Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The rush to raid slots

Famously the first guy to hit level 70 in the Burning Crusade after release just took 28 hours to do so. But now, two weeks after release, seeing a level 70 character isn’t something exotic any more. But the progression towards level 70 isn’t even; you can see every level from 60 to 70 in Outland. And the distribution isn’t depending on player skill but on available time, as always in level-based MMORPG. I wonder how much of this rush is motivated by people trying to reserve a permanent spot in a guild's raids for them.

Raiding guilds might have some problems, because it is likely that many of them are actually too big now. Raiding guilds tended to invite enough players so that with the average participation rate to raids (which varies from guild to guild) on any given evening enough people show up to fill a 40-man raid. But in the Burning Crusade two effects come into play: the participation rate goes up, as people are more interested in the new content, and the level 70 raid size shrinks from 40 to 25.

In the coming weeks the typical raiding guild will for the first time have 25 level 70 players with a reasonable class mix online, and start their first raids. In that case the selection of who gets to raid is easy, because there are just enough people around to fill a raid. But as time progresses, more and more guild members reach level 70, and then the problems of raid slot attribution will start. Even if there are 50 players online, it is more likely that the guild forms one raid with perfect class distribution and the other 25 people don’t get to raid, instead of trying to form two sub-optimal raids. Predictably there will be some hard choices to make, and a lot of potential for guild drama.

What I am afraid of is that the speed to level 70 will have some effect on the distribution of raid slots. The most extreme example would be a guild’s main tank, who is often selected based on gear. The first batch of tanks reaching level 70, and getting a head start in raiding and endgame solo grinding will always have better gear than tanks arriving at level 70 later. So the temptation is there to invite the better-geared tank more often, or even exclusively when available. Of course that leads to a vicious spiral, where the better-geared people get to raid more often, improve their gear even further, and the gap between them and the less-well geared is continually growing. Similar considerations could be true for other classes, where gear also has some effect on things like mana pool or dps.

Ideally raid slots would be distributed as fairly as possible between people reaching level 70 earlier and later, to keep a large number of people well-geared. The reason for distributing raid slots, and therefore raid gear, evenly over the guild is to minimize the effect of people leaving the guild. In the weeks and months after the first raid the excitement will cool down, and some people will most probably burn out. If you favor the “first to 70” group of people when handing out raid slots, tempting as it is, chances are that it is exactly these people who burn out first, because they go raiding most often. The best equipped tank leaving and having to be replaced by somebody who rarely was allowed to participate in raids sets back the whole guild raid progress significantly.

But chances are that guilds will confuse fast leveling either with skill or dedication, neither of which is really true. In the short term inviting always the same 25 people to all raids of course speeds up raid progress. But in that case the people coming late to the party find that they never get invited. They might leave the guild, but even if they stay they aren’t really good replacements in case any member of the original hard core burns out, because they lack the gear and experience. Distributing raid slots among a larger number of people is the better long-term strategy. Sooner or later raiding guilds will shrink, by splitting or people stopping to play, until they are of the right size to regularly support 25-man raids. But the process to get there could be more or less painful, depending on how much value the guild puts on fast leveling progress.

Signs of life from Darkfall

Darkfall is a MMORPG in development by Aventurine, a greek startup company. As this has been "under development" with no release date announced since 2001, there have been rumors that it is only vaporware. But apparently the problem is only that a relatively small developer is trying to produce a big game, and that takes time.

So Tasos Flambouras (I'm not making that up, that's his real name!), the Associate Producer wanted to let me and my readers know about the state of the game, and sent me the link to the latest in-game footage. That's a 50 MB zipped Windows media file showing how the game and the characters will look, and how combat will go. Darkfall's claim to fame is horse-backed combat, to which apparently they now also added combat between ships, with the ability to sink them.

Looks pretty enough, but of course it is impossible to say how good the game is just from looking at the graphics. The gameplay is far more important, and we don't know anything about it yet. Well, maybe something to keep in mind, I doubt this will come out this year.

Vanguard: Saga of Heroes released

Vanguard: Saga of Heroes has been released, to a flood of comments of "no way!" from the beta testers. The game has potential, but simply isn't finished. And the early release won't be helping to gain market share. The one bright spot is that it is available for digital download, a feature that more MMORPG should have.

Well, I won't be buying the game anyway. Huge but empty landscapes aren't my cup of tea. The only feature I really liked was the diplomacy system, but in the latest build of the beta I played that one was squandered to just be an alternative way to earn tiny amounts of money. It would have been far better if by doing diplomacy you could have earned new cards to make stronger decks to become an even more powerful diplomat. There should have been more diplomacy quests past the introductory ones, and more sense in moving from city to city to practice your diplomacy skills. Well, all that was things that were promised, and maybe one day they get added. Just another feature that just isn't ready, but was released anyway.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

World of Warcraft on Tyra Banks Show

World of Warcraft "addiction" is just one of these non-issues that is sensationalist enough for daytime TV talk-shows, without being serious enough to actually worry the spectator. Good that over here in Europe we don't get the Tyra Banks Show, because they just had an incredibly bad episode on WoW addiction.

Excellent review and opinion piece written on that at Taking the Mickey. I couldn't have said it better, and so I don't. :)

Getting inside Burning Crusade dungeons

If you already reached level 70, you'll find that many instances in the Burning Crusade are locked and require a key to get in. I stumbled upon this blog entry by Heather Newman, titled A guide to getting inside 'World of Warcraft' dungeons. It explains how to get the keys to Shattered Halls, all the heroic instances, Shadow Labyrinth, Arcatraz, Karazhan, Serpentshrine Caverns, The Eye, and finally Battle of Mt. Hyjal.

Similar information can be found at World of Raids, Curse Gaming, and of course WoWWiki.

In any case it appears that Blizzard is prepared for people playing hundreds of hours of the level 70 endgame. I just hope that this time around the endgame is more inclusive, and the percentage of players able to get into a raid goes up.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

WoW Journal - 29-January-2007

Still level 64, but I feel as if I have reached a milestone: I did all the quests in Hellfire Peninsula. Not a single quest left in any of the many locations there. Except of course for the ones I can't get at level 64 yet, but I figure those are related to the high-level part of Hellfire Citadel.

It feels like a milestone because I deliberately wanted to do all these quests before moving on. I only did very few quests outside Hellfire Peninsula, and that only when I was with a guild group doing some special elite or dungeon quest. As Hellfire Peninsula was also the only zone I quested in during the beta, I feel as if I'm now reaching the *really* new content.

Of course I wouldn't be level 64 with just the Hellfire Peninsula quests if I hadn't done a lot of dungeon runs as well. I enjoyed those, especially the Coilfang Reservoir ones. And I am honored with both Thrallmar and the Cenarion Expedition already, and that is without doing the Zangarmarsh quests for them, which should advance me a bit further. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the reputation system is calculated in a way that you can't get much better than honored without reaching level 70 and doing the endgame instances. At 5999/6000 in friendly, just 1 point away from honored, the mobs in Underbog stopped giving reputation, not even the boss mobs got me over the threshold. I had to hand in unidentified plant parts to get over the threshold, and as soon as I did, that repeatable quest vanished too.

Every faction now has a quartermaster offering lots of goodies if you are just high enough in reputation. But there was nothing I wanted for friendly or honored, I need to be revered or even exalted for the good stuff. And I'm sure that is going to involve some crazy grind again. That's why I never got to the good rewards of the old world factions, and I don't think Blizzard changed their policy on that: You need to give the people that are playing 16 hours a day every day something to do. I was positively angry when I heard about the only way to get a Netherdrake flying mount: You need to be on the top team for a season of the PvP. That is another reward that someone with a job and family won't ever be able to aspire to. I wonder if you could tell the Better Business Bureau how Blizzard promised you a Netherdrake in the expansion and then made it impossible to get. Well, probably more a case for a shrink. :)

Saturday, January 27, 2007

WoW Journal - 28-January-2007

My undead priest hit level 64 yesterday, and got a new spell: Binding Heal, a spell that heals both me and my target. Situationally useful in groups, useless in solo play. I'll have to see whether I end up using it much, right now I'm not too excited about it. I have 23 talent points in discipline for the improved spirit buff, and now 32 and rising points in holy. Again, useful in groups, but not the easiest spec for soloing.

As a result I'm not making much progress with my quests, still haven't finished all Hellfire quests, but spend most of my time in instances. I'm getting a better feel for what levels and classes are needed for each dungeon. We did the mana tombs with a group with average level of 64, and that was too hard. We managed to kill all bosses in the end, but it took forever, we frequently wiped, and combined with some bad luck in finding boss drops for classes we didn't have, I ended up with a repair bill higher than the worth of the loot. Then I did the slave pens and underbog with two different groups, but both with an average level around 66. And that was simply overkill, which ends up being a lot more fun. Barely any deaths at all, except when we were experimenting with how many mob groups we could pull at once and AoE to death. :) And I got a nice healing cloak, better than my Hide of the Wild I've worn for ages.

I don't think I'll go to Hellfire Ramparts and Blood Furnace any more, at least not at normal difficulty. I think I got all the good priest loot from there, and I stopped gaining reputation from killing the mobs in there. I'm stuck at halfway through honored with Thrallmar and wonder how I'm going to increase that further with the handful of quests I still have. Maybe at heroic difficulty the dungeons give reputation again? I find it a bit annoying to have so many factions and reputation rewards up to exalted dangled before your nose, with no apparent path to reach them.

Can the lore survive the players?

There is a video parody (in French) of the Council of Elrond scene from the Lord of the Ring movies, subtitled with a typical World of Warcraft chat. The raid group has looted The One Ring with great stats, and is now fighting who gets it. Boromir, the paladin, argues that this is pally loot, Gimli wants to disenchant it, and in the end it is decided to roll for it, and Frodo wins with a 100. Then they go on the next raid.

Hilarious interpretation, if you play WoW. It is funny because it is so true. Whatever the lore of a game, once it comes down to loot distribution, selfish considerations of players wanting to make their characters more powerful beat all lore. That doesn't hurt World of Warcraft much, because the lore isn't strong outside the series of Warcraft games. But if you play Star Wars Galaxies or the upcoming Lord of the Rings Online, the lore is supposed to carry much of the game.

Both of these licences are about a heroic struggle of a small group of people against an overwhelming evil. The need to work together in spite of very different characters creates the interest, and the tension between Han Solo and Princess Leia, or Gimli and Legolas. You can find them argueing about how to best fight the evil. Even Boromir doesn't want to "ninja loot" the One Ring, he wants to use it to defend Gondor, instead of throwing it into Mount Doom.

Real players in a MMORPG aren't that heroic. They aren't fighting a great evil, they are just trying to make it to whatever the level cap is and get epic loot. Thus the famous hunter weapon jokes. Even in a guild group I had recently to shout at a mage who wanted to roll need for the Heartblood Prayer Beads (note the +31 to healing, not to spell damage). The stories that get your heart racing in a MMORPG are often about other players behaving either very selfish or very generous. About who to invite to raids, and how to distribute the loot. The lore plays a very small role in all of that. And that is why Star Wars Galaxies never felt like Star Wars, and LotRO can be a great game, but can't possibly make you feel like a member of the Fellowship of the Ring.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Are greens too powerful?

Yesterday on my server somebody found these bracers:

I made the screenshot myself, so this is not just something photoshopped. But it is obviously some bug, and it wasn't clear whether the guy wearing them would actually get the indicated stat increases.

Makes you wonder whether if you found these bracers, equipped them, and then started happily chain-killing tons of mobs for experience and loot, that would be considered cheating. Would using a bugged item be a bannable offence, even if you are in no way responsible for the bug and didn't do anything to hack it?

Made it to the front page

I get linked to a lot, from many different gaming sites, which isn't really news. But this time I got a link from Blizzard themselves, directly on the front page of the European World of Warcraft site, to my article on the size of Azeroth. As this is a rather temporary fame, I had to make a screenshot. Here it is:

Level 60 bosses chat

Somebody on the WoW forums wondered what the level 60 bosses were doing nowadays, and posted an hilarious fictious chat session between them, which is currently being copied all over the blogosphere. As the WoW forums are too temporary, I'm linking to it here and here. No need to copy & paste it another time to here.
[Spoiler warning - Read the chat at the links first!]
The chat is between the bosses of the level 60 instances and raid dungeons, who complain that they haven't seen any "mobs" (that is players) for days, until some mid-60s players arrive and do speed runs, soloing the bosses. Now I seriously doubt a level 64 warrior doing Molten Core solo in 2 minutes 34 seconds, but the sentiment is the same as in my Goodbye Molten Core post: Nobody takes the level 60 dungeons serious any more. Either they stand empty, or they are farmed in easy mode by higher-level characters. You can count the days until the first video of a handful of level 70 characters doing a Molten Core speed run appears on YouTube.
I haven't got a good feeling on how much stronger a level 70 will be than a level 60. I'm pretty sure that at level 64 you won't be able to solo even Stratholme or Scholomance, but will it be possible at level 70? I don't think a holy-spec'd priest is the good class to try that. If I ever get around to level my warrior to 70, with enough armor and magic resistance you should be able to do it. Molten Core won't be soloable at 70, but records will be set and broken with how few people you can do it. Just another occupation for bored level 70 characters with nothing better to do.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

WoW Journal - 26-January-2007

I hit level 63 last night, in the middle of a Blood Furnace instance run with a reasonably competent pickup group (yes, those exist!). It was a good run for loot as well, because I got Bloody Surgeon's Mitts, the first item I found which was definitely better than the tier 1 prophecy gloves I was wearing. I put a +13 healing and a +6 spirit gem in the sockets, got another +3 spirit bonus from managing to do that in the right colors, added a knothide armor kit for +8 stamina, and ended up with a total bonus of +18 sta, +20 int, +21 spi, +44 healing. Not bad at all.
I still haven't done all Hellfire Peninsula quests, and I want to finish them all before moving to the next zone. But I was a bit tired of the grind, and I need lots of adamantium if I want to increase my jewelcrafting. So I thought that level 63 would be high enough to tour some of the other zones and mine a bit. Well, I did the touring, gathering a lot of exploration xp, and having a nice look around. But the mining was an abject failure. In two hours of searching I found exactly 1 adamantium ore spot, plus about a dozen fel iron ore nodes. It seemed that everybody was out there mining. In one particularly annoying case I was heading for a node a bit up a slope, and couldn't reach it directly. And then some level 70 on a flying mount came swooping down, and grabbed the node before I could get there, even doing an insulting emote in my direction.
It seems that the dynamic spawn system has only been introduced for mobs, not for resource nodes. And because every smith, engineer, and jewelcrafter needs those nodes, they are simply far too overcamped. That explains the totally silly auction house prices, 50 gold for a stack of fel iron ore, 80 gold for a stack of adamantium ore, if available at all. Guess I'll have to wait until I'm level 70 with a flying mount myself before I can do any serious mining.

MMORPG lifetime membership

Turbine and Midway did a press release announcing a Pre-Order Founder's Program for the Lord of Rings Online, which is scheduled for release on April 24. The program has two interesting features, one being that you can create a character in the open beta starting March 30 and keep that character after release.

The other interesting feature is that they are offering a Lifetime Membership for $199. Now that sounds interesting. If something similar would exist for WoW, it would have saved me a lot of money. But even more importantly a Lifetime Membership allows you to play the game on and off, without having to cancel the account if you get bored by it. No more hassle with resubscribing once your interest rekindled because of an expansion or something. If this Founder's Program exists for LotRO Europe as well, I'm very tempted to sign up for it.

Hasta la Vista, XP?

About every 2 years I buy a new computer, giving my 2-year old computer to my wife, and dumping her 4-year old computer. Next new computer is due somewhere in the middle of this year. But when I buy a new computer, I automatically buy an operating system that comes pre-installed with it. And by the time I buy my new computer, that operating system might well be Windows Vista instead of Windows XP, as the official mass-market release date for Vista is in 5 days. Which of course makes me wonder whether everything will run under Vista.

Apparently the first game people tested when seeing whether Windows Vista runs games is World of Warcraft, like in this Extremetech article. The only games that don't run well are those that use the Starforce copy protection program. But Tom's Hardware reveals that with the current drivers games play slower on Vista.

I don't think that is a big problem. In a few month the driver problem should be solved, and most games should be patched to run perfectly under Vista. If I would still buy a Windows XP computer in 2007, and keep it until 2011, I'm more likely to run into the other problem, the games of 2011 not running under XP any more. I guess going for the future-proof option will be the better bet.

I looked at the gazillion different versions of Windows Vista, and think that if I get the choice I'd prefer the Home Premium edition. Hey, I'd take the Ultimate edition if I get it for free, but I'm not willing to pay money for a bunch of extras I'm not likely to use. But the Home Basic edition is too basic for me, and doesn't have the fancy Aero UI. Not that I'd really need it, but it would be nice to actually see that something changed.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Jewelcrafting beyond 300

My jewelcrafting skill is now at 336. Progress beyond 310 was slow, and now has virtually stopped. Apparently 335 is the highest skill level for which the trainer still gives you recipes, and those are for very expensive level 66 jewelry, needing the new “primal” elemental materials from Outland, which aren’t widely available yet. In any case, jewelry is not something you can expect to make a profit of, as crafted gear always competes with gear that can be found as loot or quest reward. Dropped loot from dungeons is often better than crafted items, which usually results in crafted items selling for less than the auction house prices for the materials. Where crafting becomes interesting is in the consumables, which in the case of jewelcrafting means socketable gems.

There are NPC vendors of socketable gems in Outland. For 2 gold each you can buy one of numerous different gems, in all colors, giving all sorts of bonuses. But the bonuses are relatively small. Starting from skill level 300 a jewelcrafter can cut gems that give bonuses that are roughly 50% higher, for example giving +6 to one stat instead of +4. The raw materials for that are gems like Spessarite, Garnet, Peridot, Draenite, and Azure Moonstone, which sometimes drop from mobs or are found in chests in Outland. The gems can also be acquired by jewelcrafters using the prospecting skill on the new Outland ores.

Prices for the new Burning Crusade trade goods are still in a state of flux, with some people trying to sell goods are crazy prices; I’ve seen stacks of fel iron ore on offer for as high as 50 gold, and cutable gems around 25 gold. I only buy gems if I see them for 10 gold and less, and I think in the long run the prices will come down even further. But as all jewelcrafters, of which there are many, need these gems to skill up, the cut gems that players can use to put in sockets usually sell for 10 gold or less, making me lose money on them. Once the first excitement about Burning Crusade crafting has cooled down, I expect to be able to find more fel iron ore to mine, or to buy cheaper, and then I could get the gems from prospecting. I also got a couple of gems from other players, for whom I cut them for free, earning no money, but a chance for a “free” skill gain.

The highest skill level recipe for this sort of “green” quality gem is 325. And that is the reason why my skill is stuck at 336, and I don’t expect to be able raise it beyond 350. Starting at 350 your only way to increase your skill is by cutting rare, “blue” quality gems. But these gems are rare drops, and the recipes to cut them are even rarer. At the moment the recipes go for 400 gold and more on the auction house, and the gems for 300 gold. The resulting socketable gems give a bonus that is roughly 33% higher than the green gems, for example giving +8 to one stat instead of +6. Obviously unless you are really, really sure that you’ll never change that piece of equipment with sockets again, you aren’t going to put gems into the sockets that cost several hundreds of gold. I can only hope that when more people reach the higher levels and go to the higher level dungeons, the rare gems and recipes will become more widely available.

After 350 the jewelcrafting recipes are for level 70 items of jewelry and for meta gems, about which not much is known yet, beyond the fact that you can put them in any socket, regardless of color. I can only assume that these are “epic” gems, which few people will ever get to see.

I don’t see me “mastering” jewelcrafting in the sense that I hope to one day have all the possible recipes. There are simply too many rare recipes. But nevertheless I’m not unhappy with having chosen that profession. I used to be enchanter with that character, and in a way jewelcrafting is an improved version of enchanting. The further people progress in the Burning Crusade, the more items with slots they will wear. So while gems aren’t useful for twinking low-level characters, as enchanting was, the fact that most items have several sockets should provide a large demand for the gems. Unlike enchants, you can create cut gems and sell them on the auction house. That is a lot less hassle than standing in Orgrimmar trying to sell your enchanting services, which was taking time away from adventuring.. Getting an inventory of “green” quality gems is relatively easy, and doesn’t take as much inventory space as enchanting materials did. So I’m looking forward to always being able to provide my characters, and my friends and guild mates, with at least this quality of gems. If I happen to find some rare recipes and gems while adventuring, that would be a nice bonus.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Still wearing my raid armor

After lots of quests in Hellfire Peninsula, and many runs to Hellfire Rampart and Blood Furnace, my equipment on my undead priest main has changed. I have two new staves, the green Totemic Staff from the Mag'har quest line, which with its +80 to spell damage and healing is great for soloing. And the Crystalfire Staff from the second rampart boss, which only has +46 to spell damage and healing, but has better +int bonus, for group play. I have two new wands, both better than Hakkar's Touch of Chaos, and carry them both around, in case some mob is immune against one of them. I also have a new ring, and some new trinkets I swap in and out with my old ones. But my armor is still 5 pieces of tier 1 gear from Molten Core, and 3 pieces of tier 2 gear from Ragnaros, Onyxia, and BWL.
Up to now I simply haven't received any drop or quest reward that was better than the raid armor I had. Some came pretty close, but why would I want to lose my set bonus to replace a set piece with something of roughly the same power level? In many cases the Burning Crusade items I found had a better bonus to stamina, and a less high bonus to intellect, and that isn't really what I need for my priest. What I need is high +int and +spirit bonus for groups, and high +spell damage bonus for soloing. Up to now my major increase of soloing power is through having gotten that PvP wand with 97 dps, with a secondary contribution of the +80 spell damage staff, and not a single piece of armor found which would help me soloing.
If I wasn't eager to raise the level of my main character to keep up with my guild, I'd have better luck with gear playing my warrior or the human priest, both of which are running around in tier 0 gear. For them most quest items and instance loot would be an improvement. But the raid character is vendoring most of the soulbound armor he gets from instances and quests. I guess I will have to wait to level 65 or higher before I have all of my pre-BC raid gear replaced. And I wonder how Burning Crusade plays for somebody who is already wearing tier 3 armor.
So as far as armor goes, the early Burning Crusade levels equalize everybody to where the raiders already were, closing the gap between raiders and non-raiders, and giving better weapons to both of them. On the one side that makes sense, because it offers everybody a fresh start into the next round of endgame. But on the other hand it raises expectations that the next expansion will do the same. And then it becomes a case of "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." I certainly want to *see* the new Burning Crusade raid dungeons. But do I want to visit each of them a hundred times, and grind whatever the equivalent of Silithus is in Burning Crusade between raids, just to acquire gear which makes my experience of the next expansion less fun? I don't think so. The raiding endgame concept only makes sense if it *is* the end. As an activity for a temporary stop it is rather foolish, especially in view of all the guild drama it usually causes.

LCD monitors

While chatting in World of Warcraft a friend of mine mentioned being tempted to buy a 22" wide-screen LCD monitor, which he seen for less than $300. Sounds tempting, although I'd probably rather pay a bit more for a higher quality model. If I had a wide-screen monitor, my priest would actually *see* something in raids beyond the CTRaid windows which are currently blocking most of his field of view. :)
So while I was still thinking about that, some IT technician came by at my office and replaced all our CRT screens with LCD screens. And I can't really say I'm happy. The problem is that on a LCD screen the brightness varies with viewing angle, more on some models, less on others. For ergonomic reasons you should place your monitor so that its upper edge is at the height of your eyes. So you're looking straight at the upper part, but down onto the lower part. And on the LCD monitor I got that difference in viewing angle makes the lower half of the screen much brighter than the upper half. If I set the brightness to be okay for the upper half, then everything on the lower half is too bright and the colors too pale. Which isn't much of a problem at work, but would certainly be annoying for playing games, which tend to be a lot more colorful than Microsoft Office.
I think I should take a look at some LCD monitors in a shop to see whether they all have the same problem, or whether that is a specific problem with the cheap screen I got at work. But I'm planning to buy a new computer this year, probably a Dell again, and with Dell I obviously can't look at the screen before buying it. Anyone got a Dell wide-screen LCD monitor and can check whether the lower edge is brighter than the upper one?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Blog trolls

The big disadvantage of that Boing Boing link is that it got read by lots of people outside the sphere of MMORPG players. And obviously if you don't play a MMORPG, most of my blog entries seem silly and nerdish to you. There are perfectly good blogs on nearly every subject under the sun, for example  breeding goldfish, but unless you are a goldfish breeder yourself the information in them is arcane and not very relevant to the majority of humanity. How big Azeroth is doesn't interest anyone not playing World of Warcraft. But if you are playing and compare the player density of lets say Hellfire Peninsula just after BC came out with the player density of a typical Vanguard zone, you'd realize that size, or rather "players per landmass unit" is a rather important aspect of MMORPG game design. Too small a world is bad due to players stepping on each others toes, too big and the place becomes too lonely for a multiplayer game.
Issues like that are only relevant in the very limited context of MMORPG game design, or as a bit of trivia among players of that particular game. Ever stumbled into a conversation at a party between two or more people sharing the same hobby, one which you happened not to share? Boooooring, and you don't really understand half of it. Why does this perfectly healthy guy in the funny trousers talk about his "handicap", and how do "birdies" and "eagles" fit into that? The big advantage of blogs over party conversations is that the blogosphere is a lot bigger than the average party, and you can simply move on to the next blog and hope it is more up your alley. What I don't understand is that some people feel the need to write negative comments into the blogs they don't get. Or even write a blog entry just to say that they found my blog through Boing Boing and find it hilariously nerdish. I found especially ironic the anonymous blog troll who advised me and my readers to "get a life", given that I wouldn't consider writing that comment to be a good use of "life". Why can't people accept that each of us has his little hobbies, which are dear to our hearts, as strange they might seem to others?

Goodbye Molten Core

I got a mail from Stargazer asking me "How is all the new quest rewards going to affect us, who hasn't yet had a lvl 60 character. I mean are we ever going to see the inside of said instances as Molten Core and the like for zillion of hours, or will we simply move on and skip all that once we are lvl 58-60? "
Well, one thing that is certain is that you won't see Molten Core for zillion of hours, like the people who were stuck there pre-BC. From a pure loot point of view your best option is to step through the Dark Portal as soon as you reach level 58, and never look back. The quest rewards and random green loot items are as good as the stuff found in Molten Core, and the blue items you can find in the first instances (for which I'd recommend level 60) are as equivalent or better than Blackwing Lair loot. But what we old-time raiders often forget is that Molten Core is quite an interesting place by itself, from an exploration / tourist point of view. It has some interesting boss fights, and the summoning of Ragnaros event is certainly impressive, and not something you'd want to totally miss. It is only when you've been there many times that it becomes boring.
Are those that haven't reached level 60 yet ever going to see Molten Core? I'm not sure. Blizzard is counting on 90% of the WoW players buying the Burning Crusade, and the remaining 10% are probably not the kind to start a raiding guild. Even if you don't have the expansion, you can buy green level 58-60 items originating from Outland in the auction house. So not enough people will be really interested to go through the enormous effort of organizing a 40-man raid and repeatedly assault Molten Core until you arrive at Ragnaros. Most players have the expansion and will just skip that part, and probably Scholomance and Stratholme as well, and just go directly to Outland.
Your best bet to see Molten Core is with a big guild going to MC with a mix of level 60 to 70 characters. Either just for fun, or as a trip down memory lane, or maybe to farm stuff like core leather. I would assume that if the main tank and a couple of other characters in the raid group are level 70, it is going to be relatively easy to beat, as long as some people in the raid have done it before and know what to do. If no-one in the raid group knows MC, the boss fights aren't trivial, but the information on how to beat them can be found all over the internet. But it won't be the same experience as the pre-BC raiders had, of going to MC every week, and wiping often at the same boss until the guild was able to beat him, slowly advancing week by week until you finally met Ragnaros. Soon you'll hear the veterans talking of "back in the days", with nobody listening to their ramblings, and everybody wondering why anyone would do such a thing as Molten Core raiding every week, sometimes several times per week. The risk-reward structure that made such behavior understandable is gone for good. If you want to experience something similar, you'll probably have to hurry to get to level 70 before the next expansion. I assume that level 70 raids are going to be a repeat performance of the pre-BC endgame, just a bit easier to organize due to smaller dungeons and smaller number of players in the raid.

WoW Journal - 22-January-2007

This is going to be a long one, an account of my first couple of days in the Burning Crusade. The short version is that my undead priest made it to level 62, and jewelcrafting 325, plus he got a few upgrades to his gear. My blood elf mage got to level 10, and maxed out his tailoring and enchanting skills for that level. And my numerous alts made a boatload of money by selling all the metals and gems I had hoarded pre-BC. Now for the long version:
I found leveling in the Burning Crusade to be not quite as fast, but still very much acceptable. But then, I didn't play all day, and I didn't concentrate on leveling. So level 62 after the first BC weekend is good for me, even if other players already reached level 70. Most importantly I'm not the slowest leveler in my guild, I'm pretty much in the middle of the level distribution there, which is good for guild grouping. I did a couple of guild groups to instances, Hellfire rampart and furnace, plus one to the slave pens in Zangarmarsh. The Hellfire trips generally went well, and I finished all quests there. The slave pens we were only able to kill the first boss, and wiped several times at the second, due to having only one healer (me), a druid as tank, and generally not high enough levels.
Nobody was using the new LFG interface, which is a shame. But the general chat in Hellfire Peninsula was full of "looking for healer and tank for rampart / furnace". There still aren't enough healers and tanks in World of Warcraft, and apparently Blizzard doesn't plan to make these classes more attractive to rectify this. So due to general lack of healers I got suckered into a few pickup groups, but they generally didn't work out well. In the worst one the tank went afk after the very first fight, we continued until the first bigger challenge without him, and then were stuck waiting for him. After 10 minutes of him being afk I left, with the result that one guy was angry at *me*, not at the afk tank. Other pickup groups were nice enough, but often not very skilled, and frequently with a bad class mix, so we weren't always able to kill all bosses. The dragon boss in the ramparts is hard if you don't have a good group.
I also did one guild group in the old world, Dire Maul west, for a guild warlock who needed his epic mount quest finished there. That basically involves clearing out that part of the dungeon. Fortunately we had a level 65 druid as a tank. A level 65 tank makes DM really easy. The warlock epic mount event is fun, or as one group member described it "all pink and shiny". And while the loot was bad, compared to Burning Crusade stuff, the experience points weren't so bad at all. At level 61 I got around 300 xp per kill, and we did a lot of kills. So going to the old instances isn't a complete waste of time, although of course for the new instances there are more groups, the loot is better, and you gain reputation with the new factions. I think from level 60 to 62 I made about 1 level with instances, and the other with questing.
I spent some time doing PvP in Outland. There is a repeatable quest to capture the three structures in Hellfire Peninsula, which gives 6,600 xp and 3 marks of thrallmar. And every honor kill while doing that gives another mark of thrallmar, which gets you a lot of marks rather quickly. And the Incendic Rod, a level 62 blue wand with good stats and 97 dps I already mentioned in the beta journal, still only costs 15 marks, so guess what I'm wielding now. I also did some PvP in Zangarmarsh, where after capturing both towers you can capture the graveyard in the middle. I didn't find a quest for it, but still got marks of thrallmar from the honor kills doing so, and after buying the wand still got 36 marks left, with no idea what to spend them on. In Zangarmarsh you can only buy a trinket and one of several items for the ranged slot of your respective class. In Thrallmar you can also get socketable gems or rings, but these are heavy on stamina and not really all that useful for a priest. If all else fails I can spend 5 marks for a buff that gives me 5% more experience and 20% more Thrallmar faction for 30 minutes. So PvP in Outland is very well rewarded, but only for the first hour or so you do it, afterwards you don't know what to do any more with the reward marks.
Besides leveling and PvP, my undead priest also got his jewelcrafting skill up to 325. I got to about 310 with the hoarded metals and gems, and made the rest by cutting the new gems into socketable form. I haven't done much mining yet, it is hard to find a ore spot with so many people in the zone. But I got a lot of gems from other players, as I am offering to cut gems for free, and the gems can be found not only from ore, but also as rare treasure from mobs, especially in the dungeons. I'll need a bunch of fel iron ore to continue, but I'll have to mine that myself. Both for raising my mining skill, and because fel iron ore goes for over 2 gold apiece, up to 50 gold per stack in the auction house. On the positive side of these crazy prices, I had stored far more metals and gems than I ended up needing, and sold the rest at a good markup. Gems weren't all that profitable, because with the prospecting skill there is now a good source for them. My profit margin on metals was a lot higher. I'm still far from level 70, but I already have the gold for the non-epic flying mount. And I don't think I'll go for the flying epic mount, that seems like a waste of 5,000 gold of effort to me. My second priest, the human priest on another server, also had metals and gems stored, because I used a copy of him for some beta-testing. But he now sold all of the stuff, and will stick to tailoring, if I ever get around to it. He didn't even have an epic ground mount yet, but now he has the gold for one.
While leveling up jewelcrafting I made hundreds of rings, necklaces, and trinkets. These are basically worthless to a vendor, compared to the cost of the materials, and the auction house is already swamped with the products of all these new jewelcrafters. So I mailed the whole bunch to my blood elf mage. Then I had to level the mage to level 10, to raise his level cap for enchanting to 160 (blood elfs get a +10 bonus), which enabled me to disenchant about half of what I had produced. Disenchanting items now requires a certain minimum skill level, depending on the item level, and you can't just disenchant everything with a level 1 enchanter any more. But no problem, playing the mage was a nice break from leveling up in Outland. The blood elf lands are very pretty, and the quests are interesting enough, although some of the draenei quests were even better.
I was having fun with the Burning Crusade. Interestingly a lot of quests had changed since I did the BC beta, so I didn't know all of them already. While during the week there were still some server crashes, on the weekend the server was mostly stable. As expected some places were terribly overcamped, but the dynamic spawn system made it at least bearable. I saw one boss mob respawning so fast (responding to demand) that in the end there were three of his corpses lying around. That kind of environment feels strange, but at least you're not stuck in your quests.
But I couldn't help wondering how long the fun would last. 2 levels in the first week, even if the next levels are slower I'll finish them in less than 2 months. And then what? 10 months of raiding until the next expansion comes out? I will certainly start raiding at level 70, but I'm not sure I won't get terribly bored with that rather soon. If the Lord of the Rings Online really comes out end of March, I might want to play that instead, and cut down significantly on my WoW time. Might even want to cancel the account until the next expansion comes out. The Burning Crusade is certainly not bad, but the phrase "too little, too late" comes to mind. Anyone think that you can play BC for a year without getting bored?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Boing Boing linked

I got linked to by Boing Boing, one of the big news portals of the internet. I still remember when I first got slashdotted, and my daily visits jumped from around 20 to over 1,000. But times have changed: While the Boing Boing link still is "worth" 1,000 daily visits for a day or two, now it just raises the score from 2,000 to 3,000. Much less visible. And using it as a verb sounds less good, I didn't want to say I got "boing boinged". :)
The article Boing Boing linked to is the one about my measurement of the size of Azeroth. At which point I of course have to mention that this 80 square miles figure is pre-BC. I haven't measured it yet, but I'd guess that Outland is as big as each of the other two continents, adding another 40 square miles for a total of 120 square miles. But as one other site which got its news from Boing Boing said, that is just "geek math".

BC hits the New York Times

You all seen them: The type of people who rush through the game to be the first at level X, shortly after a game releases or the level cap rises. So somebody proudly proclaiming that he was the first level 65 on his server after the Burning Crusade went live I normally wouldn't consider news. Except for this one does it in the New York Times, and in the Arts section, no less!

Memorable quote: "Of course in an online role-playing game like World of Warcraft the biggest and most central draw for most players is in exploring that virtual world and making one’s character more powerful."

There you have it, MMORPG explained in a nutshell. And the author is totally right that these two factors of exploring and growing contribute a lot to the lure of the expansion. But why rush? Once you reach level 70 the exploring and growing will be over again, or at least reduced to the snail pace you get from the end-game content.

And of course the author got tells of “You guys are huge nerds.” to which he comments "Yes, and proud ones, I might add." Only that being a huge nerd apparently is mainstream nowadays.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Playing WoW on your cell phone

World of Warcraft runs on PCs, and on no other platform. Blizzard often gets asked whether they will port it onto one or several next generation consoles, but they always say that the idea is interesting, but not something that will happen in the near future. The interest lies in the fact that more people own a console than own a PC capable of playing WoW. The problem lies in the fact that people would expect the same experience on every platform, and that is by no means easy. But what if you could play *parts* of World of Warcraft on another platform, a portable one, like your cell phone?

Imagine it is your lunch break at work, or you are traveling, and you have a bit of time, but not the hardware and connection to play World of Warcraft. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a mini-version of WoW on your cell phone that would only allow you to log into the game, chat with your friends and guild mates, and do some activities with your character that don’t require a 3D interface? For example buying and selling on the auction house, sending and receiving mail, and managing your inventory would all be very much possible on a cell phone, without requiring much data volume nor graphics capabilities.

For the players that would be convenient. For the game company this could be an additional source of income. Blizzard sells the “WoW cell phone client” for $5, and does a deal with the cell phone company that gives Blizzard 5 cents for every minute that somebody connects. Given the millions of players, that could quickly add up to quite a large pile of money.

Spinning the idea further, some people would certainly use the cell phone WoW even when at home, because it allows their characters to access the mail box, bank, and auction house without being in a city. That adds even more additional income. People spend crazy amounts of money on cell phones, for useless things like logos and ring tones, it would be only logical if MMO game companies would want a piece of that pie.

Realistically speaking the idea is probably a couple of years ahead of its time. World of Warcraft might never get there. But I wouldn’t be surprised if in 10 years some other game introduces this feature. Making additional money with very little development effort might well prove irresistible to game companies.

I want to be a lone hero

Fantasy MMORPGs cast the player in the role of a hero. They work by making the player believe that he, either alone or in a group, braves great dangers, for which he is rewarded not only with treasure, but also with a sense of accomplishment. For this it is necessary for us to “forget” that when we kill the evil sorcerer, we aren’t the first to do so, and once we are gone the evil sorcerer pops back into existence to be killed by the next hero.

Right now the Burning Crusade is causing me problems. Not just the queues, the lag, or the repeated server resets I encountered last night. But because, with every spawn in Hellfire Peninsula being camped by at least a dozen people, I just can’t manage to forget that I am not unique. And I have the same problems with my blood elf mage in the newbie zones. At one point my mage started his combats by sticking a dagger in the mobs that spawned next to him. Because if he had stepped back and launched a fireball instead, the mob would have been claimed by somebody else in the 3 seconds that this would take.

In the best of cases I group with the other players standing around to kill a specific monster. But unlike other groups, which are formed to be stronger together, I am very much aware that I could have killed that monster alone, I just group so that one kill scores for the quest of several people, relieving some pressure. That is rational, but not very heroic.

The more normal case is that every player just plays for himself, tagging one mob at a time. In practical terms that means that every quest takes a bit longer, because I have to wait for respawns and run around more to find something to kill. But that is not the only impact. Lots of players grinding a limited number of monster spawns also feels a lot more like work than like a heroic achievement.

In the worst case the players start fighting among each other who gets to kill a spawn. The more players are hunting a mob, and the fewer of this mob there are, or the slower they respawn, the easier that happens. People accidentally or on purpose killsteal mobs from each other. People tag several mobs to prevent others from getting them. The event about the opening of the Dark Portal, in the week before the expansion came out, was probably the worst example I have ever witnessed, with players turning on PvP to be able to kill other players, just because those other players wanted to kill 6 demons for a quest too. Situations like that resemble more a food fight among little children than anything remotely heroic.

I play MMOGs because of the interaction with other players, the groups, the guild, the chat, strangers you meet, friends you make, the player-based economy. I wouldn’t want the world to be instanced so that I never meet anyone. But beyond a certain population density, other players start to become annoying. Right now questing in Hellfire Peninsula just doesn’t feel right. I want to heroically fight evil monsters, not treacherously fight other players for the tag.

If the servers were stable enough, I’d escape with a group into the Hellfire Citadel instances. But yesterday that wasn’t really the case, and I’m not too optimistic about the upcoming first Burning Crusade weekend. So I’m currently wondering whether I should spend time this weekend doing quests I didn’t do yet in places like Winterspring or Silithus, which should be a lot less populated.

I want to be a lone hero. But by definition a hero is an above average person. If you stand in a huge crowd of people all doing the same thing as you do, it is hard to feel anything heroic about that. I’m not saying that the narrative of the hero’s journey is not possible in a MMORPG, but I think it requires a better dispersion of players. Right now, due to the expansion, World of Warcraft has problems offering that.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Burning Crusade Levels

Trick question: how many additional levels does the Burning Crusade add to World of Warcraft? Nominally the answer is 10, from 60 to 70. But looking at it a bit closer the expansion levels behave differently than the previous levels. A Burning Crusade level is a curious hybrid between one and two old levels, so in practice the expansion adds between 10 and 20 effective levels to the game. Lets have this closer look:

The first thing you probably notice before you even make it to level 61 is that the leveling curve is much steeper. Getting from level 60 to level 61 takes more than twice the xp that you needed from level 59 to 60. The “length” of each BC level, measured in the number of quests you need to do and monsters you need to kill is more than twice that of the pre-60 WoW levels, This is not just the fact that the higher the level, the longer it is, there is an added factor of about 2 in the xp and time to level.

Once you level up it becomes clear that in the Burning Crusade new spells and abilities become available at every level, while in the pre-60 levels you only got new spells and abilities every 2 levels. But in total from level 60 to 70 you don’t gain as many new spells and abilities as in 20 levels pre-60.

Some effects of levels are linked strictly to the numerical level. From level 60 to 70 you only gain 10 talent points. And your stats only go up 10 times. But your talents and level-based stats are only one part of your total power; another big part is based on your equipment. And with the Burning Crusade gear being significantly better to that what you can gain with the same effort at level 60 in the old zones, your total power to 70 goes up by more than 10 levels.

The final result is that both from a view of effort to get there, and from a view of gain in power and abilities, the Burning Crusade gives more than 10 effective levels. In effect the number is closer to, but lower than, 20. That is good news, because it means that the Burning Crusade adds more than 16% to the World of Warcraft. Blizzard stated that the expansion would add 25% to the game, and looking at the effective levels that number sounds believable.

Europe vs. US RMT difference

Thank you to the reader who brought this to my attention: Apparently there is a huge difference in prices between World of Warcraft gold on an US server and the same amount of gold on an European server. There is an article about that named "Is Europe the 'Third World' of Warcraft?", but if you want to read it, you'll have to google it. Because the site that posts it is a price comparison site for WoW gold sellers, and I'm not linking to such sites.

But I checked a gold seller, and yet, WoW gold in the US is about 10 times more expensive than in Europe. 1000 gold in the US cost $300 to $400, while you can get 1000 gold in Europe for $30 to $40. A striking difference.

Quote: "The cost involved in producing (farming) gold on Europe must simply be lower than the cost involved in producing the same gold on World of Warcraft USA. What this means is that Blizzard is policing its American realms far, far more rigorously than it is policing its European realms."

Can't argue with that. If the cost of farming gold was the same in Europe and in the US, and the farmers are Chinese who play whereever they earn most, prices on the two continents should be the same. Because otherwise the farmers would just move to where they can sell the gold for more money. Only Blizzard wielding a heavy ban stick on the US realms, but leaving the European realms alone can explain the huge price difference.

I'm just not so sure which continent is worse off by that. If you think RMT is a very bad thing, you'd agree with the article that Europe was treated less well by Blizzard. But if you want to buy 1000 gold, you'd probably prefer to live in Europe. Makes you wonder if Blizzard is running a huge socio-economic experiment on a test sample of 3.5 million players to find out how bad RMT really is for a game.

Ten things you already knew about me

Brandon of MMO Gaming has interviewed me. I'm just posting the link here for reference. Feel free to read the interview, but be prepared that the questions mostly cover things that my blog readers already know about me. Starting with question 1) "What game are you currently playing?".

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Dynamic spawn system

Once upon a time in a classic MMORPG there was a camp of 10 foozles. And as there was a quest to hunt them for foozle pelts, often players came to that camp and started killing them. Using a classic respawn system common to many MMORPGs, whenever a foozle died, that triggered a timer, and 2 minutes later the foozle would respawn. So far, so good.

Now when a player started killing foozles, and needed about 30 seconds to kill one, the population of foozles would decrease. After 30 seconds the first foozle dies, and the first foozle timer starts, and the foozle population goes down to 9. The population decreases to 8, then 7, then 6. After 2 and a half minutes the fifth foozle dies, and the first foozle respawns, keeping the foozle population constant at 6, as long as there is only one player killing them.

But if a second player turns up, the stable population goes down further, to always only 2 foozles being alive. And if even more players turn up, for some periods of time no foozle at all is in the camp. If 10 players kill the 10 foozles simultaneously, the players then stand around in the camp for 2 minutes unable to proceed before the respawn timer has completed. That is obviously not good, especially if you expect many players to hunt in the same area.

So Blizzard decided that for the Burning Crusade expansion, in the new zones that would most certainly be overcrowded with players, the classic respawn system wasn't cutting it any more, and they invented the dynamic respawn system. They aren't saying exactly how it works, but I imagine it goes a bit like this:

There is a maximum distance from which a player can attack. So if you draw a big circle around the foozle camp, with a diameter of this maximum attack range, you can count how many players are close enough to the foozles to attack them. And the more players there are in that circle, the more you shorten the respawn timer. Alternatively you could also just count the number of alive foozles, and make the respawn timer shorter when there are less of them alive. In both cases the more the foozles are camped, the faster they respawn, and there is much less of a problem of players not being able to find a single foozle to kill.

But the dynamic spawn system does have its disadvantages as well. If one player meets two foozles, and needs 30 seconds to kill the first one, then another 30 seconds to kill the second one, and due to lots of other players around the respawn timer is down to 30 seconds, by the time the second foozle dies, the first one respawns at that position. Now the combat never ends, unless the player runs away, because every time he kills a foozle, the other one reappears. Sooner or later the player is out of mana and/or health, and is cursing loudly about the stupid respawns.

So if you are playing the Burning Crusade and you wonder why you are swamped with constant respawns, that is just a side effect of the new dynamic spawn system. That can be annoying, but believe me, you'd be more annoyed if you couldn't find a mob to kill.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

My first day in Burning Crusade

Once I had the Burning Crusade up and running, I started by moving my main character undead priest through the Dark Portal into Outland. Took the flight path to Thrallmar, and rode through Hellfire Peninsula all the way west to Zandermarsh, tagging the Falcon Watch flight point on the way. In Zandermarsh I turned south and rode to Terrokar Forest and the city of Shattrath, where I set my hearthstone. I assume this is where my bind point will stay at least until the next expansion, because in Shattrath there are permanent teleport portals to all other cities.

After having set the bind point, I took one of this portals, to Silvermoon. I unlearned tailoring, and took up jewelcrafting instead. Now theoretically I have all the materials to take jewelcrafting to 300. But practically this is lot of stuff, and it is distributed over 4 characters, one with metals, one with gems, one with all the elemental ingredients, and the undead priest with the miscellaneous stuff like large fangs and flasks of mojo, plus the recipes. As an added complication I stored far more than necessary of these materials, so I'm sure I won't be caught short, and I can probably resell the excess for twice of what I bought it for. So I didn't mail all of the stuff to the jewelcrafter, but mailed batches of what I'd need for the next 50 or so points in jewelcrafting, waited until it arrived, did the skilling up, and then sent the next batch. Thus I only got until 135 in skill last night, but I'm not really in a hurry.

In the waiting time I did one dungeon trip with some guild mates, to the Hellfire Furnace. Yeah, I know, that is actually the second of the Hellfire dungeons, and not the first. But we did allright, with no deaths. Perfect party mix, my priest, a druid, a warrior, a mage, and a warlock. The mage + warlock combo is perfect crowd control in a dungeon full of orc warlocks, because you can sheep the orc and banish the demon. First mob dropped a paladin libram, and of course on the first day of BC in a Horde group we didn't have a level 60 paladin yet. Second mob dropped cloth bracers, but I didn't roll for them, as my tier 2 bracers were just as good. The last mob dropped some leather armor, to the delight of the druid. So no loot for me except for some random green stuff, but one dungeon trip already got me about 30% of the way to level 61, so I was pleased enough.

I also moved my troll warrior to Shattrath, because I realized that I'd better park him in a city or inn, and not in front of the Dark Portal where he was. Rest xp are back, and I want him to be charged up with them to the max. And of course set his bind point to Shattrath as well. I doubt there will be many people above level 58 left soon which are bound elsewhere than Shattrath.

Then I made a new character, a blood elf mage. I took a look at the male character model on the character creation screen, and decided to make a female instead. I'm not usually homophobe, but playing a powerful mage, able to incinerate everything, but who looks positively gay somehow goes beyond my roleplaying abilities. All the homosexual men I ever met were far too gentle for a thrower-of-fireballs role. So I made a female blood elf mage, and leveled her up to level 5. Then I moved her to Silvermoon and learned tailoring and enchanting. The idea is that my jewelcrafter will have to make a lot of low level jewelry to level up, and nobody will want to buy the stuff. So I'd rather use it to train enchanting on my new character than to vendor it.

All in all a successful first evening in the Burning Crusade. I refuse to get rushed, even if I already saw some people reach level 63 on the first day. For me the goal is the playing and experiencing, not getting the getting somewhere.

So how did your first day of Burning Crusade go?

Blizzard vs. Pessimism

Welcome dear sports fans to this exciting event in which Blizzard tries to beat the pessimism of Tobold's Burning Crusade release day chaos predictions. The rules are simple: I try to buy, install, and get running a copy of the Burning Crusade expansion on his computer. Blizzard scores a point for everything that goes right, pessimism scores a point for everything that goes wrong, regardless of whether it is Blizzard's fault or not.

The game starts with an early goal for pessimism, when on Saturday before release date the online retailer where I pre-ordered my copy of Burning Crusade in September (!!!) has some problem processing a perfectly good credit card, and the order is dropped out of the waiting queue. In spite of giving another credit card number, the order is stuck in "processing" still 5 days later, and I have to call them to cancel it. 0:1.

Blizzard evens the score when I go in the afternoon to a local major retailer, and there is a complete wall full of Burning Crusade boxes, in both French and English. Apparently the normal BC boxes are in abundant supply everywhere, only the collectors edition is nowhere available. I give that point to Blizzard. 1:1

Starting the installation Blizzard scores a quick and highly unexpected goal by opening a window in which you enter your account name, password, and BC key. On clicking OK the application connects to Blizzard and updates your account in less than 5 seconds! Being mentally prepared to have to wait for hours on the account upgrade page, this is a big point to Blizzard. 2:1

Blizzard scores another point when I visit their website to see whether it is up, and find the site completely redecorated. The WoW homepage is stripped down to a minimum, offering all the services important on launch day, like account upgrade, technical support, and the forums, leaving out all the bells and whistles that only create unneccessary bandwith usage. Clever idea, one point to Blizzard, 3:1.

Pessimism catches up when I have installation problems, the installation gets stuck on disc 4. I copy all the discs to a hard drive and install from there, which works. But a friend calls me in panic, haven gotten stuck on disc 2, same problem. Apparently the installer is a bit sensitive when you click OK too fast. Not good, one point to pessimism. 3:2

I finally get everything installed and start patching. No points for anyone, the patch process is long and annoying, put you can reuse the previously downloaded huge 219 MB 2.0.1 to 2.0.3 patch file. Lets call that a draw, still 3:2

Finally the game is patched, and I expect the login server to be down, and a huge queue on my server. But Blizzard scores a final point by getting me into the game immediately. I give only one point, because it isn't prime time yet. But this brings the final result to 4:2 for Blizzard, scoring them a clear win over my pessimistic predictions. Grats, Blizzard, well done!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Player-created quests

Zoso has a brilliant article about the NPC whose house is filled with murloc eyes. And he mentions the idea of player-created quests, but is doubtful about it. And I think that if you'd allow players to write quest descriptions etc., most player quests would be really bad. But in a way player-created quests already exist, you can find them in the auction house.

A short look at the trade goods section of the auction house tells you that a stack of runecloth sells for 1 to 2 gold. That *is* basically a quest: "Go forward and kill level 50+ humanoids. Collect 20 of the runecloth they drop, and I will pay you 1 to 2 gold." Only the xp reward is missing. And from all the possible monster drops, trade goods are a rather small part.

So to make a game with player-created quests, you would need to expand the crafting system a lot, so that it uses a lot more of items that drop of monsters. Then a crafter who needs items for a tradeskill goes to some sort of NPC and indicates what he needs and how much he is willing to pay for it. The NPC transforms this buy request into a quest, adding information about on what mob to kill to get the item in question, and an appropriate xp reward. But you can't get the xp reward by simply handing in the items, you need to take the quest first, then kill the mobs, and while you are on the quest every item that drops that is needed for the quest is flagged as "quest item". This is necessary because otherwise two people could just get endless xp by sending the same stack of runecloth back and forth.

The interesting part of that is that it creates a more dynamic quest system. The demand of items varies with time, so the quests on offer change with time. If the crafted items are actually good, and not much inferior to found items as they often are in tradeskill systems, a symbiotic relationship develops between adventurers and crafters. The crafters pay the adventurers to go materials hunting, and the adventurers buy the crafted items. This is probably extremely hard to balance right, but could make for a very compelling game.


You might have noticed that in these pre-BC days I've written a lot about other games, both specific reviews and generalizations. While the question "what makes a good MMORPG?" isn't going away, there is an obvious risk that starting from tomorrow I'll be too busy with the Burning Crusade expansion of World of Warcraft to think about other games. Experience of fun beats theory of fun. :) But before the focus of this blog shifts once again, I'd like to talk about one major success factor of modern MMOGs: Accessibility.

The best games are easy to learn, but difficult to master. But often MMORPGs fail on the "easy to learn" part. You are given endless freedom, and too few clues what to do next. You leave the newbie area, come to a crossroad, and find yourself confronted with roads in three different directions, without any hint in which of these directions there are quests and monsters you could do at your level. As one of the directions leads into much higher level monsters that will kill you with a single hit, and another is leading you into a dead end or a lower level area, having the freedom to choose then often ends in frustration.

Now single-player games often have invisible walls or something blocking the "wrong" ways, forcing you into a linear gameplay, which isn't so much fun either. But WoW pioneered the idea to have a NPC with a big yellow exclamation mark standing at the crossroads, who miraculously detects that you are of the level likely to come out of the newbie zone, and gives you a quest to carry a parcel into the area where the next levels of quests and monsters are. You still have the total freedom to go wherever you want, but you also get guidance towards the direction where you are most likely to want to go. This concept of guidance has made World of Warcraft a lot more accessible to a lot of people who previously wouldn't have played a MMORPG, and thus increased the total market size for these games.

But accessibility doesn't begin or end with just quests. Another major element is the user-interface. And there we still have a long way to go. MMOG user interfaces have improved over the years, but still are far from perfect. In many games there are still quite a number of actions which you can only perform by typing a /command in the command line. Which over 10 years after the death of MSDOS is an anachronism, and is only serving to scare people away. Luckily in World of Warcraft the use of /commands and macros is mostly optional. But having observed newbies panic on receiving a tell, because there is no reply button, and you have to know how to start a reply (press R, or type /reply, or left-click on the name of the sender), I can see that there is room for improvement.

Once beyond the learning phase, accessibility doesn't end to be important. While a game should be difficult to master, it shouldn't be impossible to finish or to progress in. With progressing being probably the more important part. Again World of Warcraft made big progress in accessibility by lowering the bar of how many hours are required to level up. Also important is that WoW allowed people to progress while playing solo. The lowered time requirement and soloability enabled people who don't have a lot of leisure time to still log on, play an hour, and make some visible progress towards the next level. No xp loss or xp debt on death means that you *always* progress, you can't get stuck in an endless loop.

All of this broadened the potential user base. If you need to be an expert in gaming and computer programming, and have 4+ consecutive hours available to play a game, that eliminates already quite a lot of people from playing. World of Warcraft showed that the number of people who *would* play a MMORPG if they *could* was a lot bigger than the previous existing number of online roleplayers.

Accessibility means more players, which results in more profit for the company, which results in more money available for re-investing, and that is generally a good thing. There are some elitist purists, who prefer MMOGs to be arcane and difficult, only accessible for the hardcore elite of gamers. But economically that doesn't make much sense. Some game developers have understood that, but others still think that for some reason of purity online role-playing games should be highly complex and require endless amounts of time and dedication. The inherent Darwinism of the capitalist system will weed them out over time. But the 2007 crops of new games still has too many games that will fail to grab a major market share simply because they aren't accessible enough.

The Crushbone Factor

I keep mentioning it, so I think it's time to dedicate a post to it: The Crushbone factor. As the term dates back to the time where Everquest had a near-monopoly grip on the MMOG market it is maybe a bit outdated. But on the other hand I haven't found a better word yet to describe a puzzling phenomenon: If you take two MMORPG which have a very similar feature list and actually play both of them, one of them can be much more fun as the other, without you being able to describe what the difference is. And I think the difference is often one of Crushbone factor.

Crushbone was the name of a low-level zone in the original Everquest, located just north of the wood elf starting area. The zone was populated by orcs. But it wasn't just a zone full of orc camps, the place felt positively alive. There was a whole orc ecosystem there. Emperor Crushbone is sitting in his castle, planning an invasion of Faydark with the help of his evil dark elf advisor, Ambassador D'vinn. There were mines in which the orcs forced slaves to labor. There was a hill on which the orc trainer was training the troops. And you got to see all that, because there were quests which told you the story of the place, and some of the best items in the game for that level, like the Shiny Brass Shield dropped there. The place was dangerous, especially if you wanted to take down the emperor himself, but the rewards were worth it. It was a bit like a non-instanced raid dungeon. And there is barely an Everquest player who didn't visit it, and who doesn't remember it fondly. So fondly that the latest EQ2 expansion, Echoes of Faydwer, which brings back Crushbone and the other zones of that continent is renewing the interest of many veteran gamers in that game.

The Crushbone factor is the hard to explain difference between Crushbone and a generic zone full of generic orcs. The added value that you get from having a zone that is alive, which is more than the sum of its parts, where everything fall together to create a fun and memorable experience. Unfortunately it is not only hard to describe, it is even harder to recreate.

Even World of Warcraft doesn't always manage it, although the game has some good zones. For example most of the cities in World of Warcraft seem relatively alive. Who doesn't remember the little boy William in Stormwind, stealing his sister's dolly, and running all over the place with her? But that experience isn't perfect, because while we wish we could smack William and give the dolly back to his sister Molly, we can't. There is no interaction with the players. World of Warcraft scores better with similar game elements, like the rabbits or sheep running around farm communities. Not only can you see the rabbits being chased and killed by wolves, you can interfere and either kill the rabbit or the wolf. You can skin the rabbit, or the sheep, and the sheep even sometimes gives you wool from skinning, which is a nice touch. The sick deer in Darkshore can be cured by a quest. All this is helping to make the virtual world feel more real, but still it is not as good as Crushbone. The best places are those where you get the feeling that you kill mobs for some greater purpose, and not just for getting some xp, loot, and a quest reward. Where your adventures make you part of the world, where you live the story.

But this is more of a feeling than a list of required features. Over the weekend I played in the Vanguard and LotRO betas, and LotRO had a strong Crushbone factor feeling (better than WoW actually), while Vanguard didn't. Besides the NDA not permitting me to talk about LotRO features, it is actually easier to explain what Vanguard doesn't have than to explain what LotRO has. Vanguard simple often feels too empty and dead. You travel along a river, and come upon a camp of huts. You expect somebody to live there, and approach carefully, not knowing whether there are peaceful fishermen, or some sort of humanoid monsters. And then you are disappointed that it is neither, the camp is simply void of all life, there is nothing to interact with. And you get the same experience over and over again, huge cities with few inhabitants, beautiful ruins with nobody around, large stretches of fantastic landscapes where you meet neither mob nor NPC nor harmless animals running around. What is sad about it is the obvious potential to be a living, breathing world. Much of the landscape and architecture of Vanguard is breathtaking. The fishing village or the abandoned ruins are *there*, the developers would just need more time to fill them. And given the size of the world, they would need a lot of time to fill the whole world with life. Time that the January 30th release date is not going to give them. And filling a world with life after it has been released is a lot more difficult.

Besides filling the world with life, and interweaving the quests and mobs in an area into a coherent story, I can't even really give advice to the developers. Just like most of us are able to see a movie and decide whether it is "good" or "bad", without being able to make a good movie, I as a player can feel the Crushbone factor when it is there. But I probably wouldn't be a good game developer, because I don't know much about the techniques to create a virtual world. I can only live them. And blog about them.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Lord of the Rings Online NDA

I actually took the time to read the important passages of the NDA for the LotRO beta. The relevant paragraph 5 on confidentiality says: "Protection of Confidential Information. During the course of the Preview Program, you will have access to non-public information concerning the Game, including, but not limited to, the game design, look and feel, computer software, game concepts, storylines, features, screen shots, characters, graphics, audio, visual images, any information, discussions or postings of Codemasters or other participants in Preview, Feedback, business methods or other technical or business information which is not generally known and which is proprietary to Codemasters and/or Turbine (and/or their respective affiliates, publishing partners, licensors or licensees) (“Confidential Information”). All of the foregoing is confidential and proprietary to Codemasters and/or Turbine (or their respective affiliates, publishing partners, licensors or licensees). You agree to treat as confidential all Confidential Information (including your password) of which you become or are made aware in connection with your participation in Preview, regardless of whether it is specifically designated as confidential and regardless of whether it is in written, oral, electronic, or other form. The Confidential Information may include, without limitation, trade secrets, know-how, inventions, game interfaces, technical data or specifications, testing methods, business or financial information, research and development activities, product and marketing plans, and customer and supplier information. You agree that you shall maintain all Confidential Information in strict confidence; you will not disclose or permit access to Confidential Information to anyone other than Codemasters or Turbine (or its respective affiliates, publishing partners, licensors and/or licensees), or discuss Confidential Information with anyone except within the Game itself or on the Preview boards accessible by logging in with a username and password on."

In plain English, I'm not allowed to give you a preview of Lord of the Rings Online, or blog a "first impressions" post telling you anything about this game works. But this confidentiality covers only game information. My opinion per se is not covered, as long as I don't explain the in-game details of what I like or dislike. So here is a very short statement of my opinion on LotRO, with more to follow when the NDA is lifted:

I am *so* going to buy this game! It is absolutely wonderful. And given the right conditions the Lord of the Rings Online could even make a dent in World of Warcraft's armor of total market domination. Way to go, Turbine! Practice makes perfect. :)

Friday, January 12, 2007

How big is Azeroth?

It takes quite some time to completely explore every corner of the World of Warcraft, Azeroth. But how big is this world in square miles or square kilometers? While other game companies brag about the size of their worlds, Blizzard is keeping mum about this. So I had to go out and measure it myself.

If you have a look at the continent of Kalimdor, you will see that it is roughly rectangular, and three times as long as it is wide. So if we could measure how wide it is, we would have its area. And the second continent, the Eastern Kingdoms, while being shaped more irregularly, has roughly the same area. But how do you measure the widths of a continent?

To measure a square mile, you first need to define what a mile is. As "a mile" doesn't even have the same length on different places on our earth, that isn't trivial. The basic definition of a mile is coming from Roman times, defining a mile a 1000 double steps of a marching legion. The soldiers had to walk through all of Europe anyway, so you just needed to count their steps and had the place all measured up with few extra effort. Clever guys, these Romans. But on Azeroth "steps" aren't that easy to count, and the length of legs between the different races varies widely. But interestingly all races move at the same running speed, so it makes sense to define the mile by the time it takes to run it. On earth, a marathon runner has a running speed of about 12 miles per hour. As everybody on Azeroth is a hero, lets just define the Azerothian running speed as 12 mph as well. This effectively defines an Azerothian mile as "the distance you can run in 5 minutes", without using any speed enhancing items of course.

So what I did was run from the east end of Thousand Needles to the west coast of Feralas, because you can do so in pretty much a straight line. I timed it, and crossing the width of the continent of Kalimdor running took me 18 minutes and 35 seconds. That makes the distance 3.7 miles. That means the continent of Kalimdor is 41 square miles (just over 100 square kilometers) big, and the world of Azeroth pre-Burning Crusade is about 80 square miles or 200 square kilometers.

I called Kalimdor a continent. But at 41 square miles it doesn't really qualify. The island of Manhattan has 20 square miles, and somebody else compared it to Azeroth. He used a different method, but ended up with a similar result. The Isle of Wight, a small island in the channel between the UK and the European continent, is 146 square miles, and thus bigger than the World of Warcraft including Outland. Azeroth is a pretty small place.

But in the end measuring the size of a virtual world in square miles doesn't make much sense anyway. If you made a parallel World of Warcraft with exactly the same number of quests and mobs, and the same geography, but just doubled all distances, Azeroth would be 4 times as big. But that wouldn't add anything to the game. So counting the size of Azeroth in number of quests is a better indicator of game "size". And in that respect World of Warcraft is easily beating other games that just have more land mass.

Move or stay?

World of Warcraft is undergoing a period in which server populations change a lot. People resubscribe for the Burning Crusade, and server get overcrowded until there is a free server transfer, a server split, or people are paying for a paid server transfer. Great migrations, WoW style. So a lot of players will pose themselves the question whether to move or whether to stay.

The main disadvantage of moving to a different server is a social one: You don't know anybody on the new server. If you are in a guild you like, and the guild didn't decide to move as a whole, moving would mean giving up your guild and friends, in the hope of finding a new guild and new friends. Of course if your guild just exploded in a huge fight that might actually be an advantage.

People who just resubscribed after a prolonged absence don't have that problem. Sad as it is, but WoW guilds are often very fast-living, with a high turnover, and if you haven't been online for a couple of months, either you've got kicked out, or nobody remembers you. You might as well move to a different server. The same is true for people who didn't join a guild, or who joined one of the numerous phantom guilds which don't really play together.

The main advantage of moving to a new server is that you avoid login queues and lag. But there are other advantages as well: The economy is different on newer servers, with less inflated prices for trade goods, and more lower level items still being traded in the auction house. Interesting especially if your character isn't level 60 yet. Very new servers also have a higher percentage of the population below level 60, so finding a group below level 60 is easier.

So if you are offered a free server move, and you have no social ties to a guild or friends, moving is probably a good idea. I'd stay away from paid server moves, unless you have real-life friends on the server where you want to move to.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Vanguard tourism

My Vanguard: Saga of Heroes experience has its ups and downs. Yesterday was predominantly a down day, which ended me up being very disappointed. I had run out of quests with my level 10 cleric, and noticed that, unlike WoW, Vanguard doesn't have "bring this parcel to the next area where you will conveniently find the next bunch of quest givers" quests. So I saddled my virtual horse and traveled around the continent of Qalia all evening as a tourist, looking what else there was than newbie areas.

That started nice enough, with the discovery that in Vanguard you can mount your horse while running, you can cast buffs while mounted, and if you cast an offensive spell you automatically dismount, instead of getting a "you can't do that on a horse" error message. But while moving away from Khal I noticed that my framerate wasn't improving. It stubbornly stuck between 7 and 10 fps, which isn't the smoothest way to see a virtual world. And apparently that wasn't a graphics card problem, because the Vanguard lag meter informs you about "network fps". I simply couldn't get a better framerate, because the connection was lagging. Sigh!

Things went downhill from there. I did find level 10 and higher mobs, but it became quickly apparent that there were very few quests beyond level 10. I could have leveled up by just grinding dispersed random mobs, but that isn't much fun. What is definitely missing is the "Crushbone factor", the added kick from having an area in which quests, mobs, and background story fall together to make a unity that is memorable. Vanguard sure has some interesting landscapes and architecture, but they aren't well used. While riding around I found one huge city right out of Arabian Nights, but there were only a handful of NPC vendors there, and not much going on. I also found some other interesting buildings, including a huge temple in the wilderness, but there were neither mobs nor NPCs there. In some places I could ride 15 minutes in a straight line and not meet a single mob nor NPC. What good are empty landscapes for a virtual world?

In the north-western corner of Qalia I stumbled upon a deserted mountain, a huge area, which had a handful of housing plots. Maybe 20 in total over the area, with up to 6 bundled in clusters. At this point I realized that player housing in Vanguard will be a huge disappointment. There simply won't be a housing plot for every player, and as the plots and houses cost huge amounts of money, only the most leet or large guilds will be able to afford a house. This isn't really "player housing", it is more "guild housing for the elite". A rough estimate from the amount of world I've seen and the number of housing plots I've encountered tells me that there will only be a few hundreds of them, on a server with a prime-time population of 3,000 to 5,000 players, which corresponds to roughly 20,000 players per server total. Only a few, single digit percent of the population will end up with a house. Bleh!

The final nail in the coffin was the news spreading like wildfire on the chat channels that SOE had announced January 30 as the official Vanguard release date. I nearly choked on that one. Vanguard does have potential, but it solidly falls into the category of half-finished. No way will this game be in any state which could decently be described as ready for release in less than 3 weeks. SOE is shooting themselves in the foot here, releasing an incomplete game two weeks after the Burning Crusade is probably the worst possible move. Three to six more months would both much improve the game, and draw on a pool of WoW players finding that the expansion couldn't keep them playing forever.

So my current plan is to ride around some other continents, maybe make a halfling rogue or so to see how other characters play, and then abandon Vanguard in time for the Burning Crusade. For this Saturday I got an invite for a Lord of the Rings Online Euro beta stress test. It only lasts half a day, from noon to midnight, and as far as I know the NDA isn't lifted yet, but at least it will give me an opportunity to compare this to Vanguard. Because I don't believe in a "WoW Killer" at this point in time, and in the end the games coming out in early 2007 will have to fight it out between them who grabs the second prize.

World of Warcraft hits the 8 million mark

These "resubscribe to WoW early before the BC rush" e-mails really worked: Blizzard just announced World of Warcraft now having 8 million paying customers, of which 2 million are in North America, 1.5 million in Europe, and 3.5 million in China.

Now compare that to the 280,000 players that pre-WoW were thought to be the size of the European MMO market. World of Warcraft increased the market size at least 5-fold. Sorry, don't have the numbers for North America, but I'm sure the overall market size grew there as well. That is important, because paying customers equal profit which equals future investment in new games. That could be Blizzard working on World of Starcraft, or other companies wanting their share of the pie. Now the market has been proven to be there, people start investing. And while not all the games produced that way will be good, overall we players will get more choice between better games. And even if you hate WoW, you'll have to thank Blizzard for that.

Customer service in the event of being hacked

A reader directed my attention this Blizzard customer service forum post: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! As the advent of the expansion looms ever closer, we have noticed a marked increase in players posting on this and other forums regarding the current status of their account investigation; more specifically, there seems to be some concern as to whether all restoration of characters and items lost due to compromise shall be concluded before The Burning Crusade is released on Jan. 16.
We can certainly appreciate players' desire to know precisely where they stand in regards to their investigation, and how much longer they shall have to wait before restoration can occur, as we recognise and share the player base's sense of urgency in the matter; please be advised, however, that neither the in-game Game Masters, nor those who moderate the Customer Service Forum, shall be able to provide any additional information beyond what is offered in the update e-mails sent at regular intervals by the Account Investigations team. While it may happen that those e-mails do not always contain all the pertinent information players seek, this is due to our having diverted all possible resources to the investigations themselves, in order to maximise the efficiency of the restoration process to the fullest extent possible under the circumstances.
(Please note: In our efforts to stave off clutter, any additional threads regarding this matter may be locked or deleted at our discretion.)

Apparently keyloggers and phishing scams have lead to a large amount of accounts having been "hacked", that is their password stolen, characters robbed, and either left naked or deleted. And customer service is unable to handle all these cases, which leads to waiting times of several weeks, if not months. And there is no information to be had where you are in the waiting queue and when your account will be restored. Obviously the affected players are angry, and post on the forums. And Blizzard tells them that they will just lock or delete their posts.

Being hacked is apparently the customer service situation which game companies are least able to handle. I remember in Everquest SOE stopped people from overwhelming customer service with "I've been hacked" requests by making reporting to have been hacked a bannable offence. Yes, you heard that right, if you came to customer service saying your account had been hacked, SOE would simply close down that account forever. The argument was that "hacking" didn't exist, all incidences were caused by people sharing accounts and passwords, and as that was against the EULA it was reason enough for banning. It "worked" insofar as soon nobody was complaining about hacking incidents any more. But it didn't improve SOE's reputation for good customer service.

Blizzard at least say they are working on each hacking incident, but if it takes several weeks to repair, you might as well start playing a new character. The problem is that Blizzard has no way of knowing what really happened. Was it a hacker who stripped your character, using a keylogger trojan? Or your little brother, using the password you attached with a post-it to your screen? Or did you try to dupe your money by sending it to a friend and then claiming you got hacked? Blizzard can't just automatically restore every character on request, that would be too easy to abuse. And a lengthy investigation into what exactly happens would cost a couple of hours of some customer service representative, which could easily wipe out all the profit they made from you.

Unpleasant as it is to have been hacked, in the end you will have to assume part of the responsability. If a virus formats your hard drive you can't demand restoration of your porn artistic image collection from Microsoft either. Phishing scams or keylogger trojans only work if you fall for them and have taken no preventive action. One would wish that Blizzard would handle these cases faster, but that isn't as easy as it seems. I can see how Blizzard will lose a couple of customers over this, but $15 only buys you so much customer service, and you quitting might be cheaper for Blizzard than a big effort to solve your case. The one to blame is the criminal who hacked you, Blizzard is as much a victim in this as you are.