Thursday, November 29, 2007

Too slow for AoE

My blood elf mage is level 27 now, so since level 26 I have all the spells needed for frost mage AoE farming, getting the collection complete with Cone of Cold at level 26. So I followed the excellent video guide for frost mage AoE grinding, starting with small numbers of lower level mobs. And I didn't have much success. It is not that the method isn't working, but as the guide says, it requires practice, practice, practice. And you need to be very fast. Which I am not.

Now I have no problems playing a mage in normal combat against single mobs, which requires a bit of strategic thinking and not much movement. You find a good spot at maximum distance, frostbolt the mob, frostbolt some more while the mob approaches, then hit frost nova just before the mob reaches you, take a step back and continue with frostbolts or other spells to finish him off.

But AoE grinding is much different, because you spend a lot of time running *away* from the mobs while your spells are on cooldown, or while you gather the mobs up. Which means that you need in split seconds to be able to turn around, hit the blizzard spell hotkey as soon as you stop moving, and then place the blizzard target circle at the perfect spot over the mobs and slightly towards you. And that takes me far too much time. While in the video the guy manages to get two blizzards off after each frost nova, I barely manage one. Then I would need to turn and run until frost nova is ready again, but there again I'm slow and get hit too much. So with a lot of effort I manage to get 3 mobs of 6 levels lower than me killed, but then I'm already low on health and out of mana, and the whole thing isn't very efficient.

I used to be good at quad-kiting, a special druid technique in Everquest 1, which works somewhat similar. But of course EQ was a much slower game. And that was many years ago, and my reflexes haven't gotten any faster since then. Somebody half my age certainly can make frost mage AoE farming work, but I'm simply too slow for it nowadays. But what I found very interesting is that this is the first time in World of Warcraft where I found that I was reacting too slowly for something. For most classes and most situations, split second twitchy reaction speed doesn't make any difference to your success chance in WoW. For frost mage AoE it certainly does. I'll go back to my frostbolts.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Guesstimating numbers

Changed asked in a recent comment: "I am curious about your estimates for these percentages of WoW players (say the 2M in North America and Europe):

% of people with level 70's
% of people who have entered Karazhan
% of people who have finished Karazhan (killed Nightbane)
% of people who have entered 25-man TBC raids

Wowjutsu provides some numbers but doesn't indicate how many of those toons are on the same account / same player. Any thoughts?"

I posted a reply, but before I copy that here, I'd like to discuss the subject a bit. Estimating numbers based on fragments of data we have and personal experience is extremely difficult. For example Changed mentions 2 million WoW players in North America and Europe, while I thought that of the 9.3 million total players about 4 million are from North America and Europe. But those are just numbers I remember from the last time Blizzard published numbers by region, and this could easily have gone down to 3 million or less since then.

The best source of raid population data is WoWjutsu. They use data from the WoW Armory, which is much more reliable than relying on user input. But the best they can do is count "raid guilds", and declare every member of a raid guild to be a raider. This is only true for the top raiding guilds. There are lots of casual guilds with large memberships, of which only a fraction ever went raiding. WoWjutsu only counts raiders, their total number of "players" listed is the total number of people in guilds with Karazhan loot. Which is why they have 100% of "players" listed as having been to Karazhan.

One principal problem of all sorts of counting population in online games is whether you count players, characters, or characters actually online. For example if we wanted data on how many people play Alliance and how many play Horde, the sum of the two as expressed as a percentage of all subscribers is over 100%, because some players have both. If you count online players, you give more weight to the players who are online more hours a week, and less weight to those who rarely play. My estimates are based on the number of suscribers, not on the number of characters, or online characters. The number of raiders as expressed as a percentage of online characters would be higher, because raiders usually play more.

So here are my half guessed, half calculated estimates:

% of people with level 70's

I'd say about 70%. I've used CensusPlus and saw over 60% of people online on my server being level 70. But of course many of the lower levels online were alts, while on the other hand all census software undercounts very casual players who just aren't online.

% of people who have entered Karazhan

WoWjutsu counts 1.9 million raiders out of a population of roughly 4 million US and Euro players. But this counts every guild member of a raiding guild as a raider, even if half of them never went to Karazhan, thus I'd say around 30%.

% of people who have finished Karazhan (killed Nightbane)
% of people who have entered 25-man TBC raids

Those two numbers are probably close to each other. According to WoWjutsu 1/3 of all players entering Karazhan also entered Serpentshrine, so the number is probably around 10%.

Feel free to give your own estimates in the comments. But don't just throw around numbers, give some arguments with them and tell us why you think there are more / less raiders than I'm guessing. And remember, this is percentages out of total number of European and North American subscribers.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Rewarding players for what they are doing

The first MMORPG I played was Ultima Online, and UO doesn't have levels. Instead it has skills for about everything you can do, so if you fight you gain skill points in fighting, and if you tailor you gain skill points in tailoring. Every single skill can get up to 100 points, and the sum of all skills together can't exceed 700 points. Thus everyone can create his own character class, mastering 7 different skills to maximum, or even distribute the points further. The general idea behind this concept is that the rewards that lead to character development are given out for whatever the player wants to do, and they are given in a form where he gets better in what he is doing, without getting better in other activities.

The other extreme of reward models is a pure level-based one. Whatever you do earns you experience points, which make you go up in level. And then the success of what you are doing depends on your level. Again you are rewarded for whatever you are doing, and your character develops and gets better, but there is only one way to count progress, and different activities all add to this one count, your level.

World of Warcraft is mainly level-based, but in fact has a hybrid model in some other areas. Many activities like solo PvE combat, group PvE combat, questing, or exploring new areas all give the same sort of xp that make your level go up. But for example crafting doesn't earn you any xp, you get skill points in the tradeskill you are doing. And PvP doesn't give xp either, instead you get honor, badges, and arena points. The problem is that your success in crafting or PvP still depends very much on your level. You can't get past certain crafting skill point caps unless you are of a certain level. And of course your level determines your power in PvP and your chance of success there. You can't make a pure crafter or pure PvPer in WoW.

Our recent discussion of class roles promptly spawned the old discussion in the comments of whether a MMORPG is for group play or for solo play. The answer is obviously: for both. The more different activities a MMORPG offers, the better it is. It is good that you can log into WoW and decide to solo, to play in a small group, or in a large group, to PvE, to PvP, to craft, or just to hang out and chat. If there is a problem, it is in the reward structure and the character development:

With World of Warcraft getting older, the large majority of players is at the level cap. By definition for group play you need other players, and because of the way WoW handles it you need players of around your own level. Thus most group activity, and *all* raid activity, as well as most PvP activity, takes place at the level cap. Somebody who creates a new character and wants to participate in all of these activities has to level up as quickly as possible to get to the level cap, so he can group with other players, or fight them in the arena. But the fastest way to level is solo play, so between 90% and 100% of the experience point needed to reach the level cap are earned soloing. Only then do you reach the point where you really have the full choice of all the activities that WoW offers. At lower levels you could still group and do some battleground PvP, but not to the extent that is possible at the level cap.

This obviously goes totally against the original principle of doing the activity you like, and by doing so getting better at it. Nearly all of the rewards (except the fluff) you get for doing things raises what I call your meta-level, a combined power score which adds your gear to your level. Of course at the level cap you *could* do PvP to get better at PvP. But you could also raid to get better at PvP, or craft yourself some gear to get better at group PvE. The rewards aren't very specific to the activity you are doing. And in the end it diminishes that great choice of what kind of game activity you would most like to participate in. You want to raid? Well, then solo to 70, do small groups to equip yourself, and craft the consumables you need for raiding. You're forced through a lot of stuff you didn't want to do just to arrive at the place you want to go. The system also causes lots of problems with regards to class roles. Some classes perform different roles in different environments, others are doing more similar things. But all the functions of a class have to be balanced for all environments, solo, group, raid, and various forms of PvP. And as you only see the aggregate score, the level, you can't look at a character and see how skilled he is at performing the different class roles.

So I was wondering whether it wouldn't be better to unravel the level system, and rather give out scores for different activities. For example you could have a solo level, a group level, and a PvP level. If you wanted to participate in end-game raiding, you would need to raise your group level by playing in groups, and soloing wouldn't help you to advance. Your different levels would reflect more closely the different activities that you pursued, and thus also tell more about the player skills you picked up on the way. If you needed lets say group level 70 to raid, and could only get there by leveling up in groups, one could be pretty certain that you learned notions of aggro management on the way. Your solo level or PvP level would be irrelevant to your power in group combat, so nobody would be forced to engage in a type of gameplay he didn't want. But by making group play the condition for group endgame play, there would be far more opportunities to group at lower levels. But unlike the original Everquest, which *only* had group play, there would still be the possibility to solo, or to PvP, and to gain levels in those activities, independant from your group level. You could level up all three if you wanted to, or you could concentrate on the areas you liked more. You would be rewarded for the activity you are actually doing, and the reward only developed your character in that direction, so you wouldn't need to do an unrelated activity to advance.

World of Warcraft is so big that often people get the impression that this is the final word in MMORPG development. Far from it! WoW certainly has refined and polished many of the existing concepts of the genre. But that doesn't mean that better ways don't exist. By observing the obvious flaws of the WoW level system, maybe a future game can come up with a better system of rewarding players for what they are doing, and making that reward relevant to character development in that specific sort of gameplay.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Tribbles under new ownership

The reader who goes by the symbols = # # = pointed out the news that Perpetual Entertainment, the company that cancelled Gods & Heroes to concentrate on Star Trek Online, liquidated its assets last month and is now under new ownership under the name Perpetual, LLC. A letter was distributed to the employees stating that STO would be redesigned to be "more casual", and could possibly be financed by microtransactions instead of monthly fees.

Well, lets hope that the new owners have deeper pockets. The chances for STO to become the mythical "WoW killer" and have millions of subscribers were always slim. So maybe going for a broader audience and not requiring a monthly fee is actually a good idea for this particular game. Just because many bad games have a free-to-play plus microtransactions business model doesn't mean that all games with that business model have to be bad.

When the class role doesn't match solo play

We touched the subject a couple of times in the past, but I thought I'd write a more detailed piece on the difference between group combat and solo combat, and why this affects different classes in different ways. I'll use World of Warcraft as an example, but in many ways the same is true for all games that use the same type of holy trinity tank-healer-dps group combat.

So how does group combat in WoW work? We take a typical group with one tank, one healer, and three dps classes. If that group fights several mobs at once, we assume that the extra mobs are under some sort of crowd control, sheeped, banished, sapped, trapped in ice etc., so we can reduce our discussion to the fight of the group against one single mob. We start with the tank who hits that one mob. In spite of possibly wielding some impressive looking sword, the damage the tank does is not very important. The most important function of the tank is to create aggro or hate, a numerical value which the AI mob uses to determine who to hit. Ideally the tank is always on top of that aggro list, and the monster thus always hits the tank, who by wearing the best armor and having defensive capabilities mitigates that damage down to the lowest possible value. The damage the tank does adds aggro, but he creates far more of it by using abilities like taunt, sunder, devastate, or thunder clap. It is important that the tank keeps the aggro, because his combined block and parry abilities, plus armor and defense rating is reducing the incoming damage by over half. If the same mob hit a mage or priest instead, the incoming damage to the group would be twice as high, and as an added problem the damage could interrupt their spells.

So now we have the tank mano-a-mano with the mob and both of their health points are going down. Unfortunately, as we are in a group encounter and the mob is an elite one, the health of the tank goes down faster than the health of the mob. So now we add the second component, the healer. The healer heals the tank with a mix of direct heals and heals over time. These heals create aggro too, but as long as the healer takes care not to overheal, he should be able to create less aggro than the tank, who is still spamming all his aggro-creating abilities like crazy.

So now the health of the tank remains up, as he is constantly being healed, and the health of the mob is going down, as the tank hits him. The mob remains glued to the tank, because the tank produces more aggro than the healer. This could go on for quite a while, until either the mob finally dies, or the healer runs out of mana. So now we need to get the health of the mob down faster, which is where the dps classes come in. Their role is to do most of the damage, in a constant stream, but not necessarily as fast as they can. Any single dps character can not do more damage than would be needed to top the tank on the aggro list, because then the tank would lose control of the mob. If for example a mage lands several crits, his aggro value for that mob grows too high, and the mob goes after the mage, who can't withstand the mob's damage as well as the tank can. But provided the dps classes can avoid that, their combined damage output is now leading to a fast fall in the mob's health, until the mob dies and the group wins.

Now lets say this mob was the final boss of the dungeon, the group divides the loot and splits apart, and each of them goes for some solo PvE, either doing some quests or farming some monsters for xp, gold, or reputation. The very term "farming" or "grinding" suggests that this is less interesting, more boring that group play. Why is that so? Because, on average, farming solo is much, much safer than playing in a group. In most cases you chose the place for farming in a way that your chance to die is very small to non-existant. While in the fight of the group against the boss mob the basic question was who would win, in farming the basic question becomes how fast can you win. In group fights, for example with the damage output of the dps classes we mentioned, it is often preferable to sacrifice speed for safety. Your group can take harder monsters by playing it slow and safe, giving the tank a few extra seconds to gain aggro before the others attack the mob, or by the dps classes limiting their damage with the help of a threat meter to avoid pulling aggro away from the tank. In solo fights being slow is a disadvantage. You are already sure that you are going to win. The only question is how many of these mobs can you kill in one hour, to maximize the gold, xp, or reputation gain.

So now our dps classes from the group are in solo PvE grinding, and they do exactly what they did in the group fight: deal damage. Only without having to watch an upper limit, because now the faster they deal the damage the better. Whatever talents or gear they have that helped them deal good damage per second in a group will also help them grind most efficiently.

The tank from the group isn't so lucky in solo PvE grinding. If he is still using the same tank gear and tank talent build that he had in the group, he can deal only slightly more damage than in the group fight, by changing to a more aggressive stance and using his rage for damage abilities instead of abilities that draw aggro. He still mitigates half of the damage with his armor, but that doesn't help him much, because he also deals a lot less damage than a dps class and thus the fights last twice as long. Per hour he simply kills less mobs than a dps class, because he deals less damage per second, otherwise they wouldn't be called dps classes. He can increase his damage output by changing his gear and/or his talent build. But it will never be quite as good as the best dps dealing class. And of course it would require him to collect several sets of gear, and to pay respec costs, which all adds up to a lot of cost and effort that a dps class doesn't have.

The healer has exactly the same problem. He deals enough damage to kill the same grinding mobs without problems, but slower than the dps classes. He doesn't die, because he can heal himself, but every single fight takes a bit longer than the one of a dps class, and at the end of the hour he has gained less xp, gold, or reputation. Again he can collect a second set of gear or spec differently for soloing, which again has a cost that the dps classes don't suffer. Or in summary: the class role of the tank and healer in a group is at cross purposes with the goals of solo PvE combat, while for the dps classes the two purposes align much better. Of course even a dps class might have some differences in the "perfect" talent build or gear for group play and solo play, but in general the differences will not be so large, and it is easy to find some compromise which works well for both.

Saying that a specialized tank or healer, in WoW terms lets say a protection spec'd tank or a holy spec'd priest, can't solo is clearly wrong. They can solo, and in many cases they can even do the same level of quests and kill the same level of mobs that a dps class can. But this comes at the cost of speed, if they stick to their protection or holy build and gear, they will level / get rich / gain reputation much slower than the other classes. Somebody who has played several classes will be very much aware of the difference, and leveling up slower is feeling less fun for most people.

This has several bad consequences. One is that healers and tanks are the least popular classes to play. But as every group needs at least one healer and one tank, they become the bottleneck for group formation. In my 3 years of WoW I'm sure that over 90% of the looking for group shouts I heard on various chat channels, including guild chat, were either looking specifically for a tank, a healer, or both. There are very few times when a group has a tank and a healer and has problems filling the other three spots.

The other bad consequence is that people who are aware that tanks and healers are needed for groups and decide to play one don't want to actually level him as such. They will make shadow priests, fury warriors, retribution paladins, etc. to level up to the level cap as fast as possible. That makes them of not so much use for groups in the lower levels, and they miss out on opportunities to already learn how to perform their class role at the lower levels. Level 70 is late for a warrior to learn how to taunt. And even at level 70 they often find that they prefer to stick to the more damage-dealing role, as it is better for soloing and for PvP. Which still doesn't help the other players looking for a tank or healer.

When Blizzard recently added damage bonus to healing gear, they clearly intended to fix this cross purpose between solo role and group role for healers. Warhammer Online stresses how each of their classes is good at dealing damage, even the tanks and the healers. Ideally a game would have many different classes which all kill mobs in solo combat at the same speed. And each class would have a specific role in group combat, like tanking, healing, crowd control or special effects which were all equally useful but different. Damage dealing shouldn't be a speciality, it should be a common base value. After all, when the typical looking for group shout goes out for "a tank, a healer, and 2 randoms", it can't really be considered a compliment to have one's class listed under "random".

Village WiFi

As feared the hotel I'm in doesn't have internet access. Or rather, as they assured me, they do have internet, it just isn't working. :) But it turns out that most of the village is covered by area WiFi. So I just needed to go to the tourist info and buy a little scratch card with a userid and password, and now I'm connected to the rest of the world again.

The place here is designed for tourists, but in winter they apparently don't get enough traffic, so they rent the hotel and facilities out for business training courses and the like. The course I'm on has a rather demanding schedule, so I'll still not write a lot this week, but at least it won't be total radio silence.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Possible absence for a week

I'm going on a business trip today, to some out of the way place. And what worries me is that the website of the hotel where I'll be staying doesn't mention anything about "internet". So it is possible that I'll be without internet for a whole week, how am I going to survive that? :)

Actually, getting away from everything for a week is nice. But be warned that there might be no blog entries all week. If you get bored, post in the comment section of this post about what subject you want me to talk when I'm back.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Holy priest stealth fren

Okay, okay, so I made the word "fren" up by spelling "nerf" backwards. But what is the official opposite of a nerf? Anyway, somewhere hidden in long patch notes for World of Warcraft patch 2.3 is the fact that items that had a bonus to healing kept that bonus plus gained about 1/3 of that number in in spell damage bonus. So if you were a holy priest with +1,000 healing bonus, you suddenly gained +333 spell damage bonus. That makes a visible change to holy priest solo dps. But of course if you were a shadow priest with lots of spell damage bonus and little or no healing bonus items, it doesn't change a thing. So basically the patch increased the damage output of holy priests, while keeping shadow priests at the same level.

And I think this is the right direction to go, and should also be applied to other healing and tanking classes. Last week my tank was grouped with a priest and two shamans, and we had to look for a "healer", because all three of them were spec'd for dps. Fact is that as long as you solo, dps is far, far more useful than healing or the damage mitigation abilities of a tank. Not to mention that all the taunt abilities of a protection warrior become totally useless in solo combat. So many of the players who have a choice between a talent build for dps and a talent build for healing/tanking choose the former, so as not to gimp themselves for soloing. But of course that hurts their usefulness in groups, and makes it hard to find enough healers and tanks for grouping in general.

Classes who deal damage as their main job have it easier. They don't have to choose between a solo talent build and a group talent build, they usually get talents that are useful for both situations. Of course there is always some mini-maxing about what exactly is the best PvP, PvE solo, or group build. But if you went for a PvP or group PvE build, you'd still be very good in solo PvE.

By increasing the dps of people spec'd for healing or tanking to just a little bit below the dps they'd get if they would specialize in damage builds, it would make the group-friendly builds more viable and popular, and ultimately lead to more grouping. And that doesn't mean that the other talent builds would become obsolete, because they could have other interesting abilities, for example the vampiric health and mana drains of the shadow priest. It just would be better if we got away from a situation where everybody tells you that you *have to* spec shadow to solo as a priest.

Right now my holy priest is better in soloing than my tank. I can complete the Skettis escort quest easily with the priest, while the warrior sometimes gets into trouble and dies when things go wrong. How about turning my defensive and block bonuses into a damage bonus as well, Blizzard?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The state of WoW gold farming

I'm back in WoW only since a short while, and I haven't done any farming to specifically go after gold, but I already accumulated over 1,000 gold just by doing daily quests and playing around for fun. I also noticed that I don't get any gold seller spam tells or e-mails any more. Only my newb mage got some random invites and when I accepted I got a /group tell advertising some cheat software, not gold. Apparently Blizzard's new tools to prevent gold spam are working. I saw somebody advertising gold in Orgrimmar once or twice in local /say channel, but much less than before. So if I'm swimming in gold without even going after it, and there is less gold spam, is the WoW gold farming industry in decline?

I went and checked some gold selling site, and found that 1,000 gold in WoW cost about $50 nowadays. That is pretty much what I remember from my last survey of that kind in Europe, but at that time in the US gold was much more expensive. Now the price is the same everywhere, thus the US has much cheaper gold than before. Which is kind of logical: if the supply of gold is growing, and the demand sinking, the price has to go down.

I think the daily quest did more to hurt the gold farming industry of WoW than all the previous ban actions together. When TBC came out I didn't think I would ever get 5,000 gold together for one epic flying mount, and in the end it took me several months and a lot of auction house buying and selling to get one of them. But if I'm continueing on the current trend, I'll have a another epic flying mount for my other level 70 character by early 2008, with Wrath of the Lich King still far away, and nothing else really to spend the money on. Two epic flying mounts worth 10,000 gold and not one gold piece of that bought from a gold seller! Having reduced the cost to raid with the alchemy changes, and introduced the daily quests to make gold faster, Blizzard basically flooded the WoW economy with gold. And it is even relatively fun to get, at least more fun than grinding the same mob all day long.

The tricky thing here is that daily quests give a relatively large amount of gold to regular players, but don't help the gold farmers very much. I can make 100 gold a day with the daily quests in less than 2 hours. But a gold farmer can also only get 100 gold out the daily quests, and then he'll need to go back to grinding mobs the old way for the other 22 hours that day.

Although the amount of gold in the economy has gone up a lot, I didn't observe a big inflation in the price of the primals and other resources that the gold farmers usually sell in the auction house. Adamantite ore is still where it was in price half a year ago. Only I can't buy it, prospect it, and sell the gems at a profit any more, because the prospecting chance has gone down, and the sales price of the gems has collapsed. Most rare gems go for around 30 gold now, when before I sold them for over 50 gold. Herb prices have gone up a tiny bit, but only Ragveil has gone up significantly (used for the new Mad Alchemist potion). I'm not sure whether Blizzard has reduced the herb spawn rate, or whether there are gold farmer collecting herbs now 24/7, but I have the impression that my herbalist is finding less of them. I haven't checked the prices of weapons, armor, and other gear, but somebody in guild chat remarked how cheap you could buy epics nowadays. Makes me wonder where all the money goes. Are people already gathering the 10,000+ gold they'll need for whatever new mount the Wrath of the Lich King expansion will offer at level 80?

How not to install a new hard drive

I put myself into Windows installation hell yesterday, by making a small but strategic mistake: I installed my new hard drive without unplugging the old one. Getting the new hard drive into the computer was easy, especially since the Alienware case has lots of space and sufficient power cable connections. So then I booted the computer with the Windows XP CD, with both hard drives in. At setup I chose to install Windows XP on the new drive. Long formatting, then installation of Windows XP including SP1. Then I still need to install service pack 2, and all the drivers for the motherboard, sound, graphics, network, monitor, etc., until everything is up and running. Then I notice something strange: My new hard drive has the letter F:, the old hard drive still has the letter C:.

So I go to the Disk Management Utility to switch the letters around, and find out I can't. While the Windows setup CD correctly installed my new hard drive as the system drive, it kept the old hard drive as the boot drive. I reboot the Windows setup CD with the Recovery Console and try to fix the problem with the fixboot and fixmbr commands, but the only thing I achieve is destroying the old drive's boot record. So now I have two hard drives, none of which is bootable. Another reboot with the CD to try the "repair XP installation" function, only to find it isn't on offer if there is no boot drive. The only thing I can do is what I should have done right from the start: Unplug the old drive, and install Windows XP again on the new drive. Of course I also have to reinstall service pack 2, all the drivers, and so on, and so on. Took me hours until everything was running.

Following Shalkis' advice I also download a S.M.A.R.T. monitoring utility that can read the hidden information about performance and troubles on a modern hard drive. Well, at least I wasn't imagining things: The new hard drive scores okay on all counts, the old hard drives is shown as "fail" because of nearly 3,000 reallocated sector counts. So I format the old drive to erase my personal information from it (yes, I know that with very expensive hardware somebody might still be able to recover it, but who would bother for the insignificant data on a private drive?), and remove it from the case. Now I just need to put it into a padded envelope, wait until the delivery guy comes with my replacement drive, slap the return label on the envelope and give it to him to be sent back.

I also did something extravagant: I ordered another OEM copy of Windows XP Pro including SP2c, just for safety and convenience. I'm running out of activations on my existing Windows XP, and while there is probably some way to persuade Microsoft to give you more activations, I'd rather have the latest version, which will be faster to install as all the service packs are already included. By buying a hard drive I had the right to buy a cheap OEM version. Curiously if you want to buy an OEM version of Vista, you need to buy at least 3 pieces of hardware, or a new computer. I rather took my last chance to still get Windows XP before Microsoft decides to force everyone to use Vista.

What I don't know is whether it is possible to actually have two drives with a working boot sector in one computer. Because if that was possible, I would reinstall Windows again on the replacement drive. The hard drive I bought yesterday is only SATA-I, the replacement drive will be SATA-II and twice as fast. The shop didn't have any SATA-II drives, and I had to take what was available, a Seagate 320 MB SATA-I drive for less than 100 Euro. That would be good enough for a second hard drive for data storage, and I'd love to leave the Windows XP installation including boot sector on it in case of future problems. But I don't know if by unplugging this drive and turning the replacement SATA-II drive into a bootable Windows XP drive, and setting it first in the boot order in the BIOS, I can then plug the SATA-I drive back in and have two bootable hard drives in the computer.

Henchmen in WoW

I bought the original Guild Wars, found it not very solo friendly, and never played it much. But many people tell me that since the Nightfall expansion added NPC heroes to accompany you, which are much better than the ordinary henchmen you could use right from the start, the game is much better for soloing. So when one of my readers commented that World of Warcraft doesn't have a tutorial to teach you how to play in groups, I was wondering whether World of Warcraft could introduce henchmen or NPC heroes.

Imagine running through a World of Warcraft dungeon together with 4 NPC henchmen. You would give basic orders, for example by setting the already existing raid marks and then giving a GO command, at which point the mage sheeps the mob with moon over his head, and everybody attacks the mob with the skull. The NPCs would be of your level, and would play uninspired but according to their class role. So if for example you were the healer, the NPC tank would pull on command, and the NPC DPS classes would do a steady stream of damage. But if you decided to heal someone too early with too big a heal, and pulled aggro on yourself, the NPC tank wouldn't automatically rush to your rescue, unless given a command to do so. The whole thing should be balanced (which is probably difficult) in a way that if you did nothing, or played badly the group would fail. But if you played well, you and the NPC group together would be able to finish the average WoW dungeon (non-heroic).

I don't think Blizzard is even thinking about adding such a feature, at least not before the third expansion. But when I stand all alone with a low-level character in front of a dungeon and can't find a group, I find the idea to have a group of NPC henchmen rather attractive. I didn't get to control more than 1 henchman in the Gods & Heroes beta before the game was cancelled, but the gameplay was certainly interesting. And I think that by playing with 4 NPCs instead of 4 random pickup group members, players would learn better how group play works. Unless you already know a lot about aggro management etc., it isn't always obvious why things went haywire on that last pull. The tank blames the healer for not healing him, the healer blames the tank for not getting the aggro away from him, but in reality it was the mage casting an AoE spell that made the plan go wrong, because then the healer had to heal the mage, which transferred the aggro to the healer, and thus kept him from healing the tank. Most people in a PUG think that one of the other 4 players was the problem, and rarely realize when it was themselves. If you'd control the other 4 characters, and they did only predictable stuff, you'd be able to experiment with different tactics. NPC heroes should be too weak to tackle the dungeons at the level cap, heroics, or raid dungeons, so people would still be encouraged to group with real players. But if they had practiced with NPCs first, maybe their group play at the level cap would be better.

Raid lockouts

Solf commented on the post about improving raid progression that "I'm very-very surprised that in all this huge discussion nobody mentioned raid lock-outs. To me it would seem that lock-outs and nothing else is the main obstacle towards "casual raiding"." Good point! Meanwhile another reader, Stargazer, sent me an interesting idea: "I don't understand why people can't have their personal raid. Instead of a weekly reset, you get your own reset when you want to (max once a week) and you even get saved with this group until you descide you no longer want to be saved with them (after a week or whatever it takes to make sure we are not getting epics for free because that seems to be very important). That way you could have you group of friends and actually fight your way through all these interesting places, even though you are only able to do so every 3rd Wednesday from 19:00 to 22:00." So let us have a look at raid lockouts, and how they could be improved.

Raid lockouts have two functions, a positive and a negative one. The positive function is that they enable a group to do a long raid over several days, restarting another day where they left off the last time. The negative function is that raid lockouts prevent people from doing the same raid or raid boss more than once per X days. If that negative function didn't exist, a Karazhan raid group that had mastered lets say the first boss, Attumen, could "farm" him several times every night, until every member who wanted any of the epic loot that boss drops was fully equipped with it.

The complication is that the raid lockout is handled in the form of a raid ID that saves all the members of a raid when a boss is killed. Every raid has a different raid ID. So if your guild goes one evening to Karazhan with two groups, and the next day from both raids only 8 people show up, you can't even reform one single raid group with them. Everyone who was in raid A is prevented from entering the place while grouped with somebody from raid B. The only thing you could possibly do is invite people who don't have any raid ID for this week yet. But anyone who would "help out" in such a way would then be prevented from raiding the same dungeon with another group for the rest of the week. The system forces people into a relatively strict organization. And as Solf so correctly remarked it is a big obstacle to casual raiding. It also prevents guilds from trying to equip more of their members with Karazhan loot. Even if you have a main tank who would be willing to raid more often than the main raiding times, and would be willing to do a raid group with some less well equipped and experienced people to get them some Karazhan loot, he can't do so if he also wants to participate in the main raid. Every guild has some bottleneck of limited resources, usually tanks or healers, and once all those are distributed over raid groups, no more raid groups can be formed.

So I was wondering whether it wouldn't be better to save people individually to certain raid bosses. If you have been to Karazhan already this week and killed Attumen, you could still join another raid group, and as long as there was at least one person in there who hadn't killed Attumen, that boss would still be alive. But when that new raid group now kills the boss, those members who had already killed him this week won't be able to get any loot or reputation award. That would still allow some sort of guild-based farming, but at least every player only gets once shot to get loot from one boss per week. Speeding up the process in which guilds equip themselves with epics wouldn't hurt, seeing how only 4% of hardcore raiders (which translates to less than 1% of all players) have ever visited the Black Temple yet, according to WoWJutsu.

The problem for casual raids is not that a casual player could never find a few hours to visit a raid dungeon. The problem is that of any group of 10 casual players there will be rarely a time when all 10 of them simultaneously have a few hours for raiding at the same time. The raid lockout system makes pickup raids nearly impossible, and it discourages guilds from taking the more casual and less well equipped and experienced players with them occasionally. Even Tigole said in a recent interview with Warcry that "For Wrath of the Lich King, we're discussing ways to foster a healthy sense of competition among guilds on the forefront of raid progression while still allowing this content to become more accessible to others over time. I think we have a lot of innovative ideas and we'll keep trying to improve the system." I just hope that part of that improvement relaxes the current raid lockout system.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Vista to the data rescue

The Alienware computer I bought earlier this year performed well enough in the last couple of months. While when I bought it there were several blue screens of death, an Alienware technician helped me fix that by the simple way of unplugging my SATA hard drive and plugging it back in into another SATA slot on the motherboard. Don't ask me why that helped, but it did. Since then I had no more BSODs, but the hard drive still was a bit flaky. Occasional corrupted files, and whenever I ran a checkdisk there were errors to repair. Last week I started having problems booting, getting an error message at startup to retry with CTRL-ALT-DEL. Yesterday then the computer stopped booting from the hard drive altogether. Damn!

While the Alienware PC came with Vista preinstalled, I had formatted the hard drive after having had all those problems, and installed Windows XP. So I booted my Windows XP CD now and try to fix the problem with the repair function of Windows XP. No luck. The only option I had there would have been to format and reinstall completely new. Now of course knowing that the hard drive wasn't reliable I had made backups of the most important stuff in the past, but the last backup was over a week ago, and I hadn't backed up everything, just the My Documents stuff. So I didn't really want to format the hard drive.

Then I remembered that the PC came with a Windows Vista CD, and I tried that. And lo and behold, that worked. It took a long while, but the Vista setup packed up all the corrupted Windows XP stuff in a directory named Windows.Old and installed itself a clean new operating system. But then the performance was still problematic, the computer ever so often hung for several seconds and wasn't responding, presumably while searching for some data on the hard drive. But with Vista at least booting up, I was able to start checkdisk. That again took a long time and found lots of bad sectors and corrupted files. But at least it fixed the system good enough for me to be able to copy all the data I needed to an external hard drive. I was even able to copy WoW from the Windows.Old to the Vista program files directory and it ran!

But of course the hard drive is a goner. It'll continue to corrupt data until it totally fails. So I'm going to do two things. Tonight I'll buy a new hard drive and reinstall Windows XP and everything on it. And I already called Alienware, and I'm going to send them the broken hard drive and they'll replace it. Yes, that'll end me up with two hard drives, but the current drive with 250 GB was more than half full already, and I don't mind paying for a second one. At least I'll have a chance to get the computer fixed for the weekend, and don't have to wait for the replacement part from Alienware. I don't blame Alienware, they didn't build the hard drive (Samsung did), and flaky hard drives are hard to detect, the errors tend to appear only with time. Sending me a replacement is the best thing they could do.

Massively on PotBS crafting

Note to self: Need to check whether the NDA for Pirates of the Burning Sea was dropped. Because it is either that, or got a special dispense, or they are blatantly breaking the NDA with their extensive article on PotBS crafting. Some people compared the PotBS economy system to "EVE without the boring asteroid mining", which sounds rather attractive to me. :)

Massively also reports on an interview with the lead designer of PotBS, which reveals an interesting problem with their nation vs. nation PvP: Everybody wants to play the Pirates or the British (35% of population each), and nobody wants to play the Spanish or the French (15% of population each). Which is somewhat logical if you think of an international audience on English language servers. The British and the Pirates get all the good press in all the pirate movies you ever saw. The Spanish are just in to get their gold galleons robbed by the pirates, and I don't even remember the French really playing a prominent role in any of those movies. Which tells us that our "knowledge" of the pirate era is probably far more fantasy than historical. But of course for a game where you have 4 nations battling each other for dominance, the numbers are rather problematic.

WoW getting fluffier

This is somewhat related to the previous post on mudflation, where it was stated that the long time people spend at the level cap before the next expansion comes out increases the mudflation problem, because they get stronger all the time through accumulation of gear. Which is correct only insofar as people spend their time getting stronger by acquiring gear. But if you look closely at what many people do in the current TBC endgame, you'll find that not all of them are after gear that makes their characters more powerful. A lot of time is spent going after fluff, which serves only as status symbols, without actually doing anything to the stats of your character.

A good example for level 70 fluff is the Netherwing Drake or Nether Ray mounts. You need to get to exalted with the Netherwing and / or Sha'tari Skyguard factions to get these mounts. But you also need the artisan riding skill for 5,000 gold to use them, and they fly exactly as fast as the epic flying mount you can buy for 200 gold. Getting any of these alternative epic flying mounts is pure fluff, you spend a lot of days gathering faction for a reward that is just changing the look of your mount.

In a way gathering the 5,000 gold for the artisan riding skill is also kind of fluffy. Yes, the epic flying mount is much, much faster than the normal one. It is much more practical to get around, and very useful in gathering resource nodes. But for doing most quests the epic flying mount doesn't help you. And in a dungeon or raid the epic flying mount is no help at all. Not having one is not hindering your progression in any way.

The last patch also introduced a sporebat non-combat pet which you need to be exalted with the Sporeggar to get. WoWWiki calculated that you need to kill over 1,000 mobs to farm that reputation, which to me appears to be a lot of effort to get a non-combat pet. The patch also introduced daily cooking quests, with rewards like a rare recipe for chocolate cake which does absolutely nothing, except promising to make you "very happy" and give some fireworks special effects when you eat it. Fluff at its finest.

Of course there is nothing wrong with fluff. As I said, it actually helps against the mudflation problem. And as long as the player *want* fluff items that just look good, there is nothing wrong in providing fluff as reward for quests or reputation gains. The only problem is that often at the start of a quest chain you don't know what the final reward will be, whether it is fluff, good gear for your class, or good gear for somebody else's class. As you wouldn't want to do a long quest chain to find out at the end that the reward is something you don't want, you are forced to look up the rewards in advance on the various third party websites and guides. But that is a completely different subject for another post.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mudflation and the WoW expansion gap

Keen and Graev recently had a post about mudflation in EQ2, and I was thinking about how much worse a problem mudflation is in World of Warcraft due to the larger gap between expansions. Mudflation in the context of WoW expansions is when a new expansion comes out, raises the level cap, and the green random loot and quest rewards you get over the next couple of levels are actually better than the raid loot from the previous expansion. The further you came in the level 60 raid circuit, the longer your raid gear lasted, but by level 65 the MC / BWL gear was mostly obsolete, and by level 70 nobody was wearing any level 60 epics any more.

Mudflation has some solid marketing and design reasons, so we can expect the same to happen with the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. The marketing reason is that phat loot sells boxes. The design reason is that you want everybody at the same gear level once they hit the next level cap, to maximize the number of people that qualify gear-wise for the next raid circuit. If level 70 epic gear from the Black Temple was still required to start raiding the level 80 raid dungeons, there wouldn't be many people around to raid. And new players could never hope to catch up.

The specific problem of World of Warcraft is that there is so much more time between expansions, the average time between WoW expansions is twice the average time between EQ1 / EQ2 expansions. There were over 2 years between the original release of WoW and the first expansion, and there will be more than one year between the first and the second expansion. And leveling in WoW is relatively fast (compared to EQ1, not EQ2 where apparently people went from 70 to 80 in the Rise of Kunark expansion in a week). So somebody who started when the game was releases spent nearly 2 years at the 60 level cap, and will have spent nearly 1 year at the 70 level cap once the Wrath of the Lich King expansion comes out. And during all this time spent at the level cap he still improved his character by getting better and better gear.

Getting stronger by collecting gear at the level cap is a process that goes much slower than getting stronger by leveling up, and it has diminishing returns, it takes longer and longer to get stronger and stronger. But nevertheless the designers have to put in some possible progress, because once people feel they don't advance any more, they are likely to quit. So even with slow progress, after one or two years of it, you are considerably stronger than somebody who just dinged. And the new gear in the next expansion has to be better than the gear of the people who got furthest in the previous expansion, thus the longer the gap between expansions, the bigger the mudflation in the new expansion.

One unintended consequence of that is the gear progression for people who level up new characters after the expansion comes out. Currently everybody leveling up in old Azeroth leaves the place as soon as he hits level 58. The rewards you can get in the same time for doing a quest of level 58 in the Outlands as compared to a level 58 quest in Azeroth are much, much better. Even after the patch 2.3 upgraded the loot from the old world dungeons, I don't see people of level 58-60 do dungeons like Stratholme or Scholomance, when even the green loot of Outlands is better, and Hellfire Rampart would not be any harder and give even more awesome rewards. A lot of the previous level 60 content is now totally unused, and the same will presumably happen to the much larger amount of level 70 content currently in the game when the next expansion comes out.

Fortunately for Blizzard the patience to wait for deferred gratification, in spite of being considered a personality trait important for life success, is something that is very much lacking in many World of Warcraft players. I am always surprised how some raiders appear to raid mainly for the loot, and are willing to endure very harsh raid guild rules and schedules far beyond the point where the raid in itself is still fun, just to acquire some loot which will be obsolete in half a year. That is probably one of the reasons why many raiders can't understand the casual player's request for "easy mode" raiding with loot that isn't better than that of heroic dungeons. A raider thinks in terms of loot, and doesn't see the point of having an easy mode raid if he can already get the same level of loot in a heroic dungeon which is easier to set up. A casual player thinks in terms of different gameplay experience, and would like to have the choice between a tight heroic run and a larger, more relaxed raid experience. Personally I'm not an instant gratification kind of guy. I can live very well without epic loot, I only want to raid as long as the raiding experience is fun and play, not work and long hours late into the night. I know that come the next expansion I'll soon be equipped as well as the raiders, and even if I'll probably level to 80 a bit slower than them, that is actually the way I prefer it.

Permadeath and permafail

Dofus, a normally cuddly 2D browser-based MMORPG is going ultra-hardcore by offering a permadeath server. You level up faster than on the normal servers, but if you die, that was it, character death, you need to make a new one. I guess a lot of players will try that once, and after one or two deaths go back to the normal servers.

Meanwhile Copra wrote me with another related idea: How about permafail instead of permadeath? How logical is it that if you follow a storyline into a dungeon and fail to kill the final boss, you get to try again? What if you could try every quest and every dungeon only once, and if you failed, you'd have to move on to something else.

I don't think that would ever be implemented in any MMORPG, because actually the developers like us to repeat the same content over and over, it saves them from creating more of it. But from a storytelling point of view, and gameplay point of view I find the idea interesting. The idea of failure being possible and having consequences does focus people. Maybe groups would be better if people actually had to think whether they could stay until the end of the dungeon, and whether going without a tank or healer is such a good idea. Of course you would have to replace the random loot tables from the bosses with something fixed, so you don't lose your one shot at a boss mob because he drops some loot you can't use. And there would need to be more dungeons, so you don't run out of places to go after a month.

Free-to-play World of Warcraft in China

Graktar alerted me to the news, and I found a nice summary from Cameron at Random Battle: The CEO of The9, the Chinese distributor of World of Warcraft made some comments about the possibility of WoW going free-to-play in China, then had to backtrack and call it all rumor and speculation from the media.

As Chinese players only pay about 6 cents per hour to play WoW, and few of them play the 250+ hours per month you'd need to end up paying $15 a month, Chinese subscribers are a lot less profitable than US and European subscribers. The third quarter sales report from The9 showed that the company had a net revenue of US$ 42.2 million. Assuming 5 million players on the Chinese servers (note that the fabled Chinese gold farmer is *not* playing on a Chinese server, but on a US/Euro one for $15 a month), The9 is making less than $3 per player per month of profit, after paying for the servers and giving Blizzard their share.

Now how going free-to-play would make *more* than US$ 42.2 million per quarter of profit I don't understand. Free-to-play is a great business model if you have a game that just wouldn't sell with a monthly or hourly fee. But if you already have 5+ million players, chances are that going free-to-play isn't going to add all that many more of them. So now you need to find a way to make each Chinese player voluntarily pay more than per month than he currently does. What exactly are you selling him? Epics? Gold? Scrolls that buff your xp / gold gain for 1 hour (these are very popular in other games)? Other games have non-paying players wear particularly bland clothes, while the good-looking clothes cost money, but in how far would that be compatible with World of Warcraft's gear model? Or would you add advertising into the game, billboards in Ironforge, and the possibility to buy an ingame Toyota Tacoma mount?

So I think the free-to-play idea is stillborn. In fact I'd rather see the Chinese business model of paying a couple of cents per hour introduced for World of Warcraft in the US and Europe, now that the game is past it's peak here. A pay-per-hour model would enable people who aren't playing that much as before to justify keeping their account alive. I can tell you that when I was still paying for my WoW account after practically having left it in April, it was annoying to see the credit card charge when I hadn't logged on more than a few minutes per day, and that not every day. And even that isn't likely, we'll probably be paying a monthly fee until the servers shut down one day. Free-to-play is a business model which can't be introduced later into an existing game with a monthly fee without problems, as it requires the game design to be wrapped around the business model.

I'll get you, Terrok!

There is a quest in Skettis where you summon Terrok, the Arakkoa god who gave his name to Terrokar, and kill him in a 5-man group. I already participated in that event twice, once as my priest and once as my warrior, but in both cases only to help out, not having the quest myself. And stupidly as priest I was so concentrated on healing people that I didn't really notice how the event goes, a common problem I have with playing my healer. So when I did it as the tank, I didn't even know I was supposed to pull him into the blue flames when he becomes invulnerable, until my group started shouting at me. :) We still won, but I decided to do better next time, and do the quest myself.

The quest series starts with a quest to collect 6 shadow dust, which drop regularly from the Arakkoa of Skettis. For that you get a potion that allows you for 20 minutes to see the invisible Time-Lost Arakkoa. You then have to go and kill their high priests. That was actually quite hard to do solo, especially the one who kept healing himself with Flash Heals. I got really annoyed when I nearly had killed him and my potion ran out, so the fight ended without me killing him, and I had to start over from the beginning. Gather another 6 shadow dust, get another potion, try again. This time I got lucky guessing when he would bombard me with his Shadow Word: Pain and some poison spell, and got my spell reflection up just before, which helped a lot to bring him down. Interrupting the Flash Heals is a priority in that fight, otherwise its impossible as a protection warrior solo.

After that there are some easy quests, involving getting a pack for a captured Arakkoa, then using the Arakkoa disguise from it to by a book from a half-blind sage. And then you get the Adversarial Blood quest to find the parts for the Time-Lost Offering, which enables you to summon Terrok. The problem with that is that you need to summon four smaller bosses for the parts. Each summoning needs 10 Time-Lost scrolls, which only drop from the invisible Time-Lost Arakkoa. And with one potion to make them visible you only get 20 minutes of seeing them, which isn't even enough to find 10 scrolls. So first you need to farm 30+ shadow dust from the visible mobs, get enough potions to enable you to farm the invisible mobs, and get the 40 scrolls together.

Once you have everything, you need a group to kill the 4 small bosses and then Terrok. Stupidly the quest drop from the small bosses can be rolled for by everyone in the group, not just the guy who worked so hard to get the scrolls. Thus you can forget about doing this with a pickup group, as definitely somebody will ninja loot by rolling need on the quest part, and then you can start farming all over again. Tell your group to pass on the quest item, but the small bosses also drop decent blue stuff, on which everyone could roll. Terrok himself even drops epic cloaks sometimes, or blue gear if you aren't so lucky. But the main reward is just reputation, 1000 for the person with the quest, 350 for the other participants.

This is actually a nice event to do for a guild. I'm not a big fan of farming mobs in a group, so I'll farm 40 scrolls solo. But once you have the scrolls you get a fun event for a 5-man group, not too hard for a decent guild group, and dropping either 4 blue items, or 4 blue and 1 epic, in a relatively short period of time. If you have a balanced group, as you should anyway, there should be something for everyone. And you get to vanquish a bird god, who could ask for more?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Invaded by raiders

My apoplogies, apparently some hardcore raiding forum linked to my blog and now I get lots of nasty comments from elitist raiders. My favorite one is: "Casuals, at least in Blizzard's eyes, are happy jumping in front of the mailbox in IF, or doing whatever it is they do." I also made the error of following a reader's link to the official WoW forums to a related thread, and the comments there were even harsher. It seems that some raiders have a profound sense of entitlement, thinking that the more they play and the more they shout at Blizzard, the more entitled they are to exclusive content. And they absolutely want that content to remain exclusive, and keep the casual riff raff out. Thus any ideas to make raid dungeons accessible to casual players get shouted down with all sorts of insults. Lets see if I can clear up some misconceptions:

- "Casuals can't raid because they don't have the time." A typical example of circular logic. Casuals have problems raiding a place like Karazhan, because assembling a raid group with any chance of success takes too long. But that is because Karazhan requires a good class mix, an attunement, and hundreds of hours played at level 70 for gear from other places. If a raid dungeon existed that was much easier, had no attunement, and had a lot more flexibility what class mix could come, assembling a raid group would go much faster. And how much time it takes *in* the raid dungeon would be a matter of good game design. If I had to build a casual raid dungeon, it would start with about 20 minutes worth of trash mobs, a first boss, and then doors in three directions, leading to more bosses. Thus the raid group can always decide how many wings of the dungeon they want to do in what evening.

- "Casuals only want free epics". It is funny that the people who actually raid apparently think that there is no fun to be had in raiding itself, and that you do it only for the epics. Every single serious proposal I've read (or wrote) on how to make a casual raiding dungeon included that of course if the place is easier, the loot has to be less good. Casual players do not necessarily want free epics, they just would like to be able to raid at all.

- "Nobody would go to casual raid dungeons. Karazhan is extremely popular." Doh! Karazhan is extremely popular because it is the easiest raid dungeon that exists at the moment. Pre-TBC there were places like UBRS or Zul'Gurub which were easier than Karazhan is now or Molten Core was then, and these more casual places were very well visited. If Blizzard opened up a raid dungeon easier than Karazhan, it would draw a lot of people right now.

- "Casuals are happy jumping in front of the mailbox in IF". No they aren't, they just have nothing better to do. One thing that is important to many players, especially casual players, is to hang out with friends. If a raid dungeon is easy enough to be played in a very relaxed way, it is like a big party, lots of fun, hanging out with friends, while still having something better to do than just jumping in front of a mailbox.

- "You can't make easy raids because of the freeloaders." How your guild handles freeloaders is your guild's problem, not Blizzards. This might come to some surprise to the self-centered hardcore raiders, but not everyone is only concerned with his own welfare in World of Warcraft. Many people are quite willing to help guild mates to gear up, even if they couldn't possibly contribute as much as the already better equipped people in a raid. Raids that have enough slots for a couple of "freeloaders" are actually a good feature, for a better social coherence of a guild. Due to Real Life ® it is obvious that in a large group of friends not everybody plays the same amount of hours per month. And World of Warcraft is a game where your power depends very much on the amount of hours you played. Guilds kicking out the players that play the least, or the players who play the most leaving the guild to join a stronger one, are negative consequences of the current WoW model. A better guild model would allow the more advanced players to give a leg up to their friends that play less.

- "Blizzard should give most attention to the people shouting the loudest." Unfortunately Blizzard fell right into that one. Casual players have a lot less free available time. So of course they want to spend the little time they have to actually play, and not hang out in the forums complaining. If Blizzard wanted to know what their players want, they would have to put up some sort of survey *in game* with in-game prizes for everybody who answers, so that even the casual players would want to participate. Right now the casuals are the silent majority. The way they do vote is with their wallet. And the shrinking player numbers in North America and Europe should tell Blizzard something. Patch 2.3 was a first indication that Blizzard got that particular message and is trying to improve. Patch 2.4 will bring more daily quests and a new 5-man dungeon for casuals, but the added raid dungeon apparently will be rather hardcore. :( It is probably too late to still improve TBC raiding, I only hope that WotLK will be better in that respect.

- "I earned exclusive content because I pay a monthly fee and play a lot." Everybody pays the same monthly fee. But the cost per player for Blizzard aren't the same for everybody. Raiders use up more resources like server utilization and bandwith, because they play more hours per month. They are the least profitable customers for Blizzard. Of course Blizzard should provide content for them, as raiders running around in full epic gear are visible to the other players, and might motivate them to keep playing. But the amount of resources Blizzard should dedicate to them should be commensurate with their numbers. It was widely reported that data from WoWJutsu show that only 4% of the raiding population ever visited Black Temple. And we don't even know how much the raiding population is compared to the non-raiding population. If the Black Temple had been a 25-man raid slightly easier than Karazhan instead of a high-end raid dungeon, we can be sure that 100% of the raiding population plus many people that aren't part of that raiding population yet would have visited it. Thus between 30 and 50 times more people would have actually have used that content, and it would have been a far better use of Blizzard's resources.

- "I killed Illidan, I am a superior person than you are." Replace Illidan with whatever other boss the elitist raider is able to reach, and you aren't, and you'll see the sentiment far too often. I actually makes me a bit sad for the poor pathetic kid that achieved nothing more noteworthy in life than some success in some raid in some online game. As passionate as we might discuss games, in the end they shouldn't be that important. People should define their self-worth with real life achievements, like a happy family, a good education, a good job, being an upstanding member of a community. These are things that really count, and they are the most likely to make you happy in the long term. Failing classes, getting divorced, or losing your job over World of Warcraft raid success is a very, very Bad Idea ®. If ever politicians start legislation against "WoW addiction", raids will be the first thing to go. How do you think raiding is getting along in China, where you aren't allowed to play more than 3 hours in one session? Companies like Blizzard would be wise to create content that does *not* force you to play more than 3 hours every day just to keep up, just to avoid the backlash from the law.

A certain amount of competitiveness is good for games, it gives people goals to strive for. But there is a limit where competition can become just too much, like for example doping in sports. And I would say that World of Warcraft in many aspects is too competitive, especially in the raid content. It is all about the biggest e-peen nowadays, and not about playing together any more. But how many of 9.3 million players can be at the top of the game? Unless you change the business model to a spectator sport one, with live transmissions of Black Temple raids on ESPN and paid for by advertising, Blizzard has to try to give the maximum fun to the greatest number of players possible. Having many people excluded from the most elite content is not the way to go.

Improving raid endgame progression

Doeg left an excellent comment on the Zul'Aman thread, which I want to take up to better explain my position, as I feel I haven't expressed myself well in that ZA post.
ZA is not targeted for toons in blues-n-greens, or even fully blues. Heroics, crafting, and PvP are ways to get the epics needed to survive Kara, where you get more-and-better epics, and then on to ZA. (I like that variety in obtaining gear, because I remember the days back when pretty much the only realistic endgame gear path in WoW was 40-man raiding.)

Interestingly, the very same complaints that are being leveled against ZA (too hard) are also proving true in the case of the reduction of Heroic key requirements. Within a few days there were stories circulating on my server about "I'm 70 now I can run a Heroic!" groups trying to jump into Heroics and getting mercilessly slaughtered.

I suppose that is, in part, a game design failure of sorts. Blizz guides us by the nose though the 1-70 content, mostly controlling access by turning on those little "!" when we're deemed ready. I suppose those poor guys and gals thought that a Heroic key was the equivalent of a yellow "!". It reminds me of the guildies who ding 70 and immediately say, "When's the next Kara run?", to which you have to say, "Whoa, there, big fella..." :).
This is exactly the game design failure I'm talking about. Ideally a player hits level 70 and what he has to do next in the progression is identical to what he *wants* to do next. Many, many players *want* to raid, far more than are currently actually raiding.

"Hard" or "easy" content does not exist in absolute terms. How hard a given dungeon is depends to some extent on how familiar the players are with it, but to an even larger extent to their level and gear. The heroic dungeons are a very good example for that. If you would do lets say the non-heroic Underbog with a group of level 58 characters equipped in green gear it would be very hard. Now the players level up, and get better gear, so by the time they are level 70 the non-heroic Underbog is rather easy to beat. But if at that point the same players try the same dungeon in heroic mode, they are back to it being hard again, as hard as when they were 58. A couple of months of gear progression later, heroic Underbog becomes easy again. Note how what the mobs in Underbog are doing doesn't change at all during that progression, only the numerical values of the stats of the players and the mobs change.

Initially Blizzard tried to prevent people from entering dungeons that were too hard for them by attunement requirements. The reason you need a key for Karazhan is that getting the key for Karazhan should drag you through several level 70 dungeons and is thus likely to acquire you some necessary gear. But being forced to do certain things wasn't very popular, the attunement scheme was abandoned for the latter raid dungeons. Strangely you still need a key for Karazhan, but can enter the harder raid dungeons without one. That shifts the problem to the guilds, who now have to tell people that they can't join lets say a Zul'Aman raid before having done a certain number of Karazhan raids.

What I am proposing is a better progression. I can see how this might be too late for TBC, but I can still dream about something like it being implemented for Wrath of the Lich King. Imagine when players hit level 80 they have a *choice* between level 80 5-man dungeons and an entry-level raid dungeon. The "difficulty" of the entry-level raid dungeon would be such that you have pretty much the same chance to succeed with the same geared people (only more of them) in the raid dungeon than what you'd have if you went to a typical level 80 5-man dungeon. And the loot would also be similar, or a tiny bit better to make up for the fact that it is harder to organize a larger group. We could even have *two* entry-level raid dungeons, one for 10 players and one for 25, to accomodate all guild sizes.

The result of that would be that all those players shouting "Ding 80, I want to join a raid" could actually do so. And of course there would be "harder", that is Karazhan-equivalent and up, raid dungeons after those entry-level raid dungeons. So the real hardcore could probably skip or do very fast the entry-level raid dungeons and go right to the next level. But the entry-level raid dungeons would make entry into the raiding progression accessible for a much larger part of the player base. If these players don't play very well, or their real-life schedules prevents them from attending on a regular basis, they might never make the next level. But at least they could raid at all. And by doing so they would learn about how to behave in a raid, and ultimately get better at it. It isn't so much that Karazhan or Zul'Aman is "too hard", the problem is that there is no easier alternative to go on a raid. Why not give people the opportunity to raid with the training-wheels still on?

Do you like the non-raid TBC endgame?

I split this discussion off from my WoW journal. But when I was looking around what to do with my level 70 warrior, given that I don't have the time to dedicate myself for serious raiding any more, I was surprised on how many options there are. In fact the level 70 non-raid endgame from The Burning Crusade appears to offer far more variety and fun than the level 60 non-raid endgame did. There are more level 70 dungeons you can visit, especially if you count heroics as separate option. There are more factions you can gain reputation with, and in many cases gathering reputation has somewhat improved from how it was at level 60; you can already gain a good amount of reputation by doing fun stuff like dungeons or quests, without having to repeatedly kill the same monster over and over. There are more level 70 quests, and now some of them are repeatable on a daily basis. There are even more and better PvP options than before patch 1.13, allowing casual players to get some decent rewards for PvP without playing it 16 hours per day.

On the other hand the eternal problem of World of Warcraft is that "a lot to do" is not the same as "endless content". I basically stopped playing WoW in mid-April when LotRO came out, even if I only cancelled the account in July. So I'm 7 months behind everybody else, and still have a lot to do. But some of the guys in my pen & paper roleplaying group are complaining that they are already exalted with every single faction in Outlands. And of course they visited all the zones and instances far more often than I did and find them less exciting now. On the extreme casual end my wife never reached the endgame at all. She leveled a rogue to 68, then got distracted and is now playing a level 40ish druid, and is basically not using any TBC content at all.

I wonder in how far daily quests will improve the non-raid TBC endgame, and whether that could be a good model for things to come in the level 80 non-raid endgame. Especially the cooking quest, where you don't get the same thing to do every day, or the dungeon and PvP quests that send you to a different place every day, seem promising for this sort of content. I imagine doing the same bomb run every day gets old quite soon. But how does a WotLK endgame with dozens of different daily quests, all changing every day, sound to you? And how do you like the non-raid part of the current TBC endgame?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

WoW Journal - 19-November-2007

I finished the Ghostlands with my blood elf mage, and I'm level 22 now. While wondering where to go next, and finding that I knew all the available locations far too well, I felt my motivation slipping away. So I ended up not doing much more with my mage this weekend. I only walked to Light Hope Chapel in the Plaguelands, dying several times, to get the flight point. Since they added another flight point at Zul'Aman you can now fly from Undercity to Silvermoon if you have the LHC flight point. Then I went by zeppelin to Orgrimmar, ran to take the flight points in the Crossroads, Camp Taurajo, and Thunder Bluff, to finally log off at the inn in Crossroads. I still plan to play the mage, but preferably with accumulated rest xp. I won't see any new quests before level 35 (the new Dustwallow Marsh), so I have to play reruns for the next 13 levels.

So I played my level 70 characters some more. I log on my priest every morning for the egg bombing daily quest. And my priest is also the one I would take on the harder type of guild events, as he is better equipped and useful as a healer. I tried to get into a Gruul raid, but we were 26 players, and I volunteered to not go. After all, the others earned their place in the Gruul raid by having gone to Karazhan with the guild, and I just recently rejoined and have never been to Karazhan with them. So I certainly don't want to impose myself, I'll see Gruul another day. I'd love to go to Karazhan once in a while, but I don't want to sign up as a regular raider and end up feeling obligated to raid several nights a week. Understandably regular raiders get preferred slots in the raids, so I'm somewhat out of the raid circuit. I still think the game would be better if it had a pre-Kara "casual raid" instance, where a guild could go for more spontaneous fun raids without worrying too much about class mix and gear. But the way things are, the preference for regular raiders is built into the game, it is not a matter of choice for raid leaders.

The character I ended up playing the most this weekend was my level 70 warrior. He didn't do much yet after reaching level 70, so I have bad gear, barely any reputation, and only few dungeons ever visited with him. Ideal for playing him some more. Saturday some guild mates were looking for a tank to start the Ogri'la quest series, and I was happy to join. The series starts with a fat ogre named Grok sitting in the lower city of Shattrath, who sends you to another ogre near the Circle of Blood in Blade's Edge. He gives you three quests to kill three gronn, the cyclops-like giants. Two of them are in Blade's Edge, one static, one wandering, the third is in the Barrier Hills near Shattrath. You need a decent group of level 70s to beat them, especially the Barrier Hills gronn is nasty. After that your group has to do two events, one to find a grimoire, the other to summon and defeat a final gronn. In every of these quests the quest item spawns behind the dead gronn, and everyone in the group can pick one copy up. The quest series is very profitable, giving around 100 gold altogether, and opening up the possibility to speak with the ogres of Ogri'la and the skyguard rangers next to them for a bunch of new daily quests.

Up to now I really like the daily quests. My warrior is now doing at least 5 of them every day: The Skettis egg bombing run, the daily cooking quest, the Ogri'la "Simon says", the aether ray capture, and the demon bombing run. The two bombing runs are easy for him, because he has the epic flying mount (my priest doesn't). The Skettis bombing is trivial, except that you shouldn't do it at prime time where everyone is trying it and eggs are hard to find. The demon bombing run is much harder, but I found that if I keep moving while throwing the bombs I can often hit the cannon ball stacks without that the flak is hitting me. The flaks are nasty, as they throw you off your mount, but I don't mind the challenge, it makes the run more interesting. Wrangling the aether rays also is more a problem of finding them. As protection warrior I have no problems of getting them down to 20% life to capture them, without needing to fear actually killing them. The "Simon says" game is a bit annoying, but I installed an addon named Ogri'lazy, which helps you note down the sequence, so you can replay it. But my favorite daily quest is the cooking one, because it isn't the same every day. I already had one day collecting mana berries in Netherstorm, another cooking soul soup in Nagrand. And the reward is also random, besides the gold you get a crate of meat or barrel of fish, which might or might not contain one of several unique cooking recipes. Very, very nice.

Besides the daily quests my warrior also went to Mechanar once, non-heroic. I don't feel ready for the heroic dungeons yet. If the opportunity presents itself I'd love to do the daily quest for the non-heroic dungeon of the day, but up to now the groups that were forming in guild chat were for other places or not looking for a tank. Maybe I'll try to organize a pickup group, if you organize them yourself you can at least make sure the class balance is right. I was in a nice pickup group for Shadow Labyrinth, but we only got to the first boss before Blizzard decided to restart the server.

I ended the weekend helping two guild mates doing Jinta'Alor in the Hinterlands. They asked me for help because that place used to be elite, and impossible to do with just 2 people of the level. But it turned out that the patch had turned all the trolls there into non-elite. I stayed anyway, so it went fast. As an added bonus I got quite a good amount of mageweave cloth there, for my mage's tailoring. And I finally found the Hinterlands robot chicken distress beacon, having done the Feralas and Tanaris one years ago. So I escorted the chicken to safety, flew to Booty Bay, and was rewarded with my very own robot chicken non-combat pet. :)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Zul'Aman ain't no Zul'Gurub

I visited Zul'Aman last night for the first time with my guild. We got two raids together, but the one raid group I was in didn't fare very well. We repeatedly wiped on the last trash group before the first boss. After 90 minutes into the raid the MT stomped off in disgust, declaring that "we weren't ready". Yeah, that's what it said on the TBC box. Other players were furious that we gave up so early. Me, I suddenly remembered that this sort of shouting was exactly why I find raiding often so stressful and went to bed. I certainly belonged to the part of the raid group that wasn't ready, because although I brought all the potions and stuff, I'm still wearing the kind of "good blue" gear you'd take on your first Karazhan raid. Zul'Aman definitely is post-Karazhan.

What I don't really see is why World of Warcraft needs such a post-Karazhan raid dungeon. I thought the raid progression after Karazhan was already pretty complete and didn't have any big gaps to fill. Why add just another optional place? I think a dungeon more in the style of Zul'Gurub, that is for 20 players and *easier* than Karazhan, would have pleased a much larger target audience.

I wouldn't mind going to Karazhan occasionally, when the guild stands in front of the place and doesn't have enough healers for example. But I'm not planning into getting into the regular raid circuit, raiding several nights per week. Which means I will never get equipped in the gear I'd need to see the raid dungeons after Karazhan, rest of Zul'Aman included. I'd love to see Gruul at least once, but wouldn't want to be a burden to my guild going there. Anyone else here not having much luck with Zul'Aman and wishing for something else?

What WoW UI mod to display quest levels?

I am a big fan of knowing what exactly the level of the quest is that I am doing in World of Warcraft. Not just a color code, but the exact level. Thus I can do the lower level quests first and avoid having them go grey on me, for example. Patch 2.3 apparently changed the quest interface, and the UI mod I was using for years now, called Questlevels, was no longer working. If I had Questlevels on, it messed up the quest window of the NPCs, so for example I couldn't take the daily quest at Skettis any more, because all I saw was a column of golden dots.

So I went out and searched the various WoW UI mod sites for a quest level display mod which was up to date for patch 2.3 and I found QuestGuru. It not only displays the quest level, it also changes the quest window into a wide format showing the quest list and the quest you click on in detail at the same time. It even makes it easier to read the quest text, by coloring the names of NPCs and places. Very nice!

The only problem I have is that since I use that, the NPC quest window has the text "Bonus Honor:" written somewhere at random near the bottom, sometimes covering some quest text or reward. I assume that is a bug somewhere in the QuestGuru mod, but I don't know if other people have the same problem, and whether the mod programmers are aware of it.

Are you using an UI mod to display the quest levels in WoW? Which one, and is it working without problems with patch 2.3? Please limit discussion to UI mods regarding quests and the quest interface. There are far too many UI mods out there to discuss them all in one thread.

Grinding something boring to reach the fun part

Damion of Zen of Design has an interesting article up on the economics of daily quests in WoW. The way he sees them, the quests aren't very good, and people grind through them to finance the "fun" activities like raiding. He has a very interesting point saying that the classes that are most needed for groups and raids, that is tanks and healers, have the most difficult and boring time grinding for money or doing daily quests. Quote: "So back to our tanks and healers - they desperately need cash to run raid content, but they aren’t built either to grind OR to do dailies. The end result being tanks and healers logging on, doing pointless and stupid daily quests made increasingly tedious by their gear and advancement choices. The result I’ve witnessed, perversely, is a lot fewer people running instances. Why? Because the tanks and healers try to do their dailies, end up hating the experience of feeling worthless and impotent (also, NOT FUN), and start levelling up warlock or mage alts that can act as their cash generators by doing dailies or grinding. Or they just burn out and quit. Which means that, if you’re trying to put together a pickup group, it’s becoming increasingly harder to pick up a tank or a healer. And it wasn’t that easy to start with. And you can’t run without ‘em."

I can't really confirm the opinion that the daily quests suck, I haven't done enough of them. Up to now I only did the Skettis egg bombing, which is very easy with my warrior who already has his epic flying mount, and still easy enough with my priest and his normal flying mount. I started to look into the Ogri'la daily quests, but didn't have the time to really start them. I only joined some guild mates in a repeatable Ogri'la event, where you kill four dragons, and combine their 4 scales into one random cloak. If you are lucky and get the random cloak which has the stats which are good for your class, then you get an item with quite decent stats. But obviously the chance for that to happen is low. I got a cloak I couldn't use on my priest, which I then could exchange for an Apexis Crystal at Sky Commander Keller. And I haven't got a clue yet for what I need the Apexis Crystal, the whole Ogri'la stuff appears to revolve around crystals and shards.

As I am currently not raiding (although I might have a look at Zul'Aman this weekend), getting 12 gold each from the Skettis egg daily quest for my two level 70s is more than enough gold to feed my level 21 mage. But I can see the basic truth in Damion's claim that grinding is less fun for the support classes you need for groups. Soloing my current mage is definitely more fun than soloing a holy priest or a protection warrior. And yes, I leveled them up as holy and protection, because I wanted to always be ready to join groups. But I always enjoyed playing my support characters in group. Damion's "feeling worthless and impotent" comment only applies to soloing, if like me you actually prefer groups a healer or tank is a good choice for being so needed. You don't feel worthless or impotent if nearly every LFG message you read tells you that you are needed so much in groups. The most unfun thing about my mage is the feeling that in my situation on an old, underpopulated server on the even more underpopulated Horde side where everybody is playing their level 70, I won't have the opportunity to group with players of my level for a dungeon run before I hit the Outlands. Nobody needs a level 21 mage, *that* is "feeling worthless and impotent".

But in the end the two situations of Damion and me are the same: Damion grinds boring daily quest to finance fun raids. I have to level up solo in spite of a preference for groups, to reach the level where groups exist. The common factor is needing to do something you don't enjoy that much to reach the part you actually want to play. And that seems to be a common malaise in all sorts of MMORPGs. Doing boring asteroid mining to be able to afford a good ship in EVE isn't any different. I'm not an expert of EVE Online, but I would assume that if you do a lot of PvP there you end up incurring lots of cost, which you would have to cover by doing mining or trading, which might not be your preferred forms of gameplay.

My personal solution to the problem is to not look at the final goals too hard, but to concentrate on finding the fun in whatever it is that I am doing. Okay, so my mage hasn't found a single good group yet in 21 levels. But doing the Ghostlands quests certainly was fun. And I can even imagine finding fun doing quests I already did with my previous characters, because approaching the same quest with a mage will be very different than doing them with a priest or warrior. And sometimes it is better to opt out of goals which require too much unfun prerequisites. If you find the preparation for raiding too time consuming, then why not do something else than raiding altogether? For example heroic instances offer challenging group play, not unlike raids, and are economically more balanced, especially with the new daily dungeon quests of patch 2.3. There is no way to actually "win" a MMORPG, no activity that you are really forced to do. So if you find yourself grinding something boring to reach the fun part, maybe you just need better goals. Do you really need a 5,000 gold epic flying mount to have fun in World of Warcraft? I don't think so.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

WoW Journal - 16-November-2007

My apologies, but this is going to be another post on running through dungeons with a high-level chaperone. My blood elf mage was following a line of quests that sent him from Silvermoon to Undercity. In Undercity he picked up a quest to find the Book of Ur in Shadowfang Keep. He also got a mage quest to kill Dalaran mages around Shadowfang Keep. Plus a quest to visit Sepulcher, where he picked up more Shadowfang Keep quests. SFK has always been one of my favorite dungeons, and it has lots of cloth drops for mages. Add the promise of patch 2.3 to make these dungeon drops better, and SFK started to look very alluring.

So while looking around in Silverpine Forest for the mages, I noticed a group of people approaching SFK. I asked them whether they would tackle that dungeon and whether I could join, and they agreed. But of course that group had a level 70 player with them, a warrior, and there were no groups around without high-level player. I would have preferred a group of only players of my level, but then I'd rather go with a high-level than not at all, because at least I get my quests done.

My biggest achievement on that trip was "not dying". I barely got any damage in, because in the time it takes me to /assist the level 70 and cast a spell, his target is already dead. Obviously targeting other mobs is not a good idea either, it just sabotages his aggro management. The only useful thing I ended up doing for the group was removing curses, as SFK has several mobs that can curse you with various stuff.

In spite of this lack of contribution, the rewards were huge. Besides me and the level 70 warrior there were a rogue and a hunter, both obviously not interested in cloth drops and other caster loot. And such caster loot was nearly all that dropped. I got Arugal's belt, a blue cloth chest, a staff, some green loot, the quest rewards, and enough xp to gain level 21. And that was with only rolling greed on cloth, and passing on all leather, mail, and plate. It is very easy to see the attraction of dungeons runs like that: they are faster than regular runs, and immensely profitable. But they still make me feel uncomfortable. WoW for me isn't about getting free rewards. I don't regret that SFK trip as an experience on how WoW low-level dungeons are played in 2007, but I don't want to continue doing all the other dungeons like that. It is the achievement, the getting there that is the fun, not the reward at the end.

The triviality of MMORPGs

Imagine a game of chess or a game with similar rules: a board with pieces that can only move according to strict rules. Now we make this game multiplayer online, and add another rule to it: if you move a piece in a wrong way, you lose that piece and your turn. Also the rules on how to move the pieces aren't written down anywhere. This makes the game hard for newbies, who have to learn the rules by their mistakes. Experienced players have an advantage of knowing all there is to know. And of course soon there are websites with "guides" telling you which moves are legal and which aren't. Now the producer of this game patches the user interface of this game: Every time you touch a piece, all the spots on the board that piece can go to light up. This change makes the game far more accessible to newbies, but the experienced players lose their advantage and complain about the game having been "dumbed down". Welcome to the big "dumbing down" debate that has been making the rounds of the MMORPG blogosphere in the last days.

The reason why I used a chess example is that the dumbing down debate touches several different MMORPGs. On the one side there are people just talking about World of Warcraft, and how patch 2.3 dumbed it down by making it easier to find quests (via the mini map) and quest items, which now sparkle. One of my earliest blog post successes which got thousands of hits over time, on "hidden quests" in WoW is becoming much less relevant now. On the other side there is a debate on whether games like EVE and EQ2, which withhold a lot more information about how the game works from their players are more "intelligent" than WoW. I absolutely love the little image on Keen and Graev's blog entry on the issue, stating that time doesn't equal difficulty. Making things like travel or death more time consuming doesn't really make a game more challenging, it only makes it more annoying.

For the game of chess, hiding the rules to make the game more challenging is stupid. Giving the players full access to all the information they need to play the game lets them concentrate on the actual strategy. Chess is a deep and complex game that doesn't need artificial "challenge" in the form of forcing people to try out how the game actually works. But is the same really true about MMORPGs? For me the real core of the "dumbing down" debate is what remains of the genre once we removed all the artificial obstacles. If it is easy to find all the quest givers, and it is easy to find the quest objectives on the map without using a third-party website, are MMORPGs maybe too trivial?

As far as solo PvE is concerned, I must say that MMORPGs are trivial. And I'm not just talking about WoW, a solo quest to kill 10 foozles isn't any more challenging in Vanguard, EQ2, LotRO or many other similar games. Once you found the foozles, there isn't much challenge in killing them, as long as the encounter has been designed for solo accessibility. The reason why people confuse time requirement with difficulty is that the amount of tactical skill and decision making required in a MMORPG is tiny. And in most cases playing better just means achieving your goals faster. Even the dumbest and slowest player can finish the solo quest, he just needs a bit more time than the most clever player. If intelligent gameplay just means achieving your goals faster, then time becomes the only obstacle and challenge.

I think that World of Warcraft is moving the genre in the right direction by making MMORPGs more user-friendly and layer by layer stripping away the need to gather information from websites outside the game. It is the right direction because it leads to a necessary next step: making the underlying game more tactical, challenging, and interesting. Not more twitchy, I don't think that is the right way to add challenge to a MMORPG in view of the genre's demographics. But there are lots of ways in which combat could be made less repetitive, more interactive, and requiring more tactical skills, decision making and intelligence. We might need this "dumbing down" phase to get to a "clevering up" phase afterwards.