the eye with a nail gun) preaching against the evil influence of violent video games in a case which isn't even remotely likely. It just scares parents who don't understand their teenage anyway, and makes them see dangers that don't exist. Overexposure to video games in general can have negative effects on your kids, for example in social isolation and falling grades. Them robbing banks isn't one of the dangers.

WoW Journal - 19-April-2006

I only played about 1 hour of WoW yesterday, but for that small amount of time it was rather intensive. First I logged on my paladin and finished his quest for the Verigan's Fist, still at level 24. The last part I needed for the quest was in Blackfathom Deeps, but unlike the wood and the hammer that came from inside of the instances of Deadmines and Shadowfang Keep, the Kor gem drops in the outer part of BFD. As the mobs there are level 20 to 21 elite, and can be pulled one by one, I was able to solo that part. All in all a very nice quest, good xp, makes you see lots of places, and the mace does awesome damage for a level 24. Now I just need to find a decent 1-handed weapon, for when I am tanking with my shield. I smithed myself a Mighty Iron Hammer, useable from level 25, but of course I would prefer a blue 1-hand weapon.

After that I switched to Runetotem and looked how my guild there was doing, digesting our plans to split the guild in a casual and a raiding half. The mood seems to be good, and I think the split can help to eliminate the tensions we had in the past between the raiders and the casual players. Raiding is a serious business, and not everybody wants to have serious business as a hobby. As most of our current officers are raid leaders and will move to the raiding half, I volunteered for an officer position in the casual half of the guild. Last night I got promoted to "lieutenant". That is the first time I accept an officers position since having had far too much stress a guild master in Dark Age of Camelot. But I felt responsible for the casual half of the guild, which was in danger of being neglected.

I hope this will work out. Much of the frustration in a game comes from unfulfilled ambitions, of goals that aren't reached as fast as one would have thought. So I'd rather be an officer in the "less ambitious" half of a guild. I gave raiding a honest trial, and found that it wasn't for me. If I would believe that WoW would stay as it is for a long time to come, I'd probably be heading for the exit. But I still have high hopes that in about half a year the expansion set will give the casual players a lot more things to do, liberating them from the current "stuck at 60" syndrome. And who knows, maybe Blizzard will allow us to kick Ragnaros' behind with a raid of 40 level 70 players, which would be fun and a lot less stressful.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Lower level instances

I was a bit surprised when I realized that not everybody visited all the lower level dungeons in World of Warcraft. So I started to think why you would, or wouldn't visit places like Blackfathom Deeps or Gnomeregan or Maraudon.

The one objective reason, detached from all considerations of subjectively preferred play style, is that dungeons give much better loot than soloing and questing. Even places as low as the Deadmines drop several blue bind-on-pickup loot items per run, plus lots of green items. Getting blue items from non-dungeon, non-elite quests is nearly impossible, and blue bind-on-equip world drop items are very rare. In just two trips to the Deadmines I got three blue items for my pally, two drops and the quest reward for finishing the dungeon. My only other possibility to get blue items would be crafting, which isn't cheap, or buying from the AH, which is even less cheap.

Another good reason to visit dungeons is the natural desire to see everything in the game. A pirate ship floating in an underground cavern is an interesting place to explore. Of course not all dungeons are interesting, for example the Stockades are plain boring.

Going to dungeons at an appropriate level means going with a group. There are good sides to play in a group: You get to meet new people, or play with old friends. And you get training in how to play your character class in group situations, which is often much different from soloing. I would not recommend going from solo play directly to raiding without having had lots of group experience. And dungeons are a good place to really train this, because they are challenging. You can form a group in the outside world and hunt wolves, but that is usually so trivial that you don't learn much from it.

But the necessity to form a group is also the major negative point of dungeons. Groups are not always easy to set up. And groups need a good amount of continuous time, first for getting the people together, and then for finishing the dungeon. Leaving in the middle of the dungeon is frowned upon, because that usually destroys the event for everybody.

How hard it is to set up a group depends on the situation. If you are one of the classes that is highly sought after for groups (warrior, priest, mage), you can usually find a group pretty fast. Other classes, especially hunters, have problems getting invited. Then the demography of your server and side plays a role. On a newer server, where more people are of lower levels, it is easy to find a lower level group. On an old server where over half of the people online are level 60, finding a group for a low level dungeon is much harder. Alliance outnumbers Horde on all servers, so finding a group on the Alliance side is easier than on the Horde side, simply because there are more people of the right level range. While you can't do much about these factors, one thing you can do is join a guild with lots of people of your level who like to group, which is one of the most fun ways to group.

Which brings me to the next negative point of dungeon groups, the infamous pickup groups. Just like in real life, not everybody in the World of Warcraft is polite, mature, and competent. Forming a group and then finding that the people you grouped with are rude, greedy, and tend to cause the whole group to wipe is not a pleasant way to spend an evening. Again I can only recommend guild groups, because guilds discourage the most blatant forms of bad behavior, by kicking people out that don't behave. But of course you will always first have to group with strangers, because some strangers are just friends you haven't met yet.

The last negative point I would like to mention is that dungeons restrict with whom you can play. If you want a fun dungeon experience and good loot, you don't visit instances that are much lower in level than you are. But if you are of the appropriate level, your group needs a good balance of classes. You usually want to have one warrior in the group to tank. That can be replaced by a paladin or shaman, but that already weakens the group. If your group uses a pet or a rogue to tank, you won't get far. Similar things are true for healing: Ideally you want a priest, and if you can't have that, a druid, or two lesser healers like paladins or shaman. The damage dealing function of a group is usually less of a problem. A mage is nice, but many other classes will do. All that means that if your band of friends is three hunters, a rogue, and a warlock, you won't have much success in playing together. Although non-classical groups can be fun, if you have enough hybrids. One of my very first groups was 5 shamans going to Ragefire Chasm, and that was a blast.

In the balance I think that if you have the time to play a dungeon, it is well worth it. Whether you are "achiever", "explorer", or "socializer", dungeons offer something for everybody. Grouping isn't always easy, but the additional effort of forming a group is rewarded by better loot. And who knows, you might end up making some friends, and that is even better than the phattest loot.

Meta-levels revisited

I reworked my meta-levels concept and posted it on For archiving purposes, here is a copy:

Many things in level based games like Everquest 2 or World of Warcraft depend on the level of your character, for example what quests you can take, and what equipment you can wear. Nevertheless your class and level does not totally describe your character with all its stats. Equipment and magic items can more than double your character stats, and have a profound influence on your strength in combat. Depending on whether your equipment is better or worse than average, your “meta-level”, the level as which you effectively operate, could be several levels lower or higher than your indicated character level.

Defining “meta-level” as effective combat level means that two characters of the same meta-level, but with different character levels, would have the same ease of killing the same monster. In principle it would be possible to develop a complicated formula which calculates your meta-level, given your stats, for any given game. Unfortunately it would be very difficult to arrive at this formula, as it depends on different stats for different character classes, and even for different specializations. So most people express their meta-level in other terms, like saying they wear “full epic” to indicate that their meta-level is considerably higher than their character level indicates.

The interesting thing is that your meta-level determines how easy it is for you to kill a monster of a certain level, while the rewards for killing that monster depend mostly on your character level. If your meta-level is higher than your character level, you gain experience points faster, and you character level catches up to your meta-level. If your meta-level is lower, then you advance slower, which gives you more opportunities to improve your gear and get your meta-level up. Activities that gain you money and equipment, even if they don’t gain you experience points directly, increase your character’s meta-level and make him gain character levels faster. In effect getting lots of items from your guild, getting twinked by an alt, or buying gold on EBay, all end up power-leveling your character. Getting better gear, by whatever means, is not just for status, it is a real element of character advancement.

All level-based games have a maximum level, for example currently 60 in World of Warcraft. While you are below this level cap, you have two choices on how to increase your meta-level: You can either just increase your character level, or try to get better equipment and increase your meta-level over your character level. The problem with the latter solution is that it gets exponentially harder the bigger the difference between your meta-level and character level becomes. As soon as you reach the level cap, improving your equipment is the only way left to you to advance your character.

If you draw a graph showing character advancement over effort needed, you get some sort of curve with increasing slope. The exact shape differs depending on the game you are playing, some having a more linear increase of slope per level, others following a power law. But in all of these games the curve has a distinctive point near the end, where you reach the maximum character level, and the amount of effort needed to raise your meta-level further goes up much steeper than before. It often takes more time to get from the level cap to the highest possible meta-level than from level 1 to the cap. So some people tend to see this transition as a breaking point. For example, depending on whether they like or dislike the end-game, people claim that World of Warcraft either starts or ends at level 60. But I would argue that in many ways the players are still following the same curve, spending effort to advance their characters, just without the gaining experience point component.

Game developers have learned to smooth out the curve of character advancement over effort, following the experience of the first Everquest, where this curve had some distinctive steps, called “hell levels”, which were harder than the levels before or after them. It turned out that players absolutely hated these hell levels, and much preferred a smoother curve. So what is the interest in making further advancement after the level cap so hard? The basic problem is that you can’t produce an endless amount of content, the game has to stop somewhere. And if players reach some sort of a “game over” point, where there is no further way to advance their character, there is a risk that they quit the game, and the company loses the revenue from the monthly fee. So instead of stopping character advancement altogether at the end of the curve, the developers just slow it down enormously. A small amount of content, a few raid dungeons with a handful of boss mobs giving the best loot in the game, is designed to take thousands of hours to complete, more than all of the other content in the game together. Even a MMORPG has an end where you can’t possibly advance your character any further, but by stretching the end out so much the game developers can at least create the illusion of an endless game.

Monday, April 17, 2006

WoW Journal - 18-April-2006

Due to the easter holidays I had a 4-day weekend. But I played WoW a lot less than you would have thought. I think I'm a bit burned out, a bit unmotivated at the moment, and the emotional stress of the guild split isn't exactly helping.

So on Runetotem I only did two groups this weekend. The first was to Dire Maul, where somebody needed to kill a ghost as part of the tier 0.5 upgrade quest. That was a complete desaster. He had some information that the best way to get to the ghosts in DM west would be by passing through the library in DM north. Unfortunately there were several people in the group who didn't know their way around in DM, and when the people who did know how to get to the library in DM north without aggroing just ran off without explanations, the others tried to follow, missed a jump or two, and got the whole group wiped. Several times. Then past the library we got wiped by the air elementals in the demon dog prison. We killed the ghosts in the corridor to DM west, but the quest item didn't drop. When we tried to get to the other ghosts, there was a big treant boss mob in the way. So we tried to kill it, but it turned out that if you attack him from that side, he summons all the smaller treants from the upper court, and so we just wiped again. At that point we gave up. My advice for anybody on that quest: Don't try to be tricky, just enter DM west normally and forget about the path through the library.

Second group on Runetotem was much better, somebody from the guild needed the key to BRD, and I made the tour guide. First we went to the arena, and found that the patch 1.10 had improved the loot in this dungeon, the arena mob dropped two blue items, which it didn't do before. From there we went to the top of the big gate, jumped down a bit before that through a window, and got directly to Incendius that way. Killed the architect after that and got the Ironfell hammer needed to get the key. Fought our way through the golems, and then past all the dwarves, past the vault, until we reached the statue where we got the keys for all those who needed it. We stopped there, but I considered it a very successful group. We had no total wipe, just one near-wipe when a runner came back with another group of dwarves, and we recovered easily from that. Some nice loot for the others, but Raslebol is a bit beyond the point where BRD still gives useful drops.

My paladin on Eonar was having fun too, pursueing his paladin quest for the Test of Righteousness. The quest is about collecting 4 parts for a weaponsmith, who promises to make you a mace from them. The first part drops in the Deadmines from the woodcarver goblins, you can't miss it. The second part is from a box under a tree in the Mo'grosh ogre compound in Loch Modan. At level 24 I could have soloed it, but I joined some lower level people who were on the quests to kill the ogres. The third part is found in the stables in the courtyard of Shadowfang Keep. Fortunately I was able to get a group together for there, not many Alliance people go there, because there are no quests for the Alliance side there. But the xp and the loot are good, I got a very nice shield for my pally, as well as the hammer for the pally quest. We even killed Arugal, which with a group of level 22-24 isn't trivial. I just died helplessly in that fight, as Arugal was teleporting around and bombarded me with shadow bolts, against which I didn't have much of a defense. But at least I kept him busy, and the others in the group managed to kill him. Now I'm just missing the fourth part of the quest, for which I will need to go to talk to somebody in Darkshore, and then get the part from Blackfathom Depths. Great, I like BFD too, although in this level range I think SFK is my favorite, that haunted castle is so well done.

But I'm taking it slow for the moment, I'm not in a rush to get anywhere, neither on Runetotem nor on Eonar. I don't want to fall into the trap of doing something I don't enjoy in the hope of reaching "the good part" of World of Warcraft. Because all the parts of WoW are good, but in the later parts the goodness is stretched a bit thinner, and is harder to reach. I prefer so regard WoW as a form of entertainment, where the fun lies in reaching lots of small goals. The big goals, like beating BWL, are out there somewhere, but they aren't worth neglecting the rest of the game for it. I figure I'll probably be able to beat BWL at level 70, and I'm ready to wait that long. The dedication and effort it would take to beat BWL at 60 is a bit too much for me.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

More on Oblivion

A friend lent me his copy of Oblivion, so I could try it out. I played it for half an hour before deciding I didn't like it. Just like in Morrowind the cursor is fixed in the middle of the screen. If you want to do anything, you need to move the camera so that the cursor is over the item or mob you want to interact with. That means a LOT of camera movement, which causes me video game motion sickness. I just can't play this.

I found out how to use the mouse wheel to switch to third person mode, so I see my character from behind. But in that case the cursor still is in front of my character, and I just can't see the cursor any more at all, as I can't see through the head of my avatar. Really stupid control system.

Anyway, I'm not a fan of the class-less, level-less skill system that this series has. Because you *do* have a hidden level, you just don't know it. Your skills tell you how good you are in fighting, and to kill a certain monster, you need a certain amount of fighting skill. Same as level, just harder to know what you need. Especially since you don't get any info about how hard the monsters are that you see, you can just attack and hope they aren't too hard for you.

The graphics aren't bad, but they are more in the EQ2 photo-realistic style, with grey goblins in a grey cave, not very visible. I do prefer the cartoonish WoW style. In the end, Oblivion is just a MMORPG without the MMO part, making it less interesting to me. I'll give the game back to my friend.

WoW Journal - 16-April-2006

Happy Easter! Blizzard gave us some easter eggs hidden around the cities, but as these only contain sweets and a few copper, most people give the hunt up after finding the first egg. :)

On the Runetotem server my guild is about to split, in a raider and a casual half. Guess which part I'll be in. :) I hope this works out, I've seen guild splits gone horribly wrong already. But I'll try to keep the casual half of the guild going, and organize 5-man events and things like that. At least with a guild that says "we don't raid", we won't get any of the people that are just passing through on their way to a big raid guild applying.

On Eonar I played my pally a bit more, level 23 now. I did two runs with the same great group to Deadmines, killing Van Cleef twice for more loot and xp. I got a nice blue shield, and of course the blue mail leggings for handing in his head. As in that group I was the highest level, I had some more success as a tank. And some of the new spells are useful, like the Seal of Justice which stuns enemies, and you can judgement it to prevent them from fleeing. Blessing of Freedom is good against being rooted.

My first guild on Eonar disbanded, in something which was either a guild merger or one hellishly clever scam. If you want to pull of the scam, it works like this: Found a guild on a new server, inviting over a hundred players. Ask them to send you contributions for making a tabard. Then "merge" the guild with another guild that already has a tabard. If somebody asks about the money, say you unfortunately paid for the tabard just before merging the guilds, and it is lost now. Well, I left that guild, they leveled much faster than me, and joined a guild with the people I enjoyed grouping in Deadmines with.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Google and privacy

Google opened a new service, Google Calendar, which I'm tempted to try out, especially if I find out how I could import my Lotus Notes calendar into it, to have it available from everywhere. I'm already using Google's GMail a lot. I have a Google's personalized homepage. I'm using Google's Picasa to sort my photos. And of course this blog is using Blogger and Blogspot, both courtesy of Google. If one day the fabled "Google Drive" to store your data online comes out, I'll probably use it too. In short, Google is all over my life.

Now in spite of Google's company motto of "Don't be evil", lots of people are worried about Google knowing too much about them. If somebody can read your mail, see your calendar, know what you are searching for on the internet, and has your blog diary stored on his server, he knows quite a lot about you. But the worries that somebody could spy on your life is based on an unrealistic evaluation of how interesting your life is. Fact is that most of us don't have anything to hide. There are no "September 11: Fly plane into World Trade Center" entries in our calendars. There might be a "Tonight: Date with Nicole" entry in there, which your wife isn't supposed to see, but Google is unlikely to read that and tell her. You shouldn't store your social security number, credit card numbers, and all of your passwords on some server, but other than that most of our data are safe, because they interest nobody. So go ahead, let Google take over your life. It's free. :)

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

WoW Journal - 13-April-2006

I hadn't planned it that way, but last night I did a direct comparison between the usefulness of warriors and of paladins in 5-man dungeon groups. I had first logged on my level 60 priest to check the AH for devout gloves, and to hand in a quest I finished, planning to switch to the other server and playing the paladin. But then a guild mate wanted to do a short trip to Scholomance for a shaman quest, for which he just needed to kill Rattlegore, and he desperately needed a warrior. So I logged on Raslebol and helped out.

We never made it to Rattlegore, because we only had 1 hour before the guild went on a raid to AQ, and unfortunately raids tend to make all other activities impossible. But the short group to Scholomance was fun anyway. We had me as warrior, the shaman with the quest, a priest, a mage, and a rogue, a pretty good group mix. We only wiped once, when we couldn't stop one mob from running away, which ended up pulling two more groups of mobs. And playing the tank was great. I pulled with my bow, and I like doing it. Pulling is an art, but fortunately it is a player skill that is transferable from one MMORPG to another, so I got years of practice. After causing the initial aggro by pulling, I kept the aggro on me with taunt, sunder armor, and when all else failed challenging shout. Thus the rogue, priest, and mage rarely got hit.

When the other left for the raid, I switched to the paladin. I had planned to solo to 20 before going into my first dungeon, but when somebody in guild chat was looking for a pally for deadmines, I volunteered anyway. The group had two paladins, one rogue, one mage, and one priest. Pretty similar to the previous group, just with paladins instead of warrior and shaman. But the result was disappointing. Okay, the other paladin being level 24 we got quite far, and the sad fact that we never finished due to both the priest and the other pally having connection problems wasn't related to the class I played. But playing that paladin in a dungeon group was quite disappointing. The only "taunt" like ability I have was righteous fury, which increases the aggro caused by my holy attacks. But my holy attacks are limited to seal of righteousness, and using judgement on that seal, and the aggro caused by this just doesn't suffice to peel a mob of a mage or rogue who just landed a crit. The whole aggro management in that group was a mess without a warrior, and if there had been a warrior I would have been even more useless. And of course pulling with a paladin is also bad, because he has no ranged weapons, and body pulling isn't really a good way to do it.

I derive a big part of my fun of playing a character from him being useful to others. And now I have serious doubts whether paladin is the right class for me, as in most group situations I've seen up to now, I wished I would have had either a warrior or a priest. Me previous try to play an alliance character, a hunter, ended with him being retired at level 30, and I can see the paladin going the same way. I'll play him some more over the weekend, and maybe even up to level 30 over the coming weeks, but at around level 30 you end up getting new spells and abilities for any character class, and the "new shiny" feeling of playing a different class wears of. I'd rather play my level 60 characters and be useful to my guild, even if they insist of going raiding most of the time.

Tide's Horizon

Found another good MMO blog on Blogger, Tide's Horizon. Read the article on MMO providers and trust, it is short but interesting.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Hunters and class balance

I was wondering why hunters have such a bad reputation. If you'd do a poll asking World of Warcraft players what classes they are most likely to invite into their group, given the choice, hunters would figure at or near the bottom of the list. Which I don't think is totally justified.

One problem with hunters is pet pathing and control. The famous situation where the hunter jumps down a ledge, and the pet decides to take the long way around, aggroing about 20 mobs on the way that wipe the group, is more of a caricature than reality. A good hunter can take control of his pet and jump with it, or he stows it away for the jump. And of course a good hunter has his pet on defensive mode in a group, and watches that the pet doesn't run off after some mob.

The more fundamental problem with hunters is the same problem I have with my paladin, class balance of hybrid classes. A MMORPG has basic functions, like tanking, damage dealing, and healing. Some classes are specialized in one of these functions, and by necessity these classes are the best in that particular function. Other classes have several functions at once, a hunter can tank with his pet, heal his pet, and deal damage with his ranged attacks. But if any of these functions would be better than a specialist class, nobody would play the specialist any more. For class balance, if you can do several things, you must be less good in them. But in a group situation, three specialists are better than three hybrids.

Groups basically form by finding a warrior, a priest or healing-specced druid, a dedicated damage dealer like a mage or rogue (depending on whether you need AoE or not), and then just has two "random" spots in which you can invite any class, hunters and paladins included. But the way classes are distributed on a typical server, there are far too many people around that can only fill the random spots, and a perennial shortage of healers. Even warriors, although one of the most popular classes, are very sought-after, because there is no other class that could really replace them as tanks.

Hybrid classes are popular, because while they are less optimal in group situations, they are often better in solo and PvP situations. For example I have a defensive specced warrior, which is great in groups, okay in soloing, and just plain useless in PvP. His major function in groups in taunting, which doesn't do anything in solo or PvP situations. If you want to do a mix of many different activities, a hunter would be a better choice.

Which brings me to the final point of the hunter's reputation problem. The one where I have to express myself very carefully, if I don't want to find lots of arrows in my back and angry cats at my heels. :) By the nature of their class, hunter is a good choice for casual players not highly interested in groups and end-game content, while only a small percentage of "leet" hardcore players do choose it. So any given hunter you meet, even at level 60, has a relatively high probability to have done little grouping, and be not very experienced in group situations. And of course it is people who don't have much group experience who end up making the mistake that wipes the group. I've seen a hunter walk backwards in Molten Core, to get to a better shooting distance, and aggroing a giant standing behind him. It is easy to see how such situations can lead to a "all hunters are idiots" prejudice, which like all prejudices is not fair. I've played with very good hunters which knew how to play in a group very well, and had their pet under perfect control. You certainly want to have *some* hunters in your raid group, even if you probably don't want them to be the most numerous class in the raid.

The Kleenex guild

The longer I play World of Warcraft, the more confused I get about its social aspects. What exactly *is* a guild in this game? I think the problem is that nobody really knows, and everybody has a different idea, often incompatible with that of his guild mates.

My personal idea of a guild is the guild as a voluntary assembly of players with the goal of playing together. Playing together with people you know has both social advantages, you feel more at ease with friends than with strangers, and game advantages, you can achieve goals together which you would be unable to reach alone. As there are many different goals to pursue in a MMORPG, in my opinion a guild should consider everybodies goals as equally important. Guild mates should spend a maximum possible time playing together, with people taking turns in proposing what to do next, receiving help from the guild to achieve their goals today, and then being willing to do something that helps somebody else tomorrow.

Unfortunately I found that in reality guilds don't work like that in WoW. A typical guild only has about 10% of people willing to help somebody when there is nothing for them to be gained. A real guild is not about mutual help, it is about following a path that leads from level 1 to 60, and them via smaller dungeons to Molten Core, Blackwing Lair, and whatever Blizzard builds behind that. This path is the lowest common denominator. People hop on a guild which is at a suitable stage on that path for them. They play with guild mates only when there is an event that suits their personal goals. And if the guild doesn't advance the path as fast as the players ambitions, the player just hops off again, and joins the next guild further along the path.

When I'm online with my level 60 character, I often get requests to help some complete stranger doing an elite quest or even running him through a dungeon. And most of the time I tell them that I would do that for a guild mate, but not for a stranger, and suggest he asks his guild to help him. But on any server where a good number of people have reached level 60, guilds don't help their own low level guild mates any more. Leveling up to 60 is considered as something you should do solo, as is getting equipment, earning money, and doing quests. Many guilds don't even have low level characters any more, you may only apply if you are level 60, and have all the necessary prerequisites to go raiding. The top guilds even require things like Onyxia's key, which is impossible to solo, so they are basically requiring you to have gotten all the prerequisites with another guild and then switch.

In the extreme the guild then becomes mono-functional, most often a pure raiding guild. The guild does not help the players any more, unless they happen to have exactly the same goal as everybody else, killing the next boss in the raid circuit. The player becomes a servant of the guild. If his performance isn't adequate, if he has the wrong class, wrong talent build, or his raid attendance record isn't squeaky clean, he gets kicked out of the guild. I've seen a guild websites with rules which threatened members with dismissal if they went on holiday for more than 1 week.

On new servers guilds often invite lots of people at first, establish some sort of average advancement speed, and kick out the players falling behind. On the high end, people leveling up faster than the average just leave the guild on their own and join a faster guild. On the new server that opened last Thursday, I joined a guild on Friday, and Saturday I observed the guild master kicking out everybody who hadn't been online since 2 days. Guild membership becomes as disposable as a Kleenex, there is no more loyalty from the member towards his guild, nor from the guild towards a member.

Now if you look at years of discussion about the longevity of MMORPGs, a widely held theory was that games should force people to play together, thus overcoming a natural reluctance to make social bonds. Then when the players had become friends, they would stay in the game for a much longer time, regardless of content, with the social ties holding them much longer than the interest in the pure game would. I can't help but think that the Kleenex guild system which develops in WoW is counterproductive to that. Whether you are in a guild that is advancing faster than you and either kicks you out or just ignores you without helping you, or whether you make friends just to lose them a bit later when they move to a bigger guild, the disposable guild system isn't likely to tie you to the game with social bonds. And if you play the guild-hopping game, sooner or later you burn out, because having to keep up with your guild mates is mandatory, and thus feels more like work than like play.

Some games already automatically put you in a newbie guild with your level 1 character. If being in a guild is only about being at the same level of development as the others, and keeping up with them, we might soon see a new system: You will be automatically guilded in the newbie guild at level 1, will automatically leave that guild at level 10 and automatically join the level 10 to 19 guild, and so on to level 60 and beyond. Who needs friends when they only slow you down on your inevitable path towards phat loot? Sad days indeed.

Monday, April 10, 2006

WoW Journal - 10-April-2006

I played my new paladin for 1 day = 24 hours now, and it's time to review how it went. In this day I made it to level 18, which is not the highest that it could have been, but not bad either. If I was slow, it was because I also got to over 100 in mining, and to 136 in smithing.

Basically I was playing two games at once, the leveling game, and the economic game. Not twinking is fun, as long as nobody else has a twink. When a server is new, smithing is a really fun tradeskill, which equips you with armor and weapons better than you are likely to get as quest rewards, and can even earn you some money. When the server gets older, people switch to blue dungeon loot, which is better than crafted stuff, and the tradeskill becomes useless. At the high end, smithing a sword costs 20 arcanite bars, which together with the rare gems you also need cost over 800 gold, for a sword whose equivalent you can buy for less than half that, or get from a dungeon. But at level 18 I'm proudly running around mostly in self-made armor and weapons, all of which is better than the stuff I see on other people of my level. And dwarves look a lot better in metal armor than trolls do, trolls just don't have the good shape for mail and plate armor. :)

I like playing the paladin, because it is a good mix of my two favorite play styles, tank and healer. The paladin gets a lot of "get out of jail free" spells, like his famous bubble or the Lay on Hands which can heal himself fully instantly even when out of mana. Add the good smithed weapon which kind of solves the low dps problem, and I'm quite happy with my pally's soloing capabilities. I rarely die when soloing, because I can survive nasty surprises. On the negative side I have troubles getting into a group. Seems paladins are not wanted in groups, I had somebody shouting for a tank and healer, and it turned out that he didn't consider paladin to be either. I can see his point, my armor is good, but my taunting is bad, and my healing spell is slow and inefficient. Being hard to hurt is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for being a tank; you also need to be able to keep the monsters attention on you.

Playing on a new server on the weekend after it went live was interesting. But it also revealed serious problems with Blizzard's hardware. After a few days, lots of Alliance players are level 20 and want to get the good loot from the Deadmines. And the instance server for the Deadmines simply couldn't handle that, and crashed several times, each time being out of service for hours. Blizzard really should change the architecture of the instance servers to be able to handle more people, MC is already not very stable, and when the expansion comes with new level 60+ dungeons, we will see instance server crashes again.

The new server also has its bad sides. Especially the human zones are terribly overcrowded, leading to lots of people trying to kill each others kills. Fortunately dwarves and gnomes are less popular races, and there wasn't so much of a problem there. Up to now most people I met have level 60 characters on other servers, and just like me are looking for a new experience. I wonder how many will stay. Me, I don't know yet. I'll play the paladin for a while to get better aquainted with the class. But unfortunately my memory is too good, I still remember most of the Alliance quests, so this isn't a totally new experience. And if I continue to have problems getting into a group as paladin, I won't play that class very long.

Thursday, April 6, 2006

New European WoW server farm

In a press release Blizzard announced opening up a new "site", hosting new European realms for World of Warcraft. In a first step, 8 new realms will open up there. Blizzard will also ship more copies of the game to European retailers, as more than a million Europeans have bought WoW now, and game boxes are in short supply.

I've been waiting for new servers to open to start a little experiment: Make a new character on a new realm. I don't want to abandon my two level 60 characters, or my guild, but I think it would be a good idea to take a break from them. Once you reach level 60, your meta-level progress becomes very slow. You can still advance by improving your gear, either doing lots of PvP, reputation grinding, or by doing lots of raiding. Unfortunately many of these activities feel more like work to me than fun. So while my guild is planning 5 Zul Gurub raids in a row, I'll take a weekend off and try the new servers.

The idea is to play on a server where there are many people playing in my (low) level range, experiment with a new class, and do quests I don't know too well. So I think I'll go for a dwarven palladin, having played Horde characters most of the time. I hope that palladins can easily find a spot in a group, either as tank or as backup healer.

Might be interesting to start a "new life" in WoW, something that isn't all that easy in the real world. One has a tendency to get far too attached to one's existing characters, even beyond the point where playing them becomes repetitive. It is hard to leave a rich level 60 and play a dirt poor level 1 un-twinked. And it is hard to leave your social network of friends and guild mates, and meet new people. But I think it could be worth a try, earning money on a new server using superior game knowledge could be fun, and new friends who like to group with me might be more to my taste than participating in yet another raid. Unlike leaving town and changing your name in the real world, a new virtual life is possible in parallel, if at the end of the weekend I find that the idea wasn't all that fun after all, I can always go back to my level 60 characters.

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

War(rior)! What is it good for?

My tier 0.5 upgrade quest series ended with a fundamental disagreement between me and Blizzard about what a warrior is for. After paying 60 gold for the gloves of valor, and another 150 gold for the different steps of the upgrade quest, I finally got the belt and gloves of heroism. Woot! The gloves are Raslebol's only epic.

At that point I was wearing the deathbone belt and gloves from the minor bosses in Scholomance. The deathbone stuff has a useless mana regeneration bonus, but good armor, stamina, and especially defence bonus. But of course they are much easier to get than tier 0.5, they aren't epic, and so the heroism stuff must be much better, musn't it? I put on the belt and gloves of heroism and notice that in comparison to before I have 358 defence instead of 373, a huge -15 change. I also have less stamina (thus less health), and less armor. What the heck? It turns out the heroism stuff is armor for offensive warriors. With heroism armor my dps goes up from 90 to 96, due to a huge strength bonus, and the gloves increase my crit chance by 1%.

Sorry, Blizzard, but I don't believe in offensively specced warriors. If I wanted to deal lots of damage in melee, I would have made a rogue. Offensive warriors are a hybrid between tank and rogue. Hybrids are good in soloing and PvP, but nobody would want an offensive warrior as main tank in a raid, or as only tank in a 5-man group.

So the tier 0.5 heroism armor is in the bank now. If ever I go on a raid with Raslebol as non-MT, I might take the stuff with me and wear them when I have just a damage dealing role. But for my favorite occupation of 5-man groups the heroism stuff is just plain useless. I think I'll try to get some more Deathbone armor instead, the set now has some really nice set bonuses.

Reverse engineering quests?

Most people's approach to selecting quests in World of Warcraft is easy: simply do all of them. That is an excellent approach if you haven't done the quests yet, as you will experience a maximum of content by doing all the quests available to you.

For my third Horde character in the mid-30's levels taking all quests isn't really what I want. I did all of those quests already, and some of them I don't care to repeat, because they were annoying. But I don't want to give up on quests altogether, because quests also have quest rewards, and some of the items you can quest for are quite good.

But now I find that looking at quests from the reward point of view isn't that easy. Many of the best rewards are from quest chains, and the first quest in the series tells you neither that this is a chain, nor what the reward at the end will be. I've started looking at the equipment section of Goblin Workshop, where some items are labeled as quest items, and then used Thottbot or Allakhazam to find the start of the quest series for that. But that isn't very easy, and I feel that I'm missing some quests.

Anyone have a better idea on how to find the quests that would give good gear for a level 35 shaman?

Story hindering gameplay

Wired News has a satire, WoW: The Text Adventure which starts like this:

Welcome to World of Warcraft: The Text Adventure.

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully. There is an elf with an exclamation point above her head here.

> Talk elf

"Alas," she says. "There is a great darkness upon the land. Fifty years ago the Dwarf Lord Al'ham'bra came upon the Dragon Locket in the Miremuck Caverns. He immediately recognized the ..."

> Click Accept

"Hey," the elf protests. "This is important expository. Azeroth is a rich and storied land, with a tapestry of interwoven ..."

> Click Accept

"OK, fine. Bring me six kobold tails."
Does this look familiar to you? I bet it does. Many players of WoW don't read the stories told in the quests, or in the books you can sometimes find. The background story is often simply not relevant, and with WoW having several thousand quests, very few of them could possibly be considered as literary gems. Even Blizzard is making fun of themselves in this area, there is one quest description telling you "You will also need to collect 10 Intact Elemental Cores from the Ragereaver Golems and Warbringer Constructs protecting Argelmach. You know this because you are psychic."

Most people don't mind there being a story, and everybody being free to read or not read it. But unfortunately I'm now in a quest series where the wish of the developers to tell a story makes the quest less good than it could be: The tier 0.5 (or Dungeon set 2, as Blizzard calls them) upgrade quest series.

A story is linear, and thus the tier 0.5 upgrade quest series is linear too. You first upgrade your bracers, then simultaneously your belt and gloves, then simultaneously your legs, boots, and shoulders (Thanks, Graktar, for that info), and finally the head and chest piece (not sure if together or separate). I've already told how my priest is stuck in the series, because he has the belt and not the gloves. Now imagine somebody having everything except the bracers, and not even being able to start the quest series, and you'll see how linear story telling is hurting. The story, involving some ghostly attackers, ectoplasm, and engineering devices to make ghosts visible, isn't good enough to be worth the negative effect on game play.

If I had designed the tier 0.5 upgrade quests, I would have done 8 parallel quests, one each for each piece of the set to upgrade. The principle of making the better upgrades more difficult to achieve isn't bad, although I probably would have tweaked things like the 45 minutes timer on the Stratholme UD run to a value which is more likely to be achievable by an average player after two or three tries. But I certainly wouldn't have strung all the upgrades into a linear quest chain, just to tell a story.

As it is, there won't be all that many people ever finishing this quest series. Getting a complete tier 0 set is so hard and time consuming that most people get better, epic loot from Molten Core before they get their set together, if ever. The people who would like to have the "Dungeon set 2" armor are unable to get it, because it is incompatible with a casual play style. And the people that would be able to get the Dungeon set 2 armor don't want it, because they can get something better with similar effort.

As for me, I'll finish the quest for gloves and belt with Raslebol, and if I ever get the opportunity to get the gloves for Kyroc, I'll upgrade him too to that step. But neither of my characters is likely to get legs, boots, and shoulders of the dungeon set 1 together, so upgrading it to set 2 won't be possible. What a waste of new content.

Monday, April 3, 2006


World of Warcraft is a relatively fast game, where you hunt the same monster type rarely for more than one hour. That brings a lot more variety into the game than in Everquest, where you would kill the same monster type for many hours, if not days. But on the downside I noticed that WoW players know a lot less of how spawns work than was common knowledge in EQ. I was quite surprised when I recently mentioned placeholders in a WoW conversation, and nobody knew what it was. So I'll explain it here:

World of Warcraft, like most other MMORPG, works with spawn points that are connected to the spawned monsters. That means that if you kill a particular mob, a couple of minutes later a new mob will appear at the same initial location (although it might then wander away from that initial spot). If you don't kill the monster from that spawn point, no new monster spawns. Thus if nobody hunted in an area for some time, the number of monsters there will be equal to the number of spawn points, preventing massive monster overpopulation.

Some spawn points always spawn the same type of monster. Other spawn points have a list of several different possible monsters that can spawn from it. Now imagine you are in the cave in the Western Plaguelands where the nature elementals drop the Greater Nature Protection potion recipe. You will see both elementals and slimes in that cave. By stealth you manage to kill only the elementals, but never the slimes. After having done so for a while you will notice more and more slimes, and less and less elementals. Because every elemental you kill is linked to a spawn point, where either an elemental or a slime can spawn. And if you selectively kill all the elementals, sooner or later all spawn points are blocked by a slime. In this case the slime is a placeholder for an elemental. You need to kill the slime to unblock the place it holds on the spawn point, and have a chance for an elemental to respawn.

That used to be very important in Everquest, because some spawn points had a low chance of spawning a rare monster, with better treasure. So if you wanted that specific treasure, you needed to kill the placeholder on that spawn point until the rare monster spawned there. There are some rare spawns in WoW, but I don't know of people camping those spots.

The important thing is that knowing about placeholders teaches you that you shouldn't hunt too selectively. If the population of your target monster is low in the area where it should normally be, maybe somebody just hunted them and didn't kill the placeholders. For example the first step of the tier 0.5 quest has you hunting spiders and scorpions in Silithus. When lots of people do that, it gets hard to find any spiders and scorpions, but there are a lot of sand worms around. Instead of running around endlessly searching for a scorpion or spider, a much better tactic is to start killing sand worm placeholders in some area, thus making it more likely that a scorpion or spider will respawn near you.

There are lots of placeholders in World of Warcraft, not only for monsters. The thing that annoys me most is people not looting treasure chests completely. Chests often have some better and some junk stuff in it, and people not knowing how spawns work (or not caring) only take the good stuff out and leave the junk in. Then the treasure chest doesn't despawn, thus the spawn for the next treasure is blocked. I think things in WoW can despawn on their own, but on a very slow timer.

A bit less obvious is spawn points for resources, like herbs. But sometimes I noticed that for example in Azshara there were lots of less valuable Sungrass, while the more valuable Dreamfoil, Golden Sansam, or Mountain Silversage were all gone. In that case I always harvest the less valuable stuff, because it can be a placeholder for the more valuable stuff I want. With resources the respawn timer is long, so it takes more patience to profit from removing the placeholders, but it is still worth it.

Sunday, April 2, 2006

WoW Journal - 3-April-2006

My weekend can be described as having been fun, but not very lucky. Mostly using Kyroc, and doing groups with my guild.

Saturday afternoon we went to Stratholme living, in a really strange and memorable excursion. We all had time on our hands, and so we decided to take it slow, and do all the side quests and events that this half of the dungeon has to offer. We started doing the quest for Smokey's Lighter, and found the keys for three post boxes in the same corner. This led us all over the dungeon, even into the undead side, to open the three post boxes. We got to know the dungeon a lot better than the usual "straight to the end" runs, but it took a lot of time. As you can now only do it in 5-man groups, and the number of mobs where we were had not been noticeably reduced, you don't have any margin of error any more. One add, one runner, or one stupid eye summoning gargoyles, and you wipe. Then our circuitous path and occasional wipes took us so long that we had respawns, which then took us even more time. By the time we had killed the Postmaster, Timmy the Cruel, the Archivist, and Balnazzar, the whole expedition had taken us 5 hours. Lots of fun, but as I said, not lucky, the Archivist didn't drop the Devout Gloves. Unless Blizzard changed the drop chance, it is only 1 in 6, and I might me going there for weeks to come to get them. What did drop a lot was Lightforge armor pieces, the tier 0 paladin set. That used to be totally useless for a Horde group, but now the first three parts are "bind on equip", and can be flogged to a paladin via the neutral auction houses. I'd recommend to paladins and shamans to check the neutral AH more often now.

Saturday evening we didn't have any guild event planned, so I asked around whether anyone was interested in doing the Crimson Courier and Scarlet Oracle quests in Eastern Plaguelands. Turned out that quite a lot of people either had to do these quests, or had nothing better planned, and we got a dozen or so guild mates together. The fights were a bit chaotic, as you can't do it in a raid group, you need to split into a group with the people having the quest and one or more support groups. But we managed both the courier and the oracle on the first try, without wiping, and all got our quests done. I got a very nice wand, Stormrager, for Kyroc as a quest reward.

On Sunday after lunch we tried the "new" UBRS with 10 people. Until Rend that wasn't a problem at all, and I got that part of the Onyxia key quest chain done. But the part after that is rather tough with only 10 people. We managed to kill the Beast, and I got some leggings for Kyroc. I had passed on the same leggings before, but their stats have been improved in the patch, and now they were slightly better than what I was wearing. Then we tried to fight our way towards General Drakkisath. There we noticed that some groups of mobs had been removed from his throne room, the only change we noticed to the mob density in the dungeon. But unfortunately while fighting one of the groups all our rezzers and the warlock died, our soulstones had been used before, and the shaman didn't have an ankh on him. So we had to run back, and there found that the dungeon had respawned, and we couldn't join the other half of the group. This forced us to abandon the dungeon, without having killed Drakkisath, which would have been rather tough anyway. I went to Orgrimmar to hand in Rend's head and get the Warchief's Blessing buff. But it seems that the buff is only given out ever so often, and I didn't get buffed.

So I rushed back to Blackrock Mountain unbuffed, where our guild's Molten Core raid was about to start. Although we had already killed Luci and Magmadar on Friday, due to the unscheduled MC reset on Friday night they were back, so we started all over again. We are getting better at this, we killed Luci, Magmadar, and Gehennas in 4 hours, last time it was still 5 hours. Gehennas dropped the gloves of prophecy, but my bad luck struck again, there were two other priests which also had a +50 bonus to their loot roll from our loot raid point system, and I only rolled a 13.

If you hear me bitching about the bad chances to get epic loot, this might be because I am especially unlucky in this area. I'm playing WoW since the US beta, started with my guild on this Euro server on the day the game was released over here, have been raiding with my guild since we reached level 60, and am now raiding at least twice a week. And how many epics did I get up to now? ZERO. Raslebol doesn't have a single purple item. Kyroc has two tailored purple items, the Truefaith Vestments and the Flarecore Gloves, but not a single raid drop epic. Waldin has an epic mace and shield in the bank, but those were bought in the AH with twink money. The only epic loot roll I ever won in this game in a year-and-a-half was that for the Blackskull Shield, a level 41 shield I found long ago, when Raslebol was in his mid-40s, but that has long since been replaced by some better blue shield. I tend to be sceptic of the corrupting influence of epics on people, so the epics don't like me either, and tend to avoid me. :)

Raslebol I didn't play that much this weekend, but his luck was better. I found Gloves of Valor for 60 gold on the auction house and bought them. Thus I had the bracers, belt, and gloves needed for the first steps to upgrade to tier 0.5 and could start that quest series. I already got the bracers upgraded, and am now at the step where you need to capture the essences from the ghosts. In other good news, Raslebol had since a long time two Deathbone items from Scholomance in his bank, as I always wanted to get a set together one day. Patch 1.10 made the Scholo set items all a lot better, so now the previously green Deathbone items are blue, and were better than what I was wearing, having acquired a defence bonus. So I'm wearing those two items now, and my defence is up to 373, which is already pretty solid. My health and armor could be better, but they are also sufficient for most purposes.

I might be playing Raslebol more often. We used to have lots of warriors in the guild, but most of them are playing a priest or mage now, some left, and those who remain usually are more interested in raiding. Getting a tank for a 5-man or 10-man group with the guild has become quite difficult. I'll just handle it flexible, and when there is another priest who wants to 5-man, but no tank, I can always use Raslebol.