Thursday, February 28, 2008

Pimp my warrior

My warrior in World of Warcraft is currently spec'd 41-20 arms-fury, for Mortal Strike in PvP. I don't even think it's a good PvP spec, I'm not very good at minmaxing builds. But in any case I don't plan to keep it. Once I got a nice 1h-sword from PvP, I'm going back to my old 15-5-41 protection spec, or something very similar. But maybe I take a detour first, get the off-hand 1h-sword as well, and go fury for maximum PvE dps. Only I'm not quite sure what build would achieve maximum PvE dps using two swords. I'd like to use dual-wield because then I can use the same sword for tanking.

Well, it won't be right away, because I'm going on a holiday for a week starting this weekend. There is a chance that you won't hear from me next week. So to not leave you bored, I'm giving you a challenge: pimp my warrior!

1) Tell me how I could improve my tank build. Must be using 1h-sword and must have Devastate, thus at least 41 points in protection. The build you would want the tank next to you in the heroic dungeon to have.

2) Tell me what dual-wielding build you think would deal the most damage in PvE for farming and questing purposes. Again I prefer 1h-swords, but other than that the build should be dual-wielding swords there is no limitation. Not a hybrid build, I'd like to know what build you think would deal the absolute maximum damage in solo PvE, farming and questing.

You can contribute either by comments on which talents you find absolutely essential for one or both of these two talent builds, or which ones you'd leave out. Or you can link to a complete build on the official World of Warcraft site or any third-party talent calculator like Wowhead. Please note that Blogger accepts links in comments only in full HTML, that is in <a href="">my site</a> form.

Shalkis kills Shartuul

In an unusual reversal of roles I got to ask another blogger to write a blog entry answering one of my questions. Shalkis mentioned in a comment here that he kills Shartuul whenever he has the necessary Darkrunes. I knew that encounter, had tried it a couple of times, but failed every time in the second or third stage. So I asked Shalkis to write up instructions on how to kill Shartuul, which he did. Thanks a lot, Shalkis, much appreciated!

The cost of raiding

I want to Karazhan last night with my priest. Great short run, killing everything from Attumen to the Curator. I now got over 100 badges of justice, which might come in handy when patch 2.4 hits and I can buy great loot with them. Anyway, we also did the opera, and by some statistical fluke whenever I'm in the opera they show Romulo and Julianne. Only saw the Wizard of Oz once, and never have seen the Big Bad Wolf. So Romulo had as loot the Trial-Fire Trousers. Not really a healer item, but due to the 3 gem slots it ends up being better than the Hallowed Trousers I was wearing, so I applied for and got that loot. So far so good.

Now I had Silver Spellthread on my old trousers. But as the new trousers are epic, and will probably have to last me for a while, I should put the best possible enchantment on them: Golden Spellthread. Now that went for insane 450 gold on the Horde AH, so I bought it for a far more reasonable 230 gold on the Alliance AH and had my wife with her account help me to transfer it. Then I need to fill the three gem slots, preferably with Teardrop Living Ruby for maximum healing. 70 gold each.

So in the end upgrading my trousers will have cost me 440 gold. If I don't do much else, I can grind 100 gold a day, but given my other activities it's closer to a week of gold grinding. And that's just the pants, I paid also around 500 gold for the healing enchantment on my epic mace. And there are a couple of items I'm wearing which simply aren't enchanted yet because I can't afford it. If you gem and enchant a full set of epics with the best possible enchantments, which is kind of expected from you if you raid, you can easily spend thousands of gold! That is far, far more than potions, other consumables, and repair cost will set you back.

It is mainly the cost of gems and enchantments that make raiding so bloody expensive.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Chief Social Engineer

Sometimes people ask me whether I wanted to pursue a career in game development or journalism. No thanks! It is not just that I like to keep my hobbies apart from my job, but also some basic financial considerations. I have a good job with a six-figure salary (in US dollars), while the median income for a game developer is $73,000, and that is for working far longer hours than me. Sure, Richard Garriott is earning more than me, not quite sure about Tigole, but in general I'm better off in my current job than in most game development or journalism positions. As Darren, the Common Sense Gamer, recently noticed, there are a lot of kids applying for game development jobs wearing tattered blue jeans and a Half-Life head crab hat. And the industry reacts in a logical way to having lots of eager, technologically savy, but not wise in the ways of the world applicants: it exploits them by paying them less than they could earn if they worked in serious engineering or finance, and by having them work extremely long hours. Thus the EA widow and similar stories.

But even if I plan to stick with my current career, not believing in predictions that I will become the boss of Blizzard, I can dream about what job I would love to have at Blizzard, if I could set my own salary and job description: Chief Social Engineer. Because I believe that player behavior is very much influenced by game design, especially by rewards. And I am sick and tired of game developers stating that they wanted players to do one thing, and were surprised how most players instead did things the developers didn't want.

If a large number of players in your game does something you didn't want them to do, it is your fault, you designed the challenges and incentives badly.

Humans as individuals are unpredictable, able to perform acts ranging from saintly goodness to abominable evil. But get a large number of them together into the same environment, and their behavior becomes predictable. Whole sciences, like economics for example, are based on that. People react in predictable ways to obstacles and incentives, usually following the path of least resistance towards the biggest possible reward. If you have complete control of the environment, as a developer of a virtual world has, you can steer people in the right direction by simply setting up the obstacles and rewards in a clever way.

If you observed World of Warcraft over the past 3 years, it is actually a very good example how changing incentives changes people's behavior. If you had a graph that showed for every day since the start of the game how many people were busy doing PvP, solo PvE, group PvE, and raids, you would notice big movements linked to the big changes of how PvP works and is rewarded. There were times where you needed to play 15 hours a day of PvP for months to get an epic, and unsurprisingly not all that many people did so. When just before TBC the PvP reward system was changed to become cumulative instead of relative, a lot more players started doing PvP. When TBC came out, everybody was busy leveling to 70, and PvP declined a bit. But then every new arena season gave out better rewards than the previous one, also increasing the rewards you could get just for honor points, and nowadays the raiders are complaining that nobody wants to play with them any more, and everybody is in the battlegrounds and arena. The relative popularity of PvP changed significantly over time, and all because of how the incentives changed. And of course the popularity of PvP was also influenced by changes in obstacles. When Blizzard linked groups of servers together in battlegroups, it significantly cut the time people had to wait in queue to get into a battleground, and that made PvP more popular.

Now maybe Blizzard *wants* PvP to be the most popular activity in WoW. Having a strong PvP in WoW diminishes the competitive advantage of upcoming MMORPGs, which are mostly PvP-centric. And the earlier PvP weakness of WoW clashed somewhat with the lore of Warcraft as a series of RTS games. And maybe Blizzard *wants* WoW to be strong in solo PvE gameplay, because that certainly helped their sales. But as Chief Social Engineer I can't help but notice that there are problems with how WoW develops towards solo and competitive gameplay, and away from cooperative gameplay: it diminishes social contacts in the game, and that has a strong influence on churn rate and longevity. If all you do in the game is either solo or jump-in battlegrounds for which you don't need to form groups and guilds, then there are no social ties that keep you logging on after you ran out of content. There are a lot of games which you can play alone, and there are a lot of games where you can log on, frag a couple of random strangers, and log off again. It is social interaction and cooperative gameplay which make MMORPGs special, and ultimately justify paying a monthly fee.

Blizzard would be wise to hire if not me then somebody else as Chief Social Engineer, to have somebody to look at whether World of Warcraft's incentives are steering people in the right direction. Relatively simple changes, like increasing the group xp bonus, could already have a big influence on how much people play together and how much they play apart. It is a fallacy to think that "lots of people solo in WoW, this must be what they want". Some people want to solo, some people want to group, but many would do either, depending on what is more efficient. WoW's bad LFG system, level demographic development, and insufficient incentives for grouping makes soloing appear far more popular than it really is. If groups were easier to set up and more rewarding, more people would play together. The WoW devs correctly identified forced grouping as a weakness of games like Everquest, but then overcompensated and created a game which is already close to forced soloing. And if new players wander around Azeroth alone, can't find any new friends, and stop playing after a while because they feel lonely, Blizzard developers only have themselves to blame. If their previously most pampered class of customers, the raiders, starts posting "does Blizzard hate us?" articles, then maybe something went wrong with the design of incentives.

World of Warcraft e-sports

You guessed it, it's "WoW PvP day" here on Tobold's MMORPG blog. And that wouldn't be complete without mentioning Blizzard's recent announcement of "e-sports" tournaments. You pay $20 and get a brand new level 70 character in full epic gear on a special tournament server, where you compete against others in the arena to win a part of a prize pool of $250,000. As there will be probably more than 12,500 players trying this, Blizzard will make loads of money from that.

Syncaine from Hardcore Casual and me often disagree, because he isn't casual at all. But for once I totally agree with him, when he calls this e-sports server a form of legalized RMT: If there is a new class you'd like to try out, but are too lazy to level up and equip it, you can pay $20 and get a fully equipped level 70 power-leveled by Blizzard themselves. It's both cheaper and more safe than a Chinese power-leveling service! And completely legit! And nobody forces you to actually play in the arena on that server. Bring your whole guild and finally see whether you could beat the Black Temple in your $20 epic gear!

Or of course you could enter the arena and compete for money prizes. Wait a minute! How do you call an online service where you pay a fixed sum to be allowed to participate, in the hope of winning a huge money prize pot financed by all the other participants, by winning online games? Yes, illegal gambling, that was the term! Well, the legality of it of course depends on the country where you live, but how exactly is Blizzard e-sports different from lets say an online poker tournament?

And as if that all wasn't enough insanity, Rob Pardo hopes to turn this e-sports thing into a spectator sport, by "retrofiting" spectator mode into the arenas. Note to Rob: in a spectator sport the audience needs to be able to follow what is actually happening on the field. Right now, even if you could watch an arena game, you wouldn't understand anything of what was going on, as you don't see who uses what abilities and spells most of the time. And sometimes you don't see anything at all, because all the rogues and druids are invisible. And when something happens, it all goes so fast, that you can't follow the action. So WoW arenas as a spectator sport would need slow-motion replay, with the invisible people made visible to the spectators, and with all the spells and abilities being used shown. That will be very, very hard to implement.

I think trying to turn World of Warcraft into an "e-sport" is a very bad idea. You are reducing a huge virtual world with many different options and modes of gameplay and character development into a tiny arena with arrested development and only one type of gameplay, which isn't even the best balanced one of the game. And as the rules of the e-sport change with the rules of WoW in general, players don't even get certaintly about how their class will play. There is already a big outcry on the upcoming warlock nerf, now imagine you just paid $20 for a tournament warlock when the patch hits and nerfs you!

I have a far better proposal for Blizzard: Instead of having one game that does everything, split WoW into two different games. Leave just the battlegrounds in WoW, take out the arenas, and make a new game which is all about arena combat, e-sports, and tournaments. The new game would have no grind, no character development, and thus no way that the less skilled player could beat the more skilled player by having the better gear. Then you could balance WoW perfectly for PvE, and the new game perfectly for PvP, and wouldn't have all those problems at the interface of the two.

Crowd control in PvP

I said I was doing PvP all evening yesterday, doing first the daily EotS battleground, and then a series of Alterac Valleys. But that statement isn't totally correct: I didn't really do much PvP at all. I spent half of the time getting to where the action was, and the other half of the time I spent being feared, stunned, sapped, sheeped, frostbolted, mindcontrolled, seduced, and whatever else modes of crowd control World of Warcraft had. There were very few times where I was both close to the action and able to control my character. Is there too much crowd control in PvP in WoW?

Of course for me as warrior, that is melee fighter, the problem is probably worse than for people with ranged abilities. I need to charge right into the middle of combat, where the enemy has me right in front of his nose, so melee classes tend to get more than their fair share of being crowd controlled. And unlike a mage with his blink, I can't easily break crowd control abilities.

But I'm hearing that crowd control abilities in WAR PvP will have diminishing returns and long reuse timers. And I wonder why WoW can't do something similar. I have the impression that the way crowd control abilities work are optimized for PvE in World of Warcraft, and thus overpowered for PvP. Preventing the enemy to do anything is a more important part of WoW PvP than actually killing him.

While crowd control abilities in PvE are necessary, in PvP they cause more problems, because they are too annoying. Who wants to spend all day being feared all over the place, or stunned, or otherwise unable to move and act? And if you think that your class should keep its crowd control abilities even in PvP, then why take away a warriors crowd control, taunt? The argument against taunt is that it is unfair to take away the enemies player free will of who to target. So then why is it fair to take away another players free will by sapping him and making him unable to do anything?

I think in World of Warcraft the cooldown timers for all crowd control abilities should at least double when in PvP. And whenever you get hit by any form of crowd control, you should get a buff that makes you immune against all forms of crowd control for 30 seconds after the first effect ends.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Is Alterac Valley balanced now?

I have an interesting and shocking theory: Alterac Valley is reasonably balanced now, with both Horde and Alliance having the same 50:50 chance to win. It's just a theory, I don't have proof for it. But last night I was playing PvP in AV all evening long, and won about half of the games. Plus, if you look at all sorts of blogs and forums, there are now as many Alliance players claiming that Horde always wins AV and Alliance should boycott AV as there are Horde players claiming that Alliance always wins AV. A balance of whiners, so to say. :) Maybe that is the only sort of balance a battleground can ever achieve, equal number of players on both side complaining how unfair it is.

I think the reason why so many people complain about Alterac Valley is a sense of feeling powerless: There are 80 people on the battleground, each of them taking individual decisions on what to do, where to fight, whether to attack or defend. There is little or no coordination on either side. The outcome is very much a result of chance, based on the sum of those 80 people's decisions. Individual skill, gear, or even strategic insight is of very little use, as the other 39 people on your side simply won't cooperate even if you had the tactical mastermind of a Napoleon. To every strategy, there is a counterstrategy. If Horde decides to defend Galvan with 10 people, that can be a smashing success because Alliance is continually sending small groups there that get crushed. Or it could be a total failure because Alliance rushed right past it, and your 10 people end up doing nothing. Or by some fluke all 40 Alliance players arrive at Galvan at the same time, and just crush Horde there. There is no single best strategy for either side, and even more importantly there is no single best strategy for you as individual player.

Everything you wanted to know about WAR

... is on this forum thread. Thanks to the Greenskin for finding that link. He is well on his way to create a great Warhammer Online site, and the game isn't even out yet!

Nihilum realizes that raiding sucks

Rawrasaur alerted me to another interesting article on the Nihilum website: "Does Blizzard hate raiders?" The author claims that giving out epics for PvP points and badges destroys the World of Warcraft raiding scene, because many people rather get their epics by other ways than raiding if they can. Quote: "Guilds that are on TK/SSC atm are already obsolete, with patch 2.4 anyone raiding TK/SSC is out of their mind, and that is the majority of the (25man) raiding guilds out there, according to wowjutsu. 48%" You must excuse his erratic punctuation, that is just one of the mad skillz you don't really need as a top dog raider.

What surprises me most in this article is that I, as a casual raider, have a more positive attitude towards raiding than this member of one of the world's top raiding guilds. He thinks that people only raid for the epics, and as soon as you offer a different way to epics, raiding becomes pointless. Me, I see PvP, soloing, small groups, and raiding as equal opportunities for having fun. The more variety I get access to, the better. And even if PvP epics were better than raiding epics, I'd probably end up raiding more than PvPing, just because I personally like cooperative gameplay more than competitive one.

Far, far from making TK/SSC obsolete, patch 2.4 is making these places, and Gruul and Karazhan, more relevant. The patch even makes 5-man groups more relevant, as long as they are for heroics. Patch 2.4 introduces much better badge loot, and it introduces gaining of badges to TK/SSC and Gruul. The 48% of raiding guilds that are at the TK/SSC stage will advance faster due to patch 2.4, because they can complement whatever gear they find with gear they buy with badges. The Nihilum guy has a rather limited opinion of gear: "Players that really want to kill a boss usually have already done so, those that haven’t killed it so far are lacking something, usually the problem is a lack of dedication amongst it’s raiders and not the gear they have, gear is too easy to be the problem and bosses aren’t tuned that well in TBC." But while I'm sure we could argue for hours whether it is skill or gear that is more important, I don't see how you could ever argue that gear isn't helping. It is the sum of skill and gear that makes raid progress, to some extent you can compensate for lack of skill by getting more gear.

Are PvP epics too easy to get? Look at my warrior: He has the kind of decent blue gear you get when you did all the TBC dungeons in non-heroic mode. Now how many hours do I need to spend doing PvP to get one single epic which is a real upgrade, and not a sidegrade? I'd say several weeks of doing the daily PvP quest and a few battlegrounds every evening. Compare that to my priest: Last Saturday in one afternoon cleared out Karazhan in less than 6 hours, thus getting over 20 epics for the raid group, or 2 epics per raider. Even if I got just one upgrade, the T4 gloves, it would have taken me more than 6 hours of PvP to get an epic that good. And besides that epic I got 22 badges, which I can spend towards another epic.

What makes raiding less attractive than PvP is not the epics you can get once you master a dungeon. It is the barriers of entry, the hurdles you have to overcome to get to that point. The many wipes for learning an encounter. The difficult organization, juggling with raid IDs, raid class and spec composition, getting 25 people together for several hours. The thousands of gold you are expected to spend on having the very best enchantments on your gear (I recently realized that those enchants cost far more than even raid consumables and repair costs). The guild drama when not everybody in the guild advances at the same speed and the top raiders leave for a better guild.

The Nihilum guy, being on the top of the food chain, sees that eternal guild drama as a plus, and moans it passing: "I would say that this is the main reason why so many guilds are struggling or disbanding, they simply do not have a reason to exist anymore, and without that, guilds are doomed. An other problem is that every guild that disbands hurts the whole PvE scene, as all PvE guilds are connected. Or did you really think all the raiders that play in Nihilum started playing here? Of course not, most of us started in other guilds, normal casual guilds usually, but they did exist because they had something to offer to their members, gear and companionship. From there we all slowly moved up, joining better guilds till we ended up in Nihilum. Now what if our first, or 2nd guild had disbanded 'cause they lacked players that wanted to raid? I doubt we would be here today." Well, what if most players had stayed in the guild they were with from the start, and not ditched them for better raid gear? Apart from a break due to guild drama not related to raid gear, I'm still in the guild I signed the guild charter for 3 years ago, and I'm not the only one. So our guild doesn't feel there is a risk that we disband because everyone is suddenly doing PvP.

The one thing I agree with the author from Nihilum is that World of Warcraft is currently moving away from group play and towards pseudo-solo PvP play. But I don't agree that taking away epics rewards from PvP would be the good solution to that. The good solution would be removing some of the barriers of entry into cooperative gameplay. PvP has organized arenas and come-who-may battlegrounds. PvE groups only have the organized variety. Why isn't there some large group PvE event, lets call it "public quest" *cough* *cough*, where you can log on, jump in, stay for an hour or so, and get some reward based on how long you stayed and how well you performed? The equivalent of a battleground for PvE, with you accumulating some sort of points and badges over time, and being able to buy gear with those. I bet that would make WoW swing back towards cooperative gameplay.

Well, I'm afraid that such innovation will be for new games, and we can't expect Blizzard to change WoW that way. But actually the badges added to 25-man raids in patch 2.4 are a step in the right direction. There are a lot of minor improvements possible, like changes to the raid ID system. And the frequently discussed here option of "easy mode" and heroic raids to the same raid dungeon would also make cooperative gameplay more attractive. And again I agree with Nihilum and say that cooperative gameplay is the strength of a MMORPG, and should be fostered. Only that Nihilum only wants cooperation rewarded for the top players, and I think that cooperation should be better rewarded for everyone.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The tank shortage

Being a warrior tank in World of Warcraft is a curious job. A few of them rise to the lofty heights of being main tank for raids. The main tank in a raid is probably the most important job in the whole raid group. Nearly all main tanks are officers in their guild, many of them raid leaders or even guild leaders. If you are a leader of men, this the most challenging, but also most interesting and rewarding job there is. Everyone in your guild knows who the main tank is, but who knows who are the best healers or damage dealers? Unfortunately there aren't many of these main tank jobs around, not everyone who is a good tank also would make a good main tank and raid leader. And if you look for other occupations for a tank, things are looking more grim.

In raids and small groups the main problem is that the number of tanks has an upper limit. You need 1 tank for a 5-man group, and X tanks for this or that raid group. Anything more is too much. If you gather a group of any size together, fill all the necessary positions, and then still have some free spots, another tank is the last thing you'd invite. What should an extra tank in a group do? As crowd control he is less efficient than a mage, hunter, or warlock. And as damage dealer he is just plain bad. If you have a 5-man group with 2 tanks, replacing the second tank with a mage for example would always be an improvement.

For soloing a warrior tank only rivals a non-retribution paladin in inefficiency. You basically attack a mob and wait that it dies of old age. Being a tank has some advantages when exploring new areas, and when being surprised by several mobs, because survivability is obviously good. But for things like farming, daily quests, or most normal quests, being a tank just means you do everything much slower than everyone else.

PvP roles for a warrior tank are even more limited. It would be hard to kill you in melee, but even with spell reflection and shield bash you end up being killed by spells most of the time. And your ability to harm other players is very limited. Abilities like intimidating shout or hamstring are useful, but they aren't special to protection spec warriors. So apart from defending a flag in Arathi Basin, a tank isn't really useful in PvP, and even there a paladin would probably be better.

So now imagine the average guy who rolled a warrior, played him to the level cap, and is playing as a tank. He'll probably find that the job of main tank in his guild is taken, and there is already quite some competition from paladins and druids for the offtank role, so its hard to get a spot in a raid. He'll be welcome in 5-man groups, but only as long as they don't have a tank yet, and nowadays there aren't quite as many 5-man groups going as last year, because most people got everything they needed from dungeons already. He is soloing badly. And in PvP he barely performs better than the guy who is AFK in the entrance cave, and mostly plays the unfun role of dummy target or being ignored. Most people will react to that situation by either playing another class, or by at least doing a respec to a talent build that is more useful. Arms for PvP, Fury for soloing, or some hybrid for both. Who would want to play a spec which is only good for waiting for a 5-man group?

What we end up with is a tank shortage. Yes, there are main tanks, but they are wearing a nice set of raid epics, and aren't interesting in tanking in a 5-man dungeon. They have to prepare the next raid after all. And all the warriors you ask are now Mortal Striking in PvP instead of tanking.

And that is a general situation on most servers, not just a statistical fluke. Player behavior is influenced by game design, so if game design steers players away from being a tank, there is a tank shortage everywhere. Protection spec warriors have simply been too narrowly designed for their tanking role in a group. And the more World of Warcraft is moving away from group play and into pseudo-solo PvP play, the less attractive the protection spec becomes. And that is a vicious cycle, because the less tanks there are, the harder it gets for everyone else to find a group, and the more attractive soloing becomes. Funnily enough Blizzard could promote grouping by making the protection talent tree of warriors more useful in soloing and PvP. Or by allowing people to have two different specs between which it is easy and free to switch. But if the game continues as it is, the tank shortage will become even more pronounced in the future. You have been warned!

Need a mousepad?

I was asked to advertise a site, which happens often enough. But I think this is the first time I'm asked to advertise something that isn't virtual: Computer hardware and accessories. So I clicked on the site, which seems genuine. I wouldn't have mentioned it if their random selection of wares shown hadn't included this (NSFW). Never seen a mousepad like that, it made me chuckle. I won't run any permanent advertising for them, but they deserve this one link. :)

Metal Gear Warcraft

Cameron from Random Battle has an excellent article on aggro radius on his blog. He correctly points out how little intuitive it is that monsters detect you when you cross an invisible circle, regardless of direction. Which means that you can be killing the monster's friends in plain sight of him, as long as you stand just outside that invisible circle. World of Warcraft made some improvements to aggro radius over previous games: a mob's aggro radius depends on the level difference between you and him, thus if you are higher level you can more easily pass through a group of mobs. Aggro radius in WoW isn't the same for every mob of the same level, some mobs are more aggressive than others, which keeps things interesting. And the aggro radius can vary depending on situation, for example if you open a chest you will aggro a mob that didn't notice you on exactly the same spot when you were just standing there. But in spite these minor improvements, the general concept of aggro radius is still flawed.

A more realistic detection mechanism would include a combination of sight and sound. Sight obviously works in a cone towards the front, although you could include variations, like a wider cone for two-headed ogres, or mobs with no sight at all, or mobs with eyes on their back. Sound (or smell) would work in a radius. Again variations could be included: does a warrior in plate make more noise than a mage in cloth armor? Does the monster hear you open a squeaky door or chest? Does taking an occasional shower makes you less likely to be smelled? Okay, maybe the last one is going too far. :)

If you have played any game from the Metal Gear series, or similar stealth games, you'll know what I'm talking about. It gives rise to completely new strategies and gameplay, like making a noise to get a guard to turn around, so you can pass through the area he was previously watching. In Dungeons & Dragons pen and paper roleplaying, a well-played rogue would use trick like that. In World of Warcraft a rogue *can* make monsters turn around, but that by itself has no effect, it is just a visual clue that the distraction ability succeeded. You can imagine how much more interesting a rogue would be to play if mobs had a more realistic detection system. And of course for all other classes the way we pull and fight and pass through mob-infested areas would change a lot.

So what do you say, Metal Gear Warcraft anyone?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

WoW Journal - 25-February-2008

I played too much World of Warcraft this weekend. :) But that's okay, because I didn't have anything better to do, and next weekend I'm going on holiday for a week, which will prevent me from playing WoW for a while. So this weekend I was having a lot of fun.

The biggest event this weekend was my best Karazhan run ever, with my priest, a complete cleanup run from start to finish, including all optional bosses. 22 badges of justice, got my T4 gloves, and had loads of fun. Took us 6 hours, but that was including a few small and one large half-hour break. We didn't wipe once before the prince, and with the prince wipes are more a question of luck than of ability. We also wiped once at Netherspite after doing the prince, but as we usually don't do Netherspite at all, killing him on the second try with most raid members never having been there was actually quite good. In other raiding news I was at a successful Gruul raid on Thursday, and killed the Lurker and Hydross in SSC on Friday, so lots of raiding lately.

My mage is also developing well. Level 63 now, and +759 in frost spell damage. I went to ramparts with a not bad pickup group and noticed that the extreme frost damage gear isn't optimal for that, after Omor one-shotted me with a single shadow bolt. But I had some reserve gear with less spell damage bonus but more stamina and intellect, which basically doubled my health, as the "of the frozen wrath" gear has no stamina bonus whatsoever. I finished nearly all Hellfire Peninsula quests, and then decided to skip Zangarmarsh. I only got to honored with Cenarion Expedition by handing in lots of unidentified plants, and didn't do any quests there. I just moved directly to Terokkar Forest, where I'm currently questing.

My warrior did some tanking in a BM group, helping a guild mate to get his Karazhan key. In the group was another warrior, with an arms-fury hybrid spec, and I had the Recount damage meter running. The difference in damage output was so depressing, that I took the plunge and respec'd my warrior to 41-20 arms-fury for PvP and soloing. I did my first ever EotS battleground, one loss against a premade, one win against regular opponents for my very first PvP daily quest. I'm still not a big fan, but I should give PvP a chance, and maybe pick up some gear. I decided that having more than one raid char wasn't realistic, and without raids my warrior didn't have much of a future as a tank.

Doing PvP in a random group against a premade is like a little league baseball team playing against a major league team: totally pointless. I don't see why battlegrounds can't be set up in a way to people who join as group only fight against opponents who joined as group themselves. Or limit premades to arenas, where the rating system pairs people against equally strong opponents. Premades "farming" random opponents in battlegrounds is just bad game design, because it is minimal fun for the winners and totally frustrating for the losers. Better game design would give out less rewards if you won too easily, and more rewards if you had to fight hard to win, so people wouldn't be tempted to manipulate the system to only fight against weaker opponents.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Is exploration still part of the adventure?

Supa wrote me an interesting e-mail saying: "Remember the day when you did not know where a quest ends or where an items drops? The days before sites like wowhead showed you all that stuff, and mmo-champion showed you the models of new characters before they came out. The days when content was new and you had to socialize with other people to find out where to go or what to do. Do these sites spoil our “newness” of a new environment or is WoW just getting old?" That touched a nerve, because I was just following advice from Cameron's infomercial and installed QuestHelper. That is an addon for World of Warcraft which shows all the quest locations on your map, and even suggests a shortest path for which quests to do next and in which order. That suggested path totally spoiled the game for me, following it felt like playing on rails. I haven't uninstalled QuestHelper yet, but I turned off the path with the "/qh ants" command. The thing bugs me, but I agree with Cameron that "It will change the way you play World of Warcraft."

The reason why I didn't uninstall it was the same that Cameron mentioned: Like everybody else, if I get stuck on a quest and can't find the quest object, I go to a site like Thottbot, Allakhazam, or WoWHead to find coordinates of where I have to go. Much more practical if I don't need to leave the game to do that, and just need to call up the map to find the location. Would it be better to "socialize" as Supa said, and ask other people where to go? Most of us are reluctant to be the looked down upon guy who is asking for the location of Mankrik's wife in Barrens chat. Looking the information up on Thottbot carries less of a stigma.

But whether you ask around, or use QuestHelper, or use a quest spoiler site, the result is always the same: exploration stops being part of the quest. It is because a million other players already did that quest before us that searching high and low for the location doesn't really make sense. Mankind kind of rules over the other species on this planet because we developed the ability to pass on knowledge, instead of reinventing the wheel every time. It is in our genes to apply the same to virtual worlds, even if it effectively diminishes part of the interest.

Another part of the problem is the quality of the quest descriptions, which varies in WoW, and is often even worse in other games. If the quest text just tells you to kill 10 foozles without giving you any indication where to find those foozles, no wonder you'd rather look the location up than waste time looking everywhere. So I think one good way out for future games would be to have a minor QuestHelper functionality already included in the game: your quest journal could show not only the text, but also a small map with a red circle in the general location where you need to go. Not the exact coordinate, but at least the area where to look.

Nationalism in MMORPGs

A while ago I made a negative remark about Pirates of the Burning Sea, saying that I didn't see why my freetrader should finance the PvP combat of another player I don't know. Grimwell replied to that, talking about team spirit and pride. Today I read an entry about Warhammer Online on Keen and Graev's blog:
There’s nothing new but in the interview one of Josh’s answers explains perfectly why the RvR in WAR sounds so appealing.

Josh on RvR: “You’re fighting on massive battlefields, laying siege to enormous keeps and castles. You’re literally struggling to move the battlefront forward in the persistent game world. And your success or failure will decide whether your beloved capital will be gutted, and its citizens slaughtered and then finally burned to the ground, or whether that fate will befall your enemies instead.”
There must be a gene missing in my MMORPG DNA, because I don't get it. "Beloved capital"? I don't feel no love whatsover towards my capital. "Citizens slaughtered"? Only NPCs and the players that chose to defend the capital. "Finally burned to the ground"? Only to be miraculously rebuilt three days later, looking exactly as before. Basically from what I heard, I consider losing the PvP war in WAR as a minor annoyance, a few days of not being able to access whatever facilities you need in the capital. Nothing more. I'm not a nationalist or however you want to call it (factionist?) for whatever side I happen to play on in a MMORPG.

I blame the Dunbar number. The number of players in my faction is greater than the number of people my brain is wired to feel "trust" for, my maximum social network. You *could* get me excited about WAR PvP by telling me how it is all about guild vs. guild combat to capture keeps. But I can imagine some keep being taken by a guild of my faction, and me hoping for some guild of the enemy faction to conquer it, so my guild gets a chance to grab the keep.

Conquering enemy lands in WAR, PotBS, or any other MMORPG can't be permanent. At some point one side is declared the winner, and the map resets. Designers even have to include obstacles against the same side winning again and again in quick succession, because that would just make the players of the losing side quit. It is very hard to feel nationalist if your nation is one you chose on the character creation screen. Other side is always winning? Delete this character and make a new one on the winning side, problem solved. You do not have family or land in a MMORPG that would bind you to a particular faction. With my love of playing alts, and WARs system of having different classes for every faction, I'll probably end up playing all the possible factions in WAR anyway. Why worry about the fate of my virtual nation?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Why PvP rulez in WoW

I have an immense respect for the officers and raid leaders of my guild, because they have such a hard job whenever they try to put a raid together. You can't just take the first 10 people showing up or do a lottery; you need so and so many tanks, so and so many healers, this or that crowd control, this or that special class for some special encounter, and only when you have filled all those slots there are a few spots remaining for "random" dps classes. Apart from the classes, you often need to sort out raid IDs. And if the raid isn't trivial, you better check if people have the right talents and gear. And in the end there is inevitably some guy who is sulking because he didn't get invited.

Once the guild is past Karazhan, the next big organizational problem is how many of which raids to organize at what time. Keep farming Karazhan? Go for Zul'Aman or Gruul? Do an all out assault on Serpentshrine Cavern? Or some mix of all of this? Most likely there are people more and less advanced in your guild. The more advanced ones already have all Karazhan loot and can't stand the place any more, while the less advanced ones would need a couple more Karazhan runs before being ready for SSC. Juggling all of this is hard.

From the point of view of the guild member, the same problems appear, only from a different perspective. You have a raid ID from yesterday, but the people forming a raid today want to do a fresh start. Or the guild decided to go to a different raid dungeon than you would have preferred. Or you are of the wrong class, or wrong spec, or not geared up enough for the raid. Or the raid you want to go to is organized just on the one evening where you can't play. Et cetera, et cetera.

Now compare that to the alternative of doing battleground PvP. The epic rewards are of a similar quality, even use the same models in many cases. There is no raid ID, no class requirement, no spec requirement, no gear requirement, no time and date requirement. In the most extreme case there isn't even a requirement to actively participate, as the AFK leechers in Alterac Valley prove, although I'd always prefer to at least try to give my best. You can log on, jump into a battleground, play like you want, and even if the whole thing ends up in a complete failure you'll get a mark and some honor points. There are no repair costs, no costs for consumables, and nobody expects you to pay hundreds of gold for enchantments. And you don't need to pray for a lucky drop of the epic you want, you'll be able to get what you want by simply buying it for your marks and honor points.

I was discussing how to equip my warrior with a reader who sent me a couple of tips by e-mail. But he is a hardcore raider, and so he suggested I wait for patch 2.4 and buy the new sword for 150 badges of justice. Problem is I don't have 150 badges of justice on my warrior (he has 7, my raiding priest has 73). If I did the daily heroic for a month, or got into Karazhan raids every week for two months, I could gather 150 badges of justice. But of course by doing either 30 heroics or 8 Karazhan clears or a mix of both I would in all probability already wear lots of epics. The badges are nice to fill gaps, buy an epic for the one slot where by bad luck you never had an epic drop. But they aren't an alternative to PvE epics, they are a complement. If you are still in blue gear, your guild is raiding SSC or Tempest Keep, and you can't get a heroics group together on raid night, your best alternative is PvP. I'm not quite sure yet whether I really want to do PvP with my warrior, but I'm well aware that it would be the fastest way to equip him with epics.

And if even me, who hates PvP, thinks of it as the best way to gear up, you know why PvP "rulez" in WoW for the moment. It isn't that PvP gives "welfare epics" or that PvP rewards are too good or anything. If you can get into a series of Karazhan farm raids, like my priest did, you'll get a lot more epics in a lot less time, and those are really welfare, the welfare that your guilds gives you, not Blizzard. But to get the PvP epics you don't have to jump all the organizational hurdles and overcome all the constraints I listed at the start of my post. You can PvP whenever and however you want. Nobody can kick you out of a battleground group. And you don't owe anyone for the epics you receive at the end.

Imagine a WoW end game without any epics or rewards. Would be far less popular, I know, but it is just a thought experiment. If there were no epics, people would probably do the activity they like most, because entertainment would be the only reward. You would get some sort of "natural" distribution between soloing, 5-man groups, raiding, and PvP. Back to the real WoW as it is now it is easy to see how the rewards move the distribution away from the natural one. Lots of people do PvP not because they like competitive gameplay more than cooperative gameplay, but because PvP is the playstyle with which they still can get rewards without overcoming all those organizational problems of raids. Meanwhile heroics and raids are underpopulated relatively to the natural distribution, just because they are harder to set up.

And that is an aberration of bad game design. It is totally possible to imagine a game in which PvP is hard to organize, while PvE raids are of the jump-in-anytime variant. Being hard to organize is *not* an inherent feature of cooperative gameplay, being jump-in is *not* an inherent feature of competitive gameplay. If PvP was limited to premade groups, and only the winning group would get a reward, organization of PvP would become as difficult as organizing a raid is now. And if there were raid events for which you could queue up, get in anytime, have a reasonable chance to succeed even with that pickup raid group, and get a point reward regardless of whether you win or lose, a lot more people would be raiding. Having the better organized players in raids and the less organized players in PvP is just a design anomaly of World of Warcraft.

Parallel Kingdom

You might have heard that Google is developing a open source mobile phone operating system called Android, which is supposed to come out this year. One interesting application developed for Android phones is Parallel Kingdom, a MMORPG "using GPS to place the virtual world on top of the real world". It promises that "you can mine resources, build buildings, craft items, trade goods, meet people, start kingdoms, lead wars, and explore the world", all on an interface overlayed on a Google map of where you physically are. Thus if you want to move in the game, you'll have to move in real life. Thus the other promise that "Parallel Kingdom is a casual game that will get you out into the world questing and exploring".

That certainly sounds interesting. It is somewhat similar to the idea of WiFi Army, a first person shooter where you locate your enemy by Android GPS and then "shoot" him with the inbuilt camera. Parallel Kingdom will be free to play, but of course you'll need to buy an Android mobile phone, and some sort of contract with a mobile phone service operator. Personally I'm not using my mobile phone all that much, and am not sure I'd want to spend big bucks on an Android phone. My current phone has a very small internet browser, but when I tried it out it was horribly expensive to surf via mobile phone over here in Europe. But if I could get a phone which displays my GPS position on a Google map, and allows me to surf the net, and doesn't cost me an arm and a leg, I'd certainly be interested. And I'd try Parallel Kingdom.

Length of games

Coprolit alerted me to an article on Gamespot about the length of games. Basically indie game developers say that they can make games as good as anyone else, but due to budget restraints the indie games will be shorter than games from big companies. So Coprolit thinks that this principle could be applied to MMORPGs, with better gameplay instead of more content leading to longevity.

I'm not so sure that will work. Not that I'm against better gameplay. But being an explorer in the Bartle terminology, discovering new content is important to me too. Game mechanics *have to* be good anyway, because whether you kill the same mob over and over, or a different mob in every combat, the basic combat steps are repetitive. But players simply prefer a variety of different mobs to fight with. I remember in Final Fantasy XI when it came out there were very, very few different monster models. You left your starting city and killed rabbits, and when you travelled to higher level zones, many of them had rabbits of higher level, same model, different color. You could theoretically go from level 1 to the level cap by killing nothing but rabbits. That is cheap to produce, but not very interesting.

Coprolit quotes the problems of vertical, content heavy, level/area-based expansions, and I agree that I'd love to see more horizontal character development. That is character development that does not add to your effective power, but only to status or the completion of collections or better social contacts. But I doubt that could be done without adding content, the content would just have to be of a different kind. I've played enough games where the landscape was randomly created, and even some games where the quests came from a random mission generator. In general I found these games lacking in interest.

The one "indie" MMORPG I played was A Tale in the Desert, which is very good, but failed to keep me interested for long stretches of time. I think the huge mass of content that World of Warcraft has compared to its competitors is a big part of its success. That this costs many millions of dollars to create is unfortunate for indie developers. But I don't really see a way around it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

How to out-WoW World of Warcraft

The New York Times recently had an interesting article on the sea change in video games: hardcore games are out, casual games are in. A completely silly Guitar Hero game easily outsells state of the art FPS Crysis or Bioshock. Far more people want to wiggle a Wiimote than get to grips with the 20 buttons on a XBox or PS3 controller. And World of Warcraft, which is much simpler and easier than its competitors, rules the MMORPG market.
Put another way, it may be a sign of the industry’s nascent maturity that as video games become more popular than ever, hard-core gamers and the old-school critics who represent them are becoming an ever smaller part of the audience.

That is not so unusual in other media. In most forms of entertainment there is a divide between what is popular with the masses and what is popular with the critics. Plenty of films get rave reviews but never make it past the art houses. Plenty of blockbusters are panned.

The reasons for that seem fairly clear. Film, books and music (and food, for that matter) have been around long enough to have developed highly sophisticated cognoscenti whose tastes have little to do with the mass audiences that still drive those markets. Food critics have as much sway over Red Lobster as book critics do over Danielle Steel.
And this is exactly why we haven't seen a WoW-Killer yet: All the announced new games are more hardcore, shooting for "more critically acclaimed than WoW". If you want to make a game that sells more copies than WoW, you have to forget about what the gamers tell you they want. You need to go for the non-gamers, make your game even more accessible than WoW. Here is one possible recipe:

1) Production values as high or higher than World of Warcraft. The "industry standard" of what is "acceptable" in bugs and server downtime is still abysmal. A WoW killer needs to be virtually bug-free, and up 24/7. The graphics don't need to be stunning, but the artistic quality needs to be high. WoW's attention to minor details is a big part of it's success. 3D graphics, not cheap 2D browser graphics though.

2) Even easier controls than World of Warcraft. Which brings us to the first point where the gamers will start howling: Every class in that WoW-Killer game needs to have significantly less spells and abilities. Even a high-level character would be able to pack all of his possible spells and abilities on a single hotkey bar.

3) Even slower combat, with no twitchy components whatsoever. To keep it interesting the combat must be a bit more strategical and interactive: Pressing the *right* button must be more important than pressing it fast. More visual input, where you need to watch what the monster in front of is doing to decide what your best cause of action is. Less numbers and theorycrafting.

4) Elimination of class "roles", but not of classes. The tank/healer/dps division of labor has to go. There should be no aggro-increasing abilities whatsoever, no classes with better damage absorption, and no classes with better healing abilities than the others. Basically every class would be a different flavor of dps class, and all healing would be done with some version of potions and bandages, available equally to all. Thus no more "LF2M healer and tank", any combination of classes would be equally viable for grouping. And there would be no more classes that were required for grouping, but less good in soloing.

5) No talents or specialization. Thus no gimping or best builds or templates, a mage is a mage is a mage. You can't choose anything wrong, because there is nothing to choose.

6) No "end game" whatsoever. When you hit the level cap, there isn't much left to do, no raids, no PvP. Instead when you hit the level cap with a standard character, you unlock one or two new character classes in a fixed order, which you can then level up to the cap again to unlock even more classes. The unlocked classes aren't any more powerful than the starting classes, just more "cool". Ninja, anyone?

7) Far more social options than World of Warcraft: player housing, with houses also serving as shops for player-made wares. Guilds being organized as player-run cities. Sidekick / Mentoring system to play with players of different levels. Guild achievements measured in trophies and other "fluff", no epics. Contribution to guild achievements not depending on your level, no more "need to level up to reach the fun part" gameplay.

8) More different sub-games. Not just adventuring with a combat game, but alternative activities like crafting mini-games, or a collectible virtual card game like the Vanguard diplomacy system.

Now some of you are going to shout that they would never play such a game. Which is totally okay, because you are a gamer and aren't the target audience anyway. The game isn't supposed to be good from a game critic point of view. It is designed to be accessible for the mass market, the many millions of people who still consider World of Warcraft to be too complicated. The millions of people who play free browser MMORPGs in 2D graphics, and who would love to play a game which had as high production values as WoW, but was more easy to play.

Blu-ray wins, HD DVD gets betamax'd

Toshiba just announced that they would stop producing and developing HD DVD players and recorders. Warner Bros' switching to Blu-ray had given the HD DVD format the death blow. Sony won this round of the format wars, after having lost the video tape format wars in the 70's with their Betamax format.

Apart from being good news for Sony, this development is also expected to accelerate consumers moving into high definition. And it could even influence the "console wars": Microsoft went with HD DVD for the XBox 360, while the PS3 has a Blu-ray drive. So while the PS3 definitely had a bad start, they might catch up.

Reinventing my warrior

As mentioned in the previous post, here is my article on my current thoughts on my World of Warcraft warrior, complete with positive preface. :) I am currently playing three different characters in WoW regularly. I love leveling my mage. Not just because of the inherent joy of leveling, but because the mage feels powerful in comparison to my other characters. I can attack mobs of my level at maximum range and often kill them before they even reach me. I did my first Outland dungeon groups, in ramparts and blood furnace, and not only was I fully able to fulfill my role in that group, but also I didn't need to respec to do it. It played differently than soloing, more crowd control, less damage dealing, but not so differently that I would have wished I had spec'd differently. I haven't tried PvP yet with my mage, I'll wait until I hit level 70 with that, but again I don't foresee any conflicts between a PvP role and a soloing role.

I also love playing my holy/disc priest. This is the character I'm raiding with. I've been raiding with that priest all the way through Molten Core, AQ20, Zul'Gurub, and BWL up to Nefarian before TBC, and through Karazhan and Gruul's Lair afterwards. I might not be the best raider ever, but I'm competent enough as a healer to be an asset and not a burden to a raid group. By raiding I got a bunch of epic gear, and due to recent changes that make one third of my healing bonus apply to spell damage as well, I'm actually not all that bad at soloing. I also can usually find easily a spot in a 5-man guild group, for example for heroics. Everyone loves a healer.

It is my third character, my warrior, actually the first character I hit a level cap with in any game, with whom I am not totally happy. He has a role, as tank in 5-man dungeons, normal and heroic. But that role is rather limited, and I find it hard to broaden his horizon. Tanking isn't an optimal strategy for soloing. It also has limited possibilities in PvP. But I'm reluctant to change to a dps spec in which I would be a better soloer and PvPer, because it would compromise my role as a tank. I can't respec every time I want to switch from one mode of gameplay to another, Blizzard made that too expensive. Furthermore if I redefined myself as a dps warrior, the next problem would be just around the corner: the advent of a huge number of deathknights competing for the same role and gear in WotLK as a dps warrior. So I think dps warrior is not the way to go. The only thing I could imagine would be playing a dps warrior for long enough to get lets say some PvP done, suspending my tank role, and then get back to it in time for WotLK. But I don't enjoy PvP as much as I enjoy 5-man grouping, and most of the possible PvP rewards are more suited for a dps warrior than for a tank.

If I stick with a tanking role, I need to leave my comfort zone to evolve. I already tried, I signed up for an "alt raid" to Karazhan last night, but we couldn't get enough people together. And I wouldn't have felt comfortable being "main tank" on my first Karazhan raid with the warrior. Raid tanking is still a good step up from 5-man tanking, and I have neither the experience nor the gear. I can learn, but that probably involves a lot of wiping, and there are 9 other people that wipe if the main tank of a raid makes a mistake. I think the best would be to do more tanking in heroic dungeons, to improve my tanking experience and gear, although that still leaves me short of raiding experience. With my priest I am more of a casual raider. I don't think there is such a thing a casual raider main tank. And I'm not quite sure how useful I would be as a casual raider off tank.

The other possibility is relegating the warrior to "alt" status, and playing him a lot less. He does some useful stuff like alchemy and fishing, or farming money with daily quests. Maybe the deathknights of WotLK will tank "good enough" for 5-man groups, which would pretty much eliminate my need for playing a warrior at all. It is predictable that a group full of deathknights will rather invite a healer, who does the one thing deathknights absolutely can't do, and doesn't roll on plate loot. But we don't know yet when exactly WotLK will come out, and how exactly the deathknight will play, so retiring my warrior already is a bit premature. So right now he is a bit in limbo, ready to tank if my guild needs a tank, but uncertain how to evolve until the expansion and even more so after it.

If you play a warrior, how do you see his future? For the most dedicated tank players there will most likely be a role as main tank in raids for the foreseeable future. For the more casual players, and the dps warriors, the future is less certain.

Monday, February 18, 2008

MMORPGs, the new religion

I was working on an article about some issues I have with my warrior, and the first thing that sprang to mind was: "I better preface that with some positive remarks". Because every time I criticize some minor feature in WoW, I get two types of response: The WoW fanbois coming after me with torches and pitchforks because of my blasphemy, and the WoW haters telling me that "I agree, WoW sucks, you should stop playing". When have people lost the ability to see a game as a sum of many features, some of which you like more, and some of which you like less? When has WoW become a religion, which you can only accept or reject as a whole?

I must be somewhere around 4,000 hours of /played time in World of Warcraft. I'm playing the game since the beta in September 2004, except for a 7-month break I took last year. Assuming I could possibly "hate" WoW is idiotic. But I'm not putting World of Warcraft on a pedestal either. I have tried every possible mode of gameplay, including raiding and PvP, and I have played every class and race, some more, some less. Of course there are features which are less good than others. And of course there are features that just happen to hit my personal preferences perfectly, while others are less suited for me, on a totally subjective basis. And where else than my personal blog to discuss the things I like or dislike about a game?

But some people apparently have become unable to discuss details of MMORPGs, be it WoW or WAR or another game. Reminds me a bit of a discussion I once had with a Catholic on whether Mary was a "virgin", or whether that was just a translation error from Aramaic. For me that was just a minor detail, but to him questioning that detail was equivalent to questioning the whole of Christian religion. The history of Europe is full of centuries of war and strife where Christians killed each other over such minor differences of interpretation of what is fundamentally the same faith. We aren't quite there yet with MMORPGs, but the MMOPRG-religious nutters are already all over the internet.

What suffers is rational discussion. When I read some of the blog posts hailing Warhammer Online as the next messiah, full with religious fervor, I can only feel sorry for those who believe it. It is simply impossible for any game to live up to that level of hype. I sure hope that WAR will be a very good game, with fun PvP *and* PvE. But my expectations are limited to a reasonable evolutionary improvement over Dark Age of Camelot, not a revolutionary innovation that breaks through the inherent conflict of having character development and PvP in the same game. Hearing about how WAR is going to make PvP "meaningful" makes me wince, if you want to do something meaningful with your life I'd recommend doing it in the real world. Expecting a video game to give meaning to your life is bound to end in disappointment.

And that is something I observe as well: Not only are MMORPGs treated religiously, but there is also a eternal cycle of hailing a new game as the next big thing, being disappointed by reality, and condemning it as a false god, before moving on to hailing the next game. It's all a bit scary, the level of fervor that a simple game can evoke. Because in the end that is what they are: games. Supposed to entertain, not to become a major purpose of your life. We should go back to rationally discussing MMORPG features, not worshiping them.

Tabula Rasa a "financial disaster"

It's astounding what other websites my readers visit. One of them sent me a link to The Korea Times article NCSoft to Downsize Austin Studio. Fortunately not in Korean. :)

The article says that Tabula Rasa only made 5 billion won ($5.3 million) up to now, compared to development cost of 100 billion won ($106 million). That is more development cost than Blizzard said another MMORPG would cost to make for them. And while talk on the street is that Tabula Rasa is actually getting better as a game since release, it initially got a rather mixed reception.

So now NCsoft is to "restructure" its US game studio in Austin, an euphemism for firing anyone not urgently needed to keep Tabula Rasa going. NCsoft already replaced Robert Garriott from the chief position of the US operation with Chris Chung, and the former is now "free from day-to-day operations". You know you are an important guy if you can't get fired any more, but get a post like "vice president for creative vision" instead. :)

Parallel raid progression

Much has been written about guilds having difficulties to move from 10-man Karazhan to 25-man raids like Serpentshrine Cavern, because of the difference in raid size. There is still some debate about whether the "entry level" raid dungeon is better if it is for a large raid size (like Molten Core was) or for a small raid size (like Karazhan is now). Both sizes have advantages and disadvantages. So I was wondering why World of Warcraft should be limited to have only one "entry level" raid dungeon.

Why does there need to be a raid progression for dungeon A to B to C to D? It is easy to imagine having for example two entry level raid dungeons, A and A', of equal difficulty and reward level, but for different raid sizes. For example one for 10 raiders, the other for 25. That way you choose your raid dungeon depending on the number of people you can get together. That could be followed by a similar couple of dungeons B and B', again of equal difficulty, but harder than A/A'. And so on. A parallel raid progression, where every guild could choose to either stick to the 10-man path, or the 25-man raid progression, or for casual guilds to do a bit of both.

Eliminating levels 1 to 60?

Apparently Blizzard has the plan to add 10 more levels to World of Warcraft with every expansion. That is fun for everyone who is stuck at the level cap, which isn't all that unlikely given the long development time for WoW expansions. But it is problematic for anyone starting a new character, be it an alt or a totally new player: the way from 1 to the level cap becomes longer and longer, and everything except the last 10 levels tends to be underpopulated. Blizzard's proposed solution is to speed up the time to level through the lower levels, since patch 2.3 it only takes half the time to level to 60 than before.

Minionman wrote me with a more radical proposal: He wants to eliminate levels 1 to 60 completely, and remodel all the old Azeroth zones into level 60+ zones. Every new character (and not only Deathknights) would start in the normal newbie zone, but at level 60, and the mobs etc. around him would also be level 60. He would then have a large multitude of possible options to level from 60 to 70, using a mix of Azeroth and Outlands zones.

I don't think that the idea is all that good. First of all starting his very first character at level 60 is confusing for a new player. Levels 1 to 60 do serve a purpose of training people how to play their class, by starting with only a few basic options and adding new options over time. Starting with lots of spells and talents is too complicated for a player on his very first MMORPG character.

The other problem is that I'm not even sure that it would solve the underpopulation problem. We would still have the same number of people below the level cap distributed over the same large number of zones. It would be easier to find somebody in your level range, but not necessarily easier to group up with people you meet while adventuring.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Does a game need an unbeatable monster?

Rawrsaur sent me a link to a video Square Enix released on how to beat Absolute Virtue, an uber monster in Final Fantasy XI, which hasn't been beaten yet in a legit way. He writes:
Absolute Virtue is essentially the pinnacle of FFXI raiding. Nobody's ever defeated it. They've datamined it, they've tried all sorts of things, but to this date, given the (roughly) 500,000 subscribers, they have yet to kill the thing. And it hasn't been for lack of time, either. According to the wiki history at, the thing's been around since january of 2006. It's been around for two entire years, and nobody's been able to take it down legitimately.

The developers have not nerfed the encounter. Most of the information has been data mined about the creature from the game files (it is effectively 9 levels above players, it has around 120,000 hp, etc. etc.). They know what it drops. They know what it can do. It is just tuned to the point that killing the thing is nearly impossible.

There were a number of glitches that allowed some players to defeat it.

So what do you think about something like this? Obviously, this monster isn't meant to be part of some sort of loot progression line. That's something FFXI never really did. The loot you can earn through raiding is a little better than the loot you can earn through grouping, but it isn't huge amounts more. There have been recorded attempts... as few as 18 people, and as many as 320 people all gathered together to try to kill it, and all failed.

Do you think something like this would fly in the present day? FFXI is niche; they had their day in the sun and they still do decently well (I love the teamwork inherent in that game), but they are hardly a spring chicken. Like Paul Barnett said, the market changes as time passes.

Personally, I think that it would be an excellent idea to put something like this as an optional side-quest, similar to the monster arenas in the various final fantasy games. You often have challenges that are tougher than anything else in the game, and usually by the time your characters are strong enough to defeat them, any sort of loot reward is mostly pointless. So instead, you give special bragging rights rewards, like a special title, a special visual effect, a special mount, or some other cool thing. Absolute Virtue does drop items, and those items can lead to some of the most powerful items in the FFXI game. However, that in and of itself doesn't necessarily mean quite as much -- the belt it drops (Ninurta's Sash) has +6% to haste (which is the big deal). There are several questable belt rewards that give +4% to haste, and 2% is really not a huge difference in performance, especially given how slow-paced the game is.

The real benefit of beating Absolute Virtue would just be the bragging rights to say 'Yes, we beat it'.
So what do you think? Is there any value in designing an encounter that can't be beat for years?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Guilds and summer holidays

I spent a day in Paris for work, and picked up a new French MMO print magazine at the newsstand there to read in the train: GameGeek. Some news about MMOs in general, but most of the magazine was covering World of Warcraft. There was one interesting article describing the history of one guild from early 2005 (when WoW came out in Europe) to now. And prominently in that guild history figures the problem of summer holidays.

People in Europe get a lot more holidays than Americans, and thus many spend 3 weeks or more in summer on the beach or traveling. France is practically shut down during the month of August. Of course raid attendance during that time on European servers suffers mightily. And many an European guild split up during those summer holidays, because some people wanted to continue raiding and rather joined up with other people spending the summer holidays on the computer and not with their previous guild mates tanning on some beach in Spain.

The story is only interesting because I've heard that story several times from various people on various European servers, especially French and German ones, but very rarely from people playing on American servers. Continent-specific guild drama, triggered by different public opinions on work-life balance. Funny.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Time to level 60

My first character to reach level 60 in World of Warcraft was my warrior, who needed 21 days of /played time for that. Which at the time was pretty much average. My second and third character to level to 60 were both priests, one Horde, one Alliance. Both of them needed 13 days of /played time to reach level 60. Today my mage reached level 60, my fourth character that got so high. But the mage only needed 6 days of /played to get there. Part of that is him being an alt and not being played all the time, so he often had rest xp bonus. But the major speed boost to level 60 came from patch 2.3, which decreased xp needed up to level 60, and increased xp for quests up to level 60.

Only cloud on the horizon is that fast leveling stops now. For level 61 I need nearly 3 times as many xp than I needed from 59 to 60.

WAR tanks will have a taunt that works in PvP

The Greenskin has exciting news about tanks in PvP in Warhammer Online: they will have a taunt that actually does something. In this case it reduces the damage that the taunted character does to anyone else but the taunter by 50% for 30 seconds. The Greenskin muses probably correctly that in the hectic of PvP many people won't even notice they have been taunted, much less change their target because of it. But at least the tank did something useful to protect the healer or mage on his team.

Now can I please have that functionality for my World of Warcraft tank?

Right now in WoW the arena and battlegrounds are marked with big signs saying "tanks must stay out". Their taunt and other aggro management abilities simply do nothing at all, and if they PvP anyway, they'll find that none of the PvP rewards is of any use for a tank. The best thing a warrior can do if he wants to PvP is to change to arms / fury, and collect a good dps plate set plus weapon. But as a "tank" he currently isn't welcome in PvP in WoW. I'm happy to see WAR is handling that better.

Designing a better raid reward system

I recently mentioned that game systems make stories happen between players. One of those stories that happens to thousands of World of Warcraft guilds is the one where tensions arise in the guild between the more advanced and the less advanced raiders. The more advanced players don't want to sign up for the low level raids any more, because those don't bring them anything any more, but the less advanced players only make slow progress without the help of the more advanced players, and thus don't catch up with them to help them in the next level of raiding. TBC changed that story only slightly: on the one hand the more advanced raiders at least get badges of justice when running Karazhan again, but on the other hand a guild needs to equip three Karazhan teams before having enough players for the 25-man dungeons.

Now I was reading Relmstein's excellent suggestion on how MMORPGs could be improved by using features from Spore: "Plus the ideas explored with the creature creator in Spore could also be adapted for several different areas in MMOs. A weapon and armor creator could easily be controlled by a game system dependent on the discovery of ancient scrolls. Work your way to the end of a medium difficulty dungeon and be rewarded with the knowledge on how to add a cool cross guard to your swords. The stats of items you create could be controlled by different types of tokens dropped off bosses with varying degrees of difficulty." And I was thinking that a system like that might be useful for improving the raid reward system.

As mentioned yesterday, the current raid reward system by dropping random epics has the big disadvantage that it rewards an experienced player helping others to get through a raid dungeon very little, while giving out big rewards to the new players that are given the guided tour. Rewards are inversely proportional to contribution, a system that is obviously problematic. The badges of justice already help, but what if we had an "build your own epic" system? Besides ready-made epics, the raid bosses would drop epic fragments, which could be assembled to more powerful epics. And there wouldn't be a loot table, but every raid boss could drop any possible epic fragment. There would be fragments determining what slot the finished epic goes in, whether it is a helmet or boots for example. There would be fragments determining whether the final epic would be cloth, leather, mail, or plate. And there would be epic fragments for the various stats, with the value of the stats depending on the difficulty of the raid dungeon. From all those parts you could build exactly the epic you wanted.

The big advantage of such a system is that the newbies in the raid would be better served with the ready-made drop epics. But the more experienced raiders who already have all the random drops they could possibly get can still get a reward in the form of epic fragments, which once assembled are an improvement over the random drops. So while helping the rest of their guild to advance through Karazhan, at least these raiders would be rewarded, and wouldn't feel stuck between raid dungeons.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Karazhan the only attunement left?

We know that patch 2.4 removes the attunements for Mount Hyjal and the Black Temple. And apparently the access to the new Sunwell Plateau raid dungeon is opened by a world event, not an individual attunement. That would mean that from all the level 70 raid dungeons only Karazhan would still have an attunement. Why?

I could understand a system where access to the first raid dungeon is easy, but an attunement prevents people to move on to further raid dungeons before having finished the first one. "Bring me the head of the prince before you can enter Serpentshrine Cavern", no problem. But why, oh why, would somebody design a system which keeps people out from the start but then lets them go anywhere?

Now somebody is going to say "but you can't just go anywhere, because the Black Temple is tough". But doesn't exactly the same argument hold true for Karazhan? You can't go to Karazhan with a group consisting only of people who just dinged 70 and are dressed in greens, it's too tough. What sense does it make that a guild can drag a noob through Zul'aman or a 25-man dungeon with the help of 24 well equipped people and thus equip him with epics, but they can't take him to Karazhan unless they help him with the attunement dungeons first?

Spore to ship September 7

Will Wright's much anticipated new game "Spore" now has an official release date: September 7 of this year. The game will be released simultaneously on PCs, Macs, Nintendo DS, and mobile phones. Either that Nintendo DS and my mobile phone are a lot more powerful than I thought, or the mobile Spore will be significantly different from the PC and Mac version.

I wonder whether the game will be any good. There is so much hype surrounding it, that it will have trouble living up to it. I wouldn't be surprised if it was a passable collection of mini-games plus social networking, and nothing more.

A couple of links

Sorry for bunching this all together, but I thought it might be better than having several one-liner posts. I had a couple of mails this week from people asking me to link to their sites, and after kicking out the one guy who offered me $7.53 per referral to his gold selling site, and the other guy who wanted me to promote some fishy (or was that phishy?) looking flash game site, I'm still left with several links to nice sites. Nothing I could write a long article about, but good enough to link to.

Thallian was asking me on advise how he could improve his MMORPG blog. One word of advice: paragraphs. Your longer articles are a wall of text that is hard to read. I encourage people to go out and start their own blog, but you do need some writing skills if you want to attract any readers.

Much better looking and interesting are the detailed guild achievement stats on the French server of Drek'Thar, as compiled by Gehenne. It shows that from all the guilds on his server only 2 Alliance and 1 Horde guild have ever beaten a boss in Mount Hyjal or the Black Temple. Use your own estimates of how many raiders there are in those 3 guilds and how many players are on one WoW server to calculate the percentage. Any number I say will only be hotly debated, so I limit myself to calling the number "very small".

On Friday, February 15 at 5pm PST there will be a public stress test of the first game on the Metaplace platform, and they are looking for a large number of participants. The game will be a simple puzzle game, the test is more to test the platform, including chat. is a social networking site for both PC and console gamers (including MMOs). What can I say about it except mention that there are dozens of sites like that who want to become the next MySpace or Facebook for gamers. The idea is basically good, but the value of a social networking site increases exponentially with its number of users, and it isn't clear yet which site will win in the end. Maybe its this one, maybe not. You can take a tour of MyGameMug to see for yourself.

MMO Gamers is another new MMO blog, this one with paragraphs, and a pretty layout. I hadn't heard about Freeblogit yet, but the owner of this particular site asked me whether he should stay on the free plan or move to the paid service. Paid service? On a site called "Freeblogit"? Sounds like a trap to me. I'm using Blogger, and they don't even offer a paid service plan any more, everything is free since they got bought by Google. So if you aren't afraid of the next evil empire, Google, I'd recommend switching to Blogger. That also increases the chance of Google search finding your posts, and thus your readership. Other people in the MMO blogosphere have mentioned the advantages of Wordpress. Just like I said about social networking sites, it is advisable to host your blog on one of the big blog services instead of some unknown one.

Hello Kitty: Island Adventures

I thought somebody was sending me a South Park joke. In the Make Love not Warcraft episode Butters states that he does not play World of Warcraft but rather the fictional game Hello Kitty Island Adventure. So when I got a mail today saying "Hello Kitty MMORPG goes beta", of course I think it's fake. But no, the mail is from Sanrio, the official rights holder of the Hello Kitty brand. And they *did* make a game called Hello Kitty Online (sorry, no Island Adventures), which is now going into beta. The usual free-to-play business model of Asian MMORPGs, the usual isometric 2D graphics, and all the pink and pretty colors you could possibly imagine. So if you are like Butters and World of Warcraft is too scary for you, welcome to Hello Kitty Online!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What is a main and why would I need one?

Dillon asked me a very good question: "Where did the concept of Main vs. Alts come from that you know of, and how does it stick around so well?". My first character to ever hit the level cap in any MMORPG was my warrior, but that isn't my main. The character I played the most in the last two weeks is my mage, but that isn't my main. My main is my priest, who due to Real Life® preventing me from raiding recently didn't get played much at all. So where is the logic in that?

The answer is that the concept of main vs. alts comes from raiding. Many raiding guilds, even casual ones, have rules in place that you can only raid with your main and not your alts. To understand why, you need to understand the whole concept of raid progress: Nearly all raiding guilds not only want to raid, they also want to make progress in raiding, moving from entry level raid dungeons up to more difficult raid dungeons. Not only do the higher raid dungeons give better loot, but also raiding the same place every week gets boring pretty fast. Raid progress is a guild matter, individual players can't do very much about it except giving their best. Many of the rules that raid guilds put into place are designed to promote raid progress.

If you always play the same character, and visit the same raid dungeon repeatedly, two things will happen: You learn what to do with that character in every encounter in that dungeon very well, and you'll pick up a complete or near-complete set of epic gear from that dungeon. Both the gear and the experience on how to play your class help you and your guild to advance to the next dungeon (although people have differing opinions on how much of that effect is gear and how much of it is skill). If you did the same raid dungeon the same number of times, but evenly split between two different characters, guild raid progress would suffer. Instead of having one very well equipped toon you'll have two half-equipped ones. And instead of knowing how to play one class extremely well you'll know two classes reasonably well. That has an advantage of flexibility if a raid group finds itself short of some class but in excess of others. But overall it slows down the raid progress of a guild.

Rules against alts are in place because perversely the less you contribute to the success of a raid, the better you get rewarded. If you think of a mixed group of people using their main for the umpteenths time in the same dungeon and some new players or alts, the players with more experience and better gear are obviously contributing more to the success of the raid. But as they already have most of the gear from that dungeon, they only get the badges, while the new players and alts end up with several epics. Actually TBC improved that situation a bit, because before there were no badges at all, and due to now much smaller raid groups the number of epic drops per player increased. But before TBC there were some guilds that had DKP systems that were so strict that they'd disenchant epics in spite of a new player in the raid being able to use them, just to discourage "freeloading". The source of the problem is the random loot tables. Maybe some future implementation of raids will have *only* badges and no random loot, so sticking to your main would become more of an advantage. Until then WoW is pro-alts and anti-mains, and it is up to the players and guilds to counterbalance that.

Telling a good story in a MMORPG

Cameron from Random Battle has a great article on How Do You Tell a Good Story In an MMOG? and a second part to it. While I agree that it is very hard to tell a good NPC based story in a MMORPG, as opposed to a book or film, I do think there is room for improvement up from where we are with games like WoW. Do people turn on instant quest text display and click "accept" without reading the quest because they don't want a story, or because the stories that World of Warcraft tells us with their quests texts usually aren't all that great?

One point is improving how the story is told. Everquest 2 quest givers have a voice, and in Final Fantasy XI the more important epic quest line stories are told in cut scenes. The epic "book" quests of LotRO also have cutscenes. Maybe we don't need that for every kill ten foozles quest, but those are errands, not quests. World of Warcraft has long quest chains, but they aren't marked as such, and would benefit from A) being visibly a longer story, and B) using other media than text for telling that story.

The other point is that stories in a MMORPG do not necessarily happen between players and NPCs, but the more memorable ones happen between players. And the instinctive reaction of "game developers have no influence over the stories that develop between players" is dead wrong. Game structure and rewards have a strong influence on player behavior, and that leads to the same story happening to different people on different servers. If I asked 100 of you to write an essay about "what happened to my guild when TBC came out", I'd get only around half a dozen different stories. When you read about some guild drama in a blog, half of the time you think "hey, the same happened to other people I know / heard about". There are archetype stories like "top raiders left our guild to join a stronger one" or "someone we trusted robbed the guild bank" which are built in the game mechanics of World of Warcraft. The guild bank robbery didn't happen before, because there was no guild bank, and the story will change in the future because Blizzard is still fiddling around with guild bank access rights setup options. The unhappy story of the top raiders rather joining a new guild than helping their old guild mates to advance could be turned into a much happier story of cooperation and loyalty if Blizzard would set up guilds to reward such behavior and discourage guild hopping.

What game devs need to decide is what kind of stories they want to have in their games, and then give the players the tools that enable those stories. If World of Warcraft is lacking stories of heroic self-sacrifice it is because there isn't actually a way in which you could heroically sacrifice yourself for the advantage of your team. The closest WoW has to that is the paladins ability to die to save somebody else, and that is usually just used when the group is obviously wiping and saving the priest is better than everyone having to run back. It would be neither useful nor heroic to do that in the middle of an encounter.

The force of MMORPGs compared to books, films, or multiplayer shooters, is that MMORPGs are cooperative multiplayer games. There is an endless story potential in people working together, building up trust, betraying trust, sharing, helping each other, being good or evil to each other. These stories already happen every day, but game developers could both increase the story potential and direct those stories into happy endings by giving the players the right gameplay options and reward structures. If World of Warcraft today appears as a game full of egoists and hermits, the game structure is certainly taking some of the blame for that.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Devaluation of Purple

Rawrasaur alerted me to an interesting article on the Nihilum website about the devaluation of purple. Somebody quoting Greenspan and Adam Smith in an article about WoW can't be a bad person. :) The author claims that World of Warcraft does conform to Adam Smith's rule of things working because of everyone's self-interest. But he claims it goes against the rules of ownership protection and relative happiness. That is that by giving out epics more freely, TBC devalued them, and makes going after epics less interesting.

I have my problems with that second part of his analysis. Am I more happy about the food on my table because people in Africa are starving? I'm not, and I sure hope there aren't all that many people who think like that. When Adam Smith talks about ownership protection, he means that it is important to know that you will keep whatever you earn, with nobody taking it away from you. Somebody else being able to earn it as well doesn't come into the equation.

Especially in the PvE part of World of Warcraft there is no actual negative effect of other people having epics. Just the opposite, if you join a pickup group your chances of success if obviously better if the other guys are wearing epics. PvE measures the strength of the players against the strength of computer-controlled monsters, and if the players increase their strength by wearing epic gear that is an absolute advantage. Relative advantages only come into play in the context of PvP, or if you are of the rather foolish persuasion that strutting through Ironforge wearing shiny epics somehow makes you worthy of the admiration of others.

The Burning Crusade has made "epics" relatively common. Clearing out Karazhan gives as many epics as clearing out Molten Core, but divided by 4 times less players, thus raid epics are now 4 times as common. Pre patch 1.12 PvP epics were reserved for the 1% of players how played PvP the most, but nowadays at least half of the level 70 players seem to wear them. If Blizzard made a mistake with that it was to make PvP epics look the same as raid epics. "Look at me, I'm wearing epics" is just causing a yawn nowadays. You need to wear legendary gear to get noticed.

I'm actually surprised that there are still people with that "I'm special, I got epics" mindset around. Because TBC not only taught us that epics are easy to get, it also taught us that every expansion makes the epics of the last expansion useless. There *will* be green items in Wrath of the Lich King better than the current purple items. Maybe Blizzard shouldn't have used color coding at all, but rather a numerical value. There already is a item level, but it doesn't correspond to player levels any more. Instead of having "epic" items in purple, all items with stats could be colored green, and what is now purple would just be marked with the level at which you are most likely to replace it with something that dropped from a random mob. That way you have less the impression that a new expansion "resets" your gear, but more of an impression of the new expansion opening up new avenues of progress.

Yes, people play WoW for the rewards, for their self-interest. But in cooperative multiplayer gameplay that self-interest shouldn't rely on other people having less epics than you have. The people who rushed to level 70 when TBC came out, formed an "A" team for Karazhan, and lorded it over their "lesser" guild members of the "B" team, should have learned their lesson when they arrived at the 25-man raids with 15 people missing. The guilds who were rotating and mixing teams from the start might have beaten the prince later, but came out of it with enough well equipped players to tackle the next stage and a lot less guild drama. Raiders should learn that it is in their self-interest to spread out the epics more evenly. Didn't we have enough of "we spent months to equip our main tank and now he left" at level 60 already? And if to some extent guild members can equip themselves with epics by doing PvP, the other raiders should be happy how this speeds up the whole guild's progress, and not denigrate them as "welfare epics". If TBC handed out epics more freely, that helpful and not a devaluation of purple.