Wednesday, February 28, 2007

GemList, a great addon for jewelcrafters

If you are a jewelcrafter in World of Warcraft, and your friends and guild mates know that, you sooner or later get tells asking you things like "Hey, what red gems can you make" or "Can you do anything that gives a bonus to healing?". At which point you're forced to look through the not very practical jewelcrafting interface for the gems in question and send the answer back as a /tell. Unless you install the wonderful addon GemList written by mikezter, which does exactly those replies for you.

You just need to educate your friends to send you the requests in the form of "!gem red" or "!gem healing", and the addon will send them a list of the red gems or the healing gems you can make automatically. In the default setup the jewelcrafter doesn't even see the incoming and outgoing tells from the addon, although I changed the options on mine to show at least the incoming tells. Very, very useful.

WoW on iPhone?

A reader asked me whether I had heard the stories about World of Warcraft coming to the iPhone, reported on iPhone World and WoWInsider. Well, the story sounds extremely dubious, and I don't think a *full* World of Warcraft could be played on any cell phone. Mostly because of a lack of a mouse. Just do the following simple experiment: Try to play World of Warcraft on a laptop without a USB mouse, just using the touchpad. It's horrible. Now if you just had a touch screen and no keyboard, like the iPhone has, directing a character through a 3D world would become an absolute nightmare and totally unplayable.

I mentioned before that I *do* think that MMORPG of the future, but not necessarily WoW, might have a "lite" version for cell phones, which just allows you to do things like sorting your inventory, accessing the mailbox, and buying and selling on the auction house. Or other game elements which you would like to access frequently, but for short periods. I'd call these the "tamagotchi elements", which some MMORPG have, like emptying your harvesters in SWG or paying the upkeep for your house. Being able to access those from your cell phone would probably be attractive for some players, and be a nice source of additional income for the game companies. Nothing empties the wallets of customers as fast as cell phone applications.

Existential Worlds Karazhan guide

Cyndre from Existential Worlds has a very nice guide to Karazhan (he calls it a review) in two parts here and here. Of course that comes with the usual *SPOILER* warning, if you don't want to know what lies ahead, don't read it. I tend to avoid spoilers for solo content, but apparently Karazhan is challenging, and wiping your raid group because you weren't informed and wanted to be surprised is not the thing to do.

The most important thing to know is that Karazhan is on a 7-day instance timer, which makes it hard for guilds to go there every night with a different group of people. If the guild started going there with two teams, A and B, for the remainder of the week they can't go there with a group containing members from both groups. Group A needs to stay together, and can replace dropouts only with people who haven't been to Karazhan that week. An organisational nightmare for large guilds.

RSS feed button

After having several readers write me whether I have an RSS feed, I installed this fancy orange buttom Feed in the sidebar. This is the feed that is offering. But to be totally honest I am not totally sure whether that feed is "RSS" or some other feed type, and how I would even find out. I just couldn't find an orange button saying "some feed".

On my computer I installed Internet Explorer 7 a while ago, which has an orange feed button integrated in the task bar, and which is able to find the feed of any site that has one.

Thanks to the helpful advice of my readers, I changed to another orange button, which doesn't say "RSS", but is apparently an accepted general feed icon.

LotRO interview at has an interview with Jeff Anderson, CEO of Turbine. Not much new, except for the interesting thought that the Founder's system lifetime membership could cause people to not rush through the game. Is it really the thought of the monthly fee that makes people want to reach the top as fast as possible? I don't think so.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

TomTom Go 710 review

I'm traveling again, and suffering from a flaky internet connection. But at least on this voyage I know exactly where I am, because I just bought a portable GPS car navigator, a TomTom Go 710. And I really, really like this gadget, it does more than I would have expected it to do.

Last time I used a car GPS was 6 years ago, in the US, when I rented a car with a Hertz Neverlost system. I still remember it, because I found the name so fitting. You are really never lost when you have a GPS, at the very least you know where you are. But at the time these systems were rather expensive, costing thousands of dollars, and worked with data on a CD with a drive in the trunk.

Fast forward to 2007 and GPS navigators have become tiny and portable. The TomTom Go 710 is 11.2 cm in its widest dimension, and weighs only 300 grams. Instead of a drive it has a 1 GB memory card, which holds the complete map of Western Europe, with 99% street coverage of most countries. If you want to go somewhere else, you either need to buy another memory card, or backup your Europe map on a PC, buy another map online, download and install it. But I wasn't really planning on taking it outside of Europe.

The TomTom Go 710 has a 4" touch screen, with a really intuitive user interface. You can set one address as your "home address", but you can also save many other addresses as favorites. You can even save complete voyages with several waypoints. Besides an address you can also select a "point of interest" as your target, for example an airport, hotel, or hospital. The map contains lots of information besides just roads. To my surprise, if you select to show your speed while driving, the GPS even knows what speed limit there is on the road you are on, and the speed display blinks in red if you are past the legal limit. That is probably why the speed display isn't on by default, some people might get annoyed. :) In the area I'm in I found the map information to be accurate and up to date, but of course that might change over the years, and I might have to buy a newer map online.

There are a ton of accessories in the box: the windscreen dock, a car charger that goes to your car's cigarette lighter, a home dock, a home charger that connects to the home dock, a microphone (I won't need it, but its for hands free talking with a bluetooth compatible cell phone), a GPS antenna (don't need that one either, it just improves the signal if your car windshield is too well isolated), a trafic information receiver antenna, and a carry case. The trafic information reception you can activate and get one free test month, but then you'll need to pay $50 a year for the service if you want to keep it. I haven't tested that yet, but I plan to try out the free month before deciding whether I need that.

The most important accessories are the two docks, car and home. At first I had problems getting the Tomtom Go 710 undocked, until I found that there is a button above the screen to do so. That wasn't mentioned in the manual, but shown as a pictogram in the "installation poster", where I didn't see it because there were too many pictures on it. Easy undocking is important, because the TomTom is so easily portable that it might be portable by the wrong persons, that is thieves. It is a lot more valuable and easier to steal than lets say a car radio, and easy to see from the outside, so undocking it and taking it with you, or at least locking it into the gloves compartment is recommended.

The home dock is very useful to connect the GPS navigator to your computer, and thus to the internet. You can get updates (some free, some for money) of data, new color schemes (for free), and even a wide range of new voices, in many different languages. I absolutely had to pay $10 to get John Cleese's voice on my GPS :), but most other voice files only cost half that. I also used the home dock to make a backup of my data, you never know. Not that the system is very talkative, it only speaks to you if you have to take a turn or something. If you come to a crossroads and the GPS remains silent, it means you need to drive straight. Probably better that way. The machine warns you a couple of hundred meters before a turn, and then again when you reach the point where you have to turn. If you miss a turn or go off the prescribed road, it quickly recalculates a new route, without complaining, so temporarily closed off roads aren't a problem. You could probably arrive at your destination just by listening to the voice, but of course there is also a very clear, zoomable map on the 4" screen, showing you exactly where you are, which way to go, and the roads and selected points of interest in the vicinity. You also get displayed how far it is to the next turn, to your destination, and how much time the machine estimates you will need there. Just don't rely on the estimate, because it bases its calculation on you driving without slowing down for a trafic jam, or stopping for a break.

Right now I'm very happy with the TomTom Go 710. It does what I want it to do, and more than that. It is small enough that I can take it with me if I'm traveling by plane and rental car in Europe, or even the US if I wanted to buy the map for that. With a 4 hour battery life I can even use it when not connected to a docking station and charger. I just need a clear view of the sky to get a signal from the GPS satellites. Lots of fun, and useful. Recommended.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Mischiefblog on Vanguard

I'm not playing Vanguard : Saga of Heroes, because the beta didn't convince me, and I found it released too soon, in an unfinished state. But to keep some "coverage" up on that game, I'll link to what others say about the game. Here are the first impressions on Vanguard from Mischiefblog. Who finds the game, surprise, surprise, to be unfinished. News to me was that the servers aren't stable either, which is surprising, because I don't think the game has all that many players.

If anyonone has seen a Vanguard blog review that is really, really excited about the game, please link it in the comments. Up to now I'm only finding the same story everywhere, and that story doesn't sound good.

A guild within a guild

Call me a pessimist, but I think my guild is on a slippery slope towards trouble and splitting up. People started raiding Karazhan, and formed static groups to go there repeatedly. So the same bunch of 10 people is going there again and again, advancing their characters in raid knowledge and loot, and leaving the others behind. Meanwhile I'm stuck in the attunement quest, because I can't find a good enough tank to do Black Morass for the final key. Because the well-equipped tanks that are doing Karazhan are doing Karazhan, and "don't have the time" to help others with their attunement.

Of course it is only a matter of time until there are distinctive sub-groups in the guild, guilds within a guild, who share a guild chat channel, but never play together. "Hey sorry, we can't take you with us, you don't have the experience and the gear". Or the even more outrageous "You didn't work hard enough, it's your own fault it you don't have the attunement / gear."

I'm beginning to get sick and tired of the whole leet raiding attitude. I really would like to see these raid dungeons, but I don't want to play this whole us-and-them guild politics game about who is "best". If a guild can't manage to help each other and get everybody forward, and not just a select elite, the guild is a failure in my eyes.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

LotRO Journal - 25-February-2007

My approach to beta testing is broad instead of deep: I'm testing lots of different races and classes and tradeskills, but don't have the time to level them very far. That makes sense insofar as it helps me to decide what race, class, and tradeskill to choose in the retail version.

My yeoman made a lot of money with the farming tradeskill, growing pipe weed and selling it to NPC vendors. Then I turned to growing vegetables, and started experimenting with cooking. It turns out that cooking is more similar to alchemy in World of Warcraft, because food gives stat buffs. You can cook meals like mushroom pie which make a character "full" for 20 minutes, and during that time his out of combat regeneration of health and mana (which aren't called that in LotRO) goes up. So you don't need to eat and drink every time you want to regain, its a longer lasting effect. Other food increases your stats for some time. The only disadvantage of cooking is that food doesn't sell well to NPC vendors. I did a test making 50 mushroom pies: All the ingredients together, if I had sold them instead of cooking them, would have been worth 85 silver. After cooking I got pies worth only 10 silver. I would need to sell them to other players for 10 times their vendor value to make a profit. And I doubt somebody will pay that. Although there doesn't seem to be a NPC selling food, so player cooks might be the only source.

Then I wanted to start experimenting with the third sub-craft of yeoman: tailoring. But a tailor needs boiled leather, which only a forester can make, and in the yeoman set there is no forestry profession. Couldn't find any boiled leather in the auction house either, so no tailoring testing. I assume that in the real game there will be more auction house trade of crafting materials, because many profession sets either produce raw materials they can't use, or need raw materials they can't produce. Well, that's one way to encourage trade.

So I made a new character, a human burglar. Humans start in the same level 1-6 instanced newbie area as hobbits so, Archet. Elves and dwarves share another area. But after finishing the main quest line in the instance, humans and hobbits come out in different places, hobbits in the Shire, humans in Bree-land. And most interestingly humans come out in Archet, *after* the fire experienced in the instance main quest. This adds something to Lord of the Rings Online that other games don't have: A sense of time. You get to see the same village before and after some events, with some major changes from the fire, and a whole new lot of quests. There is even a quest where you are asked to bury people killed in the attack, and these are people you met as NPC in the instance.

So I leveled my burglar up to level 6, and decided to do some traveling, exploring the boundaries of the world. You might already know that Lord of the Rings Online : Shadows of Angmar is limited to the area of the first book, Eriador, up to Rivendell and the Misty Mountains. Surprisingly I actually got until Rivendell. There aren't too many mobs close to the roads, and their aggro range is small, especially when I turn on my burglar's stealth. I saw Gandalf talking to Elrond in his library, but there was no way to interact with him. If he has quests, they must be much higher in level. I moved on, into the Misty Mountains, towards the High Pass, but there was no road any more, and soon some level 42 monsters killed me. Future expansions will then add Moria and the other regions, up to Mordor, and presumably raise the level cap above the current 50.

Back in civilized Bree, after visiting the Prancing Pony, I learned the Armsman profession. So I went around in the countryside mining copper and tin, smelted that into bronze, and made some level 7 weapons with it. Now this promises to become interesting, because of the mastery option. You start any skill as apprentice. Every item you make gives you some skill points, until you count as "proficient" at the apprentice level. Then the journeyman level opens up to you. But you can also continue with apprentice level recipes, until you are a "master apprentice". At that point you can't gain any more points, but now you get the mastery option. In all crafts, you have a basic 5% chance to make a master item, producing something better (or just more) than you normally would. And in some cases at mastery level you can use an additional ingredient to increase this crit chance. In the case of farming you can add soil to have 100% crit chance, but a crit only gives you a higher yield. In weaponsmithing, in the sword recipe I checked, you can add some monster body part to increase the crit chance by 44%, and the result would be a magical sword instead of a normal one.

Half a million visitors

Sitemeter informs me that I just passed the half-a-million visitor mark. Incredible how this blog's readership has grown. I'm always fascinated how such growth seems to be exponential, you start small, get some links, that makes you move up in Google search results, and you get more and more visitors, creating more and more links. If this continues I'll hit one million before the end of the year.

World of Warcraft 2.0.10 patch notes

The test realm patch notes for WoW patch 2.0.10 can be found at WoWInsider. The general drift is a big nerf for feral druids and shadow priests, while warriors and shamans get a boost to their powers. Remember how I recently mentioned that I couldn't be killed any more as long as I had mana, because I could spam Prayer of Mending? Damn, Blizzard noticed that and added a 20-second cooldown to the spell, which is now totally useless for soloing.

As I always have problems finding a tank nowadays I'm not too happy about feral druids getting the shaft. But from a pure game design point I can see why that might have been necessary. They really became very, very powerful with the items of the Burning Crusade.

BBC Review of LotRO

The BBC News published a review of Lord of the Rings Online. Quote: "The final verdict is that Lotro is a compelling alternative to other online games - it looks great, feels familiar and its in-game systems seem well thought out." I totally agree.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Did the Burning Crusade change the tank ratio?

What do you get if you take a raid group and split it up into 5-man groups to do smaller instances? Not enough tanks. The 40-man raid groups usually had 4 to 5 tanks, so if you try to go to 5-man instances with the same 40 people, half the groups end up without a tank. I haven't done 25-man raids yet, but my guess would be that those only have 2 to 3 tanks, and thus exactly the same problem. Now assume that raiding guilds recruited members in proportion to the needs of the raid groups, and you can see why I'm regularly experiencing problems getting a tank for my groups.

The big question is whether the current tank shortage is just because everyone is in 5-man instances now, and soon everybody will move on to 25-man raid and the required tank ratio changes. Or did the Burning Crusade change that tank ratio permanently, by making the heroic 5-man instances, where you can get "raid gear" in small groups? Will people still visit 5-man instances regularly after they started raiding, and thus need more tanks than their guilds have recruited?

The question is most interesting to druids. At level 60 druids were expected to go healing spec, because most guilds had a shortage of healers. But the Burning Crusade gear made druids a lot better as tanks, and I've been conquering hard 5-man dungeons with a bear with 14k hitpoints as tank, which worked as good as a protection spec'd warrior. In fact, I did other dungeons with an arms/fury warrior, and the feral druid was clearly the better tank.

It must be difficult to decide on a talent tree for druids and warriors nowadays. Go tank and get flooded with invites to 5-man groups, but risk being superfluous in raids. Go for the better raid spec, and be stuck like everyone else in 4-man groups waiting for a tank. What do you think, does the Burning Crusade require a higher ratio of tanks than the old WoW?

Flying out of Outland

Mr. Gone is wondering why you can't use flying mounts in the old world. And I must admit it is a bit annoying. Shortly after I dinged 70 and bought my flying mount, I had to head to Karazhan to start the quest chain for the key, and really would have liked to fly there. But, alas, no can do.

Unlike Mr. Gone, I at least know the reason why you can't fly in old Azeroth: The old world consists in many parts of Potemkin villages, hollow facades with nothing behind. If you could fly over them, you'd see half-spires floating in the air, with no towers attached and similar strange sights. If you take the zeppelin to Undercity and watch the spires of Lordaeron very closely while the zeppelin flies through Tirisfal Glades, you can catch a glimpse of some of these floating towers. Old Azeroth also has some empty areas, like the area behind the Greymayne Wall in Silverpine Forest, which are probably meant to be added later, but right now are just a hole in the ground.

How do I know that? Well, I *did* fly over old Azeroth after all. Just not in the game, but using a program called WoWmapview. It doesn't help you to get your character around, but if you want just to take a look at the world from above (unanimated), with this program you can.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Playing a hobbit yeoman

I'm still in the Lord of the Rings Online beta. But as I have already decided to buy the game, I don't play the beta very much, because I want to save the fun for the real version. But I'm always interested in tradeskills, and so I thought I'd better find out early what combination of professions I want to take in the real game. LotRO has 7 sets of professions, and you can't chose tradeskills individually. They are:
  • Armorer: Metalsmith, Prospector, Tailor
  • Armsman: Weaponsmith, Prospector, Woodworker
  • Explorer: Tailor, Forester, Prospector
  • Historian: Scholar, Weaponsmith, Farmer
  • Tinker: Jeweller, Prospector, Cook
  • Woodsman: Woodworker, Forester, Farmer
  • Yeoman: Cook, Farmer, Tailor
The disadvantage of having to choose a set is that often two tradeskills work together, and the third isn't really fitting with the rest. There are several combinations where you don't have all the necessary gathering skills, or have a gathering skill for which you don't have a crafting skill. You need Prospector for all sorts of smithing, and Forester (for hides) for tailoring and woodworking. You can also use farmer if you want to be a cook.

So having already tried Explorer, where I could gather hides and tailor them into armor for me, but also could gather wood and ore for which I didn't have any use, I wanted to try something else. So this time I went for Yeoman, keeping tailoring (even if I now need a forester to cure the hides for me), and being able to farm not gold, but pipe weed and vegetables, which I can then cook into tasty meals.

Playing a Farmer turned out to be more fun than I would have thought. I spent quite a while growing pipe weed, and ended up making a good amount of money in the process, after getting past the first stage. There are different kinds of pipe weed, of different skill levels, from apprentice, over journeyman, to expert and beyond. You can smoke pipe weed, which gives a fun animation and smoke rings, but there is no in-game advantage to it. But you can sure sell the pipe weed you grow.

There are severat steps to growing pipeweed. First you need to buy 6 seeds, 1 water, and 2 fertilizer. Then you need to go to a pipe weed field, which is usually quite close to the vendor selling the materials. There you sow the seeds, which takes a few seconds, and a pipe weed field grows. You click on that to harvest it (and no, you can't click on somebody else's field to harvest) and get a random amount of poor and fair pipe weed plants. The poor plants you can process at a workbench (again quite close) to seeds, the fair plants you transform into pipe weed. Sell the pipe weed, buy more water and fertilizer and start over.

With the first recipe at the start you still might lose money, getting not enough seeds and pipe weed to cover the cost of the materials. But every step gives you some skill points, until you are "proficient" at the apprentice level, and can start with the recipes of the journeyman level. But you can also keep doing the apprentice level recipe until you are "master" of that level. Once you are master you have the option to add 3 soil to the pipe weed planting recipe. This raises you "crit" chance of getting more yield from 5% to 100%, which is more profitable. And the journeyman recipes are more profitable than the apprentice ones, because while the seeds cost more, the pipe weed also sells for more, and the cost for water and fertilizer remain the same.

Of course pipe weed is not the only thing you can grow, there are a variety of vegetables and grain, which are grown in a similar fashion. And the vegetables can then be used in various cooking recipes. The farm stuff vendor also has various other recipes for sale, but not the seeds for them. Apparently some seeds are drops from mobs, and you need to find the seeds, buy the recipes to grow the field and process the materials, and can then produce more seeds. There will probably also be some trade in the rarer seeds.

There were some minor glitches: The animation of working at the workbench is the same as for sowing seeds, which looks silly. And when your farming tool breaks down it costs more to repair than to buy a new one (Hint: sell it when its down to 10 durability and you still get money for it, then buy a new one). But this being just the beta, and the bugs not being serious at all, I didn't really mind.

The whole farming thing is strangely relaxing, a very different way to play from killing monsters. I like it, and I think I'll make a hobbit yeoman minstrel in the release version. Named Tobold, if that name isn't reserved. As Tobold Hornblower is a pipe weed growing hobbit in the LotR lore, that would be strangely fitting. But I guess the names from the books will be reserved, and I'll have to go for another name. Nevertheless the idea of becoming a peaceful hobbit farmer, part-time between adventuring, appeals to me.

Should Horde be able to group with Alliance?

Zoso has an interesting post on factions, in which he remarks that both Horde and Alliance often do exactly the same quest for some neutral faction like Argent Dawn or Cenarion Expedition. But they can't group to do it together.

When I'm playing Horde I often get annoyed at Alliance players pulling mobs that I just targeted from under my nose. That makes you assume some sort of inate Horde vs. Alliance enmity. But when I leveled up my human priest I noticed that for him too it was mostly Alliance players that got into his way. No wonder with Alliance outnumbering Horde, the likelihood that a random player is Alliance is simply higher. There is no natural enmity, the players behind Horde and Alliance are the same. Sometimes during leveling up to 70, with Horde again, I even managed to cooperate wordlessly with some Alliance player who quested in the same area. He pulled a boss mob, I helped him killing it, then he stuck around until the repop, I pulled, and he helped. Very nice.

On a PvE server Horde and Alliance is often frequenting the same neutral villages without getting into each others way. So why can't they group together? Why did I have to make an Alliance alt and transfer stuff in a complicated way via my wife's account and the neutral auction house whenever I want to buy something from the Alliance AH? World of Warcraft has grown, in both landmass and level range, and once the first rush of blood elves and draenei has passed, it will be hard to get a group together for low-level dungeons. Being able to invite people from the other faction would be a real help there.

Even PvP doesn't always have to be Alliance vs. Horde. In the arena system you can be paired against players of your own faction as well as "the enemy". And while Alterac Valley has a strong Alliance vs. Horde theme, the other battlegrounds are so bland and symmetrical that nobody would really notice if two Alliance groups fought each other there. Obviously that would cut down on waiting queues, which would be an advantage.

So what do you think, should the barrier between Horde and Alliance be lifted? Or is having two enemy sides essential for the World of Warcraft?

Burning Crusade PvP

The Burning Crusade added a lot of PvP variety to World of Warcraft. The first arena season started last weekend, and I've been strangely quiet about it. The reason for that is that I'm personally not much interested in PvP. But lets have a look how PvP changed with the Burning Crusade.

The battlegrounds still exist, and BC has added one new battleground to the mix, Eye of the Storm. This is a 15 vs. 15 players battleground in which the gameplay is similar to that of Arathi Basin, the side which gains 2000 points first wins. You gain points by holding towers and capturing a flag which spawns in the middle, and carrying it to one of your towers. Battlegrounds constitute a kind of casual PvP, where you join a battleground whenever you feel like it, and accumulate honor points and victory marks, which you can exchange for items.

The arena PvP is a lot more competitive and less casual. You need to pay gold to even participate. Every team needs to play at least 10 matches per week, and you need to participate in at least 30% of these matches to get points. Relmstein has a good explanation of the arena scoring system. The principle is the same as the chess ELO system, you should quickly rise until you are at the same level as people of the same skill level as your team. Then your rating should stabilize, as ideally you are paired against people of similar skill level.

The pairing makes my ears ring, bringing back memories of the leagues in Magic the Gathering Online. The principal problem is that even the very best computer can only pair you against a team selected among those that are actually online and available for arena combat. If a 4 am in the morning there are only 2 teams waiting in the arena queue, one ranked very high and the other very low, sooner or later the computer will decide that the two have waited long enough and pair them against each other. Which gets the low ranked team a crushing defeat, and the high ranked team a victory which isn't worth much in points, satisfying neither. But of course if you could "game" your playing times in a way that you'd always be paired against worse teams, at least you'd probably win all matches, and might end up with a higher score than if you fought teams of equal rank. The number and quality of teams waiting in the queue will vary with time of day, and (due to the 10 matches per week rule) day of the week. So some people will definitely try to prey on PvP noobs, while others will start howling loudly about the unfairness of the pairing system. Been there, done that, was the same problem in MtGO. The pairing system only works really well during the first prime-time of the week, when everybody is eager to get his weekly matches done, and lots of teams are in the queue. Expect some trouble here in the future.

The third form of PvP is overland PvP. Many Outland zones have one form or another of this. As I mentioned before, this is the form of PvP that works least well right now, because very few servers have an equal population of Horde and Alliance. With Alliance outnumbering Horde by between 1.5 : 1 to 2 : 1 on many servers, overland PvP is a very static affair. Horde occasionally tries to catch Alliance sleeping, but as soon as the Alliance awakes and strikes back, Horde quickly gives up because it is frustrating to fight against superior numbers. Halaa is under Alliance control at least 90% of the time, and at least 3 out the 4 six-hour periods per day Auchindoun is controlled by Alliance as well.

PvP is mainly interesting for the weapon rewards. If you save up enough points, or marks, or whatever you need for that particular reward, you can get yourself an epic weapon which equals raid epics in quality. This epic weapon can then help you a lot in beating PvE content, and make you kill mobs faster. You can also get armor as PvP reward, but here the use is often more limited. PvP reward armor tends to have lots of stamina and resilience, which is great in PvP, but sub-optimal for PvE for many classes.

So to a certain extent, if you play on a non-PvP server, and you don't like PvP, you can simply ignore the PvP going on around you, and you don't miss out on much. PvP is optional, and any optional alternative modes of gameplay are generally a good thing. The only thing that bothers me a bit are the zone-wide buffs that controlling all PvP objectives in a zone give to one faction. This can be as much as 5% bonus to both the damage you are dealing and the experience points you are earning, and it applies to PvE. With me on a server where Alliance outnumbers Horde 2:1, and me playing Horde, I obviously get this bonus very rarely, while Alliance players run around with that bonus all the time.

The last time I played PvP intensively was between patch 2.0 and the Burning Crusade, when I used it to get myself an epic weapon for my warrior alt. If you, or just one of your characters, can't get into raids for some reason, being the "wrong class", PvP can be a good alternative to get hold of an epic weapon. And once in a while it can be fun to fight other players instead of artificially stupid mobs. I wouldn't say that PvP in World of Warcraft is perfect now, but it definitely is the best and most coherent system they ever had, after numerous system changes.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Guild governance

I believe that in the real world democracy is the best possible form of government. Politicians always need to balance their interests against the possibility to get voted out in the next election, and that keeps them reasonably honest. More tyrannical forms of government in the real world are bad, because it is very hard to escape from them and change your nationality, and because in the worst case you could get unjustly imprisoned, tortured, or killed. In the virtual world we have guilds instead of nation states, and the best possible form of government isn't that obvious.

Guilds are curious beasts, because any member can leave them at any time, the ultimate form of democracy, voting with your feet. Small guilds, which are just a gathering of friends, and which have no real goal, don't need any other form of governance. The guy who coughs up the gold for the guild charter gets to design the tabard, and that is about the extent of his powers. But as soon as the guild gets larger, and wants to go raiding, there are three major fields in which the guild leadership needs to take decisions: recruitment, raid spots, and loot distribution. And it turns out that in these cases democracy doesn't work well. You can't vote on every single decision, and I haven't heard of any guild yet which has legislative periods and votes guild officers in and out ever so often.

A few guilds are lead by a single person, sometimes the whole guild is even called after that guy. That sort of organization usually crashes sooner or later, because people have a natural dislike of tyrants, and the oversized ego it takes to even attempt to lead a guild on your own sooner or later clashes with the egos of the other guild members.

So most raiding guilds are lead by something which eerily resembles the communist party of China: A bunch of unelected guys forming an authoritarian government, having equality written on their banners, but favoring "party members" over the others. But that might actually be the best possible form of guild governance, because unless you make totally unrealistic assumptions about human nature, it is difficult to design a better system for a raiding guild.

The reason why guilds work with "officers", which are favored, and normal members, which are not, is that guild organization requires a certain amount of work. Running a website, sorting out problems, recruiting, organizing raids, setting up a system for loot distribution, all that takes quite some time away from playing. But if you take the time to organize a raid, you bloody well reserve a raid slot for yourself. So the people organizing raids automatically go raiding more often, and under any reasonable loot distribution system end up with more loot than the others because of their higher attendance. I have yet to meet a raiding guild in which the officers weren't also the core raiders and had the best gear in the guild.

That can work quite well, if the officers have sufficient leadership skills. If you communicate guild policies well, and take the time to explain your decisions, people easily accept being governed by unelected guild officers. And most people can also accept the "I'm the raid organizer, I get an automatic raid slot" argument, and some sort of DKP system that favors those who attend raids most often. But communication is usually a weak point in guilds, in spite of guild forums and other communication channels. Guild policies are often only discussed among the officers, and then either executed without explanation, or only communicated with an "because we said so" reasoning. That usually leads to members not being interested in guild policies at all, because they don't have any influence on them, and then when a decision doesn't go their way they just leave the guild.

Now I'm sure I'll be getting a lot of "my guild is much nicer than that" comments from people in small, family-like guilds of friends. But please remember that is not the type of guild I'm talking about. The "band of brothers" model of guild doesn't scale up very well to the size necessary to regulary field 25-man raid groups. Makes you wonder if Blizzard should cap raids at 10 persons in the next expansion, because that is about the largest a fully democratic guild of friends can handle.

But here is my challenge: Come up with a better system of guild governance. Should guilds have elected officials with limited terms? Should they have direct democracy in which every guild decision is discussed at length among all members? Or should people just keep hopping from one guild to the next until they find one with a reasonably nice and competent leadership?

Blessing of Kings

I found a nice blog called Blessing of Kings, talking about World of Warcraft from a paladin's perspective. Especially noteworthy are posts on Is Loot Changing Me? and Left Behind. These posts resonate with me, because they are about somebody who at his core is a casual player finding himself in a raiding guild. Just like me.

I started out World of Warcraft as a casual player. But end of last year I was wearing tier 2 epics from Onyxia, Ragnaros, and Blackwind Lair, which isn't casual at all any more. The Burning Crusade brought some casualness back into my game. But at the same time I feel the same things as GSH from Blessing of Kings talks about in the Left Behind post: The need to keep up with your guild mates, because otherwise you can't play with them.

I'm trying not to feel too strongly about loot. But when recently a warlock rolled and won for some shoulders with healing stats I wanted, I was positively angry. And the announcement that my guild is abandoning their bad DKP system in favor of an even worse "officers discretion" loot distribution is filling me with dread. You could have Solomon himself in his infinite wisdom try to distribute raid loot at his discretion of who needs it most, and who contributed towards it most, and it would still end with lots of ugly loot fights. The one who doesn't get the loot will always assume favoritism or another form of unfairness.

So how does a casual player end up feeling the need to level faster and fighting for loot? I still think that it is due to lack of alternatives: At some point you have done everything there is to do solo, and you there is no attractive way left to improve the power of your character, except raiding. It is a problem stemming from the fact that we can't admit having reached the "game over" status, and insist on keeping playing.

Game Theory is a branch of behavioral economics, and isn't about games at all, except for using games as an example on how people make decisions. But that system can be applied to all sorts of situations, and that includes games. If you study raiding in World of Warcraft like that, many of the strange behavioral patterns of raiders become quite understandable. If you have the choice from a large pool of players, being a raid leader, of course it is advantageous to invite only the highest level and best geared people of the ideal class mix with the best raid talent specs. And that in turn creates a pressure on the people who would like to attend a raid to be highest level, best geared, and ideally spec'd for the raid. All that keeping up with the Joneses in the end only serves to be able to actually play with the Joneses. The alternatives are boring solo grinding, or quitting the game. Raiders aren't a different species of humans than casual players are. It all only depends on how much of the game you already played, and what is left for you to do. If only raids are left, whatever your initial attitude, you end up adjusting to the requirements of the raid end game.

Which is why I'm currently considering the alternatives of either WoW end game v2.0 or starting LotRO. Strange as it sounds, both are valid alternative solutions to the same problem.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Burning Crusade review

A bit over a month ago World of Warcraft launched its first expansion, The Burning Crusade. I didn't want to review it before having reached level 70 and getting to know the expansion much better, but now that time has come. So here are my thoughts on The Burning Crusade (BC for short):

The Burning Crusade is a good expansion to World of Warcraft. It does exactly what it was supposed to do, add more of the excellent WoW quality content to the game. There are now more zones, more monsters, more treasures, more spells, more dungeons, more races, more of nearly everything, except classes. I have a rough estimate that the pre-BC World of Warcraft had about 2,000 hours worth of content, if you wanted to see everything and do every quest, without too much repetition. The Burning Crusade adds another 500 hours to that, based on both a personal estimate (again), and a Blizzard statement that BC adds 25% of content to the game. It took Blizzard more than 2 years to release their first expansion, and because of that many people had run out of non-repetitive content to play. The expansion addresses exactly this shortcoming, and was therefore a huge sales success, selling 2.4 million copies on the first day.

Giving these numbers, I may be excused for having predicted a certain chaos on launch, with long queues and server downs. But in fact the launch was one of the smoothest ever in MMORPG history, in spite of the volume of players. There were some problems, of course, but generally there was no shortage of BC boxes in retail, very little waiting times, and most of the servers were up most of the time. Many people just bought their box, installed it, registered it, and started playing without a hitch.

The main feature of The Burning Crusade is one new continent with seven new overland zones and lots of dungeons, adding content from level 60 to level 70, raising the previous level cap by 10. Other features are two new races, including starting areas with quests up to level 20, the new tradeskill jewelcrafting, and flying mounts at level 70. All of which is at the usual high Blizzard quality, and working mostly very well. There are slight improvements to the graphics, and on average the new quests are slightly more varied and fun than the old ones. Once you reached level 70 there are tons of dungeons, more than you had at level 60, and a more accessible raid content, now capped at 25 players per raid.

All is well, except for two major points of criticism I have: Its not enough, and its just more of the same.

The first point is that it doesn't take a math genius to see that if people ran out of content after 2 years, and you plan an expansion to last 1 year, the expansion has to add 50% of new content to the game, not just 25%. As much fun as I am having in BC, I'm already at the new level cap after a month, and have already seen more than half of the quests, zones, and dungeons. Even given the likelihood of some more content patches opening up more dungeons, The Burning Crusade is not 12 months worth of entertainment. Which, in a year with many quite promising other MMORPGs to be released, is opening the door for the competition to grab a slice of WoWs dominant market share. While I would consider that to be generally a good thing, it is obviously not that good for Blizzard.

The second point is that when yesterday I took a flying tour on my brand new level 70 flying mount, and enjoyed it very much, I realized that the flying mount was actually the only really new feature in the expansion. As I said before, The Burning Crusade adds to the World of Warcraft, but doesn't reinvent it. The two new races are just cosmetic, a blood elf mage plays exactly the same as a troll mage in the end. While Alliance as a faction gains shamans, and Horde gains paladins, the players already had the possibility to play these classes by simply switching sides. No new classes have been added. The new spells are very nice, and most people from most classes are very happy with them, but they don't redefine the existing classes. For example my priest got a slightly different healing spell, a slightly different shadow damage spell, a slightly different dispel magic spell, and a cute but not highly effective mana regeneration spell in the form of the shadowfiend. My role in a group or raid remains unchanged, even if my heal crits now heal over 6k of damage, instead of previously 4k. Me killing a level 70 mob at level 70 is exactly as hard, and using exactly the same tactics, as me killing a level 60 mob at level 60. The added quests are fun, but not radically different from the previous quests; I dinged 70 by killing wildlife for Hemet Nesingwary in Nagrand, which was a deja vu experience of dinging 40 by killing wildlife for Hemet Nesingwary in Stranglethorn.

If you have been playing World of Warcraft for a while and reached level 60, I can only recommend buying the Burning Crusade expansion. 500 hours of new content for under $40 comes down to less than 8 cents per hour of entertainment, which is a very good deal, even if you end up finishing it in 3 to 6 months. Very well done is the fact that the expansion lifts everybody on the same level, you don't need raid epics to start playing in the new zones, and you'll quickly acquire gear as good as the previous raid epics. This makes BC accessible to every level 60, casual or hardcore. If you liked World of Warcraft, you will like the Burning Crusade. If you didn't like WoW in the first place, the expansion won't change that. And if you are just starting to play WoW, you simply won't need the expansion yet, just the basic set is sufficient for quite a long while.

On the positive side, The Burning Crusade adds more of the same to World of Warcraft. On the negative side, it just adds more of the same.

LotRO US open stress test next weekend

If you are wondering whether to buy a game or not, there is no better way than to play it for yourself for a while. And game companies know that, so they offer game demos, free trials, and something which is increasingly inaccurately called "beta tests". Starting next Friday, the 23rd of February, Turbine is giving residents of North America, Australia, and New Zealand the opportunity to test The Lord of the Rings Online : Shadows of Angmar. They don't even call it a beta any more, they call it a "stress test". And given that one of the big problems of MMORPGs in general is to get the servers stable, you just showing up and trying to connect to the game is already helping Turbine a lot. And ideally you'll manage to connect sooner or later, and play the game for a while. As LotRO is really very good, I'd recommend trying it.

More info on the stress test can be found on the official LotRO website or at Gamespot.

Ding 70

Ding! My undead priest made level 70 today. After buying the riding skill, flying mount, and the big bundle of level 70 spells, I had just 24 gold left. But fortunately now every quest pays over 10 gold, so I'll recover quickly. I already had 3 pieces of Hallowed, the priests dungeon set 3, in the bank. And I used all the hoarded rare gems I had to skill up jewelcrafting to 367 and fill the slots of the new armor. I now can make a very nice necklace, Embrace of the Dawn, which is the only piece of self-made jewelry I'm wearing.

Then I started on the quest chain for the attunement to Karazhan, which is the first raid dungeon. I soloed the first couple of steps, and now I need to get guild groups together for the key fragments. You might have seen the complicated attunement graph, apparently the end-game in Burning Crusade contains a lot of attunements. I find that a bit annoying, because it means you can't play with your mates if you don't have the same set of attunements as they have. On the positive side all the level 70 dungeons give you reputation with one faction or another, which adds up to some nice extra rewards for going often.

I then spent quite some time just flying around in Outland with my new flying mount. Flying gives you a whole new perspective of the game. Especially nice for exploration and gathering of resources, as mobs don't aggro you in the air. But I also used the flying mount to just visit some strange spots, without any game advantage. Like the floating green "islands" over Nagrand, and similar places which you could only see, but not reach without flying. That is a lot of fun! I like it. At least it feels that this time you get a great reward when you hit the level cap, much better than the epic mount at 60, which didn't open any new options to you.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

WoW Journal - 17-February-2006

Still level 69, but already three quarters of the level to 70 done, so tomorrow I'll hit the big 70 for sure. Leveling was uneventful, except for an incredible streak of good luck with looting weapons. In one evening I got a Staff of Divine Infusion and The Bringer of Death from dungeon chests, and the Wand of the Netherwing
dropping from a boss in Shadow Labyrinth. So now I have one staff for healing in groups, one staff for soloing, and a wand for all occasions.

I also finished all quests in Terokkar Forest, so I'll probably hit 70 in the most beautiful zone in Burning Crusade: Nagrand. Besides Terokkar I did a short excursion to Shadowmoon Valley, to kill Smith Gorlunk, who drops the mold that starts the quest chain to get the key to Shattered Halls. Killing him was easy enough, but getting to him wasn't that easy, because there were a couple of level 69 mobs and two level 70 elite in the way. After I pulled him I saw another player approaching with a flying mount, which obviously makes that quest a lot easier. Made me wonder how the existence of flying mounts changes the design of overland quests.

Friday, February 16, 2007

MazzleUI - avoiding the Mazzlegasm

A reader asked me to spread the word about his modification of a mod. Which isn't normally something I would do. But the whole story is so hilarious that I'll just post his letter here verbatim:
Anyway - you might have heard of the new addon MazzleUI. It's a great addon - however, it has one problem. When you install it or update it (which happens quite frequently), it takes control of your character, and forces you to /yell "I've had an intense Mazzlegasm" across an entire zone.

For some reason, the maintainer of the mod, Mazzlefizz, absolutely insists that this is a vital part of the mod, and won't install a switch in the code to turn it off, or even allow anyone to post on the mod's forums with instructions on how to remove the /yell.

So I've written a small utility, which just patches the code to avoid the /yell. It doesn't redistribute any code from MazzleUI - it just does a diff on the text and changes one line.

I've put it up at

Obviously, this normally wouldn't be news. Just post it on the mod site and be done.

But unfortunately, Mazzlefizz is doing his best to make it as hard as possible for users of his mod to avoid shouting about Mazzlegasms, and hence a lot of innocent users are being forced to spam their servers, and are getting subsequently flamed, ignored or even reported!

I'd totally understand if you felt this still wasn't news! But if you did feel it was worth a mention - I'm not expecting an entire post, just a one-liner would be fantastic - that would be great in helping to spread the word so that people get a chance to check out this mod fairly!

(BTW - if you do mention it, could you not mention my name or email address? Mazzlefizz seems very serious - almost irrationally so - about persuing anyone sharing this information, and I don't want flames landing in my main inbox.)
Besides the obvious humorous value, the post raises an interesting question about the right to modify a mod. When I did PvP end of last year, I had found a great mod that was able to record when graveyards in Alterac Valley had been taken, and counted how long they still needed to be held before switching ownership. It had the option to inform other players about these times, either by say or by battleground chat. But it did so in French. As these mods are written in normal text, it wasn't difficult for me to find the lines for the text output and change them to English. And I didn't even think that somebody distributing his code in clear text and for free might object to other people modifying it, at least not if it was just for their own use. (Modifying it to claim that I had written it and redistributing it would obviously have been a totally different case)

But apparently Mazzlefizz strongly objects to anyone modifying his mod for personal use. You either use it including the annoying zone-wide yell (aka advertising for the mod), or not at all. Does he have the right to do that to his users? Do his users have the right to remove the advertising, seeing how it could get them into trouble? To me that case seems very similar to using a popup blocker, which allows you to see websites without the popup advertising they use to finance themselves. I couldn't find any "legal terms" on WoWInterface, the site hosting the UI, stating you *can't* modify the mods you download. Are WoW addons kind of "open source"? I don't know, I've been criticized for being notoriously bad with legal questions, and I have no legal training whatsoever. But feel free to discuss.

WoW Journal - 16-February-2007

I hit level 69 last night with my priest, only 779k xp to go until 70. That made me think about "time to 70", at which point I realized that I had stupidly forgotten to write down how much /played time I had on the day the Burning Crusade came out. I know it took me over 13 days played on that priest to get from 1 to 60, but then I spent an unknown amount of time, around 20 days, at level 60. And now I can't say how much time I have /played from 60 to 70. Doh!

What I do know is that my usual playing sessions during the week are 3 to 4 hours, and during one of such sessions I usually make about a quarter of a level. That would make every level 12 to 16 hours long, and the total time played from 60 to 70 something between 5 and 7 days. Which would fit with my original estimate of 40% of the time from 1 to 60, although that estimate was based on a lot of false assumptions.

I did two runs to Steamvault, the level 70 5-man dungeon in Coilfang Reservoir, this week. Nice enough, and I got my Cenarion Expedition reputation up to revered. That got me the key to access Coilfang Reservoir dungeons at heroic difficulty, which is something I'd like to try. But I've read that to do that all 5 group members need the key, so it will be difficult to find a group. Revered with CE also gave me a design for a jewelcrafting trinket, but my skill is still stuck at 355, and I can't learn that design yet. Stupidly I would need several rare drop recipes (at 200+ gold each) and lots of rare blue gems (at 50+ gold each) to level up jewelcrafting. There don't seem to be any accessible level 350 recipe. I don't mind the recipes to be hard to get, but I wished there was a targeted way to get them. Kill this boss mob of that dungeon and get the recipe. But it doesn't work that way, the recipes are rare random world drops, and there is absolutely no way to "hunt" for them, except for camping the auction house.

Well, I'm planning to reach level 70 this weekend, and finally get my feet off the ground. It will be interesting to see Outland from above, and to be able to reach all the remote corners. More practically I think that flying is the only good way to gather ores, which I could then prospect to hopefully find some more rare gems and get my jewelcrafting up. I guess I'll need to buy some of those expensive rare recipes, the game is giving me no choice here.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

WoW warrior talent builds

Once upon a time, when World of Warcraft was young, choosing a talent build for my first character on the European servers, a warrior, was easy. While there were three branches of the talent tree, only the arms tree had an extra attack top talent, mortal strike, and the other two branches had very bad top level talents. So nearly every warrior put the majority of his talent points into the arms tree, and so did I: 31 points in arms, 5 points if fury, and 15 points in protection. I leveled up all the way to 60 being mostly arms spec'd.

Then patch 1.60 did a complete revamp of the warrior talent tree, and gave a good extra attack talent to every branch of the tree. So because protection now had shield slam, I just put 11 points in arms to get tactical mastery, 5 points in fury, and 35 points in protection. At that time I was in a small guild, and often served a tank for guild groups to 5-man dungeons or 10-man raids, and being protection spec'd was perfect for that.

But then my warrior semi-retired, because I got sick and tired of always standing around unable to start a group because there was no healer available. I made a priest, and that one became my "main". Later I changed to a raiding guild, and they invited me as a priest, having too many warriors already. Especially as a tank there was no future, because like in many raiding guilds there was a limited "tank list", because it is so important to have a few very well equipped tanks instead of lots of mediocre ones for a raid.

If you don't tank anywhere, a protection build is pretty bad. So I changed to a dual-wielding fury build, to get into the occasional small raid as dps warrior, for solo grinding, and for a bit of PvP. It soon became obvious that I didn't enjoy being a dps warrior in a raid, so I didn't do it very often, but I kept the build.

Patch 2.0 again totally revamped the warrior talent tree, plus made it a lot easier to achieve epic items by PvP. So now I went back to an arms build, with mortal strike again, and the new top talent endless rage. This worked pretty well for PvP, and I grinded my way up to a High Warlord's Bludgeon, an epic one-handed mace with nearly 60 dps. I kept this spec when Burning Crusade came out, and picked up a Hellreaver polearm in Hellfire Ramparts. I soloed quests a bit using that weapon, and now I'm level 61. In the few Hellfire Ramparts runs I did, I used the epic PvP mace and shield for "tanking".

But somehow tanking without a protection talent build doesn't feel right. I like tanking, and I like 5-man instance groups, even if you can't do those all day. And so I'm thinking of changing specs again, moving towards a build with the majority of points in protection. The problem with this plan is that I'm a bit worried that by making myself a great tank I'm gimping myself for soloing. I'll need to play around with a talent calculator to find a good build. I'm sure I want to take protection at least until shield slam, but I'm not sure whether I should take focused rage and devastate as well, and then have very few points left for arms and fury. Anybody here tried a build with 41+ points in protection and can tell me whether leveling up soloing is still viable? Which low-level arms and fury talents would you consider to be essential? Right now I'm only level 61, so I only have 52 points to spend.

Giving meaning to meaningless virtual lives since 2003

Heartless has designed a slogan for this blog: "Tobold: Giving meaning to meaningless virtual lives since 2003". Not that I asked him to or needed one. But hey, it's a good opportunity to talk about the meaning of (virtual) life.

Lots of people are looking for a meaning in their virtual lives, and fail to find one. This is why you can find so many bitter veteran MMORPG players around. Other genres of videogames have fan sites, MMOGs mainly attract rant sites. The bitterness stems from the mistaken belief that a virtual life could be better than a real one, because it overcomes limitations of body, time, and space. This overlooks the fact that virtual worlds have even more limitations, and less possibilities, than the real world. Sure, a guy in a wheelchair can play WoW and run as fast as the other people there. But you can't climb a tree, or even a fence, in World of Warcraft, because that hasn't been programmed in.

Virtual worlds are no social utopias either. The players behind the characters are still as human as they are in the real world, and they rarely behave any better than in the real world. In fact they often behave worse, because they feel safer to do bad things shielded by internet anonymity and the impossibility to punch them in the face for what they said. Sartre's "Hell is other people" is very much true for virtual worlds.

The trick to find meaning in those meaningless virtual lives is to not be blinded by the mirages of great possibilities that don't really exist, but to take MMOGs as what they are: games. A form of entertainment. Leveling up to 70 and finding The Sword of a Thousand Truths in World of Warcraft has no deeper meaning whatsoever. But it *will* keep you entertained for hundreds, if not thousands of hours. Of course you could have used that time to do something much more meaningful. But face it, chances are that instead you would have watched TV or consumed some other form of modern entertainment. Which isn't likely to give any meaning to your life either.

What you should do is to accept that the meaning of life is still where it used to be: in caring for your family and doing a job that both puts bread on the table and gives you a certain fulfillment. Once you've done that, and there is still disposable time left over, you can relax. And what form of entertainment you chose in that free time isn't really important. For people who enjoy games and interactivity, a MMORPG is often a good choice. But if you prefer TV, books, movies, sports, long walks, or collecting stamps, all that is totally okay as well. Do whatever you enjoy in your free time, and don't look for a deeper meaning in it.

Burning Crusade faction recipes

Just a short link to an extensive list of Burning Crusade faction recipes over at Crafter's Tome. Makes it a lot easier to find out which reputation you need to get what recipe for your chosen profession.

WoW raiding scene angst

Tomas Rofkahr, a fellow blogger, recently commented here about "the angst that seems to go along with the whole raiding scene". He says "Nothing seems to ruin guilds faster or pit normally reasonable people against one another than having to fight for raid slots and loot. Throw in a model that requires people to fit a required raid 'mold' and not play the character they want and you get ... well - work." That remark struck me, because I'm feeling that "angst" in relation to my raiding guild. Will my priest still be needed when we start raiding again? Am I too slow to level up and equip/attune myself? Will I be able to get into raids now that the raid-size has shrunk from 40 to 25?

And that's just the fear of a holy spec priest. After all, I'm still the best healing class/spec around. Must be even harder for other classes which are more numerous, but less useful for raiding. And woe betide those that chose a talent tree which isn't optimal for raiding, like shadow priests. Many guilds have grown since the Burning Crusade came out, due to people reactivating their accounts. So raiding guilds now have even more people vying for less raiding slots than before. And once you got that sorted out, you still need to rediscuss the whole loot distribution question. Do you keep your old DKP system, do you modify it, do you reset it to zero, do you introduce a completely new system? Makes you wonder if all that hassle is really worth it, especially in view of what happened to your old epic raid loot, now replaced by Burning Crusade greens and blues.

But on the other hand I don't think that raiders are a different species of MMO players with a particularly twisted mind set. The "required raid mold" is not something that players invented, but rather something that they discovered as a consequence of the "laws" of the virtual world. If 25 random players of random classes with random specs and random gear could successfully complete a raid, people would probably do that. The "we need x protection spec warriors as tanks and y holy spec priests as healers, plus z of this or that other class for this or that other function" rules are not arbitrary, but have been derived at by trial and error. That "mold" is what works best, and the raiding dungeons are designed to be of a difficulty level that only that what works best is able to beat them.

People simply want to play. The angst is all about the dreadful possibility of not being able to play, because you've seen all the solo content, and nobody invites you to participate in the group / raid content. Even the fight about loot is not about the loot itself, but about access to the even harder raid dungeons that require that sort of loot. The reason why the casual players can't understand the angst is that they still have so much of solo WoW unplayed before them, and they just don't need a raiding guild to access new content.

More on Second Life user numbers

One of the ongoing marvels of the MMO blogosphere is how Second Life managed to become the MMOG with the best press coverage from conventional media, while being a relative flop as a game. Clay Shirky is analyzing the latest numbers.

There is an official Linden Labs post about user statistics saying "Approximately 10% of unique users have logged in for 40 hours or more." Which is a nice way of saying "90% of unique users have played Second Life for less than 40 hours". Or as Clay says, "The plain meaning of that sentence is that fewer than 200,000 people have given Second Life even a cumulative work week of their time, over the history of the platform."

40 hours of total lifetime is nothing for a MMOG. I spent more time beta testing Vanguard than that, and that was just to get an idea of a game which I ended up deciding not to buy. The only game I remember buying and playing less than 40 hours is EVE Online, and that was only because I realized too late that other players could (and did) gank me, and "pod" me, thereby not only erasing many hours of trade profit, but also losing me a week's worth of skill gains. Even games that in hindsight I would consider terribly bad, like Anarchy Online, I played for far more than 40 hours before giving up on them.

Given the huge difference in "stickiness", counting the number of registered users isn't a good method at all. Especially games where you can register for free often have much inflated numbers there. If they were honest, Linden Labs would just list paying subscribers (about 25,000), or concurrent users (about 10,000). Those numbers tell you a lot more about the significance of Second Life, especially if you consider that half of these are apparently journalists.

Selecting quests

I'm slowly approaching level 69, and I still haven't done all the quests in Terokkar Forest, and haven't even started yet with the quests in Nagrand, Blade's Edge, Shadowmoon Valley and Netherstorm. From that experience I can say that there are more than enough quests in the Burning Crusade. Even if you did nothing but quests and never had a rest xp bonus, doing all the quests would get you from 60 to 70. Add the rest bonus and the xp you gain from other activities, like going to instances, and there are basically too many quests. While I'm not dissatisfied with my systematic approach of trying to do them all, the better approach if you just want to level and have fun is to be more selective.

I am thinking about that, because I still would like to level up my warrior, currently level 61, once I reached level 70 with my priest. And for him, of course, I don't want to do all the quests again. I'd rather do a "best of" selection, doing enough quests to get me to 70, but selecting those which are the most fun, or where I can use the quest reward. Unfortunately doing that selection is hard.

In game I can only rely on my memory to remember which quests were boring or annoying, and abandon them. But my memory isn't good enough to remember all quest rewards, especially since with my priest I obviously would consider plate armor a "bad" quest reward, while the warrior might see it as good reward. And not all quest rewards are obvious in the game, sometimes you first have to do a series of low-paying prerequisite quests before being allowed to access the final quest in the series which gives a very good reward.

So I have to rely on places like Thottbot or Allakhazam to check quest series and rewards. And even there it isn't easy, because you'll have to click through all the quests in one zone to find those where the reward is good for your class and level. What I would need is a quest search engine where I could search for e.g. all quests giving plate armor rewards, or all quests giving items with a +str bonus. And I haven't found a good way to do that yet. Goblin Workshop has an equipment list, where you can list for example all plate gloves in order of quality, and see if there is one which is better than what you are wearing which happens to be a quest reward. But in that case you need to return to the other sites to trace back all the prerequisite quests.

The other alternative would be to just start playing. If I come across a quest that seems annoying, I could just check the web for what the final rewards of that quest are, and skip it if the rewards aren't to my liking. I guess most people don't do a systematic quest selection, but just do the quests they come across, and miss the quests that happen to be not on their path. I just wonder if there is a better way.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Wielding the power to delete comments

I really appreciate the high quality level of the comments this blog is attracting. But quality is often a gaussian distribution, and the more the number of readers is growing, the more often I get the occasional comment which is not so high quality. Just over the last few days we had the "pig fucker", the "THINK MORE NEWB", and somebody whose comment had absolutely nothing to do with the subject of the post or the blog. And I'm left wondering what to do.

I have the power to delete comments, and I'm already wielding that power to delete all comment spam advertising. But one of the reasons why I created this blog was that I felt that on some game message boards the deleting or censoring of comments was done in an unfair fashion. There are game message boards where criticizing the game in question gets your post deleted, and there are guild message boards where criticizing the officers gets your post deleted. I don't want to delete anybodies post here just because I don't agree with his opinion, or because he is critical of me.

On the other hand I don't want this blog's comment section to sink to the depth of the typical game forum in quality. I don't like people shouting at each other in ALL CAPS or using insults instead of arguments to defend their position. To quote Engels: "one person’s freedom ends there, where the freedom of another person begins". You have the right to defend your opinion, but you don't have the right to shout down somebody else's opinion. So I'm leaning towards deleting comments that don't contribute to the discussion, but are just insulting the other participants in that discussion.

What do you think? How would you like the comment section of this blog to be moderated?

Adding new classes to World of Warcraft

One of the major points of criticism against the Burning Crusade expansion for World of Warcraft was that it didn't add any new classes to the game. I'm not sure that adding new classes to World of Warcraft would be a good idea, because I'm not sure what these new classes are supposed to do. People asking for new classes never get much further than proposing the name of the class, "monk", "bard", or "necromancer", without any consideration what the function of such a class in the game would be.

Of course it would be easy to design a monk or necromancer class. A monk would be a melee fighter, low armor, high damage, using a variety of asian-looking martial arts special moves. He would use no weapons, or fist weapons, or maybe a staff, and he would be wearing cloth armor. But if you look at his *function* in a group, he would work very much like a rogue. Adding a monk to the game would dilute the function of the rogue class, and it is hard to say why a game would really need both. The necromancer would have the same problem against the warlock class; why would you need a skeleton-summoning dot caster if you already have a demon-summoning dot caster?

Fact is that combat in WoW, as in most other MMORPG is very simple. That limits the number of possible functions in a fight. There is damage dealing, damage withstanding, healing, aggro control, and crowd control (taking an enemy out of combat for some time). Every single ability in World of Warcraft performs or modifies one of these 5 functions. A 5-man group needs one tank (damage withstanding and aggro control), one healer, and up to 3 damage dealer. Crowd control is a bonus, and often depends on the type of mob you are fighting, with different classes having crowd control over different types of mobs. Adding new classes to World of Warcraft would either not do anything useful, or destroy the usefulness of another class.

If you create a new character class, like a bard, you'll have to decide which of these functions he is going to perform. He'll probably have songs, which to be logical would be area of effect abilities. But what should these songs do? Should they damage enemies? Heal friends? Perform crowd control by making enemies fall asleep? Or all of the above? But the hardest part would be balancing: how much damage would these songs do? If a new class is less powerful in performing its functions than an old class, there won't be much interest. And if it is more powerful, the players of the old class will complain. If you make a bard whose songs deal more AoE damage than a mage can, plus has AoE crowd control and healing, nobody is going to want to play a mage any more.

If designing a new class is possible at all, you would need to do it in reverse: first decide on the classes function, and then find a name and lore to fit that function.

In the early design stages of World of Warcraft there was talk of "hero classes". Many MMORPG have some sort of system where after a certain level your character can switch to a more specialized class. But WoW already has the talent system for that. We don't need the possibility for a warrior to become a "defender", "sword master", or "berzerker", because he already has the possibility to specialize in protection, arms, or fury. And the talent system has the advantage that for a cost you can respec.

The only way to add more powerful classes to the game would be to make them a reward for playing a lot. Just like a level 60 character in full tier 3 epic gear was a lot more powerful than the average level 60 non-raider, you could open up new job titles and abilities to people who reached the level cap and performed some very hard tasks. The problem in that is that already the "leet" raiders are causing more of a negative backlash than positive attraction to the game. If Blizzard made hero classes available only to the no-lifer hardcore players, the other 95+% of players wouldn't be happy at all. Creating content only for a minority is never a good sales strategy.

So it was probably a wise idea to opt out of making new classes for the Burning Crusade. But Blizzard is probably going to have to add new classes due to popular demand in the next expansion. A new continent and 10 more levels just won't cut it next year. Their best bet is probably to design one new class each for tanking, healing, and damage dealing, and then do their best to balance them with the existing classes. That won't be an easy task, and somebody will always complain about the result.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

I'm not Gandalf

As was to be expected, the main discussion around Lord of the Rings Online revolves around how close or far the game is from the Tolkien lore. LotRO walks a fine line between being too faithful and not faithful enough to the lore. On the one side there are people complaining that they can't play Gandalf or a similarly powerful wizard. On the other side there are people complaining that if you start playing a lore-master you'll use more magic in the first hour of your career than Gandalf used in the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I think the balance that Turbine struck is sensible. Star Wars Galaxies was often too faithful to the lore. At the start nobody could be a jedi, but instead you had the ability to become a hairdresser. Now okay, giving a wookie a haircut is probably more dangerous than anything I did in my life, but that doesn't mean that I would want to play a hairdresser. And I don't want to play a peaceful hobbit farmer, waiting for The Scouring of the Shire in book 3, either. On the other side I understand why we can't have 500 Gandalfs on a server. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is high fantasy, a genre which is about epic struggle against overwhelming evil. There can be only one ring-bearer, only one lost heir to the throne of Gondor, and only a very limited number of true wizards.

That leaves the players on some sort of middle ground, leading a low fantasy life in a high fantasy world. Every single player hobbit will be an adventurer, which is already stretching the Tolkien lore. But none of them will be the ring-bearer. Every player who wants to wield magic, destructive or healing, can do so playing a lore-master or minstrel, which again is far more than the lore allows. But they won't be called a wizard, and the healing will be called a "morale boost", to make it fit into the world. Players will be able to adventure, kill orcs and other monsters, visit the locations from the first book of the trilogy up to Rivendell (with the locations of the remainder of the books planned for the expansions), and lead a generally interesting and heroic life on Middle-Earth. But you won't replay the story of the books, and I don't think there will ever be 40-man raids killing Sauron.

World of Warcraft is being criticized for players being unable to change the world in a permanent way; Lord of the Rings Online will be exactly the same in that respect, with even more reason for not allowing the players to change the lore of Middle-Earth. But the lore leaves a lot of things uncovered, and Turbine is making the best out of that. Lore-masters and adventurous hobbits are stretching the lore, not breaking it. And that sort of stretching needs to be allowed, because otherwise there is no game to play. Tolkien doesn't have combats in which a tank is taunting the mob, while somebody heals him and somebody else is throwing fireballs from behind. But the LotRO game will have that, because nobody has found a way yet to stage a Tolkien-like combat in an online game. And it isn't even clear whether people would like a Tolkien-like combat in an online game, because for example the hobbits are mostly busy running away in these fights.

What LotRO delivers is a WoW-like gameplay in a Middle-Earth setting. And that is all it can do. If you want a game that replays the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it would by necessity be a single-player game. And if you want a game that depicts the life of a hobbit farmer, you'd have to play something like Harvest Moon, not a RPG.

Lord of the Rings Online vs. World of Warcraft

Is Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO) the "WoW killer"? Or is it just a "WoW clone"? Since the NDA was lifted yesterday, the positive buzz in the blogosphere about LotRO is rising to hype-level. Most people who played the beta like it a lot (including me). And unlike other games, like Vanguard, that target a completely different market segment, Lord of the Rings Online is placing itself in direct competition with World of Warcraft for the same demographic of casual to enthusiastic players.

That the makers of LotRO have played WoW is evident. Much of the user-interface is very similar, and even most keyboard commands do exactly the same thing in the two games. The basic gameplay, with its emphasis on questing, strongly resembles that of WoW. Nevertheless LotRO is far more than just a "WoW clone". The developers obviously learned from World of Warcraft, but that just means they realized how and where to WoW moved the genre forward. Following that trend toward greater accessibility and user-friendliness is an obviously good strategy, if you don't want to limit your game into a niche existance before it even started. If you were able to play WoW, and liked it, you will be able to play LotRO, and in all likelyhood like it as well. That gives LotRO access to a huge potential pool of customers.

Lord of the Rings Online is definitely the "next big thing", and it will outsell any previous Turbine game. But it won't "kill" World of Warcraft. Nobody can kill WoW, except Blizzard. The best LotRO can hope to achieve is to come close to the success of World of Warcraft, selling several million copies. And it is far too early to predict whether it will get there, because that depends on many things we don't know about yet. Will the servers be stable at release and afterwards? How will the end-game of LotRO be? How many hours can you play LotRO before it becomes boring?

The reason why Lord of the Rings Online will be a hit is not that it is better than World of Warcraft. But it is similar enough in quality to WoW, with the exact ranking of who is better probably the subject of years of discussion on blogs and game forums. Millions of people bought the Burning Crusade expansion for World of Warcraft, and by the time Lord of the Rings Online comes out on April 24th, many of them will have grown bored of WoW again. The Burning Crusade is nice enough as an expansion; but while it adds lots of content to WoW, that content is very similar in style to the old WoW. The Burning Crusade expands World of Warcraft, but doesn't reinvent it. Lord of the Rings Online reinvents WoW, taking the same basic gameplay and adding lots of new classes, new spells and abilities, and new game mechanics to it.

And that is probably the best way to do it. Making the "anti-WoW" is a recipe for failure. You can't hope to compete with the biggest PC game success ever by making everything radically different than it. But making a total clone wouldn't work either, especially not if it is a cheap clone. Lord of the Rings Online is definitely not a cheap clone, it oozes quality, but it isn't the anti-WoW either. It manages to inherit many of the strengths of WoW, while adding sufficient new material to it to make it a viable alternative. Having a strong license behind it, one considerably better known than the Warcraft universe, doesn't hurt (except with some purists).

I don't think there will be a mass exodus of WoW players towards LotRO. But World of Warcraft will be two-and-a-half years old in April, and lots of people will have burned out and looking for a similar-but-new game. And Lord of the Rings Online is exactly that, similar-but-new. Most people who play or played World of Warcraft like it. I like World of Warcraft. But that doesn't mean that I'm not looking for a new game after 3,000 hours of WoW. The average MMORPG player gets tired of his favorite game after a couple of thousand hours. Lord of the Rings Online is placed well to inherit many of these players, plus a couple of people more who are attracted by the lore. Turbine has a winner on their hands here, which will make them filthy rich if they can handle the expected traffic.

WoW Journal - 13-February-2006

In the last month I had a crazy work load and schedule, which didn't leave me much time for playing World of Warcraft. Nevertheless my undead priest is now level 68, and if all goes well I should reach level 70 during the weekend. That seems nearly too fast to me. In quests I have finished all of Hellfire Peninsula and Zangarmarsh, and am half-way through Terokkar Forest. Which at my level means that I'm mostly doing green quests with quest reward items that are not really good. But in parallel I'm doing as many 5-man instances as I can get invites to, and those give me all the gear I need. My latest acquisition is a wand from mana tombs with over 100 dps. I also already have the hallowed pants of the priest "dungeon set 3", aka "tier 3.5", the blue set that is the level 70 version of the level 60 tier 0 devout set. And while leveling to 70 went faster than I thought, right now it seems that at 70 there are more different dungeons to visit and things to do than you had available at level 60.

I absolutely love the new priest spells shadowfiend and prayer of mending. Shadowfiend summons a combat pet, which only lasts for 15 seconds, but with every hit it lands it replenishes your mana. As you can use it every 3 minutes, this is a nice way to deal some additional damage while filling up your mana without having to sit and drink. Prayer of mending is a curious spell which at first view seems to be made for group play: You cast it on somebody in a group or raid as a 30-second buff, and if he gets hit during those 30 seconds, he automatically gets healed for about the amount of a flash heal, and the buff moves on to a random other group / raid member. That works reasonably well in a 5-man group which is fighting multiple mobs, because many group members get hit, and the buff travels a lot. In calmer group situations, and it raids, the buff quickly finds a target which never gets hit, and expires. In solo play it doesn't trigger as long as my bubble is up, which makes it less useful. But I found one brilliant soloing application, based on the fact that it is an instant heal: Sometimes I get a bad pull and need to run away with several mobs hitting me. In those cases the bubble goes down faster than its 15-second cooldown, the regeneration heal is not healing fast enough, and I can't get another heal spell through. But I can spam prayer of mending on myself, and as long as I have mana it is impossible to kill me now. That was especially useful in a fun Terokkar Forest quest, where I had to disguise myself as a member of the shadow council and talk to some people in their village. But sometimes I got spotted there, my disguise dropped, and half the village was after me. I wouldn't have survived that without prayer of mending.

The only problem I have right now is that I can't find a guild group for a 5-man instance as often as I would like. This is due to the typical composition of a raiding guild: There are far more healers than tanks in the guild, because a raid *needs* far more healers than tanks. So if you split a hypothetical 40-man raid group up into 8 5-man groups, you have enough healers and damage dealers, but not enough tanks. Fortunately a lot of druids went feral in the Burning Crusade, and I did lots of instances with a feral druid tanking in bear form, which works reasonably well.

Sometimes I think I leveled the wrong character, if I would play my warrior more and my priest less, I'd get more invites into 5-man groups. But soon we'll start raiding again, and then a holy spec priest stands a better chance to get invited than a tank. In most guilds the main tank(s) are also the officers responsible for organizing the raids, and thus they have reserved raid spots. I don't think a 25-man raid will need more than 2 or 3 tanks, except for some very peculiar bosses. So for raiding I'm better off with my priest, and I'll level him to 70 first before playing my warrior as an alt. I just hope that by that time there will still be demand for a tank, there is a risk that by then everybody in the guild is 70 and not much is happening in the lower 60s levels.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Lord of the Rings Online first impressions

The NDA of LotRO was lifted today, which gives me the opportunity to post the "first impressions" preview / review piece I already wrote a month ago. Here it is:

On January 13th I had the opportunity to play The Lord of the Rings Online stress test beta for a few hours. These are my first impressions. Please keep in mind that I only played the game for about 4 hours, taking a single character to level 8, thus I don't know much about the higher level content.

The first thing you notice when entering The Lord of the Rings Online is how beautiful it is. The graphics are artistically pleasing, technically up-to-date, and most importantly running smoothly without much lag. The direct comparison with Vanguard is striking: LotRO looks better *and* runs smoother. You will need a decent computer to run this, but you won't have to take out a second mortgage to buy one.

I created a hobbit minstrel as my character. You can also play humans, dwarves, or elves. And there are 6 more classes: Burglar, Captain, Champion, Guardian, Hunter, Lore-master. If you wonder why there are no "priests" or "mages", this is due to the Tolkien lore. There is no commonly available "magic" in the game. But that is only semantics, the abilities of the character classes in practice work exactly like magic spells in other games. The minstrel I'm playing is a kind of healer / bard, and plays very nicely. Besides a healing spell, an improved melee attack, and a "cry" that works like a direct damage spell, I have a series of ballads to sing. These ballads combine a short-duration buff with some direct damage to the enemy. Thus I can't buff before the combat, I need an enemy target to hit to use them. The ballads exist in several tiers, tier 1, tier 2, etc., and I can only use a tier 2 ballad if I have a tier 1 ballad buff currently on me. So keeping up all the buffs during a longer combat isn't trivial, and makes for some quite interesting gameplay. If there are still enough people remembering the original Everquest, I'm sure that this will be called "twisting" ballads, after the EQ bard gameplay.

The game starts with a short tutorial, in which you are running to safety with another hobbit, after encountering a Nazg├╗l in Dark Rider form. After the tutorial you find yourself in a newbie area, where you can do different quests to about level 6. You can't just walk out of the newbie area, you have to complete the main quest line there, which is conveniently marked as such. The last step of that quest line moves you from the public newbie area to an instanced event, the completion of which brings you to the main map. This is very cool, as the instanced event allows some scripted encounters that would be impossible to pull off in the presence of other players. At the same time the instanced events are short enough to not make this seem like a single-player game. Very well done.

General gameplay is similar to what you would expect in a post-WoW game. There are lots of quests, which serve both to tell you the rich lore of Middle-earth and to guide you through the game. I never managed to run out of quests, rather the opposite. You are never at a loss about what to do next, which is great. Quests cover the usual range of killing mobs, collecting stuff, or going someplace else. Quest items you find are not only marked "quest item", but also say for *which* quest they are, which makes you wonder why nobody else has thought of that yet. Combat has the usual mix of auto-attack with special abilities. But already at level 6 I had so many special abilities, that I didn't really notice the auto-attack any more, I was constantly hitting buttons to twist ballads. That keeps combat interesting. LotRO does a good job of not making you feel like a newbie in the newbie area. You don't have to kill any rats, although wolves, boars, and spiders are on the menu. Many fights are against human bandits. All mobs drop generous amounts of loot, you aren't kept short and can afford to buy weapons and armor, if you don't get them as quest rewards first.

Beyond the usual MMORPG gameplay, Lord of the Rings Online has a range of interesting special features. You can be awarded titles for special achievements, for example I received a "the Wary" title for reaching level 5 without dying once. You can choose which of your titles, if any, you want to display. But special achievements can also give you more than just a title, you can earn so-called "traits". A typical way to earn a trait would be completing the majority of quests in one area, or visiting a number of landmarks. There are also class traits, which you get by using your abilities a certain number of times. As far as I understood you are supposed to end up with more available traits than you'll have slots to equip them, with the number of trait slots depending on your level. This allows for additional character differentiation. So if my minstrel would use his cry a lot, he'd get an "improved cry" trait, which he could equip to further specialize in this area. But I'd have to choose between that and the "patience" trait improving some stats, which I get from finishing a series of quests to transport mail bags between the various hobbit postmasters. Hunting for traits is an alternative to questing, so besides the quest log you have a lore log, telling you how far you are in the different achievements. And there are lots of those too.

LotRO also has a crafting part. Crafting isn't available in the newbie area, but fortunately I realized that the light hides I found on the wolves and boars I killed where crafting materials, and kept them. Using Forestry I was later able to process the light hides into leather, and with tailoring made some light armor. Crafting seems interesting enough, without being terribly complicated. You need a recipe, some of which you get at the start, others you either find on mobs or buy from a vendor. Besides the recipe you need some materials, tools, and workbench, which limits crafting to fixed locations. Probably not a bad idea, it gives the crafters a meeting point to gather at. The one thing I didn't like was that you can't freely choose what tradeskills you want to take, you only have the choice between a couple of packages called vocations, each of which bundles three tradeskills together. I took the Explorer vocations, which gave me Tailoring and the Forestry I needed to process the leather. But Forestry is also used to find and gather wood, and instead of getting Woodworking as the third craft, I received Prospecting to gather metals, So I ended up with lots of gathering skills, without being able to process the wood and metal to something. The idea is obviously to force the crafters to trade among each other. I did see mailboxes, but didn't see an auction house. I hope that was just me not finding it, otherwise trading materials for crafting will be complicated.

Overall the Lord of the Rings Online is an excellent game. It is hard to describe the feel of the game, but in essence it just constantly made me very happy. There were so many things to explore, things to do and to see. And there was so little frustration involved. I didn't get to report a single bug, for the simple reason that I didn't encounter any. I was only sad that the servers weren't up all of the time, but this being a stress test I wasn't terribly surprised about Turbine having problems with the logon server. If they can fix their server issues, LotRO is going to be the "next big thing", the game you can't possibly miss of 2007. The officially announced release date is the 24th of April. I am very much looking forward to that, and I will certainly buy this game. Recommended!