Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The new World of Warcraft honor system

As apparently we will get the new honor system patched in before the expansion, I'm not calling it the Burning Crusade honor system. But of course all the information I have on how about it works is from the BC beta. As you all know, the old honor system, where you were assigned a rank based on your *relative* performance compared to the other players on your server and your faction is going out the window. And the new system will give PvP rewards based on absolute points. The big advantage in that is that lets say winning 50 battlegrounds and doing 1000 honor kills in the new system will always be worth the same, regardless how much the other players played, and regardless of whether you did those battles over 1 week or over 1 month. So how do the rewards work?

What I did was visit the PvP reward NPCs, both in the Hall of Legends in Orgrimmar, and the one standing in front of Alterac Valley. I couldn't actually do a battleground, because there aren't enough players on the beta servers to fill one up. But I was able to see the rewards, and what they cost.

The big disappointment was the Alterac Valley PvP reward NPC. He was offering exactly the same rewards as before, with no "level 70" items added (yet?). That makes the best items available from him look decidedly mediocre compared to green and blue items you can get in the Outlands even at level 60. The big surprise here is that there are no more reputation requirements. You don't need to be exalted to buy lets say The Unstoppable Force. You just need to "pay" 30000 honor points and 80 Alterac Valley Marks of Honor. Whatever reputation you gained with the Frostwolf is useless now.

In a way that makes sense. You get 1 Mark of Honor from losing, and 3 from winning. So while currently people in AV often go reputation farming, and ignore the win condition, winning AV will become a lot more important. Because all the honor points don't help you if you don't also have the 80 Marks of Honor. Assuming you win half of your battles, you need to finish AV 40 times to pay for the Unstoppable Force.

Next I went to the Hall of Legends in Orgrimmar, which is now open to everybody, not just officers as before, because the officers rank doesn't exist any more. You can still display your highest rank, if you want to, but it doesn't do anything any more. Except, curiously, of still giving you the 10% NPC vendor rebate if you ever made it to rank 3. No idea why they left that in, as I don't see how new players would be able to still gain that bonus.

In the Hall of Legends there are several PvP reward vendors, for armor, weapons, mounts, and accessoires. Here there are a few level 70 items, but up to now I only counted 4 of them, the others are still the same as the PvP rank rewards. For example a Sergeant't Cloak (level 60 version) now costs 1500 honor and 10 Arathi Marks of Honor. General's Satin Leggings cost 4250 honor and 30 Warsong Gulch Mark of Honor. Some items cost "Eye of Storm Mark of Honor", but I didn't see any Eye of Storm battleground.

Most stupidly an epic mount cost 30 AV, 30 WSG, plus 30 AB Mark of Honor. But as it still needs 150 riding skill (which still costs 720 gold), this mount is just for show, you can with the same riding skill training cost buy an equally fast standard epic mount for just 80 gold, instead of paying 90 Mark of Honor for a battleground epic mount.

What I don't really like is that most items here also cost specific Marks of Honor. If you don't like lets say Warsong Gulch, you can't pay for the General's Satin Leggings, because these need WSG Marks of Honor. Only the potions, insignia of the horde, battle standard, and some cut gems to put into sockets can be bought with honor points without Marks.

As long as Blizzard doesn't adjust the PvP rewards to the much higher level of Burning Crusade PvE rewards, I don't see how the changes will induce people to play more PvP. The new system is better than the old reputation farming and rank system, but the rewards need some serious balancing to make PvP as attractive as PvE.

Adventures in computer repairing

Good news first: I managed to fix the Driver_irql_not_less_or_equal ndis.sys blue screen of death error. The bad news is that I'm now even more puzzled about my computer than before.

What I wanted to do was a simple reinstall of Windows XP Pro. So I put in the CD, press the F12 button at start-up to go to the boot selection menu, select boot from CD. Windows XP CD boots up, and after loading a bunch of drivers and stuff goes to the first screen, where you have to press Enter to continue. Only pressing Enter doesn't do anything. In fact no key does anything, it seems among all the drivers he loads there isn't one for the keyboard. And I tried both a USB keyboard, and a classic PS/2 keyboard. Several times, connecting and disconnecting keyboards, and rebooting. But while all the keyboards always work in the boot menu, none ever does in the Windows XP setup menu. I'm stuck.

So I try something different, boot my computer from the hard disk, but in safe mode. Then try to run the Windows XP CD. It runs, keyboard works, but when I tell him to install, he refuses. My Windows XP CD is service pack 1, while the installed version is service pack 2, and he claims he can't install an older version over a newer one. Fortunately when service pack 2 came out, I asked Microsoft to send it to me on CD (for free). So I put in my Windows XP service pack 2 CD, and install that one. Now this doesn't do a complete Windows reinstall, but it does install a large number of files, and luckily for me, whatever was broken in my computer before is fixed by that. No more blue screen of death, and the video editing software that wouldn't run last weekend due to driver problems is now running perfectly.

I'm just worried that if the computer crashes even worse, I won't be able to do a full reinstall, due to the keyboard not working in the Windows setup. And why doesn't it work? Is that some trick from Dell to prevent people from installing whatever they want? Or is my Windows XP Pro CD too old to work with my current hardware? I'm puzzled.

Age, luxury, and World of Warcraft

I am 41 years old. Whether wisdom comes with age is debatable, but one thing that is for certain is that for most people the financial situation improves with age. And with the improved finances comes more luxury: I'm driving a new car, while as a student I drove a clapped-out 10 year old Ford. I can always afford the latest graphics card and other hardware. I sometimes visit nice and expensive restaurants, which I could never have afforded 20 years ago. I even fly business class, though that is paid for by my company. The one thing where I am paying exactly the same, and receive exactly the same level of service, is for World of Warcraft and other MMORPG.

Recently there was a discussion going on here whether playing a harder MMORPG would have the advantage that less children would play it, thus improving the level of maturity of chat and behavior. I'm not sure that would work; it could be that older, more mature players have too many Real Life ® constraints, and would rather play an easier, more casual game. While bratty kids with lots of time on their hands aren't really daunted by hard games, taking it as a challenge. It would be possible to create a MMORPG for a mature audience, for example by making it a lot less violent, see A Tale in the Desert. But if you prefer the more game-like MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, it is hard to think of a configuration where the mature players wouldn't have to suffer from the immature ones.

So I was thinking about luxury servers for World of Warcraft. Imagine special WoW servers where the monthly fee is $30 instead of $15. In exchange you get faster server hardware, 99.9% uptime guarantee by having servers doubled up, faster GM response to your problems, a better customer service telephone line, and whatever else you could think of as improved customer service. But the real advantage would be a non-advertised one: most players on these servers would be older, and more mature. Because kids simply couldn't afford it, or would be unwilling to pay for the luxury, while middle-aged people like me wouldn't mind paying more for better service.

I know Everquest tried something similar, but I don't know if the idea ever took off. I know a lot of older MMORPG secretly wish they could somehow get rid of the immature kids that can be such a nuisance, with their potty mouthed general chat, attention span in the millisecond region, and hopping around like Kermit the Frog all the time. But would they actually pay to get rid of them, and to enjoy a better customer service from Blizzard at the same time? What do you think?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Blue screen of death

I had some problems during the weekend with running a video-editing software on my main computer, getting lots of different error messages indicating some problem with drivers. This morning while patching the Burning Crusade beta things got worse, and I repeatedly had blue screens of death saying "Driver_irql_not_less_or_equal" in ndis.sys. I think it is safe to assume that my Windows installation is screwed. Which doesn't really surprise me, I'm using the computer a lot, and the same installation of Windows is running on it since over a year. Time for some kind of reinstall, to fix all the driver problems. Damn, that is going to take me a while.

Fortunately I found a very helpful Windows Reinstall website. I think I'll try the Microsoft's Windows XP Professional (Pro) Repair Install step by step guide. I used to do these reinstalls from scratch, formating the hard drive and everything, but I hope that won't be necessary.

A repair reinstall of Windows has the advantage of leaving all the data on my hard drive. The only problem is that it clears my registry, including all the information that programs might have written into the registry when I installed them. Thus lots of software doesn't run any more afterwards, and needs to be reinstalled as well. I heard that World of Warcraft doesn't need registry entries to run, so I would be able to play directly, without reinstalling WoW. I hope that is true, because installing WoW isn't really a short process. Can anyone confirm this?

Pickup raids

Hmmm, I hear more and more often about people organizing pickup raids to places like Molten Core. But I personally have never seen such a pickup raid. That is probably because I usually play on the Horde side, and Horde is just not as numerous as Alliance on a PvE server. The more people there are in total, the more likely is it to get a 40-man pickup raid going.

The only thing I've ever seen on offer on my server was a guild offering spots in their MC raid, but if you received an epic you would have to pay them 300 gold. That didn't look attractive to me, you would have to both pay and work for the epic, effectively paying it twice. And of course the guild in question had first pick rights on everything.

The problem with pickup raids, from my point of view, is the relatively low chance of receiving an epic, and the relatively large chance of receiving just a large repair bill. But of course the better the raid succeeds, the less of a problem that is. So if you have an alt, and your guild doesn't equip alts, you might want to run a MC raid with other people's alts. If everybody is an experienced raider, MC is possible even in a pickup group with strangers in tier 0 gear.

Did you ever participate in such a pickup raid? Care to share your experiences? How was loot distributed? Did people fight about loot, or was it a very civilized affair? How was leadership organized, and were there discussions on strategy?

Sunday, October 29, 2006

BC Journal - 30-October-2006

Another weekend of adventure in the World of Warcraft Burning Crusade beta. I hit level 62, got my jewelcrafting up to 315, and spent a lot of time exploring the Outlands. But I didn't play all that many hours in the beta, because most of Saturday I spent doing Real Life ® stuff, including the first christmas shopping, being a firm believer in starting that early. And Sunday afternoon I spent raiding on the real servers, although our BWL raid was again cancelled, and we ended up doing AQ20. Still, playing in a guild is fun, and makes a good change from exploring the beta, which is fun too, but of a more lonely kind.

Leveling in the Burning Crusade isn't quite as fast as in the original World of Warcraft, but that was only to be expected. From level 60 to 61 I needed 415 kXP, to level 62 473 kXP, and now to 63 I will need 504 kXP. That is a strange series of numbers, the difference between 61 and 62 is bigger than that between 62 and 63. Anyway, leveling up didn't *feel* slow, and I'm not even trying very hard, I have so many other things to do in the beta. I gain most of my experience points just by doing quests, most of the time solo. But this weekend I also did several elite quests in a small group of first 4, then 3 players. There is a series of elite quests involving killing elite giants in Hellfire Peninsula, and the first quest already gives a very nice wand (or other rewards for other classes), with 84 dps and good caster stats. The other quest rewards I currently get are usually about as good as the tier 1 and tier 2 gear I'm wearing, and it is always difficult to decide whether to switch or not. And that is just the green quest reward items. The expansion will level the playing field in equipment after 2 to 4 levels, making all the current raid epics obsolete relatively soon.

After having level 62, and a mining skill sufficient to mine adamantium, the basic ore after fel iron, I started to explore the zones around Hellfire Peninsula. That was enourmous fun. I ended up exploring two zones, Terokkar Forest and Nagrand. The forest is okay, but except for harboring the big neutral city of Shattrath it isn't really special. With Nagrand on the other hand I fell immediately in love, this is probably the most beautiful zone on the whole World of Warcraft. The encroaching demonic threat to this pretty lush landscape is very well done, creating a great atmosphere.

In the middle of Nagrand is the village of Halaa. This village can be either under the control of the Horde or under the control of the Alliance. To capture the village, the side not currently owning it must kill the villages 15 guards. That is insofar fun as you can take control of one of the 4 wyvern flight points around the village. Clicking on the wyvern gives you 10 aerial bombs, and puts you on the predetermined flight path, crossing the village twice. So you can kill the guard by dropping bombs on them, as long as there aren't any defenders destroying the wyvern posts and killing you when you land. Aerial bombardement seems to be one of the fads in Burning Crusade, there were already quests with it in Hellfire Peninsula, but I do like the idea. I would have liked it even more if Halaa hadn't been bugged. Me and two other Horde players tried to take the village with a combination of bombardements and ground combat. We got the guards down to 1 out of possible 15, but the last guard was bugged. First he evaded all attacks, so we couldn't kill him. Then he despawned, but the display still showed 1 out of 15 possible guards, when in reality there wasn't any one left. So as we couldn't do the final kill, we never got the village under control, which was annoying. Blizzard will have to still work on that feature.

Speaking of work left to do, while exploring Terrokar Forest I also crossed the zone border to Shadowmoon Valley, which resulted in me being teleported back into the forest. Shadowmoon Valley isn't currently accessible, presumably due to not being finished yet. The zones of Blades Edge Mountains and Netherstorm are likewise not yet open, not yet finished. You begin to see why Blizzard couldn't have released the expansion next month.

While exploring all these zones, I kept mining all the ores I could find, and thus maxed out my mining at 375. That allowed me to mine khorium, the final rare ore. The other rare Outland ore, eternium, doesn't have its own ore nodes. It is found sometimes when mining any of the other Outland ores, fel iron, adamantium, or khorium. You also have a small chance to find a cuttable gem when mining. The one thing you don't find any more is stones, except for the dense stones in the rich thorium veins that can be found in the Outlands. There doesn't seem to be a stone level after the dense stones.

Jewelcrafting after 300 is slow going. Your chance to find a cuttable gem while mining, or as a mob drop, is very low. Thus you have to prospect fel iron ore to get the cuttable gems, adamantium can only be prospected at 350 skill, and eternium and khorium can't be prospected at all. Prospecting destroys 5 fel iron ore, and either gives you nothing, or one cuttable gem, with an about even chance. So on average you need 10 fel iron ore for one gem. You can then either cut the gem, which is usually a yellow recipe, giving you a skill point half of the time, or use two gems and some metal in an orange recipe for some jewelry. Thus you end up with 20 ores per skill point, which is a lot. So while I was doing this, cutting gems to skill up, I had a nasty surprise: Once cut, the gems don't stack any more. Which means you will have to sell them fast, or use up a lot of storage space. As in the beta people can buy gems from a temporary NPC vendor, I ended up selling the cut gems for 1 gold piece to a vendor, destroying a lot of value in the process. And up to now, with 315 skill, I haven't made a single piece of jewelry good enough for me to wear, although the green +16 int ring with some +healing bonus is coming close. But as so often in tradeskills, I had just found a blue ring in a dungeon which was better.

Glyx just posted in a recent comment here a link to a jewelcrafting guide, which has a shopping list what you need to reach level 300 in jewelcrafting: 240 copper, 120 bronze, 40 iron, 60 mithril, 255 thorium, 110 gold, 30 truesilver, 50 flask of mojo, 10 large fang, 30 malachite/tigerseye, 30 lesser moonstone, 100 shadowgem, 35 jade, 40 citrine, 45 star ruby, 35 aquamarine, 40 large opal, 20 azerothian diamond, and 20 huge emerald. The cost for this will vary widely, depending on whether you are Horde or Alliance, how old your server is, and whether you buy the stuff now or after the expansion, when everybody wants to buy it. And that is just one possible way, I personally went a route which used less shadowgems, but a lot of silver bars. But you can see how the total cost will be several hundred gold, and as high as 1000 gold under the worst circumstances. I will probably end up skilling up jewelcrafting again, just because I already gathered most of the materials for copying them to the beta server. But for people who find themselves with nothing stocked on the day the Burning Crusade comes out, I don't think I would recommend this new tradeskill, it is just too expensive for too little effect.

The good news in that is that if you are bored right now, and worrying how you are going to pay for a flying mount in the expansion, especially if you want the 5000 gold epic one, you might want to do a lot of mining, storing all the metals and gems on some bank mule, and selling them shortly after the expansion comes out, when prices will presumably go up. And of course you could speculate and buy gems now, although that would bind your money for a long time, and if too many people do it, it could backfire. One tip: if you want to hoard metals, you can store the noble metals like silver, gold, and truesilver as bars. But the base metals might be worth more as ores than as bars, even if that takes twice the storage space. Especially thorium ore might be useful to have, as the high-end gems can be prospected from that.

Are MMORPGs all the same?

In the thread about the other MMORPGs coming out in 2007, Wiggly asked the very good question how much all these games would play the same. With World of Warcraft having brought millions of players into their first MMORPG, there must be lots of people wondering whether the grass is greener in another game, or whether it would be best to stick to the game you know, because the other games don’t offer much else.

There is a basic structure behind all MMORPGs that defines the genre, just like there is a basic structure behind all racing games for example. You are in control of one character, who is defined by a bunch of numerical values describing how strong, intelligent, or skilled he is. By playing this character, these numerical values invariably go up, your character becomes stronger. This “character development” is what differentiates a role-playing game from an adventure or shooter game.

Generally “playing” a MMORPG involves fighting against computer-controlled enemies. Winning these battles gives you experience points, or something similar, like skill points. It is also likely to reward you with some items which you can either use to equip yourself with, or sell them and buy equipment.

The majority of MMORPG play in a sword and sorcery fantasy setting, in which you can play a warrior, a wizard, a priest, or other typical fantasy characters. You usually can play either alone, or in small groups of around half a dozen player, or at the end of the game even in very large groups of up to 40 characters. Combat usually consists of targeting a monster and starting some sort of auto-attack, swinging your weapon at it. But you always also have some sort of special attacks, fancy combat maneuvers for the warriors, spells like fireballs for the wizards, and healing spells for the priests.

There is a general flow of the game where you start in a city, go out and slay monsters, gather experience points and loot, come back to the city, sell the excess loot, train, buy other equipment, and go out again. In seemingly endless repetition. There is a brilliant parody of this gameplay out there, called Progressquest.

This basic description covers every game from Everquest to World of Warcraft to the upcoming games like Vanguard or Warhammer Online. So are these games all the same? The difference lies in the details. Different MMORPG all have different game worlds and settings, and you can also sort them into different categories according to what the gameplay is focused on.

Game worlds are often a matter of taste. There are many different fantasy worlds, some in a more cartoonish style, others more photo-realistic. And then there are non-fantasy worlds, games that play in historic settings, science fiction games, post-apocalyptic wastelands, and who knows what else game developers will come up with. Some worlds only exist in the MMORPG, but other game worlds are coming from other media. So you can ride a bantha over Tatooine, meet Thrall from Warcraft 3 in WoW, visit the world of your Dungeons & Dragons campaign, enter the Matrix, and soon even travel with the hobbits over Middle Earth. Obviously if you are a fan of one of these worlds, a MMORPG playing there has a special attraction over games playing elsewhere.

How to classify MMORPGs into categories is a matter of much debate. There is no unified standard, and thus unfortunately no label on the game box telling you what category a game belongs in before you buy it. But here are some often mentioned classification systems:

The first thing I always try to determine is how much a new MMORPG focuses on being a “game” and how much it focuses on being a “world”. Of course all MMORPG are a bit of both, but there are major differences on what the developers focused on. A more “game” like MMORPG like World of Warcraft doesn’t give the player much opportunity to change the game world in a permanent way, but it does have a solid structure of game goals, quests to follow, levels to reach, and so on. A more “world” like MMORPG often has features like houses or other structures players can build, thus changing the face of the world. Examples would be Star Wars Galaxies, or A Tale in the Desert. Often the game elements of these MMORPG are less well structured; there are a lot of open goals.

Another important distinction is whether a MMORPG is PvE-centric or PvP-centric. Again many games have both. But there are games like World of Warcraft where the PvE is the main game, and PvP seems to have been added as a badly designed afterthought. While in games like Lineage or EVE the PvP is the center of the game, and all the other parts of the game just serve to train and equip you for fights against other players. It is important to check whether PvP is voluntary, consentual, or whether PvP is free-for-all, with the possibility of lots of ganking and griefing.

The most difficult thing to determine is how easy or hard a MMORPG is. While single-player games often have adjustable difficulty settings, there is no such thing in a MMORPG. So some games are relatively easy, like World of Warcraft, allowing even the most casual player to reach the maximum level. But other games, like Everquest, need thousands of hours of play to reach the highest level, and have much harsher penalties for failure.

Besides the different genres and categories, MMORPG differ a lot in how they set up the details of gameplay. For example for players to buy and sell items to each other, every game has a slightly different system: There are auction houses, bazaars, player-controlled NPC vendors, or players opening up shop while standing around away-from-keyboard.

So in the end no two MMORPG are really the same. If you liked your first one, there is at least a chance that you’ll also like another one, but it isn’t certain. And you certainly won’t get bored after 5 minutes in the new game, MMORPGs usually take a long time to get into.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

World of Warcraft Gemcutting

With the help of a reader, who provided me with the final missing gems, I finally managed to get my jewelcrafting skill up to 300. At this skill you can go to the jewelcrafting grand master and buy designs for gemcutting from him. So this is how gemcutting works in the Burning Crusade:

First you need to do some mining, typically for fel iron in Hellfire Peninsula. With the prospecting skill you get with jewelcrafting you then need to destroy the fel iron ores in the hope of finding cuttable gems. Up to now for me about half of my attempts gave me a gem, the other half just left me with worthless fel iron dust. The gems I found were for example deep peridot or azure moonstone.

For the azure moonstone I have two possible "cuts", either solid or sparkling. The solid azure moonstone gives +9 stamina, the sparkling azure moonstone gives +6 spirit. Both are blue gems, which preferably should be put in a blue socket, if you want to get an additional bonus. The peridots are green, which in this case means you can put them either in a blue or in a yellow socket, and get the bonus in both cases.

In the beta there is a NPC vendor named Ushtug the Temporary standing next to the grand master jewelcrafter, selling exactly these cut gems, like the solid azure moonstone. As somebody here already remarked, the name suggests he won't be there in the live version. This leaves the market for cut gems to the jewelcrafters. Cutting gems is very easy, getting the cuttable gems is a bit of a chore, but no problem. The limiting factor will be that it takes 300 jewelcrafting to do so. The materials I blew to get to this point had a market value of over 500 gold. And with everybody wanting to be a jewelcrafter, the market value of the same trade goods will easily be twice that when the expansion goes live. Guilds will certainly want to have a jewelcrafter or two, but this isn't exactly the best profession for the casual player. The jewelry you can make up to 300 is nice, but will probably not earn you any money, will all the other people skilling up and putting up the same rings and necklaces for sale as you do. How well and for how much the cut gems will sell, nobody knows yet.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Dell - Tobold 0:0

I reported that the only thing wrong with my last order from Dell was that they had sent me a wireless mouse instead of a mouse with retractable cable. No biggie. But I called Dell, and they agreed to send me the mouse I actually ordered, free of charge. Great customer service!

Today I get the small parcel from Dell, open it, and what do I find? Another wireless mouse. One more phone call confirms that wireless mouses is all they have left, even if a month ago when I ordered the laptop the mouse with the retractable cable was still possible to order. Well, I left it at that. I didn't get the mouse with cable I wanted, but instead I got TWO wireless mouses. Lets call it a draw.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The games of 2007

Readers of this blog might be excused if they think that this is a World of Warcraft blog. It isn't. This is a blog about whatever MMORPG I am currently playing, and the MMORPG I'm playing since 2 years now is World of Warcraft. I'm not always sticking to the same game that long, 2 years is breaking the previous record held by the original Everquest. In other years I might play a dozen different MMORPGs.

But for the moment I play WoW, and I'm looking forward to the first expansion early next year, so chances are that I will continue playing WoW until at least the first half of 2007. Whether I will continue after that, and whether I will reach the 3-year mark, I simply don't know yet. It is possible that all the new games coming out are not so great, and I'll stick with World of Warcraft. Or it could be that I'll get bored with WoW, and jump onto the next big thing as soon as it becomes available. So what would my options be?

One option would be Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, presumably out early 2007. Well, you know how reliable announced release dates in this business are. Vanguard was developed by a bunch of ex-Everquest developers, lead by Brad McQuaid. They started developing Vanguard for Microsoft, but in an ironic twist of fate ended up back with Sony Online Entertainment. The general idea behind Vanguard is that modern games have grown too soft and carebear, and Vanguard will specifically target the hardcore players, bringing back the original feel and "The Vision" of Everquest, with graphics more fitting for 2007. Unfortunately "The Vision" is all about making players suffer, so they feel closer social bonds to each other. That includes lots of downtime and timesinks, and heavy penalties for failure, like naked corpse runs. That doesn't sound very attractive to me, call me a carebear. Even more disheartening are reports from the beta testers that while the graphics have a high polygon count (and thus run badly on all but the most expensive computers), they are artistically rather bland and ugly. On the positive side Vanguard promises to be rather rich in features, having lots of races and classes, and every imaginable fantasy MMORPG feature up to and including player housing. I'm just not sure it will be any fun.

Something completely different is promised for Pirates of the Burning Sea. No more elves and orcs, in this game you get to play a pirate. Presumably out in June 2007. This is a big unknown, the developer Flying Lab Software hasn't got any previous experience with MMORPGs. As every player controls a complete ship, and combat is ship-to-ship based, the gameplay is probably much different than what you're used to from character-based MMORPGs. I sure hope that this will be good, it would be fun to play something completely different for a change.

Did you notice that most players solo all of the first part of a MMORPG? So did Funcom, the developers of Age of Conan, to be released Q2 2007. And as you solo the first part anyway, they just split their MMORPG into two halves, and turned the first half into a single-player game. So you play a classical single-player RPG, and at the end you are released into a massively multiplayer world. Interesting concept. Other major improvements promised over previous MMORPGs are the more interactive combat system, where you will actually need to target zones of the enemy's body, instead of just starting auto-combat and going for a cup of coffee. Would be great if it worked, but could be totally horrible if it gets messed up by lag. Unlike lets say WoW, Age of Conan will also have collision detection, that is you can't just run through another player. That could do a lot for realism, but you'd have to find a way to prevent some players standing in a doorway and blocking the access to the bank or something other important. I have no information how good or bad AoC is. The only thing that scares me a bit is that it is heavily PvP-centric.

A more PvE-centric game will be Lord of the Rings Online, from Turbine, expected for "spring" 2007. This one has my toes tingling. Turbine isn't my favorite MMORPG company, they produced too many bad or mediocre games. But who wouldn't want to walk on Middle Earth? And surprisingly leaks from beta testers seem to indicate that the game is more fun than you'd expect from the Turbine label. The difficulty will be to find the right balance between playability and being true to the Lord of the Rings license.

Also expected for 2007, with no release date given, is Tabula Rasa. This game is playing in a science fiction setting, and will presumably resemble more a shooter game than a classic MMORPG. Lead developer is Richard Garriott (aka Lord British), of Ultima Online fame. Personally I'm not a big fan of science fiction, but I can see how the combination of shooter elements with a MMORPG could make a great game. Could. Not sure that Tabula Rasa will be it, but there is always hope.

And that isn't an exhaustive list of the games of 2007. There are a couple of other ones, like Gods and Heroes, playing in ancient Rome. And half a dozen Korean games. Will any of these games kick World of Warcraft from its throne? Probably not. But I kept the game that is most likely to gain a solid market share from WoW for last:

Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is also announced for 2007. Although honestly I wouldn't be surprised if it slipped into 2008. Developer is EA Mythic, previously Mythic Entertainment, whose claim to fame is having produced Dark Age of Camelot, which by many people is still regarded as the best PvP MMORPG ever. And just like DAoC basically took Everquest and added good PvP to it, WAR is trying to take WoW and add good PvP to it. Whatever you might think about developing a game whose screenshots looks suspiciously similar to World of Warcraft, and has the familiar dwarves, orcs, and elves, you can't help but wonder how successful WoW could have been if it had better PvP. In the end World of Warcraft came to its current prominence by being a better Everquest. It wouldn't be surprising if WAR would beat it by being a better WoW.

BC Journal - 26-October-2006

I'm still planning to fully explore jewelcrafting. So I skilled up mining with my undead priest in the beta to 300, and used the metals gained that way, plus all the stuff I brought over from the real servers, to skill up jewelcrafting to 275. Technically I am not stuck there, but to progress I need a lot more rare gems, which I probably can only get by extracting them from thorium ore. Sigh, it seems I'll be spending a lot of time mining radioactive thorium before I get jewelcrafting to 300.

To change my mind from mining, I joined a group for the blood furnace part of Hellfire Citadel. That place is still bugged with flying orcs. Unfortunately an even more serious bug makes it impossible to kill the final boss, unless you manage to do so on the first try. If you wipe, like we did, the boss attacks you too early on the next fight, and can't even be targeted, causing a certain wipe again and again.

But all wasn't bad, the second boss dropped my first socketed item: Bloody surgeon's gloves. They have +18 sta, +20 int, +7 spi, and +31 on healing. And besides these already not bad stats, they have two sockets, a red and a blue one. So I went to Thralmar and bought socketable gems at the jewel vendor there. I don't know if that vendor will remain there in the release version, or whether jewelcrafters will be the only source of such gems in the expansion. Anyway, you socket the gems by shift-rightclicking on the item, which makes a window pop up. Then you can transfer gems from your inventory to the item's sockets. I chose a +13 healing red gem and a +2 mana per 5 seconds blue gem. By using the gems of the same color as the sockets, I gained an additional +3 spirit bonus. If I had wanted to use lets say a +6 int yellow gem instead, I would have foregone the +3 spirit bonus. Gems you socket can't be removed, but they can be replaced by other gems, which destroys the first gem.

But probably the best discovery of the evening was that the meeting stones now have a summoning functionality. I'm not quite sure how many people you need to summon, but if you are in a group, standing next to a meeting stone, and one group member is far away, you can target the group member and click on the meeting stone. That opens a portal just like a warlocks portal, through which the group member can be summmoned. Nifty! I just hope the LFG interface becomes more popular in the expansion, in the beta which is comparatively empty players don't use it much. But with an improved LFG interface *and* a way to summon people, starting a 5-man dungeon group could become a lot easier.

Safer Windows

Bill Gates is in the business of selling, among other things, operating systems for personal computers. While he is quite successful at that, a lot of the code of these operating systems is based on older code and design dating back many years ago. And some years ago personal computers were just that, personal, and not connected to any sort of network. So the operating systems designed for these non-networked computers are generally not very good at networking, and have more security leaks than the Afghan border.

Unsurprisingly Mr. Gates, having woken up to the reality of the internet, is since some time rather busy making his operating systems safer. For the current Windows XP there is now a Windows Defender antispyware program available for free from Microsoft. And, if you believe the announcements, next years Windows Vista will be a lot safer than any previous Windows versions.

Good news? Not if you profited handsomely from the Windows security flaws. Symantec and McAfee, two of the biggest providers of security software, are claiming that Microsoft is committing anti-competitive behavior by fixing those safety holes themselves, and not giving other companies access to the kernel-level security features of Vista. Doh!

There have been years of lawsuits about whether Microsoft had the right to add features like media players and web browsers to their operating system, with mixed results. But the one thing that a company making an operating system *must* be allowed to do is to make it safe. Can you imagine a judge forcing Microsoft to leave open security holes in their operating system, just so that companies making security software still have a market? If Mr. Gates manages to bring out an operating system which is immune to spyware, viruses, and hackers, more power to him.

I recently uninstalled the McAfee security center from all of my computers, because it became more and more bossy, not wanting to let me do even perfectly safe things, like transfering files between my computers. I do have a hardware firewall in my router, and the Windows software firewall, so a third firewall really isn't necessary. Against viruses I now use the free Avira AntiVir software, which isn't any worse than the $100 per year McAfee software. And I use another free software, AdAware against spyware, although I might try out the new free Microsoft Windows Defender. In combination with some basic common sense rules, like "don't click on anything in your email" and "don't be stupid", that is more than enough security for a home computer. Worst case scenario? I spend half a day formating my hard drive and reinstalling everything. I keep my data backed up, and don't store anything really secret on my computer, so why would I need expensive and cumbersome security software?

Don't believe the panic, most of what you hear about how dangerous the internet is, is hype spread by companies selling that software. Even the BBC honeypot, which they set up specifically to show how dangerous the internet is, required the journalists to click on a lot of spam messages, voluntarily installing software, before the computer became so clogged with adware and spyware that it stopped running correctly. If they had have the Windows firewall running and not clicked on any spam, their computer would have been perfectly safe. But of course that wouldn't have been such a good story.

Patch, what patch?

A bit more than the usual confusion on the World of Warcraft forums. Eyonix hinted about a soon to be released content patch, before the holidays, followed by an EU blue name stating there would be no patch 1.13. Now Tseric tries to explain: "What it seems that people are expecting is another content patch that is independant of the expansion. More specifically, a lot of folks seem to be looking for a free content patch, should they choose not to purchase the expansion.

This is not happening. Therefore, the EU CM is correct in saying there will be no 1.13. We will not be patching the original version of WoW any further.

What we are doing is upgrading the game client to 2.0. This is what happens in an expansion.

The patch 2.0 is going to prepare for the expansion. We will release more specifics about what is in that at a later time. For now, consider it as the patch that allows players who don't have the expansion to keep playing with players who do. If we were to fully upgrade to expansion, players who did not get the expansion on release day would be shafted until such a time as they upgraded. We do not want this, so we have a prepatory patch which will bridge between the two versions of WoW.

Therefore, patch 2.0 will be released shortly prior to the release of expansion boxes. There will be no patch 1.13."

Basically the Burning Crusade expansion contains content which is exclusive to people who buy the expansion pack, but also changes to the game which everybody will get, whether he buys the expansion or not. Among these are the new honor system and the talent trees. Makes sense, how would you for example want to have everybody with the expansion on the new honor system while keeping the old honor system for the others? So apparently there will be a patch before christmas, it will be called 2.0 (and not 1.13), and it will already patch in the new honor system and talents and whatever other general rules changes the Burning Crusade expansion brings.

Sounds good to me. I wouldn't mind them patching in the new honor system *today*, the earlier it comes, the better. And as the new talent trees have 51 points to the top, and you already have 51 talent points at level 60, having the talent trees early wouldn't hurt either. Makes for a more exciting christmas than another repetition of the same old Grandfather Winter christmas quests. And by splitting up the rules-change patch from the expansion content addition, the servers might have a better change of handling the traffic.

How to blog

Sane Mike, in a recent comment, asked about blogging: "How do you actually do it? Where do you get fresh ideas from every day? How long does it take to write? How do make the time to write in between gaming, working and home life? Does it ever become a chore? If you do feel like spilling the beans and letting us in on your blog writing secrets I think that would make a very interesting article." Now it happens that I recently got confronted with the question on how this blog started, so my head is filled with thoughts about my blog, and this might be a good time to write them down. And maybe they answer some of Mike's questions.

For me, blogging started as a solution of a technical problem: archiving my written words. I already wrote a lot on different game message boards. But game forums usually are badly or not at all archived. And if you switch from one game to another, you often switch from one message board to another, and you end up starting over writing things for people who never heard your name, with a "post count" of zero. Then there are problems of ownership, on a game forum your threads can be locked or deleted. A blog solves all of these problems, giving you a place where you are (more or less) the owner, where your written texts are archived, and where you can keep your writing place even if you switch to a new game.

So in my case the writing was there first, and the blog came afterwards. If you never wrote on the internet, if you have no practice at all expressing yourself in writing in a public place, starting a blog from scratch would be a *lot* harder.

Where do I get the ideas from? Mostly from playing, but if that fails, from reading other blogs, game forums, game magazines, press releases, and other relevant material. My secret is that I mainly write for myself. *Not* thinking of what your readers expect helps a lot when blogging. A blog is as much a diary as it is a public document. As soon as you start worrying about meeting a certain writing standard, or having to cover a certain subject, writing block sets in. There are millions of blogs out there which get a lot less hits than this one not because their authors write any worse than I do, but because they don't write enough. If you know a good blog which is only updated once a month, chances are that you'll soon forget about it. Instead you visit my blog every day (I hope), because there is *always* something new there. And once a month I manage to write something really great. But the not-so-great everyday writing is necessary to keep the blog alive. And sometimes I get lucky, and in spite of a blog entry being not well thought out and less than perfectly written, I get a very interesting discussion going in the comments section. That adds a lot to the entertainment value of the blog, and helps me finding new ideas to write about.

How do I make the time? Writing this blog doesn't take as much time as you might think. I type 50 words per minute, which is slower than a professional secretary, but faster than most people. And I type directly from my head, I rarely first do a draft or something. I certainly do a number of spelling mistakes, and I don't even use a spell-checker, but spelling on the internet being what it is, nobody really notices.

Blogging rarely becomes a chore. There are days when I'm too busy to write a long text. But usually I can get away with just writing something short, or link to something. Yesterday I had a rather busy day, but Blizzard's announcement of the Burning Crusade release date, quickly copied and pasted, saved the day for my blog. And I sometimes have more ideas for articles than I want to write on that day, so I just blot down the idea on a notepad, and write the blog entry on another day when I can't think of anything.

I don't think there are really "secrets" to blogging. There are some skills which make it a lot easier, like the aforementioned typing skill, or general writing skills. But in general it is a "build it and they will come" affair. I'm still surprised how many people are reading this. I believe they come because I write original content, original not in the sense that these are especially deep or novel thoughts, but in the sense that I write my own thoughts down, instead of just linking to other people's content. Hyperlinks are a wonderful invention, but there are far too many people trying to generate traffic with nothing but links, and not much own content. If you create a blog, and not a "portal", you will profit from that, regardless about what you write. Other people will link to your content, suddenly your blog appears in Google searches, and then the page views come rolling in. Everybody has his favorite subject, something he is able to talk passionately about. You just need to transform that passionate speech into written words. If that passion is something exotic (like massively multiplayer online role-playing games) as opposed to something mundane like politics, you have a reasonable chance to make a name for yourself with blogging, whether that was your original intent or not.

WoW Journal - 25-October-2006

Not a typo, this is a journal of "regular" World of Warcraft adventures, not Burning Crusade beta adventures. Now that the expansion has been postponed to January 2007, I don't want to spend all of that time playing the beta, and then already go bored by its content into the release. Especially since everything I do there will reset, and I have to do it all again. The other important aspect is that I would like to stay close to my guild, raiding with them, keeping in touch, and not vanish into the beta for 3 months.

On the other hand last weekend I did three BWL raids, Friday night, and Saturday and Sunday afternoon. The Friday night raid never started, but counting all the time together I spent 12 hours in BWL, which is too much for one place on one weekend. So I'm trying to split up my raiding activity a bit better over the week.

Fortunately for me, yesterday night there was a raid on our calendar which was especially interesting to me: second half of Zul'Gurub. I have done the first half, killing all the animal-aspect priests of Hakkar, many times. But somehow I never was in a raid killing Jin'do and Hakkar. So a raid doing only the bloodlord Mandakir, Jin'do, and Hakkar, was exactly what I was looking for as a divertisement from BWL raiding. Due to our lack of priests it was easy to get invited into the raid. Having two different "sizes" of raids is sometimes problematic for a guild: If you have enough people on weekends for 40-man raids, you probably have too many for one 20-man raid, but also probably not all the classes necessary to make two good 20-man raids. You end up creating one raid, and having some people unable to participate. I always feel slightly embarrassed that I rarely have to sit out a raid due to my class. But then again, it is obvious which classes are more in demand than others for groups and raids. And if you insist on playing a class where there are too many off, you have to live with the consequences.

So we started the raid with not quite perfect, but reasonable, mix of character classes. Only 2 priests, but both of them experienced raiders (excuse me for saying that about myself) in good gear. As you would expect the raid for a Zul'Gurub raid in a guild which is half through BWL, we had a mix of experienced people who were there for practice and fun, together with some less experienced people who could use the training and the loot. That went very well. We killed all three remaining bosses on the first try, with not a single wipe, and in just 2 hours. Yay! My first Hakkar kill!

Then I got extremely lucky, Hakkar dropped the Touch of Chaos, an epic wand with an awe-inspiring 82 damage per second, plus a +18 bonus to spell damage and healing. And the people who had more DKP than me already had it, or something equally good, while the less experienced raiders in the group obviously had less DKP than me, so I received the wand. Yay! My first epic wand! I used to wield the Antenna of Invigoration from AQ20, but the new wand has a whopping 10 dps more. Even in the Burning Crusade beta I haven't seen a wand as good as that yet. As my soloing strategy as priest is very much wand-based, this was a very good find for me. It is unlikely that I find anything better before being quite a bit into the expansion, and that is now months away.

Recently I have been quite lucky with epics. My DKP are dropping, which isn't easy in our system, as it tends to give out more points than taking away. I'm sure that will be balanced by other periods where I don't get anything for some time, but I don't mind. The priests in my guild are currently circumventing the DKP system, by having a gentleman's agreement to stop rolling for tier 2 priest items before every priest in the raid has three of them. Our DKP system by itself would be more likely to first equip one priest with lots of tier 2 items, before slowly trickling down to the next priest in line. But we felt that for the Transcendence set it would be better for everybody if we spread it out more evenly, and get every priest the 3 pieces needed for the very nice 15% mana regeneration set bonus.

In fact I would be perfectly happy to go into the Burning Crusade expansion with the gear I have right now, 5 prophecy, 3 transcendence, the Will of Arlokk, and now the epic wand. Every further improvement is just for fun. If I continue raiding Molten Core, I'll probably even end up with Benediction one day, even if I am not a big fan of that staff. But if everybody else has it, I'll take it before throwing the eye away. My necklace, and the two rings I'm wearing, are still blue, but I haven't even seen any epic items I'd want to replace them with. I'm not really searching websites for how to improve my gear, I prefer to go raiding where I like, and get surprised by the result. Yesterday that worked, the wand was certainly a nice surprise.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Article submissions

I got a very strange e-mail, an anonymous "article submission". Two pages of text, neatly paragraphed. Correct spelling and grammar. Written in a newspaper article style, the text could have appeared in any newspaper without appearing out of place. I'm not going to post that text. Because while the form is perfect, the content is pure drivel.

The article is labeled "Adventurers Wanted: Disabled Need Not Apply", and claims that Blizzard is preventing disabled persons to play by removing macro functionality from World of Warcraft. In reality the only thing that Blizzard did was removing some very small part of the macro language, preventing macros that made intelligent decisions, like Decursive, as well as making it harder to program bots. But the article writes it up in a way as if Blizzard removed all macro functionality, and did that only to prevent disabled people from playing the game. And the author even gets George W. Bush into his argument that Blizzard can't do that.

I was wondering where the article came from, a reply e-mail asking for some sort of name or identification didn't get me a response. I have a faint suspicion that this was written by somebody in the business of using bots to farm gold. Because I can see how removing a macros ability to make intelligent decisions can hurt the bot industry. And this being people with lots of money, they could have afforded some hack to write up a text that looks good and defends their position with fake political correctness.

Fact is that the change to the macro language does absolutely nothing to the interaction of disabled people with World of Warcraft. If they can move the mouse and use the keyboard sufficiently to just move around, the existence or not of intelligent macros doesn't make any difference to them. The weak and the helpless have it hard enough without being used as a facade for spurious argument.

I don't generally accept "article submissions". This isn't a newspaper, this is a blog. If you can write articles, open up your own blog. If you send me a link to your blog, I will read it, and *if I like it* I might post a blog entry with a link to it. I also regularly write articles based on suggestions from my readers. Your e-mails and comments are always welcome. But please don't try to use me as publishing platform for some pseudo-political game article.

Burning Crusade now officially postponed

Blizzard finally released a statement regarding the release date of the Burning Crusade expansion. It says:

"IRVINE, Calif. -- Blizzard Entertainment® today announced that the release date for World of Warcraft®: The Burning Crusade™, the highly anticipated expansion for World of Warcraft, will be in January 2007. By adding a few extra weeks to the development cycle beyond its original target date, Blizzard will be able to extend the closed beta test and further refine the new content that will ship with the game.

“We appreciate the enthusiasm surrounding World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, and we’re excited about putting the finishing touches on all of the new content,” said Mike Morhaime, president and cofounder of Blizzard Entertainment. “We feel confident that the extra time spent polishing the game will result in the high-quality experience that our players expect and deserve.”

Blizzard began the closed-beta phase of testing on World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade earlier this month. The January 2007 release window will allow extra time for current beta testers to participate in the final stages of development and continue providing valuable feedback.

Further information on specific worldwide release dates, pricing, and other details will be announced in the near future."

Well, I don't blame them. This adds 2 months to the development of the expansion set, and by what I can see in the beta, the time will be needed. Kudos for not giving in to the marketing guys, but insisting to release TBC only when it is ready.

Monday, October 23, 2006

America blames China for capitalism

One of the best articles I've read since a while on real-money trade (RMT) and gold farming is unfortunately in German. Very balanced description of the issue, and all the related problems, from exploitation of Chinese young people to in-game inflation.

But the really remarkable part of that article is where the author notes how funny it is when American World of Warcraft players blame Chinese World of Warcraft players for ruining the game with capitalism. True, it has a certain irony to it. American capitalism conquered the world, and is still fighting hard against anything from communism to the welware state world wide. And now the ex-communists come and show us how to extend capitalism to the areas of our lives where we didn't have it yet. Makes you wonder if it wasn't better to have some areas where the common good beats pure capitalism.

As the author also remarks, RMT exists because of first world demand, not solely because of third world supply. I always liked the Penny Arcade take on RMT, where the Chinese guys wins with his argument of "$50 dollar u get epic mount". As long as people are rich enough and willing to spend $50 on an epic mount, but unwilling to farm the many hours it would take to do so in-game, the goldfarmers will continue to exist, Chinese or otherwise.

The damage that RMT does to the online worlds is that it destroys the illusion, the suspension of disbelief. Like a reverse Mastercard advertisement, riding through the Barrens with an epic mount might be priceless; but if you just count it as $15 for a month of WoW and $50 for the gold for the epic mount, the experience appears to be a lot more mundane. Even the player who farmed the gold for his epic mount himself starts thinking of it as a $50 vehicle, instead of a great achievement and status symbol. Even if deep inside we are aware that virtual goods aren't a great achievement in life, we would still prefer to think so and keep the illusion up.

BC Journal - 23-October-2006

As I spent about 12 hours this weekend in Blackwing Lair on the real servers, I didn't get very far in the Burning Crusade beta. But I did make it to level 61, and I had a lot of fun doing so. From level 60 to 61 you need 415,000 xp, which is nearly double the 210,000 xp you need from 59 to 60. But each kill gives about 500 xp, or 1,000 xp if you have rest bonus like I did, and each quest gives about 7,000 xp. I didn't consider the leveling time to be unreasonably long up to now. I'm leveling slowly, but that is because I'm playing more like a tourist, spending more time exploring than concentrating on levels.

The beta isn't exactly crowded. I wonder how Hellfire Peninsula will play when it goes live on the real servers, and a thousand or more players hit the zone. In the beta finding a mob to kill for your quest usually isn't a problem. I sometimes had to postpone a quest because too many other people were killing my mobs, but I usually quickly found another quest to do where there was less competition. When fighting the mobs in the evil orc fort of Zeth'Gor, my problem was actually the orcs respawning too fast. By the time I had cleared out a path to my target, they already started respawning again.

The most fun quest I did up to now was two missions in series where I was riding on manticore (whose flight path I couldn't control), and had to throw bombs on some demons and their teleporters. Not really a dangerous quest, as the demons can't hit you up on the flying mount. But immense fun, especially the second part where you have to throw the bombs in a way to kill a certain number of demons.

The least fun quest looked harmless enough, a level 61 quest to kill demons, this time on foot. But something was horribly wrong with the quest. I assume the mobs and the quests should have been marked as elite, but they weren't. So while other level 60 mobs hit your for 100 points of damage, the demons at this spot hit you for 400 points (and the level 62 non-elite boss mob for 700 points of damage) per hit. Absolutely impossible to solo, and very frustrating. I assume this isn't working as intended, there are quite a number of bugged quests. For example the number of demons to kill in the bomber mission was different in the text than in the short list of things to do. And I also got a quest which told me to go to some place and meet "XXX". Quest was level 1, grey, and there was no "XXX" at that spot, the quest is obviously just not finished yet.

Drops continue to be good, although I haven't found any more stuff useful for my priest. I found a green random trash mob one-handed sword, which at 45 dps was better than the weapons my troll warrior has. Too bad it was "of the eagle", the int bonus isn't exactly useful for warriors. The funniest drop was a grey item, a two-handed mace called "The stoppable force". Joke on the people who grinded AV reputation to exalted to get the "The unstoppable force" two-handed mace. Blizzard continues to add little jokes like that to the game, somebody told me there was a blond blood elf named Haris Pilton in one of the cities.

The lore of the Outlands is nice, and well told with quests. I just hope the quest series that leads to you discovering an unknown friendly orc tribe in the Outlands will have some follow-ups later. I can also recommend the guided city tour from Khadgar's servant through Shattrath, which explains a lot of the draenei and blood elf lore.

I've visited the second dungeon in the Outlands, the Blood Furnace in Hellfire Citadel. Another short dungeon with 3 bosses, slightly harder than the Rampart. The only annoying thing was that some of the orcs in there were bugged, and were flying motionless through the air, instead of being animated and walking. As they kept flying when dead, and there was a room with lots of them, this got quite confusing. No luck with drops for me there, only weapons and armor I couldn't use. But I did get the key to the third dungeon, although that one is of much higher level.

I moved my troll warrior to the beta server as well, loaded with crafting materials for jewelcrafting. Now I just need to train mining a bit more and collect lots of thorium to continue. The other materials, like gems, noble metals, and exotic stuff like different sorts of mojo I packed a lot of. So while I was skilling up mining with my priest in Tanaris (good place for mithril), I passed by the Caverns of Time and decided to visit them. You can enter the main area now, which used to be blocked by a nasty dragon. But I couldn't get into any of the three instances. The third instance gave a "this instance isn't ready yet" error message, the second one you can only enter after finishing the first, and the first instance you need to do a pre-quest for. And that quest seems to be level 64, at least the quest giver showed a grey exclamation mark at level 61, and the meeting stone in front of the dungeon said level 64-70. The place looked to be fun, but I guess I'll have to wait before I can explore it further.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Transcendence set bonus

After another cancelled Blackwing Lair raid on Friday night, we had more luck this afternoon, and got enough people for a BWL raid together. And Razorgore was so friendly as to drop the Bindings of Trancendence for me. So with the Halo from Ony and the Leggings from Ragnaros, I now have 3 pieces of the priest tier 2 set. And that gives me a very nice additional 15% mana regeneration when casting bonus.

Together with the meditation talent I know regenerate 30% of mana even when casting, which is nice for a raid healer, who often is spamming heals through all the fight, if there aren't enough healers for a healing rotation. According to the Theorycraft addon I now regenerate 45 mana per tick while casting, and 115 mana per tick otherwise.

With the 3 pieces of Transcendence and 5 of Prophecy I have, I am now in a position where I don't really "need" any more gear before the Burning Crusade comes out. I'd be perfectly happy staying like this until the other priests in the guild are as well equipped. After the expansion comes out, I'll probably replace most of that gear rather quickly, with greens and blues from BC. Otherwise I get the feeling that people will point with fingers at me, saying "look, what a n00b, he is wearing epics!". :)

Friday, October 20, 2006

Shorter dungeons

The instanced dungeons of the Burning Crusade expansion are a lot shorter than the dungeons of WoW 1.0. Tigole said that "Our goal was to keep most 5-man instance runs to 1-1:30 with a few exceptions." That is certainly true for the first dungeon I played in the Burning Crusade beta, Hellfire Rampart. And I really like the idea that you can join a group for a dungeon run without being forced to stay with them for 3+ hours.

Now I wonder what length the raid dungeons of the Burning Crusade will have. I appears that there are a lot of them, which suggests that they as well will be shorter. Wouldn't it be nice to have raids of 2 to 3 hours? With the raid cap being lowered to 25 players, shorter raid dungeons would make sense. You get raids that are easier to organize and don't last 4-6 hours. If you absolutely want to raid for more hours, you can always do several raid dungeons in series.

I can't help the feeling that the "raiding guilds" of next year will look and feel considerably different than the classic raiding guilds of today. The transition will be challenging, and I'm a bit afraid of the possibilities for guild drama. But in the end I think I'd like raiding which is easier to organize and shorter.

BC Journal - 20-October-2006

My attempts at jewelcrafting made a big move forward, just to then come to a complete standstill. I started the evening at 148 jewelcrafting skill, and managed to make the next 2 points with a bit of mining and luck in prospecting exactly the gems I needed. At skill 150 I learned to make a mithril filigree, which got my skill up to nearly 190. Then with some gold and truesilver items made I advanced to 215, where I got totally stuck. The only two orange items left that I could craft either need 4 flasks of mojo or 4 vision dust. Which wouldn't be a problem to buy on the AH on a real server. But the test server AH is basically empty, and as everybody either has a low-level blood elf / draenei or a level 60+ character, there is no trade in mid-level items at all. I would need at least 20 flasks of mojo to get to the next recipe at 220, which would mean killing over 200 level 40ish trolls. Not something that I consider doing anytime soon. I think there are too few jewelcrafting recipes, I got stuck several times with only one or two orange recipes and one or two yellow recipes, and that makes advancing your skill very difficult.

In other BC beta news, I downloaded a 300 MB patch which added many of the missing outland graphics. My level 60 water now has a proper icon. And the level 65 water now regenerates 7200 mana, much better than the 5580 before the patch. Not that I can use it yet, I'm still level 60. But I did make some progress doing quests and advancing towards level 61. One Horde quest series ended in giving me a staff with +33 stamina, +22 intellect, and an astounding +80 to healing and spell damage. And that is a green item from a level 60 quest.

Unfortunately the patch also added a major bug, messing up my inventory. Items which I had sold or destroyed previously kept popping back up in my inventory, and continued to do so every time I relogged or zoned. That got me some metal bars, ores, and gems that I had already used for crafting back, but also lots of worthless crafted low-level jewelry. Most annoyingly my Horde priest had spent some time collecting small clams from murlocs to get small lustrous pearls, and repeatedly found his inventory swamped with clams. And these were bugged, empty, and I had to right-click on the all to make them disappear, without getting any contents.

That is a rather serious bug. A MMORPG absolutely relies on you finding yourself back in the state where you logged off when you log back on. A bug that adds items to your inventory doesn't sound that grave, but what if the next time it makes items from your inventory disappear?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

No changes to old content

Just a link to a post from Tigole on what happens to the old content, places like Molten Core, when the Burning Crusade expansion comes out: Nothing. "We don't have any immediate plans to change that content or the gear from those zones. ... And those who have never seen those zones, can experience them for the first time with an increased level cap. ... For now, the old raids will remain 40 person. ... For now, the reset timers will remain the same."

I think this is great. Of course you can argue whether it makes any sense to go to Molten Core with 40 level 70 players. But the good thing is that you *can* do it. Just like you now can go and farm the Deadmines with a level 60 character.

Even if the Molten Core loot won't be much good to a level 70 character, enabling "easy mode" raiding could be interesting. For me it takes the stress away from my guild trying to beat BWL. If we don't manage now, we can always go later. The fact that the end boss of Naxxramas is probably too hard for us to beat at 60 doesn't mean that I will never be able to see him. And guild who never even managed to go to Molten Core, because they couldn't get 40 people together, can visit it at a higher level and with less people. The level 60 raid dungeons become training grounds and tourist attractions, instead of being the one path to progress.

WoW realm queues and server age

If you ever tried to log on to one of the more populated realms (servers) of World of Warcraft during prime time, you know them: Waiting queues, telling you that you are player number 163 waiting in line to log on, and giving you an estimate that this might take 24 minutes. Apparently these queues have been put in place by Blizzard not only to prevent overloading the servers, but also due to game design reasons. So ideally the queues prevent not only lag, but also zones becoming overcrowded, with too many people hunting for the same mobs.

Of course for that to work you have to assume some sort of player distribution over zones. Letting, lets say, 3,000 players on the server only prevents lag and overcrowding if these 3,000 players distribute themselves over the world in a "normal" fashion. The world event of the gates of Ahn'qiraij opening was a good example of how that could fail, because a much larger percentage of players gathered in Silithus than normal, causing horrible lag.

So queue or no queue, on the first days after the Burning Crusade expansion goes live, we can expect lag and overcrowding problems, because people will be concentrated in 3 zones: The draenei and blood elf newbie zones, and Hellfire Peninsula for all level 60 players. I thought I could escape overcrowding by going to an instance, but that might have been optimistic. On the beta server I already got the message once that I couldn't enter the Blood Furnace instant, because there were already too many groups in that instance. So there seems to be a limit on the number of players the instance server can handle.

But what I am even more afraid of is having to wait in a queue. Blizzard will raise the cap of how many players are allowed per server by 25%. That will probably be sufficient for the latest and newest servers, but I doubt it will suffice for the older servers.

By the time the Burning Crusade comes out, the oldest World of Warcraft servers will be over 2 years old (3 months less for the oldest European servers). During these 2 years a lot of people stopped playing WoW, but they still have inactive characters on the servers. Blizzard keeps inactive characters indefinitely. So the older the server, the more inactive characters accumulate. The Burning Crusade will most certainly cause a large number of players to resubscribe, like after every major content patch. So the number of people trying to get online on an older server will be much larger than the number of people trying to get online on a newer server.

As my main character, the Horde priest, is playing on one of the oldest European servers, part of the original batch of servers that were available on the first day of World of Warcraft in Europe, I'm afraid that I will run into major queue problems. That is especially annoying when you finally get in, but then get disconnected for some reason. Sometimes the game will allow you to bypass the queue and reconnect immediately. But we had several raids where somebody who lost connection only came back 20 minutes or more later, due to having to wait in the queue. These queues might get 1 hour or more long after the expansion comes out. Not a very appealing prospect.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

BC Journal - 19-October-2006

I moved my Alliance priest to the Burning Crusade beta servers as well. Not only does that give me more opportunity to play around with different aspects of playing a priest in the expansion, but he also came loaded with far more materials for jewelcrafting. That plan had limited success. I managed to get my jewelcrafting to 148, but I'm stuck again, and even to get that far I had to do some more mining. And that's with loading every available slot with metals and gems. I slowly begin to realize that it won't be possible to skill up jewelcrafting to 300 just materials stockpiled on just one character, you will need to use at least one other character as mule to store all the stuff. The good thing in testing it in the beta is that now I know that I'll need exotic stuff like Soul Dust, mana potions, and large fangs to skill up jewelcrafting, and can prepare better for the real transition to WoW 2.0.

Both my priests on their regular servers are holy/discipline spec. On the beta server the Horde priest (who has lots of +healing epics) is 0/0/51 shadow spec, while the Alliance priest is 5/46/0 holy spec. Both priests visited the Hellfire Rampart, the first 5-man dungeon of the Outlands, and both healed just fine. To put that into context: The Alliance priest, who doesn't even have more than 2 tier 0 armor pieces is able to heal in the first instance because he specialized in healing. The Horde priest can get away with shadow spec, because what he lacks in holy talents he makes up with gear that gives him +400 on healing spells.

So having raided and gathered epics *does* help, I certainly wouldn't call it wasted time. But if your level 60 doesn't have more than the gear he arrived with at level 60, he can still continue playing, as long as he distributes his talent points wisely. I might move my troll warrior, who is wearing tier 0 gear, to the beta server as well, because the effect of gear is probably different for other classes. But as far as I can judge it, people leveling up to 60 after the Burning Crusade comes out won't be forced to spend a lot of time at 60 gearing up before they can move on to the Outlands.

In a way that is problematic. If Hellfire Rampart isn't much harder than Scholomance, but gives much, much better loot, who will ever visit Scholomance again? Or Stratholme, LBRS, Dire Maul, etc.? I still like the idea of level 65 to 70 groups one day visiting Molten Core, Blackwing Lair, Ahn'Qiraij or Naxxramas on "easy mode". But I'm not really sure that will happen. Maybe it is just that my "reason to raid" is just wanting to have fought the boss once, not minding the loot or the achievement. But the people who are interested in the loot won't want to go to BWL at 70, and there isn't much achievement in killing Nefarion at that level.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Beta schizophrenia

Do you play a MMORPG just for the adventure, the fun and experience of playing? Or do you play it for the character development, the virtual rewards? That question normally doesn't matter, because you get the fun and the reward at the same time. But by having copied my character to the beta test servers, I suddenly find myself in a situation where I have to chose one over the other.

Playing on the beta server is fun, because most of the things I see there are new and exciting. I'm not saying the the content of the Burning Crusade is better than that of the old World of Warcraft, but after over 2 years in the game I've seen pretty much everything in the old world. The BC beta gives me new zones, new dungeons, new loot, a new tradeskill to play around with, new mobs to fight, and many other new things. But whatever experience, levels, and skill I gain, whatever gear I acquire, will be gone when the Burning Crusade goes live and the beta closes down.

I told you how my priest on the beta server learned jewelcrafting, got a new staff, bound in Shattrath, and changed to shadow specialization. Last night my guild on the "real" server had an Onyxia raid scheduled, and as we are recently often short on healers, I logged on and helped out in that raid. And so I played the same priest without jewelcrafting, with his old staff, bound in Undercity, and still on holy specialization. I felt as if I suffered from a split personality, a clear case of beta schizophrenia.

This weekend my guild has several BWL raids scheduled, and I will try to participate in as many of them as I can. And over the coming weeks I will try to balance beta test playing with real server playing. If the Burning Crusade is really delayed until next year, I might even level up my shaman on the real server from currently 42 to 60. But more importantly I will keep playing with my guild, raiding several times per week. It doesn't matter if the only loot I get will be replaced by Burning Crusade loot shortly after the expansion comes out. It is the social aspects of playing together in a guild that is important. And if I level my shaman, or improve my priests mining skill, or get the third piece of Transcendence for the set bonus, those are rewards that I will be able to keep. I will certainly also level my beta priest a bit, just to get deeper into the Outlands, but if I spent all my time reaching level 70 fast, I'll just have to do it all over again when the beta ends.

Playing the same character in two incarnations on two servers will be a bit confusing, but I'll have to get used to it. I don't want to give up either of two.

Why do we raid?

This risks getting both philosophical and controversial. But with the Burning Crusade expansion approaching, the daily life of the average raiding guild is going to change dramatically for a while, both before and after the expansion comes out. And the reason for that is while it is possible to get 40 people gathered into a raid, it is unlikely that they are all there for the same reason. And with the Burning Crusade offering some viable alternatives for some of the motivations for raiding, people are reacting differently to the prospect of the expansion.

Some people like the social aspects of raiding. Hanging out with your online friends in a shared adventure. Helping the guild as a whole, without looking at your own advantage. For example I still participate often in Onyxia raids, although I already have the Halo of Transcendence, and there is no drop from Onyxia which I still need. But obviously I couldn't have gotten the Halo without my guild, so I find it natural that I'm still there helping others getting their tier 2 headpiece or whatever else they want from Onyxia.

Another important aspect of raiding is exploration, seeing new bosses, learning new tactics. Unfortunately progress there tends to be rather slow, it is not every day that you see a new boss. A different motivation, but which sometimes gets confused with the exploration aspect, is the feeling of achievement when your guild manages to kill a boss for the first time. Whether you do it out of curiosity, or out of pride, you end up advancing from boss to boss in the classic raid circuit, from ZG to MC to BWL to Naxxramas, with AQ thrown in as side branch.

Many people are motivated to go raiding because of character development, the wish to increase the power of your character further by equipping him with epics. This might not be the prime reason for everybody, but it is at least a part of the motivation for nearly everybody. Getting an epic is part of a classical effort and reward cycle, where the effort of raiding gets you a reward, and the reward motivates you to further effort. Pretty much a primal instinct, you can train rats to push a lever to get a food reward, and Blizzard training people to go raiding by feeding them epics works the same way.

And lastly some people raid because there is nothing else to do at level 60. Well, there is farming, grinding reputation, or PvP. But for many people these other options are even less appealing. Raiding is the "least bad" way to continue playing at level 60.

Of course you can't easily put people into drawers, sorting them by motivation. In general people have a mix of several of these reasons to go raiding, in varying degrees.

Now Burning Crusade comes and shakes up these reasons to raid. If you were just raiding because you had nothing else to do, the day you get the expansion means you won't have to raid any more before you hit level 70, which might take weeks or even months, depending on how much you play. If you were raiding mostly because of the loot, you probably already know that the Burning Crusade has much better loot right from the start than even Blackwing Lair can offer. In fact some people who raid just because of loot are already stopping to raid now, argueing that waiting for the Burning Crusade is the path of least resistance to better gear.

People who want to explore new places or achieve new boss kills will probably still be raiding until just before the expansion. Some readers commented here that they would like to "finish" Naxxramas before the Burning Crusade comes out. But once it is out, exploring the Outlands and achieving kills of BC bosses whose strategies isn't already posted on every WoW website will make them stop visiting the old raid dungeons. You could image a "tourist" raid of level 70s who didn't manage to beat BWL or Naxxramas at 60 going exploring there at 70, but that won't be considered as much of an achievement.

I could imagine some guilds still running a raid or two per week to the old dungeons for some time after the Burning Crusade comes out for social reasons. Not all guild members might have access to the expansion immediately. And the guild as a social entity needs a purpose, some guild events to organize, before enough people hit level 70 and the next raid circuit begins.

With people having different reasons for raiding, and many of these reasons falling away when the expansion comes out, many guilds will have trouble staying together, due to lack of purpose. Ideally guilds would be busy organizing 5-man events until enough people reach level 70 to restart raiding. But most guilds don't have (or lost) practice in organizing such small events. And people will quickly diverge, leveling at different speeds. By the time the guild officers reach level 70, they will be lucky if they can find 25 people to raid with. Worries that the new 25-man raid cap will prevent you from raiding with your 39 friends you raided with at 60 are probably not very realistic. It is unlikely that the same 40 people would still be together by then. Very few guilds will manage to rush to 70 at uniform speed, spending most of the time to 70 playing together. Most people will see a lot of soloing and pickup groups, in spite of being in a guild. Some guilds will split up, many people will switch from one guild to another, because they either leveled faster or slower than their guild mates. The best chance a guild has to stay together is being a social guild, where the purpose always has been to just play together. If you don't mind the loot or the achievement or insist on always seeing new stuff, you can always find some sort of event for the guild to do together. But with purely social guilds being rare, many guilds are facing stormy weather, with the Burning Crusade shaking up old habits and guild structures. Will you miss having a guild raid on offer every night?

Burning Crusade delayed?

Rumors are flying that Blizzard will miss the "Q4 2006" release date for the Burning Crusade, and release the expansion only in January 2007. I don't know if that is true. On the one hand releasing it before christmas would make better business sense, this is the prime season for computer games. On the other hand Blizzard is known for releasing things "when they are ready", which is often later than you think.

Of course Blizzard isn't saying anything, as usual. The only release dates you can read are from the different online retailers. And the fact that they all give a different date proves that they are just guessing as well. I remember that Blizzard announced the official release date of the European version of World of Warcraft only one week before the actual release date.

The source of the rumor of a delayed release is probably the beta. Now that depends whether you consider the current BC beta as being "closed" or "open". Starting the "closed" beta in mid-October would indicate that the game won't be ready by end of November. But if you consider that inviting 100,000 players per continent is pretty much an "open" beta, they could just make it.

Playing the beta sure showed me that some things weren't finished yet. I have items with a big red question mark as icon, the real icon not having been designed yet. I met an orc guard whose graphical representation was just a small, checkered 3D cube. I had the beta freeze on me once, but of course that could have been my computer. The current beta is certainly playable (and less bug-infested than lets say Star Wars Galaxies), but I'm not sure it up to Blizzard's stringent quality control.

Some people argue with the time it takes to produce the "gold master" and produce all the CDs. But of course that isn't much of a problem with a MMORPG, you just put a nearly finished version on the CD and patch it the day it goes live.

So the only thing we really know about the release date is that we don't know anything. Blizzard might surprise us and mid-November announce an end-November release date. Or we all wait until end-November and only get a press release saying that the release is delayed to Q1 2007.

While everybody is burning to see the expansion (excuse the pun), Blizzard gets my respect for their willingness to delay releases on quality reasons. There are far too many half-finished games released, and especially MMORPG often are nearly unplayable on release. One company releasing their games and expansion only when they meet high quality standards and are nearly bug-free is a refreshing change. Even if waiting is sometimes hard.

Monday, October 16, 2006

BC Journal - 17-October-2006

This will be a short entry. I received my new laptop yesterday, *and* it was Dungeons & Dragons night, so I didn't have time to play much. The only thing I did was ride around in Outlands a bit and explore.

I visited the two zones adjacent to Hellfire Peninsula: Zangarmarsh and Terokkar Forest. I especially liked the mushroom forests of Zangarmarsh. But for gameplay the city of Shattrath in Terokkar Forest is more important. It gave me flashbacks to the original Everquest.

In Everquest getting from one place to another was hard and took a lot of time. I happened to play a druid, who not only could teleport himself, but also could take his group with him. So during the time of the Kunark and Velious expansion I had a nice business going as a taxi service, teleporting people for monetary donations. Then came Shadows of Luclin, which introduced the Nexus, a spot on the moon of Luclin with teleport portals to many places on the old world. That killed my taxi business, as people could just teleport via the Nexus instead of finding a druid to teleport them.

Shattrath is the "Nexus" of World of Warcraft. It has teleportation portals to all 8 cities, but of course you can only use the 4 portals leading to the cities of your faction. The portals are one-way, you can't teleport back to Shattrath. But you *can* set your hearthstone to the inn in Shattrath, and I guess that is what most people will end up doing. Shattrath is relatively central in the Outlands, and with the ability to teleport to Orgrimmar, Thunder Bluff, Undercity, and Silvermoon (for Horde), being bound in Shattrath means that I can reach any place in World of Warcraft relatively quickly.

Dell XPS M1210 laptop

My new laptop arrived yesterday. If you don't count the day of the order and the day of arrival (I ordered the laptop on a Friday and got it on a Monday), I only waited 10 business days, which is just inside specifications. No idea why they sent me that other e-mail telling me I had to wait another month. I just hope they won't send me another one, it was hard enough to get rid of their last double delivery.

The Dell XPS M1210 is a small laptop, but very powerful. The dimensions and weight of a laptop are pretty much a function of the screen size, and the M1210 has a nice little 12.1" screen. But while other lightweight laptops are designed to run only business applications, the XPS in the name shows you that this is a gaming machine. The Core 2 Duo T7200 CPU is lightning fast. The Geforce Go 7400 with 256 MB RAM is a decent graphics card for gaming. I went for 2 GB of 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM, thus no memory shortages braking out the performance. And the 160 GB SATA hard drive is big enough to store all my data.

The M1210 comes with an integrated webcam, don't know if I have any use for that. It comes with a bunch of preinstalled software; I had to wrestle some time with McAfee Security suite trial version to get it uninstalled, it always said that it couldn't be uninstalled because it was running, but you couldn't stop if from running without uninstalling it. I hate these modern "security" suites, which totally take over your computer. I just need the Windows firewall and a freeware antivirus program, everything else is just paranoia.

My only complaint is that I ordered the laptop with a Kensington mouse with retractable cable, and got a Kensington wireless mouse instead. I'm not a fan of wireless mouses, because of the batteries. Especially for a laptop you risk your batteries running out when you are somewhere where you can't get a replacement battery.

I installed Futuremark's 3DMark05 and PCMark05 on the laptop, and compared the speed to my desktops. In 3DMark05 the M1210 scored 2096 points, over twice as much as the previous laptop, who had a X300 graphics card with a 996 score. Not bad for a laptop, although my desktop with its Geforce 7800 GTX scores significantly better, at 6800 points. In PCMark05, which measures both graphical performance and a range of other computer tasks, the M1210 scored 4111 points, which is basically the same as my desktop with 4272 points. So what the new laptop doesn't have in graphics card power, it makes up in CPU power, the Core 2 Duo is a great processor.

I'm quite happy how much smaller and lighter the new laptop is compared to the old one. I really want to use it as a *portable* computer, on business trips and holidays, so being small and light is a must. That the screen is necessarily smaller doesn't bother me at all.

BC Journal - 16-October-2006

This is the first "journal" entry of my adventures in the Burning Crusade beta. While I was playing yesterday, I noted down all the small things that are new, so this is going to be a jumble of random thoughts and description of new features.

When I first started the BC beta client, my level 60 undead priest hadn't been copied yet, so I was greeted by an empty character screen. Hmmm, time to make a draenei and a blood elf, and have a look at the new newbie zones. Both the new starting areas are nice enough, having new architecture, and a couple of new monsters, besides familiar ones like skeletons or spiders. Each race gets two new zones, with the highest level monster I have seem being level 18. Think of it like a Tirisfal Glades + Silverpine Forest combo.

The blood elves starting zones are north of the Eastern Plaguelands, and can be reached by a pass, blocked by a portal, which is probably there to keep people without the expansion out. You can also teleport from a guy next to the mage trainer in Silvermoon to another guy standing in the upper courtyard of Undercity (Ruins of Lordaeron) and back. This is recommended, because for a level 18 blood elf to take the road and run into the Eastern Plaguelands, where level 50ish mobs lurk quite close to the road, might be a short, bloody, and frustrating experience.

The draenei start on islands south of Teldrassil, west of Darkshore. I haven't explored it yet, but I assume there will be a teleport to Darnassus. Not sure if there will be any other way to reach the continent. I quickly got bored with playing the new races. I did enjoy the fact that the new zones looked different than any other zone. But the gameplay was pretty much identical than leveling up any other level 1 character.

Fortunately meanwhile Blizzard had finished to copy my undead priest to the beta server. The first thing I did with him was heading towards the Outlands. The only way there seems to be the Dark Portal in the Blasted Lands. I had previously seen other portal-like structures, for example in the middle of Duskwood, or in Feralas. But I checked the Duskwood portal out, and it still leads nowhere. So I had to fly to the Swamp of Sorrows, and ride from there to the Dark Portal, in southern Blasted Lands. You arrive there at a big platform, where you get your first quest, to travel to the Horde outpost of Thrallmar, with a wind rider conveniently provided. Alliance gets to fly to Honor Hold. Right now, Hellfire Peninsula doesn't seem crowded. But this is just the beta, and I don't know how many people are on the server where I am, and how many have even finished the slow download of the 2 GByte BC beta client and copied their characters. This being the only entrance, this might be very crowdy when BC goes live.

In Thrallmar I first deleted all my old quests, I don't think I will need Stratholme quests in the BC beta. Doing that I noticed that the quest journal cap has been raised from 20 to 25, which is good news.

Next thing I did was a bit peculiar, I hit ALT-I. This is because I switched to WoW directly from EQ2, where ALT-I opened all your bags. So I had remapped the WoW function to open all bags from SHIFT-B to ALT-I, just because I was used to it. But in Burning Crusade the keybindings were reset to standard. And Blizzard had mapped a new functionality to the I key, which triggered when I hit ALT-I. The new functionality is a Looking for Group window. This window has two parts, a LFG and a LFM (Looking for More) part. In the LFG part you can list up to three things which you would be interested in joining a group for. That includes zones, quests, dungeons, and even raids. So you could for example state that you look for a group to explore Hellfire Peninsula, or to go to the Hellfire Rampart dungeon, or to do a particular quest. The LFM window lets you select the same zones, quests, or dungeons, and then shows you everybody who has himself flagged as LFG for that event. Now *IF* everybody starts using this, the LFG/LFM window could become extremely useful. Unfortunately MMORPG players are a very conservative bunch, and I saw very little activity in the new window, with most people still shouting on the LFG chat channel.

In Thrallmar I took all the quests I could find, and had a look at all the vendors and trainers. There is a Thrallmar faction vendor, where you can get items based on your Thrallmar faction, which you can increase by doing quests or killing mobs in Hellfire Citadel. There are vendors for different items, general goods, trade goods, food and drink. I noticed level 60 water for sale, which regenerates a very nice 5100 mana. There was also level 65 water for sale, which at 5580 mana isn't much better.

There are also a number of tradeskill trainers in Thrallmar. I said in my jewelcrafting post that I haven't seen the artisan jewelcrafter, but now I'm not so sure that he isn't in Thrallmar. I learned jewelcrafting later, at the time of my first visit to the Outlands I still had tailoring. So I saw that for 10 gold I could increase my tailoring skill limit from 300 to 350. And there were some interesting new recipes. The cloth after runecloth is called netherweave, and it can be transformed into a 16 (!!! not 18 !!!) slot netherweave bag. It also can be used to make a netherweave net, which holds an enemy in place for 3 seconds. This could change the dynamics of PvP quite a lot, as it seems that everybody will be able to use it. I didn't see an 18 slot bag, but I've read that imbued netherweave bags with 18 slots exist. But for the moment the number of our inventory slots isn't growing, the main bag still has 16 slots. What did grow was the bank, which instead of having 6 colums of 4 slots plus 6 bag slots now has 7 colums and 7 bag slots. Buying the 7th bag slot (already having the 6 others) cost only 25 gold. Assuming you put a 16 slot bag in there, you gain a total of 20 bank slots, which is nice.

I killed a couple of mobs in Hellfire Peninsula, and ran around a bit. But I noticed that I didn't have an xp rest bonus, so points were slow to come in. I didn't have any "stored" finished quests, and I've read that Blizzard is going to add something to the live version of BC that prevents people from handing in 20 previously finished quests on the first day of BC and level up to 61 directly. I just don't know what exactly they plan to do there.

I fiddled around a bit with the options. I had copied my addons from the WoW folder to the BC folder, but they only showed up as "incompatible", and I had to play without any addons. So I turned on WoW's own scrolling combat text, while normally I use the superior SCT addon. No biggie. But in the options I noticed a new option which enabled me to see my targets cast bar. So whenever I target another player or NPC who is casting something, I see a little yellow bar showing the progress, and naming what spell is incoming. As my priest is now spec'd shadow for the beta, and I have the Silence spell, that enemy castbar is extremely useful.

I left the Outlands and spent the next couple of hours learning jewelcrafting, with limited success. (see today's other post) Up to that point I wasn't terribly impressed with the Burning Crusade. Lots of small improvements, lots of "more of the same" good stuff, but the new zones played a lot like the old ones. Thrallmar is even using the same old orcish architecture, and Hellfire Peninsula looks similar to Blasted Lands. Except for the awesome looking sky, you might still have been on the old world.

My impression of the expansion changed when somebody in the LFG chat channel (not the new window, sigh) was looking for a healer to go to Hellfire Rampart, the first dungeon in the Hellfire Citadel. It appears that Hellfire Citadel has 4 "wings", separate dungeons, of which two are for level 60ish 5-man groups, one is for level 70 5-mans, and one is for level 70 25-man raids. I like Hellfire Rampart a lot, and I was completely awed by the loot dropping there.

Hellfire Rampart is a dungeon where you can go directly at level 60, with any half decent pickup group. It is relatively small, which makes it ideal for shorter dungeon trips. There are only 3 bosses, and a good number of orc trash mobs. The first boss is half way through the place, then at the end you reach a platform from which you can already see both other bosses, one to the left, one to the right. The group I was in had a level 58 hunter, me as level 60 priest, a level 61 warrior, and two level 62 mages.

One of the first trash mobs dropped some leather boots, +31 stamina, +20 fire resistance. That was just the green trash loot, but items like that would have been wonderful for Molten Core / Blackwing Lair / Onyxia. The first boss was easy to kill. He had two adds which would have healed him, if they hadn't been turned into sheeps. He dropped the first blue item with sockets for gems that I saw: Wasteland Stitched Leggings, mail, +22 Agi, +24 Sta, +15 Int, +32 attack power, three sockets with which you could boost the stats even further, and an additional +2 mana per 5 seconds if you filled them with the gems of the right colors. Quite powerful!

The second boss wasn't as easy to kill, we wiped on the first try. He casts a "treacherous aura" on one group member, which then hurts the other group members around the affected character. He also launches nasty shadow bolts, and summons felhounds. Second fight we used my prayer of shadow protection and stood further apart from each other, and killed him easily. When looting him my eyeballs nearly popped out! Crystalfire Staff, +34 Sta, +34 Int, +16 "critical strike rating", +46 to both damage and healing spells. That is *significantly* better than my Will of Arlokk (+35 spirit, but only +19 int, +15 sta, and +46 to healing, not to damage spells). I was afraid that the two mages both would have wanted that staff, but they both said they already had much better. Wow!

This is *serious* mudflation. If the first level 60 5-man group dungeon replaces the best staff that I could find after months of raiding, and the other blue items I saw easily beat the tier 1 raid loot, it means that the Burning Crusade will level the playing field. By the time people are level 65, they will all wear only BC items, and whether you spent a thousand hours raiding or not won't matter at all. I've seen a *green* dagger drop from a trash mob which was better than the epic Krol Blade from old WoW. If you still have bind on equip epics in the bank, try to sell them quickly. They will all become worthless the day WoW goes version 2.0.

Finally we tackled the last boss of Hellfire Rampart, Vazruden. He rides a dragon named Nazan. You "pull" Vazruden by killing his two guards, then he dismounts and attacks you, and when he is nearly dead the dragon enters the fight. Now this is a very hard fight. It seems both Vazruden and Nazan always go for the healer first, however much I tried not to produce aggro. We managed to kill Vazruden every time, but then Nazan would fry us. If you wipe at that point, Vazrudan springs back to life and you have to start over. I don't know if it is a bug or a feature, but you can loot Vazrudan when he dies, wipe, come back, kill him again, loot him again, wipe again, and so on. When we finally killed Nazan, we had looted Vazruden 4 times, each time receiving a nice blue item. And Nazan dropped a staff any feral druid would kill for, with not only very high stat bonuses, but also giving +160 to attack power when in any animal form, including moonkin.

I hadn't studied BC loot lists before, but I can see why we have problems getting 40 people for BWL together. Of course people raid for different reasons. I kind of like tackling known and new bosses in a big raid group, I'm not just there for the loot. But if the loot is the most important aspect for someone, that somebody can be excused for not wanting to go through all that trouble of repeated wiping and high potion / repair costs, if he knows he will be able to get better loot by an easier way soon.