Saturday, March 31, 2007

Blizzard gets rid of gold farmers permanently

Blizzard added to an earlier thread about gold farmer banning on the forums by outlining their plans how to get rid of gold farmers for good in patch 2.1.0. It turns out that this is easier than we thought. There are only three ways for a gold farmer to pass gold to his customers, and Blizzard is blocking all three, without causing too much hardship to regular players.

First is the mailbox, which after patch 2.1.0 will only transport written letters. The possibility to attach items or gold, or to COD, is going to be removed. Mail is currently the top distribution method for farmed gold, so good riddance.

Second is the auction house. Currently you can transfer gold via the auction house by the receiver selling some worthless item for 1,000 gold. To stop that, the ability to freely set the price of items in the AH will be removed. Today already the minimum bid price is set automatically. Starting from patch 2.1.0 the buyout price will also be set automatically, at twice the minimum bid price.

The third method to transfer gold is the trade window. Totally removing that wasn't possible, as it is needed for things like lockpicking and enchanting. So Blizzard cleverly transformed the trade window into a tradeskill window. Just giving somebody items or money isn't possible any more. But a crafter can select one of his recipes in the tradeskill window, and it will show the ingredients list to the customer, plus a fixed fee. If the customer fills in all the materials slots, the crafter can craft the item, and it will directly appear in the backpack of the customer. Even bind on pickup items can thus be crafted for somebody else! Very useful.

With no more way left to transfer gold to their clients, the gold farmers will quickly go out of business, Blizzard hopes. I'm a bit sceptical that this will only half work: Powerleveling is still possible, and if you give your account to some gold farmer, he could farm gold for you on your account. Less practical than the current method, but there is always one way left to do it.

Friday, March 30, 2007

MtGO - Return of the Living Dead

I played Magic the Gathering for 10 years, and spent a fortune on it, about $1,000 per year. First on cards, then after selling the cards for a fraction of what I paid for them, I reinvested the money into virtual cards in Magic the Gathering Online. MtGO started out as a good game with version 1.0, then the programming team changed and produced a horrible version 2.0. When I left the game in 2004, they said that MtGO 3.0 would come out in 18 months. Every once in a while I checked, but the release date was always 18 months away. So imagine my surprise when I now got an invite to the MtGO 3.0 beta via Fileplanet. Sure something I'll have a look at.

In 2004 I wrote a review about MtGO on As that site is now largely defunct, I'm going to put a copy of the review here. But please, remember that this was written in 2004 and doesn't represent the latest news:

Magic the Gathering Online (MtGO) from Wizards of the Coast is not an MMORPG, but it is a massively multiplayer online game with a fantasy theme. And some of the issues relevant to MMORPGs, like virtual property, are even more relevant to MtGO. I have played MtGO since its beginning in 2002, and followed its bumpy journey over the last two years. I even ran a now defunct "MtGO FAQ and Guide" website for some time. This is a review, trying at the same time to tell the history of this game.

Magic the Gathering came out in 1993 as the world’s first collectible card game. Unlike other card games, the two opponents each bring their own deck. Buy more cards, and you can build a better deck, increasing your chances to win. This simple principle catapulted a small gaming company named Wizards of the Coast (WotC) from obscurity into a position where they were able to buy TSR, the makers of Dungeon & Dragons. The same simple principle was then applied to the even more successful Pokemon collectible card game, at which point one of the world’s biggest toy companies, Hasbro, bought WotC.

Magic the Gathering is a very good game. Each player represents a wizard, with the cards representing his magical energy drawn from "lands", and his spells. Spells take the form of monsters that can be summoned, artifacts that give the player special powers, enchantments that can enhance monsters or even change the rules of the game, and spells like fireballs to directly battle your opponent or his monster army. Getting the mix right in building a deck is an art. Then you need luck in drawing the right card at the right moment. But you also need a lot of skill, as you often have several options what to do, and you have to find the best one.

The principle of spending more money to win a game made WotC rich, but of course it has always been a bone of contention. Obviously once you own every card, the game is determined by luck and skill, like most other games. But with thousands of new cards coming out every year, few people get to that point, and gamers resent being beaten by a less skilled player with more money.

To fuel their sales further, WotC invented a Magic tournament organization, the DCI, and organized big tournaments, in which the winners were rewarded with lots of money. For example the 2003 World Championship awarded a total of $208,130 in prize money awarded to the top 64 finishers. That is not PGA Tour Golf kind of money, but is serious enough to support some professional Magic players. And millions of teenagers dreaming of become rich by playing their favorite card game, and buying lots of cards along the way.

Magic the Gathering is still played as a card game all over the world, but the first shine has worn off a bit. With decreasing numbers of players, one big problem became apparent: MtG can only be played between two (or more) people that both own cards. If there are fewer and fewer players to be found in your local card shop, finding an opponent becomes the biggest problem in the game. Thus was born the idea of creating an online version, MtGO, which would supply you with an opponent at any time, without your even having to leave your house.

WotC wisely outsourced programming of MtGO to another company, Leaping Lizards. This cooperation launched version 1.0 of MtGO in the summer of 2002 with great success, but little publicity. The program ran stably, with a minimum of bugs, in spite of complicated interactions between thousands of cards.

The business model had not changed. The client was, and still is, free. But to actually play, you need cards, and those cost money. Like in the paper version, cards are sold mostly in so-called booster packs, containing 15 cards, where one booster costs $3.69. A theme deck, a preconstructed, playable 60-card deck, costs $11.99. Before you have a collection with which you can build competitive decks, you have to spend hundreds, or even thousands of dollars. And yes, the game is so addictive that many people do that. Me included.

Each booster contains one "rare" card, three "uncommon" cards, and eleven "common" cards. And what cards you get is random. If you buy several boosters, you will soon have your commons in multiples, while missing some uncommons, and a lot of rares. Every card can be used in up to 4 copies in a deck. It is generally advisable to put cards in multiples in your deck, because if you have only 15 different cards with four copies each, your deck is a lot more predictable than a deck with 60 different cards. So people hunt for the best rares, which can be sold for $10 and more.

With 3,000 simultaneous players, MtGO was a lot smaller than a game like Everquest. But the profits per player were a lot higher. MtGO is a faithful representation of a card game. It does not have a fancy 3D engine, in fact it doesn't need one, so bandwidth cost per player are low, as there is no need to transfer data about the 3D position of players, monsters, and objects. But the average player spends a lot more than the $15 per month that a MMORPG brings. In view of these profits, WotC thought of expanding the game. The plan was to bring out MtGO v2.0, with more features, for the 10th anniversary of paper Magic in 2003, and then use the publicity of the anniversary to hand out CDs with the MtGO client to everybody.

That plan could have worked, if there hadn't been a small detail: Version 2.0 was to be programmed by WotC themselves. They ended their successful collaboration with Leaping Lizards, and told a bunch of new in-house programmers who hadn't done v1.0 to take that code, add a lot of features, and turn it into v2.0.

Unsurprisingly MtGO v2.0 was a catastrophe. Not only did the new features not work, the whole game had become unstable. Every big event and large online tournament crashed the servers. Cards disappeared from peoples’ collections, or they received the wrong cards from opening boosters. Servers were often out for hours, constantly being patched. Bugs were as common as they had been rare in v1.0. Every new release of a new card set brought new problems. The big publicity action was scrapped, as the servers couldn't have handled new players anyway.

Right now MtGO is still running v2.0, in a patched up form. As v2.0 came with new cards, and people had spent money on those cards, it was impossible to roll back to v1.0. Many features have been abandoned, but the servers are now more or less stable. The code is undergoing a complete rewrite, and a stable version v3.0 with all the features is supposed to come out by the end of 2005. The game still has about 3,000 players during prime time. The big break-through just didn't happen.

Why are there still so many people playing in spite of all the problems? The answer is simply greed. What worked for paper Magic is working for online Magic as well. A large number of people play a special form of MtG called a "draft", which is a well-disguised form of online gambling. Players pay $13 to participate, in the form of three boosters at $3.69 and two "tickets" at $1. There are eight players in a draft, sitting in a circle. Each player opens one of his three boosters, picks one of the 15 cards, and passes the remaining 14 to his neighbor, while receiving another 14 cards from his other neighbor. He picks another card from those, passes the remaining 13, and so on, until all three boosters have been distributed and every player has 45 cards. The players then add land cards, build 40-card decks, and play a single-elimination tournament. The winner gets up to nine boosters, worth $33, nearly tripling his "bet", in a tournament that lasts barely 3 hours.

It is not pure luck-based gambling, as skill plays a prominent part in a draft, it is more akin to poker. But if you win often enough, you are able to at least "play for free", using the won boosters for your next draft, and selling the 45 cards you drafted to other players in exchange for tickets.

The people that don't try to make money by winning drafts try to finance their MtGO addiction by trading cards. In early paper Magic, people often still traded cards for cards, and only game shops sold cards for money. This made sense, because if you buy your cards in random boosters, you often have cards you do not want, and can trade them for cards you do want. In MtGO people soon discovered that the $1 tickets needed for entering tournaments can be used as a currency. So in MtGO everybody is a shop, and it is nearly impossible to find somebody still wanting to trade cards for cards. Everybody wants to buy your excess cards cheaply, and then sell you the cards you need at a considerable mark-up.

Even more than the paper version, Magic the Gathering Online is all about money. There are no levels to achieve. You do have a rating, representing how often you have won, and a high rating allows you to gamble for higher stakes. But lots of people found that it is to their advantage to play with the less skilled players for lower stakes. You win less prize money per draft, but you win more drafts than if you had battled against the other highly skilled players.

Players of MMORPGs often behave badly to their fellow players. But it is surprising to see how much worse player behavior gets when the game is about real dollars, and not just xp, virtual items, and gold pieces. Most of the bad behavior in MtGO is in the form of insults from an opponent who lost to you. But some players actually try to cheat, often in the form of collusion in leagues and drafts. Some have even tried to make an opponent lose by having their friends spam him with messages and trade requests, so he would lose due to time-out. Money is one of the most important pillars of civilization, but it is sure able to bring out the worst in each of us. This does not bode well for virtual property in MMORPGs. If the sword of uberness can be sold for $50 on eBay, players are going to behave a lot nastier to each other when fighting over it in game than they already are about items that can't be sold.

But while MtGO sure has a lot of problems, the basic game behind it remains brilliant. Even if you don't play for money, the game is very exciting, and deeply strategic. There is a good mix of luck and skill elements. And the online version does succeed in making opponents available to you at any time. Of course, it is "just" a card game and the 2D artwork scanned from the paper cards looks relatively bland compared to modern 3D games. Most people prefer it that way, as the game is rather complicated, and seeing the cards clearly is more important than them having beautiful animations.

You can get the client for free, and even play a very limited number of pre-constructed decks for free. It costs $10 to set up an account, but you get a $10 coupon for cards, so the account itself is basically free. You can try to play MtGO on a limited budget, for example $30 per month for the participation in leagues. Leagues are big tournaments lasting four weeks, where everybody has the same number and quality of cards. It is relatively easy to win at least a small prize in those, and you get to keep the cards, slowly building up a collection. But Magic is highly addictive, and there is a strong danger of ending up spending more than you intended. I certainly did.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Is the enthusiasm for raiding flagging?

I know that personally I am suffering for WoW burnout. Yesterday I spent the whole evening in the Puzzle Quest demo instead of playing World of Warcraft. But bloggers and forum posters often poll themselves as a population of one and then extrapolate their personal feelings into a general trend, and I'd like to avoid it. So when I observe certain signs of people nowadays being less enthusiastic about raiding, I'm not sure whether I'm just seeing what I want to see to reflect my own feelings, or whether it is really a growing trend. So I'd like to ask you, my readers, on how you see the raiding situation right now. Are you still interested in raiding, and are your friends and guild mates?

The thing is, I can't even say for myself why I'm not interested in raiding any more. Are the smaller raids less fun than the 40-man raids? Am I just burned out in general, and not wanting to raid is just part of a larger malaise? Aren't the new epics interesting enough? Or is it the expectation that the next expansion will give me better loot for a lot less effort that makes me not want to raid? I have the impression that the raiding atmosphere between people is less pleasant nowadays, with raids being less fun, more disputes, and more close to serious work, which isn't necessarily something I'd want to do after working on my job all day. (<-- Insert hardcore comment from some raider here that raids aren't supposed to be fun, they *must* hurt to be an achievement.)

I'd be interested to hear from you what your raiding situation is. Raiding more now than before, or less? Why? If you never raided before, do you think you'll start doing so now, that the raids have gotten smaller? Or do you feel you can't even get past the attunement step?

Biofuels from food

I rarely write about politics here. And being of a centrist political persuasion, it is even rarer that I have to write that I agree with Fidel Castro, of all people. I mean, communism is dead, and the man is an artifact of a bygone era. But just when you think the next news about him will be his obituary, he makes a statement on biofuels I couldn't agree with more.

Turning food crops into fuel is a bad idea. In spite of globalisation there are still huge income disparities in the world. That means that an average American can easily pay more just to fill up his gaz-guzzling SUV than a Mexican peasant can pay for his tortillas. If the fuel and the tortilla are made from the same material, maize in this case, the Mexican goes hungry, and the American keeps driving. The current American drive to use ethanol from maize as fuel has more to do with the American farmer lobby than with any aspects of sustainable development and greenery.

That isn't to say that I am against biofuels. But the way to go is cellulosic ethanol, which is made out of the non-edible parts of plants. If you have ever seen a maize plant (what the Americans call "corn"), you know that the edible part is just a fraction of the total plant. So lets grow corn, make food for the world out of the edible part, and transform the inedible bits into fuel. While transforming cellulose into ethanol is harder than doing it with the edible parts, the technology is under development. Growing enough corn to fill America's cars, while only using the inedible part for fuel production, would probably even drive global food prices down. Which doesn't hurt the farmer, who makes up for it by selling the rest of the plant to a biorefinery, and makes life for the Mexican peasant cheaper. Everybody wins!

No skill in MMORPG solo combat

I've mentioned it before, but I'd like to start a discussion about MMORPG solo combat, the situations where you are one-on-one against a computer-controlled mob. Given that in World of Warcraft you can level up from 1 to 70 by doing nothing else, and even the most ardent group-players like me spend a good part of their time soloing single mobs, I wonder why this sort of combat has to be that boring and void of a need for skill.

The reason why I'm thinking about that is me playing the Puzzle Quest demo, where each combat is played out as a Bejewelled-like puzzle. There are elements of chance, and your character stats influence the combat, but in the end you need to be good at this puzzle to beat the opponent. The game has a function that if you can't find a move, one possible move is pointed out to you, but if you always just take this random move, you are unlikely to win. Setting up some clever combo of moves and spells requires some thought, and when you win the game due to that, it is a lot more satisfying.

Back in World of Warcraft combat against a mob appears to be a comparatively boring sequence of button presses. Very often the sequence is the same. WoW even has a special /castsequence macro function, so if you find you're always casting the same three spells at the start of combat, you can put them all on one button. My priest always pulls with Holy Fire and Mindflay, then bubbles up, casts Shadow Word Pain, and then wands the mob to death. Except for sometimes having to renew the bubble or cast a healing spell, each combat is pretty much like the last one, regardless of what mob I'm fighting. My warrior either charges or pulls with a ranged weapon, and then pretty much randomly uses all his different special attacks one after the other until the execute button lights up and I can end the combat with it. The most exciting is fighting spellcasters, where I need to react and either interrupt their spells or try to reflect them back to them. Compared with most other video games, a MMORPG combat needs very little eye-hand coordination skills, and very little decision-making skills. Random button mashing, or even going afk in the case of well-armored melee fighters, often works just as well.

Unfortunately the only "improvements" to this system announced are MMORPGs where you need to target manually instead of locking on a target and repeatedly click on the mob to hit it. I don't see how that needs much more skill, this is just the same "action" combat system that goes back to the old days of Diablo. You create the illusion of action by requiring lots of clicks, but there is no skill in clicking. The outcome of combat will still largely depend on your character stats, and not on whether you made intelligent decisions during combat.

Thus my fascination with both puzzle-based combat systems (Puzzle Pirates, Puzzle Quest), and combat systems using elements from trading card games (Metal Gear Acid. Chronicles of Spellborn is going in that direction, but not far enough). Basically everything which turns combat into a mini-game of its own, and where your skill in that mini-game, together with luck and character stats, determine the outcome.

But other systems would be possible. Asian RPGs often use systems which are based on mobs being resistant or weak to certain elements. The whole Pokemon system is based on that, and the Final Fantasy XI MMORPG is using this in a minor way. The idea is simple enough, the player gets more different spells as he has in WoW, but they don't all work equally well on every opponent. There is usually some diagram of elemental oppositions, and the fire mob will be resistant against fire, but weak against frost, while arcane deals normal damage. WoW has the resistant part built in, but only on very few mobs, and whether a mob is fire resistant would only be interesting to a mage or warlock, and not to a warrior, priest, or rogue.

So what are your ideas to make MMORPG combat more interesting? Please, solo combat only, we'll keep the discussion about group combos and chains for another day.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

World of Warcraft quest series

Great fun yesterday, I finished the Hero of the Mag'har quest series. Not only does that give you some unique insight into the history of the orcs, but you also get two blue items as reward. In this case I was lucky, because everybody gets a necklace that is only useful for melee dps, which is nice enough for my warrior with whom I did the quest, but would have been useless for my priest. The second blue item is leggings, and there you get a choice of cloth, leather, mail, and plate, so there is something for everyone. The plate legs are really good for my warrior.

Now finishing this quest series isn't easy. You don't even get to start the quest before you haven't finished all the other Mag'har quests. Then you have to do a long series of solo quests, and then you need a group to kill the last boss in the Auchindoun crypts, and then at least one partner to kill 15 elite mobs in Nagrand.

I noticed that in World of Warcraft quest series often start with lots of solo quests, and end with some group quests. And I can see both advantages and disadvantages in that. The disadvantage is that if you follow a quest line and come to a group quest, you might get stuck there for some time, unable to find a group to help you to continue the quest. That makes for an ugly break in the story telling. You'll frequently find people complaining that their quest journal is full of elite quests. With Blizzard having repeatedly dropped the ball on their LFG functionality, finding a group outside your guild is as hard as never, with no more global LFG chat channel, and a shitty LFG interface nobody uses.

The advantage of quest series ending in group quests is that it encourages people to join with strangers into groups, and make new friends. After all, this is not a single-player game, even if there are lots of people playing it like one. As the final quest of a series usually gives a blue item, they provide a strong pull to overcome the reluctance to group.

So what do you think? Is encouraging people to group by putting elite quests at the end of quest series a good thing? Or is all "forced grouping" a bad thing?

Puzzle Quest news

Puzzle Quest is riding high, with strong sales placing it in the top 5 of the DS sales charts. Great success for a small independant publisher. I wonder how much of that is due to strong support from Penny Arcade, who seem to absolutely love this game.

I ordered this game for the PSP, but I'd also be interested in the PC version, which isn't announced yet. After all, a much bigger screen and a mouse are nice to have. And Puzzle Quest seems to me an ideal game to have on your laptop, as it doesn't use much resources, can be played in short bursts, and auto-saves frequently. Pressed about the PC version release, a developer said on the forums that "we can't talk about it", but that there *will* be a PC version in the future. Seeing how the demo version already seems to contain nearly the complete game, just with a level cap, the PC version should be easy enough to bring out. I just hope that it will be available by digital distribution, I would *not* want to buy it if you can only run it with the original CD in the drive, because I wouldn't want to carry the CD with my all the time in my laptop. If I could just buy a key to "unlock" the demo I already downloaded, that would be perfect.

Lord of the Rings Online open beta

The US open beta for Lord of the Rings Online starts on April 6. It is called the World Tour, which pretty much tells you that it is more a marketing event than a beta test. Quote:
Turbine, Inc. and Midway Games Inc. (NYSE: MWY) announced a massive, free “World Tour of Middle-earth” available to players throughout North America. Over one million players are planned to be invited into The Lord of the Rings Online™: Shadows of Angmar™, the most complete and authentic massively multiplayer online (MMO) world based upon the famous Books of J.R.R. Tolkien. The World Tour of Middle-earth is scheduled to begin on April 6th and continue until the anticipated launch of the game on April 24th.

“We decided to launch the World Tour of Middle-earth because of the overwhelming demand from players to get into the closed beta,” said Jeffrey Anderson, President and CEO of Turbine, Inc. “We expect the World Tour of Middle-earth to be a spectacular event like nothing that you’ve ever seen before.”
Well, the marketing hype is a bit thick, I'm not sure they'll get a million players in the beta, but Lord of the Rings Online is still a pretty solid MMORPG, and well worth trying for free during two-and-a-half weeks. Recommended.

Hero class rumors

Crowelf alerted me to an article on Tales of an Addict about a purported leak on the design of hero classes for World of Warcraft. Well, it's just a rumor, could be fake, and even if it was true it might get changed beyond recognition before it is finally implemented. But the basic idea is so incredibly boring, that it sounds real: Every class splits into three hero classes, with each hero class being equivalent to one talent tree. So a shadow priest could develop into a Dark Cleric, and protection warrior into a Guardian.

Besides being blindingly obvious as an idea, it would also incredibly bad game design. The catch is in the phrase "specializing in a Hero Class is like specializing in a profession - you're stuck with it forever". Now who would want to be stuck on one talent tree forever, with no possibility to change? Imagine you specialize as frost mage, and the next raid dungeon that opens is full of frost resistant mobs, making you as useless as a fire mage in Molten Core. Or you specialize as feral druid and Blizzard decides to nerf feral druids and make them less viable as tank. Or you specialize as holy priest and your guild decides that from now on they will only have paladins healing, and priests only allowed to be shadow as mana batteries for the pallies. This is all things that happened in the past and can happen again, and if you'd be stuck on a talent branch based hero class you'd be screwed.

So I'm hoping that this is just a well-made fake. The more likely story is that Blizzard has a folder labeled "hero classes" somewhere collecting dust in the back of a drawer, and nobody is really planning to work on it, until the marketing department decides that hero classes will be the selling point for the next expansion. But as so many MMORPGs already have this "each class can specialize into subcategories" concept, I sure hope that Blizzard comes up with something a bit more original and playable. I'd rather have *less* hero classes than current classes, for example bundling all spellcasters or all melee fighters.

Dream Features: Less-random loot tables

In a comment this week Melmoth linked to an interesting blog article by Tomas Rofkahr about Intermittent Variable Reward (IVR), the principle that you are willing to do something unprofitable repeatedly for the small chance of getting a big reward. It's what makes people buy lottery tickets, but is also what makes people go to the same dungeon repeatedly until they get the reward from the loot table they want. I know a warlock from my guild who went to Shadow Labs over 20 times to get his Robe of Oblivion from the end boss Murmur there.

Now I don't mind a bit of randomness in loot tables, it's okay if I don't know what will drop when I kill a specific boss, or even if I come out of a dungeon and nothing for me dropped at all. But what I do find annoying is if something drops that nobody in the group could possibly use. The piece of leather armor, with no leather wearer in the group. Zoso complained about that recently (thanks again to Melmoth for pointing it out). In my only heroic instance run up to now the final boss dropped an epic, but it was mail armor, with no mail wearer in the group, and no disenchanter eiter, so I ended up winning it with a greed roll and found it sold for only 4 gold to a vendor. Doh! Not the reward you'd would have expected from beating such a hard dungeon.

Now we do know that pre-2.0 patch in Molten Core the loot tables were not totally random. Paladin loot didn't drop for Horde raids, and Shaman loot didn't drop for Alliance raids. So modifying the loot tables in function of the group going into an instance is technically feasible.

So my dream feature for today would be dungeon loot tables that takes into account group composition. If there are 2 plate wearers and 3 cloth wearers in the group, there should be no leather and mail drops, and there should be a 50% higher chance for cloth drops than for plate drops. It still leaves you with random chance, and the possibility that the drop isn't better than what you are already wearing. But at least it saves you from these annoying drops nobody could possibly use.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Time to complete BC 5-mans

A reader wrote to me
How about an article about time-length of Outland instance runs. I'm a casual player. Married to a tolerant non-gamer, two kids. I probably play 2-3 times a week for 1.5 hours at a stretch. My Shaman is 62, but I've only completed one instance (ZF). I've also mostly completed SFK and ST.

I had read that Blizzard intended that BC 5-mans would be much shorter. And someone in the Shaman forums said the same thing. That a good group can clear a non-heroic in 45-60 minutes. Is this your experience? I've tried Ramparts on two separate occasions, but both groups fell apart. (The latter was this weekend... my Elemental Shaman (MH) and the Dual-Wielding Warrior (tank) knew what we were doing but were improperly spec'ed, exactly like your recent post).

Anyway, if you have any thoughts on time-to-complete of BC 5-mans, I'd love to read them.
While we are in the middle of a heated debate on difficulty of 5-man groups, we tend to forget some basic truths. The most basic truth about instances is that playing in a group is more difficult than playing solo. Which for many of us is actually the attraction of it. A solo combat, only you against a single mob, is easy to the point of being boring. You know your spells and abilities, there usually aren't all that many of them, and most of the time you have a generous amount of time to hit the next button. One time this week I started a combat with my warrior against an even level demon, and after the first few exchanges of blows, my connection broke down. Had to reboot the computer and log back in, only to find that the warrior had won the combat in my absence, just by auto-attack. (Don't try that with a mage).

Group combat is a lot more difficult. Basically it is all about aggro management, forcing the mobs to keep hitting the tank with the high damage absorption capacity, and not the squishy mages and healers. That means that people have to time their spells better, for example not use their largest damage abilities right at the start before the tank has aggro. There is a lot more coordination required, giving you less time to decide on the right action and less room for error. You can't simply have 5 people doing the same as they would do in a solo combat.

Fighting in an instance with a group being more difficult and there being a higher chance to wipe has a big impact on how long it takes to complete a dungeon. I simply don't feel comfortable saying "you can do Hellfire Ramparts in 60 minutes". I know *I* can do Hellfire Ramparts in 60 minutes, in a guild group, especially if I'm going with my warrior and am able to set the pace. (When I'm playing my priest I have a lot less influence on the pace, as I shouldn't pull.) But if you go with a pickup group, Hellfire Ramparts can easily take 2 hours instead of 1.

Group coordination being so essential, and difficult, going somewhere with guild mates, people you already played with, is making things a lot easier. Coordination is something that needs a bit of practice. In the ideal case you get a pickup group where all the players are playing reasonably well, somebody is taking the lead, and after a few combats the coordination works well enough. More commonly coordination takes a couple of wipes, learning from mistakes, because everyone in the group isn't the most experienced group player, and nobody is really leading, or some people don't follow the leader's instructions. Every wipe costs some time.

And then, you already mentioned it, is the possibility of pickup groups falling apart. You wipe a few times, and somebody gets fed up and leaves. Or somebody has something real life coming up, like a kid having forgotten all about dinner time and his parents forcing him to quit playing. When somebody leaves at the very least you'll need some time to replace him, and if you can't find a replacement fast, other people are likely to leave and the whole group falls apart. So the time to complete that dungeon goes up to forever.

While I can't tell you exactly how long you'll need for the Burning Crusade instances, I can tell you that they are significantly shorter than the old world dungeons. 5-man instances in Burning Crusade all have between 2 and 4 bosses, with most having 3 of them. That makes them about half the size of Zul'Farrak, and needing only half the time. Which is a nice improvement from Blizzard, as it gives people with shorter playing sessions a better shot at being able to finish a dungeon.

Doesn't get more mainstream than that

One of the oldest and most established newspapers of the world, The Times (UK), will have a free trial version of World of Warcraft on CD, plus an 8-page booklet on how to play, in its next weekend edition. They already posted an article on "My life as a bearded dwarf", written by a non-gamer. Quote: "Personally, I’ve never created a character to play a game with before — hey, I have to do that in front of the wardrobe every morning for real, and I think all the ladies will know what I’m saying here." Very interesting read.

Anyway, there goes my geek street cred. Playing World of Warcraft is now so un-geek and mainstream as anything. Even The Times does it.

LotRO removes IP blocking

Listening to their fans, Turbine reversed an earlier decision, and is now making it possible for people from all over the world to play on US servers. You need to import a US version of the game to do so, but you won't be blocked from playing based on your non-US IP address. This makes it possible for international guilds to play together.

Well, nice of them. But I'll go with their recommendation, quote: "However, we strongly encourage players to purchase and play the game in their region to receive the best game experience, connectivity and local customer support." As previous MMORPG not always had European servers, I have experience with playing on US servers from here, and it isn't all that great. Your ping is much longer, making anything that requires fast reaction more difficult to do. And even if you are in a very nice international guild (like I was), that doesn't solve the problem that Europe is 6 to 8 timezones ahead of the US. You rarely really get to play with your guild mates, unless you play during strange hours. Raid starting at 3 am, anyone?

Puzzle Quest Online

I just discovered a game I must buy for my PSP. Puzzle Quest is a combination of RPG and puzzle game, and instantly addictive. How do I know that? I played the demo, which is available for the PC. Which is insofar strange as the game itself is only available on the PSP and DS, and not on the PC. But even if you don't have a handheld console, I recommed you download the demo and play it to the level cap of 7, because it is so much fun.

The principle of the game is simple. You have a character walking between points on a map, picking up quest. The quests lead to fights. And fights are handled with a Bejewelled-like puzzle game, where you need to switch tiles on a board to get 3 or more of the same type in a row. Just that in this case the tiles deal damage to the enemy, or give you mana of a specific color, or experience points, or gold. The mana you can use to cast spells, of which you gain more as you level up. Winning the puzzles isn't always easy, but you can't really lose. If an opponent beats you, you still get all the gold and experience tiles you collected and just have to start over the fight. Worst case scenario is fighting the mob so long you level up or gain the money for better equipment, and then you win. Besides that you can build up a castle, listen to rumors, buy and sell equipment, and do other typical RPG stuff. It's all in 2D, so it runs easily on a handheld, but the graphics are nice enough.

Of course I immediately started to think about a Puzzle Quest Online MMORPG version, although I doubt anyone will ever produce it. I really liked Puzzle Pirates, but Puzzle Pirates didn't let you level up and develop your character. Doing puzzles as a RPG combat would be a nice change from the autoattack-plus-special-attacks standard fare of MMORPGs, or the click-to-kill versions that are being developed. Puzzle games like Bejewelled have even more players than World of Warcraft, and tapping into these players and offering them both puzzles and a persistant online world with chat and character development could be really great.

Dream features: More guild functionality

Continueing my series of features I'd like to see in World of Warcraft, I'd like to quote a letter from one of my readers:
"Every MMORPG game I know of has guilds and tools for handling groups of players. Usually a guild is just a list of players with a common chat and little more. Probably an IRC (Internet Relay Chat) channel has more features.

I wonder why Dev's never tried to really expand the concept and capitalise on the social aspect of MMO's. Especially nowadays with social networks in so high consideration, I would tend to think that many concept could be easily ported inside a game."
World of Warcraft is pretty much rock bottom in guild features, many other games have a lot more features in this area. So what guild features would be nice to see in WoW?

One interesting thing that Everquest 2 pioneered was more guild support on the game website. You log on with your account name and password on the game's website, and you get access to the guild roster, including seeing for example your guild member's tradeskill recipes. That place could have a guild event calendar, and even a forum for your guild. Blizzard's Armory showed that it is possible to extract information from the game to a website, but instead of making it available to all, this information might be better used for guild support and limited to guild members. Of course the better organized guilds have their own websites with forums, event calendars, and rosters, but support from Blizzard here would make things a lot easier and improve usage.

Another interesting concept already present in EQ2, but also to be found in LotRO, is some sort of guild rank, based on how long a guild stays together and how many players they have. That information could again be listed on the game's website, sorted by server, showing who are the established guilds on a server, and making finding a guild easier. Ideally a player would get some sort of advantage out of his participation to that rank, so if you stayed loyal to a good guild for a long time, you'd get something like a title to display.

One thing frequently proposed is a guild bank, but I'd like to take that concept further. The problem with a "bank" is that you'll probably not want to enable everyone to take whatever he wants without limits, allowing people to join just to rob the bank and leave. So why not have some sort of guild vendors, where items are accessible for everyone in the guild, but at a cost. That would enable for example guild crafters offering their wares to other guild members at lower price and without both having to be on at the same time.

World of Warcraft isn't a good game for that, but several games have guild housing, and some way of guild members to work together to contribute to that guild headquarter. Prime example would be City of Heroes / Villains, where guilds can build a base, staff it with different rooms and features plus defence hardware, and then run PvP raids against enemy guild bases, announced on some sort of calendar, so that both attackers and defenders show up. More peaceful games, e.g. A Tale in the Desert, have other guild projects where everyone in the guild can contribute towards a greater good. That gives guilds a purpose beyond just going raiding.

I'm not sure whether offering an in-game DKP system for guilds would be a good idea. Personally I'd favor a zero-sum system, and think that would be easy enough to implement in-game. But there are many differnt DKP systems around, and not all guilds might want to use the same system, as different systems tend to favor different people.

What other guild features would you like to see in World of Warcraft?

Monday, March 26, 2007

The opposite view on talent builds in World of Warcraft

Having played the devil's advocate yesterday on everybody having to play their class role, today I'm going to argue the complete opposite view: Everybody should be free to spec as he want, and the game should accommodate that. Sorry if my previous post shocked or confused you, it's an exercise in dialectic, arguing both thesis and antithesis to get a more complete view on one subject. It sure worked in getting the discussion rolling. :)

The problem we're discussing is still the same: You want to visit one of the level 70 dungeons, and find that if take a random pickup group of people with some odd class mix, talent builds chosen more for PvP and soloing dps than for group support, and just average playing skill, you are likely to wipe several times before you even reach the first boss, and never make it to the end of the dungeon. That is particularly annoying if going to that dungeon is part of a long quest series, and you end up being blocked and unable to complete the quests.

The one solution I proposed yesterday is that if the group wipes, it's the players fault for not having chosen a better group mix and specialized group talent builds. I stayed away from the even more insulting "learn2play" argument, that the group wipes because the players are bad, but of course several readers brought up that argument in the discussion in one form or another (usually in the form of "but *I* can fulfill my class role without the right talent build").

Today I'm going to argue that if the group wipes, it's Blizzard's fault for making the dungeons too hard. And the solution to that problem is already programmed in: heroic mode dungeons. If it is possible to program a harder dungeon difficulty with better loot, then it must be possible to program an easier dungeon difficulty with less good loot. Why not have "easy" *and* "heroic" alternatives to the default "normal" dungeon difficulty? In "easy" difficulty you'd get less good loot, maybe only greens, but at least you could finish all your quests, and you could go and play with your friends, regardless of what classes and talent builds they are, and whether they are playing very well.

So you're a shadow priest, and your friends are a fury warrior, two retribution paladins, and a hunter. For the sake of argument we'll assume that you're playing very well (*grin*), but the warrior never liked tanking and is bad at it, the paladins think they are dps machines, and the hunter keeps his pet on aggressive mode. (I'm sure you already grouped with these people). Or another example, you're a shaman, and your 4 friends are shamans too, and you decide to rotate the roles of tank, healer, and dps. What I would like to see is an "easy" mode for level 70 dungeons that allows such groups to succeed. Not a walk in the park for a bad pickup group, but still doable after a couple of wipes. Far too easy for a good group with a perfect class balance and specced with the optimum group talents, but then there wouldn't be any reason for them to choose easy mode.

Now I know that for this argument I'll get a lot of angry comments from the opposite kind of people than those who shouted at me in yesterday's post. There are people around who think that a MMORPG is there to provide a static challenge, and that the players have to adapt to beat that challenge. Part of the adaption is learning to play better yourself, and that is certainly a good thing. But if you saw the people proposing to use the armory to kick out badly spec'd people from your group, you can see the dark side of adaptation. A lot of what is wrong with guilds in World of Warcraft is this concept of selecting your "friends" by class, talent build, and play ability. What if you have real life friends, or met people online who are extremely nice, but they play a class you don't need in your group, with a bad talent build, and they aren't playing very well?

I'd argue that the "MMORPG as a challenge" concept can only work for so long. Sooner or later players hit the limits of their abilities, or the abilities of the people they are able to organize as a group, and frustrations start to rise. The "MMORPG as a place to hang out with friends" has inherently a better longevity. But for that to be possible, the game has to make it possible to play with your friends without regarding their class, talents, and skill too closely. Being able to modify the difficulty level of a dungeon in *both* directions would go a long way towards that. It would make a far larger part of the game accessible to a far larger part of the population. The more accessible content you have in your game, the longer people are going to play it. And if by playing the "easy mode" dungeons they get better acquainted with the dynamics of group play, learn to play better, and finally manage to advance to the "normal" difficulty dungeon even with an odd groups, just the better.

How you do quote in italics?

A reader had a question about my comments section: "How you do quote in italics?". And as I've seen several people try tags like [i][/i] or [url=], it seems that I need to give more instructions. Square brackets don't work in the comments section, this is not a forum.

The comments section accepts only HTML code. So you need to use < > brackets. For italics you'd use <i> and </i> to bracket the text you want in italics. For URLs you need to use the horribly complicated <a href=""> and </a>

Turbine escapes Blizzard lawsuit

Just kidding, but the UK's Court of Appeal just ruled that ideas behind computer games can be copied. So even if Blizzard noticed that the user interface layout, game controls, and many aspects of gameplay in LotRO are quite similar to WoW, they can't claim copyright infringement. Only the graphics itself and the source code are legally protected.

Not that Blizzard would have tried that, they themselves "copied" a lot of ideas from previous games. And computer games in general copy a lot from each other. Inside of one genre of computer games, game controls are often identical or similar. Many first person shooters play the same way, as do many real time strategy games. Every action RPG since Diablo used a red health bar and a blue mana bar, with red and blue potions to fill them up. Some things just become industry standards, and unless there is a compelling reason to change, people just stick to these conventions.

The obvious danger is that this prevents innovation. I'm still waiting for MMORPGs to break out of the same old "autoattack plus special attack hotkeys" mold, although I'm sceptical of proposed solutions to make combat based on real-time clicking (what if you have lag?). On the other side World of Warcraft has taught (<- notice the correct form of this verb this time) game developers that polish sells better than half-baked novel ideas. Ideally somebody develops a new idea, and others take it up and refine it, until the idea becomes overused and somebody else comes up with another new idea. There is still some room in the MMORPG market for games similar to World of Warcraft, with just incremental improvements and a few novel features. We'll still have to wait a couple of years for a game to break the mould and come out with a very new idea of gameplay in a virtual online world.

WoW Journal - 26-March-2007

I didn't play all that much World of Warcraft this weekend. But between trying the LotRO monster play and watching a couple of episodes of the second season of NYPD Blue (much better after Caruso left), I still got a couple of hours of WoW in. That mostly consisted of my priest joining different dungeon groups, and my warrior doing quests in Nagrand.

My warrior is level 67, and I can't help the feeling that he levels faster than he can do all the quests in Burning Crusade. By the time I finish Nagrand I'll be 68 or very close to it, and I haven't even touched Blade's Edge, Shadowmoon Valley and Netherstorm yet. I lost interest in quests once I hit level 70 with my priest, and I wonder if I'll continue questing with my warrior after hitting the level cap. Quests earn you good money, but the items are usually worse than what you could get out of dungeons, except for the rewards of the hardest elite quests, for which you'll need a group as well. So not much interest in soloing at 70.

But for the moment I do like questing in Nagrand. I did a lot of quests for the Mag'thar orcs, so now I arrived at an interesting looking quest where I'll have to collect herbs in different Outland regions for the grandmother, for summoning some ancestor spirit who is supposed to kick some sense into her depressed grandson, the weak leader of the orc tribe. Up to now most Nagrand quest were of the "go to this place and kill anything that moves" type. Fortunately as a protection spec warrior handling several enemies at once is not so much of a problem, even if killing them isn't very fast. That made storming the various ogre, blood elf, and murkblood camps easy enough.

My priest was mainly logging on to do 5-man dungeon groups. Currently I'm trying to improve my reputation with several Outland factions. By going to mana tombs and doing a repeatable Netherstorm quest I managed to hit honored with the Consortium, which gave me four new jewelcrafting recipes. Then I turned towards Thrallmar reputation, and did two runs into Shattered Halls. Tough place, but we cleared it out in both cases. Unfortunately the end boss refused to drop my dungeon set 3 gloves.

After the second run I was just 19 reputation points away from revered with Thrallmar. Getting a group together to just kill 2 mobs in Shattered Halls seemed a bit silly, so I thought about other ways to gain reputation. Already having done all Thrallmar quests, I turned towards the repeatable PvP quest to capture the three PvP structures in Hellfire Peninsula. That turned out to be harder than I thought. Sunday evening I managed to do the quest once, but it gave only 10 reputation points, and I need another repetition to get to revered. Unfortunately there are lots of bored level 70 Alliance around, and when you just switch a structure from alliance controlled to neutral, you'll get killed by several invisible level 70 rogues before you can flag the structure for the Horde. So this morning I tried something else, logging on very early before going to work and taking the structures when nobody was looking. Good idea, but I wasn't the first one to have it, the structures were all already Horde flagged, and I couldn't do anything. I'll try again tonight, sooner or later it should be possible to get this stupid quest done and reach revered for the heroic mode key. Overland PvP in Burning Crusade sucks, unless you can make yourself invisible. A PvP spec rogue can perma-stun and kill me without me even getting the chance to hit the fear button once. And with Alliance outnumber Horde 2:1 on my server, I can't even count on finding more people to help me than the other side can muster.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Gimping your group talents in World of Warcraft

I played in a couple of groups this weekend, and ended up getting a wide range of qualities from perfect group to absolutely horrible group. And for once the problem was less with people leaving early or anything, but really two groups in the same dungeon against the same group of mobs faring very much differently. And in the bad groups the problem was usually a player with a "solo-friendly" talent build that sucked in group play. The dps warrior trying to tank, or some healing class without healing spec. The only ones where it was hard to notice a difference between good and bad was the damage dealing classes, because they don't get any opportunity to gimp themselves for groups.

I leveled up a priest to 70, being holy/discipline spec all the time. That made me a less effective soloer than a shadow priest, but whenever I joined a group, I was able to perform my class role, that of a healer, very well. I'm currently leveling up my warrior with a protection build, which is exactly the same thing, slower soloing, but much better performance in a group. One day I'd like to level up my blood elf mage a bit more, but he doesn't have that problem. His talent trees are different, dealing different types of damage, and having some variation in crowd control and mana management. But whatever branch he goes for, he will be a good damage dealer in a group. Unless he is specialized in a damage form against which the mobs in the dungeon he is in are resistant (fire mage in MC), he will be able to perform his class role. A bad mage might have a bad timing of his spells, but at least you won't find one telling you "Damage dealing? I'm not spec'd for that!".

And I wonder why the talent trees for other classes can't be the same. A warrior should have three different protection branches in his talent tree. Maybe one that works more on damage reduction, another that works on him having tons of health (like the current druids in bear form), and a third that specializes in aggro management. Priests should lose the shadow branch and get another sort of healing branch instead. The hybrid classes can have more variety, but for example a paladin should have the choice between tank and healing, and don't have a silly dps talent branch.

The reason why pickup groups so often go bad is that you get a dps warrior, a dps paladin, a dps priest, etc. together, and then wonder why this isn't working as a group. If people like to deal lots of damage, they should play a damage dealing class, and not take a class with a totally different role and gimp it. But because damage dealing is good in solo PvE, and essential in PvP, Blizzard gives every class the opportunity to gimp themselves for group play, and so many people take them up on that offer that it makes group play a lot less pleasant than it should be.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

LotRO monster play - the new way to PvP

I mentioned before that having both PvE and PvP in a game causes problems, because what constitutes "class balance" for PvE and for PvP is so very different, and it is impossible to balance both at the same time. Lord of the Rings Online cleverly avoids that problem by never letting player *characters* fight each other. But if you want to do PvP, you can do so, you just have to first transform into a monster. So PvP becomes player versus player-controlled-monster, giving you all the advantages of being able to fight intelligent opponents, without all the disadvantages of classic PvP. Brilliant!

Yesterday I tried monster play out for the first time in the LotRO beta. I traveled to Bree, and found the Fel Scrying Pool in the south-west of that town. Clicking on that I was given the choice of starting monster play, or exchanging the destiny points I had won in monster play for some temporary buff. After choosing monster play, I was presented with 5 options of what kind of monster I would like to play: a spider, a wolf, or three different kinds of orc. I went for the spider, which turned out to be not the easiest monster class, but I managed.

The monster you create has level 50, and remains level 50, you can't "level it up". But you can increase its stats and even gain new abilities by spending destiny points. And these stay with your monster, so you can come back repeatedly to the same monster and play it to increase its power. You can have 1 monster of each class stored, and that is per character, so if you want more, you'd just need to level another character to 10, the lowest level at which monster play is allowed.

Now this being the beta, and there being no level 50 player characters around, I couldn't really test the PvP. But that doesn't mean there is nothing to do in the Ettenmoors, the PvP zone. There are numerous PvE, or should I say MvE, quests that have you kill mobs or NPC guards. Each quest rewards you with some destiny points. But it quickly becomes obvious that the most points could be gained in a raid on one of the numerous castles on the map. That is where most of the PvP action will take place later. The castles are defended by NPC guards, but with players from both sides around it would be more fun.

Normally MMORPG worlds are rather static, whatever you do changes back to its original state after a few minutes. But I can see how the Ettenmoors will develop over time starting from release of the game. Because players can play a monster starting from level 10, but need to be level 50 to fight against those monsters, the Ettenmoors will be firmly in monster hand for the first couple of months of the game. Then gradually the balance will shift, the "free people" will have some first successful raids, and again many months later the balance will have shifted to something where both sides have equal chance of winning. So in effect the character of the zone will change with time, which is interesting.

Back into the normal game, I was able to spend my gained destiny points for buffs. There is a long list of buffs you can choose from, starting from gaining more xp, to having more morale and power, to faster regeneration. Most buffs seem to last for 30 minutes, which given the fact that you can only get them in Bree and then still have to travel to whereever you want to quest is a bit short in my opinion. But nevertheless the option to spend destiny points either on your monster or on your real character is nice.

Lord of the Rings Online is by no means "a PvP game". There won't be much real PvP action before enough people hit the level cap of 50. But at that point the Ettenmoors could become as good as the DAoC RvR zones, with raids taking and re-taking castles. I like it.

Friday, March 23, 2007

LotRO interview on Warcry

No, I do *not* have a mandate to cover all MMORPGs equally. It is just a coincidence that right after that WAR interview I stumble upon an interesting LotRO interview on Warcry. Jeff Anderson is talking about recent changes in the beta, where the developers tried to make the economy less generous, and overshot the target. But in his view, which I share, that isn't a bad thing to happen in a beta, as Turbine listened to the player comments and corrected the situation. Balancing a game in the beta, instead of in the release version, is a good thing.

Mark Jacobs interview on MMOG Nation

I'm looking forward to Warhammer Online : Age of Reckoning. The only reason I'm not writing about it is that I'm not in any beta for it, and can only report second-hand news. But if I had to place bets on the most successful MMORPGs coming out in 2007, WAR would come right behind LotRO. Only that I'm not 100% convinced yet that the WAR release date won't be delayed into 2008.

Anyway, to feed you at least with the above-mentioned second-hand news, MMOG Nation has a nice interview with Mark Jacobs on WAR and other subjects. Quote: "Question: What do you think Warhammer does 100% better than anything else?

Mark: Oh, our RvR. That’s something we did obviously quite successfully with Dark Age of Camelot. If you talk to our players, even players of other games, they think that Camelot’s implimentation of RvR and PvP was the best in any MMO."

And yes, it was. DAoC had by far the best PvP around. Too bad I hate PvP, and even the best PvP isn't terribly attractive to me. But as there are a lot of people that do like PvP, I can see how WAR could become quite a big success. Personally what I always liked about RvR was how optional it was, you could keep out of it if you wanted to, or just participate when you felt like it. Nevertheless that system doesn't solve the principal problem of how to balance classes to be equally strong in PvP, but different as well as equally interesting in PvE.

I must admit that I'm not a big Mark Jacobs fan, because in the past he has said some very stupid things about RMT, basically blaming evil players of trying to destroy his perfectly designed game worlds. I have always believed that RMT should be considered as unintended consequence of bad game design, and that the game developers are at least as much responsible for it as the gold farmers are. And apparently Mark is now at least recognizing that the only way to keep the gold farmers away is to have a different game design. He says "A guiding principle is something like, in this case, design the systems to discourage farming, and limit impact that gold farming companies can have on the game.", but refuses to go into the details of how such a system could work. I'm quite interested with what he comes up, and whether it works.

But the guy still has some very unrealistic views, based on a "developers are the new gods" attitude which often ends up clashing with what the players believe. He says: "I’m a real big believer in EULAs. EULAs are what help keep these games online. The day that developers in the United States lose the ability to enforce our own EULAs, is the day that MMOs will start to dissappear. These companies are breaking our EULAs, they’re flouting them in our face, their behavior’s in our face, saying “we can do whatever we want”, and I’m sorry, that’s just wrong." Well, if it's "just wrong", then why doesn't he go and sue IGE and all the other gold farming companies? It seems to me that the developers lost the ability to enforce their EULAs long ago. And that is because they wrote things into these EULAs that try to extend the rights of the developers and limit the rights of the players to an extent which is not compatible with the US legislation. They can't enforce their EULAs for the simple reason that these EULAs wouldn't hold up in court. It would take a brave soul and a huge amount of money to clear the question of virtual property rights in US courts far enough to enable writing enforcable EULAs.

Peer pressure

An anonymous reader posted a comment late on my Is the Burning Crusade reshuffling guilds? article. To rescue that comment from obscurity, I'm quoting it here, because I think it is very interesting.
Our guild started out saying no pressure to level - lets take time and explore and enjoy the new content. (There are quite a few couples in the guild with small children, so we are limited on time sometimes to play.) Soon I began to feel the pressure to level level level, and despite all our resolve not to, we sprinted to level 70, about 2 weeks behind the "inner circle". Before we even reached 70, the pressure to attune became really strong. We both play key classes for Karazhan, so the pressure was heavy for both of us to get attuned, and quickly. We finally made it through the attunement process, and we are regularly trying to help our friends that we actually enjoy playing with, get attuned also by running the different instances and dungeons needed in between the raiding schedule.

We've been reluctantly pulled into what I refer to as the "inner circle" and although we are among the lucky who've been included on all the karazhan runs so far, our friends are beginning to think (and realize) the guild is focusing on this one team. We are worried that we will get blocked in with this inner core of people that we don't enjoy playing with; but also worried that if we say no, we won't get to raid at all. Now that the "inner circle" is attuned - they are only helping the classes get attuned that they need to fill out "balance" their "A" team, although I've been told we are going to have two equally balanced raid teams for Karazhan.

It's really irritating not to have any choices about whether to go on a raid or not or which team i want to be on. But we are afraid if we turn down a raid, or don't sign up, we might not be invited on any raids. Our guild is on the medium to small size, so it would be hard (not impossible though) to form our own team, but I am honestly here to play and have fun with my friends, and this situation is making me want to form my own raid team within the guild, so we can have a reasonable schedule and actually enjoy going there, instead of having to group with mean people who only want us there because we are "this" class or "that" class. We've also got the problem that the "inner circle" likes to split my spouse and I up and I worry they would put us on two different raiding teams.

BC has made people crazy. Definitely made it hard to just log in and have fun. So I guess we are stuck in between the people who are way aggressive and way out front and the slower group who hasn't even hit 70 yet. Yup, stuck right slam in the middle...I wouldn't really worry too much about it, 'cause we like to do the instances and dungeons, but eventually we'll want the challenge of raiding the larger areas, so we are stuck going with the flow until some more of our friends get attuned. We are working earnestly to help them, but in the long run - unless we disband, we won't have any control about who gets to play with who if they form teams instead of continuing our guild's policy of having open signups for all raids, and running numerous raids. ~sigh~ oh least it felt good to vent...
A certain amount of peer pressure has always been part of World of Warcraft. You raid when everybody else is raiding, or you don't raid at all. But do you think that the Burning Crusade has made matters worse? I remember that on some raid days every single level 60 online from my guild was in Molten Core. But now raids seem to have become a lot more selective, with often just one group going to Karazhan, and everybody else online doing other things. We aren't raiding all together any more.

On the other hand the Burning Crusade introduced a much larger choice of 5-man instances to go to after reaching the level cap. Many of them are already good for level 70 groups, and those that are a bit too low can be played in heroic mode to make them challenging for level 70 groups. Thus playing together in 5-man groups definitely has increased from the level 60 endgame to the current endgame. Which has the nice effect of having less peer pressure, as organizing a 5-man run is a lot more flexible than organizing a raid. You don't feel you have to log on at a certain time to be able to play at all. And you don't regret "missing" a group, because there are so many of them around.

How has the endgame changed for you? How do you spend the majority of your time? How much do you feel pressured to play by your guild mates?

Leveling fast a bannable offense?

The latest World of Warcraft story hitting the news is about Blizzard being heavy-handed with banning people. CNet reports about the boy who was playing night and day to catch up with his friends, and got banned for "powerleveling". The problem in cases like these is that there are 8 million players in World of Warcraft, and only a limited number of customer service representatives, so any appeals against having been banned take quite a while to get handled.

People have been banned for leveling too fast, coming into contact with gold or items that have been obtained fraudulently, and for logging on the same account from many different locations. While these things can be indications of terms of service violations, they can also be completely legit and innocent. For example the guy who logged onto his account from IP addresses all over the world was just a frequent business traveler, and not sharing his account for powerleveling. The method to ban people first and wait for them to appeal and prove their innocence is questionable. But it is an obvious consequence of not having enough people to look into each case more closely, and using an automated dragnet to search for suspicious behavior instead.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Compared to a toothache ...

I went to the dentist yesterday evening, with a light toothache, and ended up getting two root canal treatments. Ouch! And if that wasn't unpleasant enough, I will have to go again several times, and get a new bridge capping the two teeth and the empty spot between them. This being considered as "cosmetic" by my health insurance, I have to pay about 80% of the cost of 2,000 Euro. Ouch, ouch, ouch! Not that I couldn't afford this, but at the end I'll just arrive at the same quality of life than before the toothache, and poorer. The only good thing is that it provided me with some insight on how cheap my hobbies are.

For example the total cost for LotRO, buying the game itself and a lifetime subscription, will be only 200 Euro. Compared to a toothache that is a lot more fun, and much cheaper. Even the unreasonable splurge on the top-notch computer I just ordered, when depreciated over its predicted lifetime of 4 years, is just 750 Euro per year.

Assuming you would buy a computer that runs World of Warcraft comfortably well for 1,000 dollar, buy one copy of WoW of $20, and subscribe for 4 years on the 6-months plan at $12.99, you end up paying just $400 per year for playing World of Warcraft. Well, add another $400 per year for the broadband internet connection if you consider that without WoW you wouldn't pay for internet. But even that is cheap compared to many other hobbies. And compared to a toothache ...

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Theorycraft and arena PvP warrior blog

Are you interested in the science which is nowadays called "theorycraft", the analysis and discussion of the underlying numbers in a MMORPG? Alcaras is running a website named Subcreation - Better gaming through intelligence, with a forum on theorycraft, or what he calls Intelligent Discussions. That used to be mainly about the mage class, with lots of posts on how to spec and play a mage, but now has expanded to all other classes. And there is an attached blog discussing arena PvP from a warrior point of view, again with a focus on numbers.

There is some good stuff there, although I have to admit I'm a bit bothered by the stress on "intelligent". If he has the intelligent discussion, then what do I have here, or other people on other blogs and sites? Lets hope he only tries to differentiate himself from the official WoW forums. :)

Measuring player performance in WoW

I had a mail from Cap'n John on an idea of his about damage meters:
I have an answer to the obligatory damage meters where everyone wants to be #1 and anyone below them should "Lrn2Play, Nubcakes!"

Damage Meters (D) and Healing Meters (H) already exist. What we need is a Mod that compares both figures and gives us a new variable, say X, where X = D/H. The more Damage you do and the less Healing you require, the higher X will be. Dish out a ton of Damage but need a lot of TLC from the Priest and your X-factor will be lower. Now we're talking low maintenance DPS.

Naturally a Tank will have a low X-factor because his (or her) job is not to inflict a lot of damage but to absorb a lot of damage, meaning he will need a lot of Heals compared to his Damage output, but that's acceptable for the Tank.

X = D/H will reveal that the Rogue who topped the Damage charts needed more healing than the Tank, which could explain why the Priest was OOM and unable to heal the Tank, which is when Wipes occur.

High DPS good, low maintenance DPS better (shades of Animal Farm?).

Of course the other side to this argument is that if the DPS is high enough the Mobs will go down so fast that a few extra Heals thrown the Rogue's way are no big deal. But that's usually only going to happen when the group is overpowered versus the Instance's difficulty level, as you, Tobold, found out on your recent MC Run.

I'd be interested to know if the Damage and Healing Meters could be configured to throw up this X-Factor, as an answer to the guy who loves to toss up the Dmg Meters after every Boss fight.

"Yeah, pal, you're #1 on the Damage Meters, but look at the Healing you needed. No wonder our Priest is always OOM and needs to drink after every single fight."
Personally I'm not a big fan of damage meters, and especially not of healing meters. And while Cap'n John's idea would be an improvement, I don't think that its solving the problem.

The underlying problem is that measuring damage and healing output only gives you a total score. It does not tell you anything about the timing of that damage or healing. And I would argue that the timing of damage and healing is what makes a good player, not the total output.

That is easiest to see with healing. Imagine two groups running the same dungeon in parallel, each of the group having just one healer. Obviously the success criteria to compare the two groups and the two healers would be which of the groups has the least deaths, and not which of them has the higher amount of points healed. In fact, if both groups come out without deaths, the group which used *less* healing to achieve that is probably the better one. If one of the groups used a lot more healing, they probably ended up with the healer being out of mana a lot more often after the fight, thus everybody waiting for him to drink and recover his mana between fights. Equally obvious when comparing the two groups healing scores is that the healer isn't uniquely responsible for the score. If one group manages aggro much better, so that the mobs always hit the tank, with his better damage reduction, the healer will need to heal less points. Now combine the two groups into one raid group, and the same thing still applies. Assuming the healers work with some sort of healing assignment, it is a lot more important that their healing target doesn't die than how many points they heal. And the behavior of the healing target influences the score. So you can't pull out a healing meter at the end of the raid and determine who was the best healer. There is a brilliant post on Yet Another Nightelf's blog on how to top the healing meters by doing all the things that are bad for a raid.

Similar considerations apply for damage. More damage isn't always better. One important aspect is timing. A mage starts a combat with a full mana bar, a tank with an empty rage bar. If the mage pulls out his biggest guns right away, without waiting for the tank to gain some aggro and rage, he is likely to pull the mob away from the tank if he lands a crit. That leads at the very least to the tank losing time by having to run after the mob, and the healer wasting mana on having to heal the mage. In the worst cases it leads to people dying and the group wiping. Timing the damage to do less damage at the start and using the biggest spell to for the death blow is a lot better gameplay, but a damage meter can't show that. Another aspect is mana efficiency. Killing a mob faster with more damage only helps if the time you gain that way is longer than the time you lose for having to recover that mana. If your mage is out of mana after every trash mob, and is reduced to using his wand after half the boss fight, he isn't a very good mage, whatever huge damage numbers he produced.

If you are in a good group with good players, you will know it. If somebody screws up, you will often also know what went wrong. But you won't be able to describe that difference between good and bad with some simple to measure numbers. How do you measure how good your pulls are, how little time you lost standing around, how well the aggro management was? Damage meters, whatever you do to modify the numbers, won't tell you that. And people looking after their damage meter and healing meter scores are more likely to play bad than good, because playing after the meter just encourages bad behavior.

Calibrating my crystal ball

The physicist Niels Bohr once said "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.", a quote that is also sometimes attributed to Nostradamus. I went on record saying that Lord of the Rings Online will be the best selling game Turbine ever produced, which means getting more than the 120,000 subscribers that the first Asheron's Call had. I also predicted that it would probably even beat the current subscriber numbers of Everquest, which means over 200,000 players. Said like that, this are just numbers. How did I estimate them?

One source is annecdotal evidence. Like the general chat in the LotRO beta or in the forums, where a majority of beta players say that they will buy the game. Or from the other side, the number of people you meet in World of Warcraft who say that they are bored with it and are looking for a new game. This gives me a general impression about LotRO being popular with people that tried it, and a potential pool of customers willing to try something new. But that isn't talking numbers yet.

To get from there to a number, you need a another number to compare it with. For me that number is a statement from Brad McQuaid that Vanguard : Saga of Heroes has "well over 100,000" subscribers. Why this number? Because Vanguard is comparable to LotRO in a number of aspects. Both are triple-A titles produced by people and companies that have been around since the first big wave of commercial MMORPGs. Both are released in the first half of 2007. Both have the same monthly fee business model (although LotRO adds to that with the founder's club business model). Assuming that Brad isn't lying through his teeth, this gives me a number to calibrate my crystal ball with.

And now it's back to guesswork and extrapolation. Having played both the Vanguard and the LotRO beta, I think everyone here noticed that I like LotRO a lot better. LotRO has the more interesting world, less boring grinds, and a lot less bugs. And that isn't just my opinion. I read a lot of previews and reviews about both Vanguard and LotRO, and the reviews on Vanguard are at best mixed, with "unfinished" and "bugs" getting a lot of mention. The echo that LotRO gets is a whole lot more positive.

Then there is the different target audience to consider. The Escapist just has an interesting article about games targeting a more casual crowd. The best-selling PS2 game for 2005 was a quiz game called Buzz!, which most serious gamers considered to be simplistic and boring. But it sold over 4 million copies. The game's developer David Amor presented at the GDC what he considers to be the factors for success: familiarity, simplicity and approachability. And if WoW has teached us anything, it is that the same formula is true for MMORPGs. LotRO is more familiar, more simple, and more approachable than Vanguard. And while there are people that will scoff at familiar, simple, and approachable, I still think that these are important parameters for the mass market. Hey, even SWG got up to 250,000 subscribers, just based on familiarity.

This isn't necessarily a measure of "value". I'm not saying that LotRO is twice as good as Vanguard. It is just a measure of "success", and I *do* believe that LotRO will sell at least twice as many copies as Vanguard. Because Middle-Earth is so much more familiar than the rather generic Telon. Because LotRO is simpler than Vanguard. And because the intro of LotRO, having first an instanced soloing zone with a story-line, and then a newbie zone you can only leave through another instanced story, is a lot more approachable than the newbie zones of Vanguard. So if Vanguard sold over 100,000 subscribers, LotRO should get at least 200,000 together. Which would make it the number 2 MMORPG in the US and Europe after WoW. (Not world-wide, due to the much higher subscriber numbers of Asian games like Lineage or FFXI) Everything beyond that becomes impossible to estimate, because it will depend also on things like marketing, and how well the retail launch goes.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

LotRO interview in The Guardian

The Guardian has an interview with LotRO executive producer Jeffrey Steefel. Besides the usual blabla it gives us some glimpses into the future of the game, with the announcement of housing, live game events, using battles from the book like Helms Deep as PvP areas, and mounted combat. Seems they are having big plans for additions to the game.

Finally something where nobody can accuse them of copying WoW, Blizzard isn't exactly fast in adding new features to the game, we might be seeing player housing in LotRO before we see it in WoW.

Quote:"Is WoW's huge success a benefit or a hindrance to LOTRO?

A huge benefit. Think about it, what Blizzard has managed to do is hugely expand the market from something that was niche to mainstream entertainment. It has changed the entire landscape which means now is the perfect time to come out with a product like Lord of the Rings Online."

On the timing I certainly have to agree. The LotRO release is perfectly timed to catch people just realizing that the Burning Crusade didn't change the same old WoW, and isn't going to occupy them for much longer. And the marketing for LotRO is apparently going very well also, with beta keys being handed out in every magazine. I would be really surprised if LotRO wouldn't be selling very, very well. Not beating WoW, but certainly beating Everquest.

Character stats in the Burning Crusade

By introducing jewelcrafting and items with sockets, the Burning Crusade for the first time made it possible to customize items. You yourself can decide whether as a warrior you prefer strength, stamina, crit or defense rating. As a spell caster, you can choose between intelligence, spirit, spell critical rating, added spell damage (or healing) or spell penetration. But while you can choose what to take, you have less choice of how much of it you get. There are three levels of gems, very cheap from vendors, cheap common gems from jewelcrafters, and rare expensive gems, also from jewelcrafters. While you can thus choose your price level, the relative ratio between the stats remains fixed.

For example Blizzard considers 1 intellect to be worth the same as 1 spirit, strength, or agility. The vendor gems give you +4 to one stat, the common JC gems +6, and the rare gems +8. But stamina you get +6, +9, or +12, in every case 50% more than the other stats. Taking the middle level of common jewelcrafter gems, this is the relative scale of what you can get for the same price:
  • +2 mana per 5 seconds
  • +6 int, str, spi, or agi
  • +6 crit, spell crit, defense, or to hit rating
  • +7 spell damage
  • +8 spell penetration
  • +9 stamina
  • +12 attack power
  • +13 healing
But what if the players don't value the stats in the same way? As a jewelcrafter I can tell you that not all gems sell equally well. That is because not all stats are equally useful, both in respect to how many differenct classes and builds can use the stat, and in respect to how much quantity of that stat you need to make a difference.

The prime example here is spirit, compared with lets say intellect and stamina. 8 out of 9 classes have only very limited use for spirit, and +6 on any other stat is significantly better than +6 spirit. And if stamina is one of the prime stats of your class or build, of course +9 stamina is far, far superior to +6 spirit. The only class that can make some use out of spirit is the priest, and even as a holy priest with a build that maximizes the impact of spirit, I'm hard pressed to declare +6 spirit to be better than +6 intellect, +9 stamina, or +13 to healing. That means that when I put +spirit gems on the auction house, I'm nearly certain not to sell them, even at a discounted rate.

Why should you care if you aren't a jewelcrafter? Because the same principle applies to the looted items without sockets. The same item with an "of the eagle" attribute, giving +stamina and +intellect, sells a lot better than if it was "of the whale", giving +stamina and +spirit, because spirit is valued less by players than intellect is. In fact a green "of the whale" item you might as well vendor, you'll only lose your auction house fee if you put it up. Which is obviously a fault in the game design, as Blizzard obviously considers the different "of the animal" items to be equally valuable, when for the players they aren't.

And curiously the relative scale of Blizzards evaluation of stats has changed with the Burning Crusade. If you compare items pre-BC and post-BC, it becomes immediately obvious that there is much more bonus to spell damage, spell healing, and feral attack power around than before. Of course all the stats went up from pre-BC to now, but for the same item level these stats increased by a higher percentage than others.

Changes in how much stats items give are not neutral towards class balance. Some classes are a lot more reliant on stats for effectiveness than other classes are. For example the basic stats of int, str, sta, spi and agi have a large effect on how much damage a melee fighter deals, but no effect whatsoever on spell damage or healing, or spell critical rating or penetration. Which is probably why Blizzard increased the +healing and +spell damage stats on the Burning Crusade items.

The biggest change in stats is that to stamina, which used to be given out in the same quantities as other stats, but now regularly appears in much larger numbers, about 50% more than the other basic stats. That had a profound impact on the relative levels of health points, damage done, and healing done, with significant consequences especially for PvP. It is easy to see how for example a warlock, who can convert stamina into mana, profits much more from this move than a mage, who cannot.

I think Blizzard should review the balance between stats, and their effects on the balance between classes. Ideally items of the same level, but with different combinations of stats should be balanced until they are considered to be worth the same thing by the player economy. This undoubtedly would mean increasing the spirit bonus that items give, but also balance some other stats against each other.

Monday, March 19, 2007

MMO maps

Somebody sent me a link to a Karazhan map, and when looking at it I realized that this was the first "drawn" map from World of Warcraft I've seen in two-and-a-half year of playing this. In older games, like Everquest, there were lots of sites with different versions of hand-drawn maps of everything, from zones to dungeons. But among the 8 million players of World of Warcraft there doesn't seem to be anyone able to draw a map.

The source of this problem of course is that nobody needs outdoor zone maps in World of Warcraft. It is trivially easy to make a screenshot of the in-game outdoor zone maps, and so everybody does just that, and maybe adds some points of interest. The other source of WoW maps is the in-game mini-map. This is a bit harder to extract, but it's perfectly possible to do it and get a complete "satelite image" view of Azeroth. The same source can also be used to extract dungeon maps, and that is the basis of all the dungeon maps I've seen.

Unfortunately all these maps extracted directly from the game aren't very good. It isn't always obvious where you can go on an overland map, and where the mountainous terrain blocks your way. As for dungeon maps, they aren't very clear, and especially if the dungeon has several levels they fail completely to show you where you are going. I really miss the hand-drawn maps back from my Everquest days, which were often quite beautiful, and being drawn from a gamer's perspective showed you exactly what you needed to know.

I don't know whether people will start drawing maps in Lord of the Rings Online, but I already got some maps of Middle-Earth. I bought "The Atlas of Tolkien's Middle-Earth" (Karen Wynn Fonstad) and "The Maps of Tolkien's Middle-earth: Special Edition" (Brian Sibley) from Amazon, and of course there are maps with the Lord of the Rings trilogy of books. That of course doesn't give me any game information, but at least I get an independant source of hand-drawn views of the same area. The game is true enough to the Tolkien lore to have all the towns, villages, and points of interests in the right spots.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Heroic mode dungeons in World of Warcraft

I did my first heroic mode dungeon in World of Warcraft this weekend. Given that it is easier to get revered with the Cenarion Expedition than with Thrallmar, and thus there are more people with the heroic key to Coilfang Reservoir than with the key to Hellfire Citadel, we we for the slave pens. The experience was pretty intense, even on the trash mobs everybody had to play just perfectly to not wipe. Being the sole healer on the second boss in heroic slave pens and everybody surviving was probably my best performance in this game ever.

We made it, and killed all three bosses, getting an epic and a primal nether at the last boss. Too bad nobody wanted that epic, and we didn't even have an enchanter, so I ended up vendoring it for very little gold. As the first bosses of the heroic dungeons just drop blue items, and only the final boss drops a primal nether with 100% chance, and an epic, I can see how shorter heroic dungeons will be a lot more popular than longer ones. I think we even could have skipped the second boss in slave pens, which is probably what people will do if they go to "farm" primal nethers.

The only thing that every boss drops are badges of justice, which you can exchange against epics. Only you need a lot of those badges, and the epics you can get are rather crappy. Why would I want to kill 25 bosses in heroic mode for a Bishop's Cloak when I alreade got Cloak of Whispering Shells from killing one boss in non-heroic Steamvault? The epic cloak gives 1 int less, and only 4 healing and 4 mana per 5 seconds more.

I don't have much BC raid experience myself, but from all what I hear the difference in power level between blue items and epics isn't all that big this time around. Apparently Blizzard noticed that giving out very powerful epics just means that in the next expansion you need to hand out very powerful greens to everybody, because otherwise people just keep wearing their raid gear. Hey, my level 70 priest is still wearing his Halo of Transcendence from Onyxia. But of course if you don't give out very powerful epics, and everybody expects to get better greens in the next expansion, the motivation to put in enormous effort to get epics now isn't all that strong. Of course that is hard to measure, but it seems to me that this time round there are less people interested in full-time raiding than before. I can't blame them.

Molten Core at 70

I went to Molten Core with my guild last night. 27 people, most of them level 70, and we simply owned the place. Took us just over 2 hours to completely clean out Molten Core, and that was on our worst strategic behavior. For example the new Garr strategy, "lets just bunch up all these guys and AoE them". And most of the time it worked. Only Geddon and Ragnaros offered any kind of serious resistance, the other bosses just dropped dead in record time.

Of course there wasn't much of a challenge involved. And its not an event I would repeat anytime soon. But after not having been there for months, and remembering how much harder it used to be, kicking some ass there once was real fun.

As a priest, at level 70 I still behaved pretty much the same in MC than at 60. Just that my mana pool was larger and my heals bigger. The only real improvement was using Mass Dispel at those encounters where many people got debuffed at once, starting with Lucifron. Where the main difference was for the raid was in the damage dealing. The speed with which you take the enemy down makes a huge difference, because once the mob is dead, it doesn't matter what fancy abilities he has. And I have the impression that damage dealing went up faster in the Burning Crusade than healing did. In level 70 dungeons I barely ever use my fast heals any more, they are just too small now to make any difference.

I'd like to do a similar exercise for BWL, AQ40, and Naxxramas, but maybe that will be harder to organize. For example not everyone is attuned to Naxxramas. And I'd assume that the harder dungeons still need some sort of strategy.

LotRO to have separate versions US and Euro

Just like World of Warcraft, the Lord of the Rings Online will have US servers and European servers, and they won't be compatible with each other. Quote via Warcry: "What this means is that the version of the game you can play is determined by the service operator that supports your region. Since the service operators maintain completely separate billing, hosting, and support systems it is not possible to allow players to access both services - they're just not compatible with each other."

The good news is that apart from the minor difference from which date on the preorder customers can keep their characters, the release date for the European and US version will be the same, April 24th. So while you can't import a US version and play it here in Europe, most people won't really feel the need to do so.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Buying from Alienware

My last desktop and both notebooks I bought over the last couple of years were from Dell. I had my fair share of troubles with Dell logistics, but the machines itself were solid enough. But apart of having not much "street cred" among gamers, Dell now annoyed me by not offering gaming computers that are 100% Vista compatible. Their gaming models still come with Windows XP installed, and some of the hardware just doesn't work with Vista. But what I want is a computer that runs for the next 4 years, and I assume that in 4 years there will be only DirectX 10 games around. So I need a 100% Vista compatible computer, with Vista already installed and everything.

If I would live in the US, I'd have a much larger choice of suppliers of gaming PCs, for example Falcon Northwest, but these don't deliver to Europe. But one of them, Alienware, opened operations in Europe. So I spent some time building virtual computers in my browser, both at Dell and Alienware, and found the prices to be pretty much identical. Only that Alienware computers look better, have better "street cred", come with Windows Vista Home Premium preinstalled, and are guaranteed 100% Vista compatible (as long as you don't order one with two SLI graphics cards, as the technician explained me on the phone when I verified this). And comparing the websites it seems clear that while Dell is specialized in business PCs, Alienware only builds computers for gamers.

So here is what I just ordered for just under 3,000 Euro:
  • Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 2.4 GHz CPU, the "medium" model of the dual core processors, with the best bang for my buck. As I currently have a single core CPU, just with hyperthreading, the speed increase will be noticeable.
  • Nvidia nForce 680i SLI motherboard
  • Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTS (640 MB), just a bit slower than a GTX, and fully DirectX 10 compatible. Only one of them, I really don't need SLI. According to different benchmark sites this card will already be twice as fast as my current Geforce 7800 GTX, and that is without accounting for the much faster CPU.
  • 4 GB DDR2 PC-6400 SDRAM. If there is one thing I learned from years of buying computers is that you can't have enough memory. And Vista is a memory hog. I wouldn't dream of buying a Vista gaming PC with less than 2 GB, but I went for the future proof 4 GB.
  • 700 W power supply, computers nowadays eat a lot more power. I could have taken a 1000 W power supply, but I don't plan to install a second video card.
  • 2 optical drives. I took a second drive, because I figured that among two different drives I have a better chance of finding one that runs silently enough. On my current computer one of the drives makes far too much noise.
  • 1 floppy drive, which I don't need, but couldn't unselect. Come on, floppy drive is so much last century.
  • 250 GB hard drive. I have another 250 GB on an external hard drive nowadays, which makes switching computers a lot easier, so I don't need a bigger internal drive.
  • Razor Diamondback Mouse, a gaming mouse, shiny
  • a keyboard I won't use, I still have this wonderfull Logitech G15 keyboard
  • funky case, network card, standard sound card (Vista doesn't do surround sound anyway), preinstalled Kapersky Anti-Virus (most XP Anti-Virus software doesn't run under Vista), and some useless free stuff like an Alienware T-shirt and mousepad.
A solid machine, that in all likelyhood will still be able to play games in 2011. For now it's even a bit overpowered for what I'm playing. Hey, even Vanguard would run on this. And the 3,000 Euro budget is pretty much what I'm always shooting for. You can get a perfectly good computer able to run WoW just fine for 1,000 Euro, or you can get the meanest Alienware monster PC with water cooling, 4 processors, and 2 video cards, for 6,000 Euro. If I would live in the US, I could get the same system for the same amount of dollars instead of euros, but this is one of the cases where you have to think 1 euro = 1 dollar, even if the exchange rate currently favors the Euro.

So now I'll have to wait until the machine is built and shipped, two to three weeks, and then I'll see if the Alienware logistics is as bad as the Dell one. :)