Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Holiday in Karazhan

No disrespect to my fellow mages, but last night for the first time I raided Karazhan with my mage, and boy is that much easier than going there with my priest. I felt as if I was on a holiday! I'm not saying it takes no brains at all, one needs to follow the main assist's target and watch aggro on Omen. But compared to having to watch 10 health bars, chosing always the right healing spell for the situation, and shackling, playing a mage was downright relaxing. As a frost mage I'm used to having to shield myself, freezing mobs in place, and moving into the best position when soloing, but in a raid I don't need to do any of that. I can just click on CTRaidAssist's MA box for the right target and start spamming frostbolt, while keeping an eye on my threat meter. In some places I have to decurse, but I did that also with my priest. Sheeping doesn't come into play in Karazhan. So all in all the number of buttons to hit is rather limited.

Anyway, I wasn't planning on starting a raiding career with the mage, I just wanted to see Karazhan from a different angle. I even managed to pick up the T4 gloves from the Curator nobody wanted, although I passed on everything anyone else needed. So it was a pretty fun evening. Big thanks to my guild for taking me, knowing perfectly well that my dps wasn't great. But the raid went perfectly well from Attumen to Curator, and only Nightbane resisted us. Fun!

I'll come by Friday afternoon at 3 to attack you

For the sake of not letting the hype blind me, I haven't spent much time studying Age of Conan in advance. I'd rather play the beta, starting tomorrow hopefully, and see for myself. But while I don't read the AoC official site, I do read blogs, so I can't help but get some information from there. The best source I've found up to now for Age of Conan commentary is Keen and Graev's Blog. While I had to sign an NDA to get into the open beta, Keen says the NDA was dropped for participants in an earlier AoC event, which I find confusing, and somewhat ironic, given that Keen once chided me for breaking an NDA a few hours early. So he has not only comments on various AoC feature announcements, but also first-hand experience tales directly from the game.

Anyway, in his latest post he is talking about AoC's battlekeep vulnerability system. In other games in which guilds can conquer keeps, like DAoC, those keeps often change hand at 3 am, when the owning guild is sleeping and the attackers organized an early bird raid. In Age of Conan the owners of the keep can choose themselves at what time their keep is vulnerable to attack, and the attacker has to sign up for an attack at least 24 hours in advance. If several guilds want to attack, only one of them is chosen to be able to do so, based on PvP points.

As alluded to in the title, the result is somewhat silly. But the obvious advantage of a vulnerability window system is that the defender is far more likely to be actually present when his keep is under siege. That is an interesting reversal from a general MMORPG PvP situation in which the attacker only attacks at moments where he is sure the defender is weak, like people ganking somebody in a fight with a mob, or PvP objectives being attacked at odd hours. The disadvantage of that system is that once the strongest guilds have conquered the keeps, of which there are only very limited numbers, it becomes very difficult for anyone else to ever take them away. Battlekeep possession could easily become rather static, and thus uninteresting. If the defender is forewarned and thus forearmed, the game system has to somehow give the attacker some other advantage to make a change of ownership of the keep more likely.

Well, in any case this isn't likely to affect me. Any system in which PvP guilds conquer keeps, which will be the case in AoC as well as in WoW, automatically exclude casual players from that part of the content. A pickup raid group is more likely to succeed killing Illidan than to capture a keep from a PvP guild. And as I managed to avoid military service in real life, I'm not keen on joining a virtual military organization in a virtual world.

Do you use voice chat in raids?

Back in the days when I was in a more serious raiding guild doing Molten Core and BWL, we were using Teamspeak for voice chat. One guy had a role which somewhat reminded me of that of a drill sergeant, that is he was there to bark orders to the troops. As many of these orders were about starting or stopping damage, and I don't like headphones, so was running the voice chat on my laptop loudspeakers, my wife started to become well acquainted with that particular voice, and called him the "stop dps guy". :) Well, I took a long break from WoW last year and got into Burning Crusade raiding much later and with another guild, who don't use voice chat. And now I don't know if voice chat went out with the Burning Crusade, because smaller raids and improved boss mods / raid warning macros made voice obsolete. Or whether most raid guilds still use some form of voice chat.

So I'd like to hear your experience with and opinion on voice chat in TBC raiding. Do most people still use it? Is it still useful? And if yes, what voice chat system do you use, the new WoW integrated voice chat or an external program like Teamspeak or Ventrilo?

I'd also like to hear your experience with accents on voice chat. I'm playing on European "English" servers, where everyone from the UK to Italy, and from Norway to Israel is playing, basically everyone who isn't on a German or French or Spanish language server. Even reading the typed English of some people there is a challenge, and the spoken accents of everyone except the Scandinavians are hard to understand. (Why does a Swede usually speak clearer English than someone from lets say Yorkshire?) I can only guess that this is less of a problem with US servers, but I'd love to hear your impressions on that issue.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Are main tanks a mistake?

Does your guild have a main rogue or a main hunter? Silly question, of course not. You might have a class leader for every class, but something like a main rogue simply doesn't exist. But then most guilds have a main tank. Which leads to the question of why you would have a main of one class, but not of all the others. Having a main tank who gets priority over other players in tanking loot distribution is common, but it doesn't always work out that good. Or to quote a comment from Yunkndatwunk from yesterday: "Some of the examples cited are just poor planning: for instance when a whole guild gets together to equip an MT, instead of treating the MT just like everyone else. Then they are shocked! shocked! when the person they treat like a prima donna starts acting like one. It's one thing if it's someone you've known for years, but with most guilds composed of strangers it's just not wise to give so much up front and then hope the person pays you back. People might think that's slower or not progression minded enough, but the other side is you're not progressing when the "emo tank" leaves because you're not babying him anymore like you did last month."

So why do we have main tanks in the first place? Fact is that in a raid of 25 people not everyone is of equal importance. There are quite a number of people who could die without wiping the whole raid. But if the one person who is holding the aggro of the boss mob dies, the main tank, then it is usually a wipe for everyone. Thus if you are looking at things short term, or you naively believe that the main tank will be with your guild forever, piling up the best equipment on this one guy makes perfect sense. Epic tanking gear is the most difficult gear to get in this game, as unlike dps gear you can't get a head-start by using PvP gear. If the progress of the guild as a whole depends very much on the quality of the gear of one or two main tanks, giving them priority on loot advances the guild faster. Everyone is happy - until the day the MT leaves and the guild finds that the not-main tanks have far, far inferior gear. Suddenly the bosses you could still kill easily last week wipe your raid repeatedly this week, raid progress stalls, and other people start to leave to join other guilds which are still advancing. Whole guilds have collapses like that, or at least suffered several months worth of setback.

Adding to the problem is that nobody takes "extra" tanks on a raid. If for some reason a raid needs two warlocks to overcome specific encounters, that won't stop a third and fourth warlock to be invited. But if a raid needs two tanks, the raid leader will invite EXACTLY two tanks, and never three. The extra warlock is useful for his dps, the extra tank isn't, because his dps is so pathetic. Thus for a guild to manage some sort of rotation to equip lets say five tanks equally well is extremely difficult.

Nevertheless I think that for mid-level raiding guilds, where the risk of the best equipped people leaving for a top guild is relatively high, introducing a tank rotation would make sense. Yes, it's complicated. Yes, overall raid progress will be somewhat slower than if you put all the tanking gear on one guy. But the huge advantage would be far greater long-term stability and an "insurance" against setbacks caused by one person leaving. The setback a guild currently experiences if their best equipped "main" rogue leaves is small and easily overcome. If only guilds could organize their tanks the same way!

Introducing troll and dwarf druids

... isn't going to happen. But Michael Zenke from MMOG Nation has an interesting post up on the popularity of races and classes in WoW, and it shows that some races and some classes are overly popular or underpopulated. Apparently troll warriors are very rare, makes me feel special, because my level 70 warrior is a troll. :)

But I did notice in the past that the availability of certain classes to certain races affects the class distribution in WoW. If you look for example at warriors and druids, you'll find that there are more warriors than druids. Which looks strange, because druids are much more powerful than warriors. Given equal level of gear a druid tanks as well as a warrior, but then the druid can switch to be a healer or a spellcaster, which the warrior can't. So why are warriors more played? Because nearly every race offers the option to be a warrior, and only one race per faction offers the option to be a druid. If Blizzard really introduced troll and dwarf druids, the number of trolls, dwarves, and druids would go up. If Blizzard let more races play druids and priests, maybe we would have less of a healer shortage?

While it is unlikely that Blizzard will do any changes to the existing races and classes, there is one important event coming up where a decision has to be taken: What races will be allowed to play deathknights? Again taking an extreme example, think of the difference it would make if either only the two most unpopular races (trolls and dwarves) could make deathknights, or only the two popular elven races could make deathknights, or *every* race could make deathknights. It is easy to see how these three options would lead to very different numbers of deathknights played. (I want to play a gnome deathknight, it sounds so silly!). I shudder at the thought of 50% of all characters online being deathknights, with the inevitable "LF2M no more deathknights, please" shouts in the chat channels. What races would you let play a deathknight?

Syncaine defines impact PvP

Syncaine from Hardcore Casual has a great article up defining impact PvP: "The greater the distance between winner and loser, the more "impact" your PvP has. When your guild is cornered and facing extinction (hi BoB), that is when you truly see epic displays of resolve, when guild pride really kicks in. Those situations create the type of memories and stories PvP fans rave about, and outsiders read and get encouraged by. Just remember that for every epic victory, someone was on the other end, suffering a crushing defeat, because without that defeat, there would be no victory."

I totally agree with Syncaine over that definition. You can measure the "impact" of PvP by looking what the winner gained and the loser lost from that fight. The "everybody wins" model of World of Warcraft leads to people AFKing in AV, or using a bot to play battlegrounds. I also agree that a crushing defeat can be as memorable, if not more so, than a glorious victory. Where the problem lies is in Syncaine's side-remark in the introduction: "PvP seems to be an idea that most people "think" they love in an MMO, but when you provided them with the details, it turns out they don't want to play along." I'm a typical example of a carebear, and my reaction to EVE is a typical carebear reaction: I played EVE from the start, but two weeks after release I got shot down and "podded", that is somebody went the extra mile to shoot down my escape pod to really, really hurt me, so I not only lost my ship and cargo, but also about a week's worth of skills. And I simply quit the game. The loss *was* memorable, but in a "I never want to experience that again" way.

Maybe one day one excellent PvP game will prove me wrong. But from the anecdotal evidence I have, for example the crowdedness of PvP-free Trammel compared to the emptiness of PvP mirror image Felucca, or the failure of impact PvP games like Lineage or Shadowrun in the western hemisphere, I believe that the average MMORPG player doesn't have the stomach for impact PvP. If WoW introduced even just a 1% chance per PvP death of one of your items being permanently destroyed, battlegrounds just would empty out completely. MMORPG players grow extremely attached to their virtual belongings, and they don't react well to any possibility that they could lose them. If Age of Conan or Warhammer Online turn out to have real impact PvP, with actual losers involved, and no way to stay safe, these games will tank horribly, whatever other qualities they might have. Even in EVE, the most successful impact PvP game in the West, 90% of players remain in safe space all the time and avoid all PvP. The number of people yearning for a MMORPG in which they could really lose is tiny. It's a carebear world.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Who does that epic belong to? - More on guild hopping

It was my pen & paper roleplaying evening last night, so I didn't have much time to write. Due to current events I want to talk about guilds, loyalty, guild hopping, and related subjects this week. My crazy mini-post certainly got the discussion started. :) But as many people remarked, any solution where bop epics end up in the guild bank and can be picked up by somebody else aren't viable. And as somebody might get kicked out of a guild as easily as leaving it, the guild shouldn't profit from anyone leaving. So lets look at the problem methodically:

Before WoW, people were leaving guilds most often for reasons of not getting along with other people in the guild. Guild drama and people in a guild getting into fights is as old as guild themselves. But World of Warcraft added a new element: guild hopping for epics. This is due to the fact that if you are among the best equipped characters in your guild, your further progression slows down significantly. The guild as a whole progresses not at the speed of the first raider, but at the speed of the 25th. If you have for example full Karazhan gear, but the rest of the guild isn't as well equipped, the guild still needs to do a lot of Karazhan runs, in which you will gain nothing except badges. If you are wearing the same Karazhan gear but the rest of the guild is better equipped than you, the guild will be going to TK/SSC, and you'll have a good chance of getting better gear, plus you'll see new bosses. As a consequence people who raid the most in a guild and get ahead of everyone else get frustrated with progress, and leave the guild to join another guild that is more advanced in the raid circuit. They are guild hopping even if they personally got along very well with everyone else. But while this guild hopping speeds up epic gaining for the guy who left, it slows down the rest of his previous guild. Some guilds took forever to get from Karazhan to SSC, and had several throwbacks back to 10-man raids, because every time they had enough well equipped people, the people with the best gear left, taking that gear with them.

Of course the radical idea that they should leave the gear behind if they left is crazy. But the underlying question isn't that crazy at all: if you gain an epic in a guild raid, does that epic belong 100% to you, or should there be some notion of collective ownership? Most guild have loot rules which are designed to maximize the utility of an epic for the whole of the guild. You couldn't have gained that epic alone, without the guild raid. The guild assigned the loot to you because they thought that by giving it to you instead of somebody else it would do most good for the overall progress of the guild. And now you are free to take it with you to another guild? If you have ever been in a guild which suffered setbacks due to the people with the best gear leaving, you'll be able to understand the feeling that this can't be totally fair.

Of course any system to remedy this has to be much more carefully designed than yesterday's idea. But in the comments there were some good approaches. What if you had some sort of reputation score with your guild, gaining reputation points for every hour in a raid, every wipe, and every boss kill, and the stats of your raid epics would depend on your guild reputation level? To get maximum effect of your gear, you would need to be exalted with your guild, which involves raiding with them a lot. The day you leave the guild and join a new guild, you're back to neutral, and while you keep your gear, it loses a lot of stats due to decreased guild reputation. You can gain everything back by becoming exalted with the new guild again, but that'll take some dedication and work. So if somebody parts from some guild due to personal disagreements, he'll be able to recover. But hopping from one guild to the next every couple of weeks to maximize shiny purples wouldn't be viable any more.

There should be some in-game reward for guild loyalty, and the ability to resolve problems by other means than /gquit. A guild raid is very much a collaborative effort, and the epics you receive are a reward for that collaboration. Willfully ending that collaboration should incur some sort of penalty. In the old days of Everquest, where leveling up a character took much longer, and changing server or character name wasn't supported, people switching guilds often would find themselves blacklisted, with no guild willing to take them any more. Why would a guild invest itself in the personal progress of one of its members, if that member was leaving soon anyway? World of Warcraft has made it far too easy to screw your guild for selfish reasons, by giving you absolute ownership of the epics you only got through your guild. Some system that forces people to select their friends more carefully and encourages them to stick together would do wonders to the social cohesion of WoW.

How to prevent guild hopping

I just had a crazy idea which if implemented could change the face of WoW guilds forever, and make guild hopping a thing of the past: What if when you left a guild, all the epic gear you got in raids was automatically taken off from you, and put into the guild bank. You keep all crafted epics, PvP epics, and badge loot epics. But everything that dropped from a raid boss you only got because of the guild, so why should you be able to keep it when you leave that guild? I bet that would stop people from searching for more advanced guilds all the time, always setting back the guild they left behind. What do you think?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

AoC and the $100 graphics card

I got my Age of Conan open beta key, downloaded the 12+ GB client, and then signed an NDA, so I can't talk about the game before that is lifted, except for the publicly available information. Like for example that the open beta starts May 1, or that the client is 12.6 GB big, and that is before unpacking. My complete WoW installation including Burning Crusade and all addons etc. only is 9 GB big. The difference in size is obviously due to the higher quality of the graphics. The system requirements for AoC say that you need at minimum a "NVIDIA GeForce 6600 or better", and recommend a "NVIDIA GeForce 7900 GTX or equivalent". For World of Warcraft, a "NVIDIA GeForce FX 5700 class card or above" is recommended. But of course in all likelyhood you have a different graphics card than any of these mentioned. And if you are like me, you don't really know whether any given card is "equivalent" or "better" than those requirements. Charts on sites like Tom's Hardware help, although a card as low as the FX 5700 isn't even listed any more.

But once you compared various video cards and benchmarks and prices, you'll come out with a result like this: a $100 video card will run World of Warcraft perfectly, even at higher resolution and with lots of graphics details turned on. The same $100 video card will meet the minimum requirements for Age of Conan, but you'll have to tone down the graphics options. And that is with a $100 video card you buy today. If you bought a $100 video card in 2004 when WoW came out, that card will still run WoW at acceptable speed, but it won't run Age of Conan at all. AoC is not only three-and-a-half years younger than WoW, it also was designed with the idea of having stunning graphics. Gamers like me might enjoy it, but my video cards only last 2 years and are more expensive than $100.

It is safe to say that there are considerably less PCs out there that can run Age of Conan smoothly than there are PCs that can run WoW smoothly. Now nobody ever proposed that Age of Conan will reach 10 million subscribers and kill WoW, but nevertheless one has to ask whether relatively high system specifications will hurt the game. Besides the video card the recommended specs for AoC include a "Intel Core 2 Duo 2.4GHz or equivalent" and 2 GB of RAM. I still know a lot of people without a dual core CPU and 1 GB of RAM or less. (btw, if you have less than 2 GB of RAM, upgrading this to 2 GB is probably the cheapest and most effective way to upgrade your PC for all sorts of games). If the selling point of a game is "pretty graphics", but said graphics are either not quite as pretty or stuttering because of the customer's graphics cards, some people will be disappointed.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Waiting for AoC beta key

In a system probably designed to avoid overloading servers, the Fileplanet beta keys for Age of Conan are handed out in waves, several batches per day, on a first come first serve basis. Whenever I log onto the site, no keys are available, but this is early days. I sure hope I'll manage to get a key. I preordered Age of Conan, but I'd love to play it already on May 1st, which is the start of a 4-day weekend over here.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Would mono-games be better than multi-games?

Modern MMORPGs are huge beasts that allow for a large variety of gameplay modes. You can PvE solo, in small groups, or in raid groups. Or you can PvP solo, in pseudo-solo automated groups, in small arena teams, or in huge guild versus guild battles. The advantage of offering so many different ways to play are obvious, players can choose what to do depending on their mood and how much time they have available. But on the other hand the various game modes cause problems for each other. Especially class balance seems to be difficult: some classes are good soloing but not so desirable in a group, others are the other way round. Class abilities get nerfed to achieve balance in PvP, although that ability might have been perfectly balanced for PvE, and is now underpowered. Abilities and item stats like aggro management end up being useless in solo and PvP play. Gear progression from PvE doesn't mix very well with PvP, which is supposed to be more skill-based. Meanwhile making all these huge games becomes increasingly expensive. So why not make games that only have one of these parts?

When Age of Conan and Warhammer Online were announced, it appeared as if these games were mainly about PvP. But either that was just a marketing trick to differentiate these games from WoW, whose PvP isn't its strongest point, or the developers changed their minds: From all what I hear both AoC and WAR will have extensive PvE parts. And I wonder why that has to be that way. Why not make a pure PvP game, without levels and gear progression, where the classes are perfectly balanced for PvP without having to take PvE into account? Why not make pure PvE games, like Everquest was? Why not make a game that is all about raids, where there are no levels, and nobody is forced to solo 70 levels just so that he can join his friends in a raid? And why not make a game where you only solo until the level cap, without tacking a raid game onto the end?

I'm not saying that any of these mono-games, focused on only one of the aspects of MMORPGs, would sell as well as World of Warcraft. But it would certainly be easier to make a good mono-game than making a game with many parts, all of which have to be good. Mono-games would be cheaper to make, and even with a smaller subscription base could be perfectly profitable and viable.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

It's just a game

Although I don't play a paladin, I do read Blessing of Kings, a blog specifically for World of Warcraft paladins. Not only is it well written, but it also has lots of information about raiding, specifically about paladins in raids. Rohan, the author, clearly knows the subject matter well, and is a dedicated player. So it came as a bit of a shock to me that when he applied for a top raiding guild, he got kicked out after a week due to bad performance. They took him on 4 raids to dungeons he hadn't seen yet, and when his healing wasn't quite as good as that of the other paladins, they kicked him out. And to me that story shows up all what is bad with WoW's raid game design.

To me it is obvious that Rohan is a good deal above average as a player. But the guild wasn't looking for above average, they were looking for the very best. And they aren't doing that because they are elitist jerks, but because the game is designed in a way that a group of 25 above average players still wouldn't get to see Sunwell Plateau. Instead it is designed in a way that only the top 1% or less will ever see the top raid content. But at the same time it is designed in a way that everyone can level up to 70, given enough time. And getting from level 69 to 70 does not require any more skill than getting from level 1 to level 2. The game starts with an extremely low skill requirement, then stays flat for a long time, and then at level 70 it sudden erects a huge barrier to entry to even succeeding in your very first raid, and an extremely steep skill requirement curve for any further progress. And I don't think that is good game design.

I think that WoW should do a better job of training people how to play their class better already during leveling. Higher level solo content should require more strategy than low level solo content. And even more importantly, the higher you get, the more advantageous should it be to group. Not "forced grouping", but at the very least as system where beyond the newbie levels you gain more experience in a group than alone. Group play is harder than solo play, so it should be encouraged and rewarded more.

But while I think that the required skill curve should be less flat during leveling, I also think that it should be less steep at the end. There shouldn't be any content that an above average player can't get to. After all, WoW is just a game! The very idea that anything in an online game would require the training and dedication of a top athlete is silly. The amount of hours required to reach stuff like the Sunwell Plateau at the moment is positively unhealthy. It is game elements like that which feed the impression that WoW is "addictive", and risk some form of backlash from politicians. There simply shouldn't be content which you can only reach by being an elitist jerk. It's just a game.

Difficulty and rewards of Wrath of the Lich King

There have been some comments in the past days on the item level of the rewards in the next WoW expansion Wrath of the Lich King. Apparently it is planned to make the difference between TBC items and WotLK items *smaller* than the difference between pre-TBC and TBC items was. Less mudflation. What will the consequences be?

TBC was designed in a way that somebody wearing epics from Molten Core or BWL would still replace most of them relatively early with green or blue drops from the Outlands. If the green and blue drops from Northrend aren't quite so much better than level 70 drops from Outlands, the epics we gain now will last somewhat longer. Some people even speculated that WotLK would be so difficult that you couldn't do it without epics, thus forcing players to keep playing now and better equip their characters to succeed in the next expansion. Of course that is nonsense. Solving level 71 quests in WotLK must be possible in level 70 TBC green and blue gear, because of players who start WoW after WotLK comes out. You can't force future players to grind epics at level 70 to get to level 71, because nobody will be running level 70 raids any more at that time. Just think of all the deathknights, who will start around level 60 and in their rush to level up won't have great gear when they finish Outlands.

But of course players in full level 70 epic gear will be stronger than players in green and blue gear, and advance faster. And if the gear is replaced slower, they will advance faster for a longer time. Now I might be peculiar because I think leveling is fun, but to me that concept sounds as if having epics now means shooting yourself in the foot in WotLK. With epics you'll have less fun leveling because you'll just rush through it. And you'll have less fun because you'll less often have the fun experience of a gear upgrade. Where is the fun of entering the first Northrend dungeon and then disenchanting every single item you find there, because your old epics are just plain better? Me, I'm now even less motivated than before to improve the gear of my level 70 characters, as to me a grindy gear upgrade now is equivalent to skipping exciting new content later.

Blizzard improves the Arena in season 4

In what WoWInsider calls the end of welfare epics, Drysc from Blizzard revealed changes to the arena system designed to prevent cheating and reward the *real* good players. I never played in the arena, so I'm not 100% sure how all this works, but previously there was apparently a lot of cheating going on where bad PvP players bought a team with a high rating for gold, and then profited from the high team rating. The new season 4 rewards will only be buyable by people with a high *personal* rating, and if the average personal rating of a team is much lower than its team rating, the lower rating will be used. I can't say how effective that is going to be, but the direction is certainly a good one: you'll have to be good at PvP yourself to get the S4 rewards, just being a member of a good team isn't enough any more.

Why isn't a WoW more like golf?

A reader wrote me with an interesting comment on how to solve the problem of casual versus hardcore gamers. Right now the casual gamers complain if Blizzard spends too much developer time in making a top end raid dungeon like Sunwell Plateau, because they will never see it. And the reason why they will never see it is that success in raids is a pretty binary affair: either you kill the boss who drops the loot, or you don't. Now compare that to a game of golf: Both the best and the worst player can play on the same course. They don't compete directly against each other, they compete against the environment, but there isn't a minimum skill level to advance. The good golfer might make a birdie, one stroke under par, and the really, really bad golfer might need 10 strokes over par. But eventually his ball will be in the hole and he'll advance to the next hole. Even if the course is Augusta, or some other very hard place.

I wonder if that system could somehow be applied to MMORPG raiding. For example the monsters could become a bit easier every time the raid wipes, until at some point it is of the good difficulty level for the raid group attempting it. Of course the reward system would have to be changed completely, into some point system like PvP. The less wipes you need to kill a boss, the more points you get, and then there is a vendor somewhere who sells you epics for those points.

In a lesser way something similar already exists in Zul'Aman, with the timers. If you kill the bosses faster than the timer, you get more rewards. At least that increases the number of possible scores from 2 to 3: fail totally, kill boss slowly, kill boss in time. But that still isn't perfect, because there are still quite a lot of raid groups who never see the end of ZA. On a golf course everyone eventually reaches the 18th hole. Why shouldn't that be possible in a MMORPG.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

How many level 70 characters do you have in World of Warcraft?

I have three level 70 characters in World of Warcraft. The latest, my mage, took only 9 days of /played time to get from level 1 to level 70. I wasn't trying to break any records, it was just a combination of Blizzard having sped up leveling to 60, and the mage being an alt, thus not being played all the time, and thus profiting from rest xp all the way. And of course twinking and knowing the game well also helped. I could imagine somebody on his first character taking more time, lets say 400 hours to reach the level cap. And I wonder if that isn't too short.

Now I play more than the average, but from all the data I have from the Daedalus project or PlayOn, it seems that the average WoW player spends 20 hours per week playing the game. So if you need 400 hours or less to reach the level cap, you need 20 weeks or less to get there. It is hard to say whether 20 weeks is too short or too long if you just look at the number in isolation. You need another number to compare it with. How about this one: The average number of weeks between expansions for World of Warcraft is 100. For all we know the second expansion Wrath of the Lich King will come out pretty close to the 4th anniversary of WoW, thus 2 years per expansion. If you play only one character, you'll spend less than 20% of your time leveling, and 80% in the so-called endgame. It you look just at people who were already level 60 when the Burning Crusade came out, the numbers look even worse. Getting from level 60 to 70 took these veterans less than 100 hours (one crazy guy did it in 28 hours non-stop). If considering only one character, we spent less than 10% of our time leveling from 60 to 70, and over 90% in the endgame.

If one likes the leveling game, and wants to spend more than 10% of one's time doing that, the only choice is making alts. This is why I have 3 level 70 characters, and I guess I'm not alone in having more than one. But even that doesn't solve all my problems. I blame WoW being so endgame-heavy for many of my current problems, be it burn-out, or the inability to still find groups for normal dungeons. By now everyone already did the normal dungeons to the point of exhaustion. And daily quests, heroics, raids, and PvP are beginning to get repetitive for most players, although Wrath of the Lich King is still months away. I think that the time to level up should take a bigger percentage of the time between expansions. That could be achieved by Blizzard making good of their promise to release one expansion per year, or by making leveling up less fast.

How many level 70 characters do you have in World of Warcraft? Do you think that leveling up takes too little time compared to the time spent in the endgame, waiting for the next expansion?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Feeling comfortable

I was reading a story about the hostile takeover bid from EA for Take 2. In a gross oversimplification EA was depicted as the company making nothing but sequels with only minimal improvements over last year's version of the same game, while Take 2 was described as the small innovative company launching lots of original games. Now apart from the obvious holes in that version (EA's next big game is the original Spore, while Take 2's next big game is a sequel, GTA4), I can't help but notice the fact that EA's less original sequels are selling a whole lot better than the original games of Take 2. It is as if the customers don't want original games. And I think that has a lot to do with what people are comfortable with.

Video games, and especially MMORPGs, have become rather complicated. Apart from the "casual" games like Peggle, which anyone can understand in under a minute, most video games now need quite some time to "get into". Just look at whatever MMORPG you are playing right now and count how many different on-screen hotkeys, keyboard shortcuts, and other control elements you are using. And for games like WoW that is just the bare minimum, most players enlarge the number of controls with addons and macros. This creates a barrier to entry: Very few people play several MMORPGs in parallel. Not only because each MMORPG takes too much time, but also because in game A you press "I" to open your inventory, and in game B you press "B" to open your bags, and if you switch back and forth a lot you'll quickly get confused and mix up the controls. Other types of games try to counter that problem by working with de facto industry standards, most first person shooters use very similar controls. And since Diablo it is hard to find a game in which the health potions aren't red and the mana potions aren't blue, with health / mana bars in corresponding colors.

But because it remains difficult to learn a new game from scratch, some people prefer their new games to be nearly identical to their old games. And that is why the umpteenth version of Madden is still selling so very well, and why there are sequels everywhere. It is also why World of Warcraft is hugely successful, while not being terribly innovative. That of course poses a problem for games like Age of Conan, who try to introduce a completely new system of controls and combat. MMORPG combat hasn't changed much since Everquest, and I'd really love a new system to succeed, but there will always be a lot of people unwilling or unable to learn a new system of controls.

WoW Journal - 21-April-2008

I haven't played all that much World of Warcraft this weekend, I'm feeling a bit burned out for the moment. Having problems finding groups for 5-man dungeons, the only thing I did with my level 70 characters was doing a couple of daily quests for the Shattered Sun Offensive with my mage. I reached honored with them, and bought the two enchanting recipes you get from them at that level, one of which is Void Shatter, which transforms one cheap void crystal into two expensive large prismatic shards. But although I could learn that recipe at my 360 skill, when I tried to use it I couldn't. The recipe requires a runed eternium rod, which can only be made at 375 skill. Why on earth does the game have lower skill recipes requiring something you can only achieve with a higher skill?

Fortunately the other recipe was more useful, as it was orange at my skill level, and required "only" about 40 gold worth of materials. So I used that 15 times at a cost of 600 gold in materials (most of which I had in stock) to get to 375 skill in enchanting. And that on the same day where by making my second shadowweave item I also reached 375 tailoring with my mage. Great! Of course then I spend another fortune to make that runed eternium rod, which uses 4 primal mights among other expensive ingredients. All that financial effort certainly wasn't worth it for the Void Shatter, but that wasn't why I did it. Rather I thought that having your tradeskills maxed will be important for the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, as you probably can't get the new recipes without having reached the old skill cap.

I spent more time on my other server playing Alliance, but even there my new gnome rogue only made it to level 16 yet. But an extremely well equipped level 16, having run the Deadmines several times with the help of my wife's level 68 rogue. In return I used my level 60 priest, who I moved to that server, to run her level 18 shaman through the Deadmines too. Can you believe that after over 3 years of WoW that was only the second time she saw a dungeon? But as there are quite some nice pieces of leather armor and weapons for rogue and shamans in that dungeon, it was well worth it, and fun. As the wife and me have radically different play styles, we don't play together all that often.

So I'm still doing quests until level 20 in the Draenei starting area. Only that every two levels I have to hearthstone to Shattrath, and teleport to another Alliance city to train my rogue. Exodar, the Draenei city, doesn't have a rogue trainer. And the rogue class quests (I just learned lockpicking) are also in the old cities. I'm keeping my World of Warcraft playing at low activity for the moment, I just don't feel like playing more. But I don't want to play other "old" MMORPGs either. I signed up for the Fileplanet Age of Conan open beta, and pre-ordered that game, just to give it a chance. I don't really have high hopes that this is the game for me, but at least it is new, and I can't judge a game without having played it. I'm a bit nervous about how their release will be, because Age of Conan is made by Funcom, whose previous MMORPG Anarchy Online still holds the record for the worst MMORPG release ever, and I was right in the middle of that one. Here's hoping they learned from their mistakes.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Measuring server activity in WoW

In the past weeks I've been frequently complaining that I can't find groups to do 5-man dungeons, not even pickup groups, and that when I'm searching for other players with the Looking For More tool of the LFG window I never find more than one person for any given dungeon. In response I usually get a range of comments from "same here" to "LFG is working great". It is obvious that the ease of finding a group differs from server to server, and even from Alliance to Horde. So how can one measure server activity to quickly estimate how easy it will be to find a group?

In the past I've been using addons like CensusPlus, who with a series of /who commands just count anyone online. Unfortunately those only work well if you use them at prime time. But by chance I found an interesting way to measure general server activity overall, and you can use that any time of the day: Auctioneer. I haven't been unsing that addon very long, and I just use basic functions, I'm not playing the market. But several times per week I run a scan of the auction house, because without the scan you don't have enough price data. Having done that often enough, I know that on my main server, where I have my three level 70 characters, on the Horde side there are always between 7,000 and 8,000 auctions up in the AH. But as I mentioned I recently started a gnome rogue on a different server. And when I was running an Auctioneer scan there, I found over 18,000 auctions. The number of auctions must be proportional to the number of active players, it would be hard to explain why on one server there would be significantly more auctions per player than on another.

So if you use Auctioneer, I'd be interested to hear what number of auctions come us as total auctions scanned when you use it. Are there servers with even less activity than my Horde server? Or even more activity than my Alliance server?

Would you play WoW on a classic server?

Supposedly still this year the second expansion for World of Warcraft comes out, Wrath of the Lich King. While that expansion will be very popular, and bring new content, other parts of the existing content will become obsolete. Just like nobody is doing Scholomance or Stratholme or UBRS now, nobody will visit the level 70 Outlands dungeons after WotLK is there. Only if people are at the level cap are they visiting dungeons and raid dungeons of that level cap. Once the level cap is lifted, it becomes easier and more profitable to solo in the new lands than to group in the old dungeons. But you can't turn back time. Or can you? In this case it might just be possible: What if Blizzard introduced "classic servers", which had all the improvements of TBC (including the new races) and WotLK (including Deathknights), but not the new continents, and where the level was capped at 60. After a certain time, lets say a year or two, the level cap could go up to 70 and Outlands would open up.

With everyone limited to the old content, it would be a lot easier to find groups for there. The old level 60 dungeons would be viable again, because there wouldn't be anything better. Raid guilds could do Molten Core and Blackwing Lair again. New players, who have never seen the old level 60 content could finally see it. And nostalgic veterans could go back to the good old days, if they think of them as that. But there wouldn't be a complete rollback to before patch 2.0 or 1.13, because it would be too complicated to run with servers with different patch versions. The classic servers would have all the improvements from recent patches, like the new cooking recipes of 2.4, or the improved Duskwallow Marsh from patch 2.3. The only difference to a normal server would be the different level cap and not having access to Outlands / Northrend.

So, if you are bored now, or imagine getting bored a few months after WotLK comes out, would you play on a classic server with a level 60 cap?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Ikariam mini-review

For the last couple of weeks I have been playing a free browser game called Ikariam. It is similar to other free browser games, like Travian. If you don't know the type, think Civilization in a slowed-down massively multiplayer version. I started Ikariam in the beta, where it was still absolutely free, but while you can still play it for free now, you can now also speed up your progress by paying money, something I didn't want to do.

In Ikariam you start with a town on a randomly chosen small island. The randomly chosen part is important, because it means you can't really play with your friends. I joined Ikariam because DM Osbon had told me about it, but our two towns turned out to be far away from each other, so although we were on the same server we just exchanged goods once. And military cooperation would have been downright impossible.

Every island has building materials and one of four possible other resources: marble, wine, crystal, and sulfur. Marble is needed for most buildings beyond the basic levels. Wine is needed to keep your population happy. Crystal is used for research and to improve your units. And sulfur is needed to build most units. As initially you only have access to one of those goods, but need all four, there is a lot of trading going on. Later you can build colonies on islands with other resources, and get all the goods you need.

Where Ikariam is more advanced than lets say Travian is that it has not only land units, but also ships. There are transport ships for trading and transporting goods. And there are ships for combat. The biggest army can't attack you if it comes from a different island and doesn't have enough ships to beat your naval defense. There is also research, which you advance by building academies, and you can research military, naval, economic, or scientific research. That gives you access to bonuses and new units.

But after a couple of weeks, Ikariam got boring. I had access to all goods through colonies, had most technologies, had 1 million gold, and just out of boredom built a huge army and attacked some other cities. It turned out that Ikariam isn't well balanced here. All these browser games have some way for smaller cities to store goods in warehouses so they can't be robbed, so that players that have been playing longer can't simply rob newer players blind. But in Ikariam even large cities can still hide all of their goods away. Perversely the best defense in Ikariam is to build no army at all, because then you never lose any soldiers. And with all your goods safely hidden, even the biggest army can't do you any harm. I did several raids on other cities and never pillaged more goods than the cost of the raid was. And given that an army is immensely expensive, having an army with nothing to do isn't much fun.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

World of Warcraft 2

It is no secret that I am not a big fan of the World of Warcraft expansions, neither the Burning Crusade nor the Wrath of the Lich King. I find they are mostly "more of the same", lack innovation, and add too little content with far too much time in between. I do not think that adding 10 more levels in every expansion is a viable strategy to keep World of Warcraft interesting for a long time. But some comments on recent posts made me realize: What if Blizzard doesn't *want* to keep World of Warcraft interesting for a long time? What if they just put a small team on developing WoW expansion to do the minimum to keep it alive, and put a much bigger team on developing World of Warcraft 2. Or World of Starcraft. Or World of Diablo. Whatever.

Sooner or later all MMORPGs decline. Yes, Ultima Online and Everquest are still around, but their subscription numbers have fallen far from the peak. EA certainly regrets earlier decisions to have cancelled UO2 twice, because now the Ultima brand is dying. SOE did better with EQ2, which while having "lost" against WoW which was released in the same month, still is profitable with 200k subscribers.

With time players grow bored of any game. The graphics engine becomes more and more outdated every year. And by adding more content you inevitably dilute the existing content, creating large empty landscapes. The diehard fans will keep playing anyway, but attracting new customers for a game that is several years old is getting increasingly hard. Sooner or later a new game comes along with new content, fancier graphics, new ideas, and it steals your customers away as well as attracting new players. If you were leading a game company, wouldn't you want that new game to be yours? If Blizzard brings out WotLK end of 2008, and announces WoW2 in 2009 for release in 2010, they could keep their position of top dog for many years to come. WoW would be kept alive, and would probably still have millions of players, albeit less than now. But WoW2 could easily become even bigger than WoW1, and together the two games could keep dominating the market.

Blizzard certainly believes that they have the secret sauce recipe of how to make a successful game. And I don't know of any company that doesn't want to grow. What looks like a more likely successful growth strategy to you: Creating regular expansions for World of Warcraft, or making a successor game, be it WoW2 or WoS or WoD?

Leveling a rogue

My rogue is level 13 now, and I started some research into how to best level him. I was faintly aware of the general tenor of advice on rogue leveling you always hear: get a slow sword for your main hand, and a fast dagger for you off hand. But I was lacking deeper understanding of why that would be better than using a dagger in the main hand, and where to get good swords apart from the auction house. I found the answers at Zodar's Rogue Leveling Tips and in various WoW forums: The problem with daggers is that their awesome damage is positional, you need to stealth, backstab, gouge, run through the mob, turn around, backstab again, etc.. That is already a lot of work with one mob, but gets downright impossible if fighting several mobs.

Furthermore if you twink (I'm still using the old definition of twinking as equipping a low level character with stuff he couldn't get on his own, not the WoW definition of doing so just for level 19 / level 29 battleground PvP), your health points, armor, dodge, etc. are going do be much better than that of an untwinked rogue. So you can very well afford to stand face to face with a mob and exchange blows, even if you aren't really a tank. Taking a slow sword means that even if the regular dps is the same as the one of a dagger, your Sinister Strike which is based on the maximum damage your weapon can deal will be far superior. The only downside is that spamming Sinister Strike is more boring than the positional dagger attacks. But if you really want those, you can use weapon swapping macros and have the best of both worlds.

For talents it seems the best way to go is taking Improved Sinister Strike first, from the combat talent branch. Then put 5 points in Malice from the assasination branch. And then back to combat for most of your leveling career.

I'm having fun twinking my rogue. My wife has a level 68 rogue on the same server and side, so I already got a "boost" run through the Deadmines, and will be able to visit a couple more dungeons, even if regular groups are hard to come by. What makes it fun is that the rogue actually can use various stats: agility, attack power, crit chance, stamina, they are all useful. The character I leveled up before the rogue was a mage, and for that class there is only one good stat for leveling: +spell damage; so I ended up leveling all the way up to 70 in green "of the frozen wrath" gear and awesome frost damage. Extremely cheap for twinking, but so trivial it isn't even fun, because the only way to get that gear is to buy it. For my rogue I can use a combination of dungeon boosts, and crafting leather armor with my level 60 priest who I moved to the same server. The gnome rogue himself has mining and engineering, which not only is a lot of fun, but the various bombs, exploding sheeps, and target dummies are actually a big help in low level combat.

There is a certain art to twinking. You still get to see all the content, quests, and zones, but you are trying to cruise through it as smoothly as possible. While killing lets say Hogger with a level 70 character isn't fun, soloing him with a level 11 twink sure is. You are feeling powerful, because the twinking elevates your actual power level to far higher than your nominal character level. Thus you can win combat against elite mobs of your level, or "red" mobs a couple of levels higher than you. The goal isn't really to level as fast as possible, you sometimes waste more time getting some set of equipment than that gear saves you in leveling up time. The fun lies in being more powerful than you should be.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Blizzard introduces micro-transaction servers

After their great success in selling people a completely equipped level 70 character on an arena server for $20, Blizzard nevertheless received countless complaints that the freshly bought characters were only useable for arena PvP. Battlegrounds and all forms of PvE are disabled on the arena servers. Sensing a business opportunity, Blizzard reacted and will introduce micro-transaction servers: These work exactly like a normal server, only that you can buy various achievements for dollars. There are scrolls that let you earn a level, getting more expensive the higher you already are. Going from level 1 to 60 will cost you about $20, from there to level 70 is another $20. You can buy gold at a very advantageous rate of $20 for 1,000 gold, making an epic flying mount cost $100. And you can buy various PvE and PvP epic, although they are pricey, and a complete set of the best available epic gear will set you back $200. NOT! Blizzard isn't that stupid, they know very well that this business model would destroy World of Warcraft.

I'm only raising the spectre of micro-transactions to show up how the rewards of World of Warcraft lose value if they aren't actually achieved the regular way. You were probably disgusted by the thought that somebody could pay dollars to reach a certain level or get a set of epic gear without playing the game. But the sad truth is that some people do exactly that. There are powerleveling services, honor point grinding services, arena point services, and anything else you can think of. If you wanted, you could create a fresh account, make a level 1 character on it, then give the userID and password plus a bundle of dollars to a powerleveling company, and receive the account back some weeks later with your character now level 70, having an epic flying mount, two tradeskills at 375, and a complete set of PvP epics. Only it costs more than I wrote in the first paragraph, and there is a risk you'd get banned or "hacked" a while later. Alternatively you could spend money on a bot program, and achieve all this by botting yourself, although again you'll most likely get banned.

But the existence of powerleveling services, bot programs, and battleground afkers shows that for some people reaching the reward has become more important than actually playing the game. And that leads to the question whether WoW is too reward driven. As some commenters yesterday remarked, you have to grind boring stuff to get to the fun stuff. Want to do arena combat and actually win occasionally? Well, you better grind battlegrounds for resilience gear first. Want to travel faster? Grind gold for a mount. Want to see new dungeons? Grind the old dungeons for gear first.

Imagine that once you leveled up to level 70, you could get a set of blue gear with useful stats for your class relatively easily by various means, and that this was the best gear available in the game. No raid epics, no PvP epics, nothing. It would mean that if you entered an arena, you'd be sure that your opponent had exactly the same gear as you do, and suddenly the whole system becomes skill-based instead of gear-based. It would mean that all raid dungeons from Karazhan to Sunwell Plateau would necessarily be much closer to each other in difficulty level, and your guild could go raiding whereever they wanted, just based on your skills in beating the various boss encounters, not on your gear. The only rewards would be things like titles and trophies.

The reason why neither micro-transactions nor a skill-based, gear-free World of Warcraft will ever happen is that Blizzard is earning more by having this reward driven system, where every reward takes even longer to achieve than the previous one. You ARE paying Blizzard X dollars for your epic mount, only you do it in the form of monthly fees and the weeks it takes you to gather all that gold. By making the final rewards insanely hard to achieve, Blizzard guarantees that 99%+ of the population never gets there, and keeps spinning the treadmill, always creating revenue for Blizzard. The system isn't designed for maximum fun, but for maximum profit. Players "outsourcing" the grind is a sad consequence of that sort of game design. Maybe selling us those epics outright would be the better solution after all.

Honor botting

Wow, I didn't even know that existed! Not Addicted has a piece about using bots to farm WoW battleground honor. The author argues that he can't compete in the arena without having lots of PvP gear, and all his PvE gear isn't helping, because it lacks important PvP stats like resilience. So he needs to grind honor in battlegrounds to get PvP epics, and as he finds that boring, he uses Glider to do so. Now I know there were people being essentially AFK in AV, and I knew bots existed to farm gold and xp, but this is honor botting. Not that the bot does some actual PvP, but he moves around and thus avoids getting AFK flagged. Funny quote:
"The best part about this is that now that I know how it reacts, it’s fun to watch the screen and see other people bumping into things, strafing around, and walking backwards five feet. Half the people in the battleground are gliding as well, and the other half are the retards I really don't have any interest playing with anyway; the guys who shout orders in capslock like they’re Genghis Fucking Kahn, or read some quote on a CoD4 loading screen and suddenly think they're Sun Tzu."
No wonder the guys trying to get the others to use some strategy fail, if half of their army consists of bots. This just shows how Blizzard's AFK flag solution totally failed to solve the problem. Can it really be so difficult for Blizzard to tell a bot from a real player, and set up a system where somebody who doesn't participate in the action gets no honor? As enemies in PvP aren't as static as enemies in PvE, I don't see how somebody could bot and actually do enough damage or healing to not stand out on the final score table.

But most of all it reveals that curious attitude of seeing a MMORPG as a serious of obnoxious obstacles before at some mythical point you reach the "fun" game. For me the advancement has always been the fun part, and being stuck at a high level cap with ultra-slow or no progression has always frustrated me. So I don't see the point of bots at all. It reminds me of a quote from Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams: "Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself, video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself". Obviously if you use a video recorder like that, and never watch what it recorded, you didn't need one in the first place. And if you use a bot to play a game for you, maybe you didn't need the game in the first place. If by some means you could get to the absolute highest point of a MMORPG, the point where you have all the very best gear, and all the reputation, recipes, honor, gold you could possibly need, what would be the point of continueing to play?

Trying MMORPGs

DM Osbon from Sweetflag has started an interesting experiment: he wants to see how good free trials of MMORPGs are to draw players into their virtual world. He is starting with EVE and blogging his day-by-day experience in the free trial.

Understandably he is leaving out the games he already has played a lot, he simply couldn't be objective in a free trial of them. But unfortunately that means he won't be covering WoW and LotRO, which happen to be very good and accessible in the low levels, and thus very likely to persuade people who do the free trial to eventually subscribe.

Although one could argue that an open beta has many of the features of a free trial, I'm always surprised that MMORPGs don't offer free trials right from the start, or at least starting one month after the release. If a game is really good, nothing convinces a potential buyer more than playing it for a week or two. Cynics might say that it is exactly because of this that some games don't offer free trials.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Nihilum expands

Nihilum is considered to be the world's top PvE guild in World of Warcraft. So I was somewhat surprised to get an invitation to join their team, I'm not especially known as being a top raider. But of course they didn't want me for my leet raiding skillz. They are planning to expand their website and were looking for writers.

Nihilum already has a website with far more features than the average guild website, and I'm guessing they get a lot of traffic. Especially their Guides section is very good, with in-depth theorycrafting. When Nihilum writes about the best raiding talent build for this or that class, you can be sure that they know what they are talking about. Well worth visiting.

Nevertheless I don't think that the site is going to be the next WoWInsider. People visit the Nihilum site for what they are, not for what they write. My initial contact with one of the writers from Nihilum was because I had made a bad joke about his punctuation after quoting him. Which wasn't nice of me, my apologies. Nevertheless if you go through the whole Nihilum site, especially the columns section, you will find lots of examples of bad writing, bad spelling, bad grammar, and bad language, none of which would ever have made it past the editor of WoWInsider (I'm pretty sure they have one). When I was still writing for, before Grimwell closed down the site and turned it into a personal blog, we couldn't simply post what we wanted. There was a system of peer reviews and an editor looking at spelling and grammar. I'm not saying that I don't make spelling and grammar mistakes on this blog, but working with an editor certainly improved my writing skills. I am so not going to write a column next to people who don't know what a capital letter is and whose every second word is "fuck". So I ended up declining the invitation.

Nevertheless I wish them the best of luck with their endeavor to expand their site. And thank them for their invitation, because now if somebody asks me what guilds I've been in I can always say "well, Nihilum wanted me, but I turned them down". :)

Pirates sinking fast

Pirates of the Burning Seas announced they will close 7 of their 11 servers. In spite of the waffle about how their servers can handle more people now, I don't think anyone is fooled: PotBS is losing customers fast. According to they started with about 65,000 subscribers, which already isn't a whole lot, not even by pre-WoW standards (where we had an informal 100k-is-success rule). Now they probably lost more than half of that initial number, and you have to wonder how long that will be economically viable.

I really tried to like that game. But in the end it was too repetitive, and had too little content. Every nation having nearly the same quests, just copied and pasted, was a killer. I liked the economic game, but the PvP got into my way when I tried to enjoy the life of a trader. And the whole design of the freetrader class was horrible, having a class which sucked at both PvE and PvP just to be good at trading isn't attractive enough. Now you could say its just me, but all the other blogs who took up PotBS with enthusiasm when it came out either went silent or reported that they stopped playing soon after. I predicted PotBS having a lack of longevity, but even I wouldn't have thought it would sink so fast.

Looking forward to Age of Conan?

I will play some Age of Conan. Preferably in the free form of an open beta, but if that shouldn't be available, I'll buy the box and play for the free month. But if a reader hadn't asked me to, I wouldn't even have written about the game before playing it. Age of Conan isn't really the game I've been waiting for. I have a couple of reservations against that game, where I really have doubts whether this is the game for me:

1) Twitchy combat. I'm 43 years old now, and in spite of life-long training I simply can't press buttons as fast as somebody half my age. And apart from my brain being laggy, I also foresee some people having problems with internet lag. If a split second in reaction time makes a difference in combat and for some reason your ping goes up beyond 100 ms, you're obviously in trouble. I'll have to play it to see how twitchy the AoC combat actually is, but lets say that all their announcement of Real Combat aren't exactly causing me to want this game.

2) PvP centric. Again, I only know what the press releases etc. say, I'll need to play it to see it. But there is no doubt that AoC will be PvP centric, and I'm a carebear and don't like PvP all that much. Apparently you can switch other players off until level 20, but if I get repeatedly ganked at level 21+, I'm out.

3) Conan Kiddies. Keen said it best: "Age of Conan is attracting a lot of the diehard, hardcore guild elitist, computer muscle, highly competitive trash talking thug types." Not the kind of people I'd voluntarily hang out with.

The one thing that speaks for Age of Conan is its timing, presuming it is too late to change their May 20 release date now. By then everyone will be fed up by WoW patch 2.4, and Wrath of the Lich King will still be far away, so it is a perfect opportunity for a new game. I just have to hope that AoC is actually finished and polished enough for release then. As I said, I will play it and give it a fair try, but my expectations are low. So don't be surprised if I end up not liking it. I might simply not be the target audience for that game.

Rohan on Other People

Must read post on Blessing of Kings, very insightful, and to the point:
The best thing about MMOs is that you can play with other people.

The worst thing about MMOs is that you have to play with other people.
He even manages to explain the shortage of tanks and healers: "DPS "can" play with other people. Tanks and healers "have to" play with other people." Which pretty much gives the answer to how to solve the shortage: Just make it so that tanks and healers don't *have to* play with other people when they don't want to.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Where is WoW's Ruins of Kunark?

Long before Blizzard announced Wrath of the Lich King, I wrote a parody about their next expansion, which I called the Freezing Jihad. As the name should have suggested (not everyone got it), I just took the features of the Burning Crusade and extrapolated them, adding 10 new levels, two new races, new and even more expensive mounts and so on. When the WotLK announcement came, the joke backfired, with people praising my powers of prediction. Now Wrath of the Lich King apparently went into alpha, and it's feature list still looks as if somebody took the Freezing Jihad and removed half of the features I announced there. WotLK will have a new icy continent and ten new levels and one new class, but it won't have new races, new mounts, or new tradeskills. Now I am sure it will sell millions of copies and lead to a huge number of resubscriptions. And it will, as always, be extremely well executed and polished. But I think the list of features is extremely thin, and if Blizzard needs another 20+ months after WotLK for the next expansion, they'll see a lot of players leaving World of Warcraft. And what about the third expansion? Another 10 levels, another hero class, another new continent for levels 70 to 80 only? I simply don't think you can expand a game in this way forever.

One of the most successful expansions in MMORPG history happened pretty much exactly 8 years ago, in April 2000: Everquest launched the Ruins of Kunark. Yes, that expansion increased the level cap by 10, but it also introduced new content all the way from level 1 to the new level cap, not just from the old cap to the new cap. And that was extremely well received, because not everyone was at the level cap, and expansion also addressed the needs of newer players and alts.

As I explained in a post about the dimensions of a MMORPG, the length of a game is not the only important dimension. A MMORPG also needs a lot of depth of gameplay, and breadth of replayability. Yes, my pink orcs and leper gnomes of the Freezing Jihad were silly, but still better than the real version; not having any new races and new low level content will really hurt Wrath of the Lich King in the long run. True World of Warcraft started out with lots of breadth and many different starting zones. But the older the game gets, the more people there are who have already seen everything. Finding a new starting area and new class to play becomes very difficult for many of us. And for new players having new low-level content is also an advantage, because it increases their chance of actually meeting other players.

So where is WoW's Ruins of Kunark? Will we just get 10 new levels every two years, and that is it? As successful as WoW is, and as hard it will be to create a competitor, sooner or later World of Warcraft will decline just by the weight of its age and lack exciting new stuff to do for veteran players. New games will take a couple of hundred thousand players here, and couple of hundred thousand players there, until one day WoW is much smaller than today. And the only way to combat this decline is to produce better expansions, and faster.

Will WAR have good PvE?

Syncaine of Hardcore Casual has a good post with excellent discussion on the subject of whether you can have a game with good PvE AND good PvP. Syncaine has a long list of games which either had good PvE and bad PvP, or the other way round. The only exception being games that are bad at both. :) But can we have a game in which both PvE and PvP are good? For the sake of the PvP-fans I would sure hope so, because games with bad PvE will be very limited in how many subscribers they can attract. If your first month in Warhammer Online, where you level up in PvE, is not fun, there won't be many people left in the second month to actually try the presumably great PvP part. The only alternative to having good PvE would be to give people the possibility to skip PvE altogether, like Guild Wars does, or the new WoW e-sports arena servers. Forcing people through bad PvE to reach the good PvP endgame isn't going to work.

As myself I'm not the biggest fan of PvP, I very much hope that WAR has good PvE, at least for the leveling part. I can live without a PvE raid endgame. But I certainly would want that leveling up various races and classes in WAR should be fun, and offer lots of different ways to play and different quests.

Of course there are dangers. If you want to have both fun PvE and fun PvP with the same character, the characters need to be balanced well for both activities. I certainly don't want to see a repeat of the WoW problem that for one activity you need a different class or build than for another activity. You just don't want a class in the game which is a must-have for PvP, but which is gimped for PvE. Or a class like the WoW tank with tons of abilities for PvE aggro management, which then do absolutely nothing in PvP. Apparently in WAR a warriors taunt will actually have an effect in PvP, great!

I think it isn't impossible to have both good PvE and good PvP. But it might be impossible to have both a PvE and a PvP endgame. I see a big divide between games which have the PvE leveling game end in a PvE raid endgame, and those where the PvE leveling leads to a PvP endgame. If you try to have both, you get DAoC's Trials of Atlantis disaster: People forced to play endless repetitive endgame PvE content to remain competitive in PvP. DAoC had to introduce ToA-free extra servers to keep people in the game, because everyone hated that system so much.

So I'm looking forward to the dark world of Warhammer Online, with a very different type of story. I'm looking forward to level up various classes and races. I'm looking forward to PvE innovations like the tome of knowledge or public quests. I might try a bit of PvP, but that won't be why I'll be playing. So if PvE in WAR is bad, I'll be back to WoW pretty fast. And I'll take my millions of casual carebear friends with me. (Not that I have any influence on them, I just tend to think along similar lines as they do). And I think EA, being the maker of The Sims, has enough internal knowledge as to where the money is, and enough influence over EA Mythic as to force them to go after that money to make sure that WAR will at least *try* to have great PvE. Anything else would be financial suicide.

Absolute power versus speed of advancement

After being somewhat frustrated with the level 70 endgame of World of Warcraft for different reasons, both me and my wife ended up making new level 1 alts. She hadn't played a draenei yet, and had never played a shaman, so that is what she made. I decided for once to play on the same server and side as her, and made a gnome rogue. This being the server where she already has a level 68 and level 70, we had access to lots of gold. Well, "lots" is a relative term. But with the new dailies a level 70 can easily make 200 gold in a day, and for a level 1 character 200 gold is more than he needs, even after buying a full set of 16-slot bags and the best possible twink equipment available on the AH for the first 10 levels (there isn't all that much).

I played my new rogue only a few hours, but got up to level 10 already. I bribed a mage to portal me to Shattrath, and took the teleport to Exodar from there, so I'm in the same newbie zone as my wife's shaman. I had done that newbie zone only once, during the TBC beta, and so it is still relatively fresh and lots of fun. But the most interesting was the huge contrast between playing my low-level rogue and playing my mage, who just reached the level cap.

The mage is far more powerful, of course. A single frostbolt of mine does around 1,600 points of damage now, while my rogue is fighting monsters that only have 100 points of health. My mage has 5 hotkey bars full of spells, abilities, and items, while my rogue has just a handful. My mage can easily teleport to any city, rides on an epic ground mount, or on a normal flying mount in Outlands, and there is no place he can't go. My rogue has to walk, and can't set a foot into most zones, because he'd get killed in one hit. Only by setting his hearthstone to Shattrath did he get a limited form of teleportation travel.

But while he is weak, my rogue is a lot more fun to play, because he advances so fast. Every two levels I get brand new abilities and more options to try out. And I level so extremely fast, making several levels per hour at the start. My mage can't level any more before the expansion comes out. And while the mage can still get stronger by getting better gear, the speed of advancement is very slow. It takes many days to earn one epic PvP piece, or to farm the materials for an epic crafted item. And then I don't gain any new options or abilities from my new gear, they just increase lets say my spell damage by a few percent.

So in the end it is a question of whether you prefer to be at the top of the game, with very slow advancement, or whether you prefer to advance fast, but from a very low level. I find World of Warcraft concentrates a bit too much on the endgame. I don't believe it was the endgame that attracted so many million players, but rather the leveling game, and that part of the game feels a bit neglected right now.

What can be done to save grouping in WoW?

My mage dinged 70 this weekend, my third level 70 character. At the level cap he can only improve further by getting better gear, but more importantly I want him to get better enchanting recipes. It turns out that these either drop in dungeons, or are received as reputation awards, for which you have to run dungeons. So I need groups, and lots of them. So most of this weekend I spent hanging out in probably the most depressing place there is in WoW: the looking for group chat channel. And the result: I got one group together, and that one disbanded after the first boss of the dungeon. And the reason I couldn't get a group was that there were no healers nor tanks to be found.

The looking for group chat had something tragicomic about him: for hours and hours every single request on that channel was for either a tank, a healer, or both. I had to laugh at one request where somebody tried to organize a pickup raid to Karazhan. He already had 6 dps people for it, and shouted for 1 main tank and 3 healers for an hour before he gave up. Seems that if I ever want to group again, I have to play my tank or healer, the chances of finding a group with my mage are slim, which means he can't get better enchanting recipes before the expansion comes out. :(

Fact is that with every group and raid needing tanks and healers, it is the number of tanks and healers that becomes the limiting factor in how many groups can be created in total. When I log on my priest or warrior, I get lots of tells asking me to group, more than I could possibly do. When I play my mage, there is no group to be found. You simply need 20% tanks and 20% healers of the grouping part of the population, and in reality there are far less than that. And worse: the number of tanks and healers is declining. Even I made a mage so I could finally solo decently fast. Most warriors are either raid tanks and don't need to go to normal dungeons any more, or they have given up on tanking and gone arms or fury. And it isn't any better with the healing classes, even if you get a priest, paladin, shaman or druid in your group, they'll all tell you they aren't spec'd for healing. Even Rohan, WoW's most famous paladin and author of the Blessing of Kings blog did respec to retribution. Nobody wants to tank or heal any more.

I blame bad game design. World of Warcraft is a game of many aspects: group PvE, solo PvE, PvP. DPS classes can get one set of gear and one talent build and be reasonably good in ALL parts of the game. But if a healing class or tanking class gets the gear and talent build necessary for effecting healing or tanking, he gimps himself for solo PvE and PvP. I know myself how immensely frustrating that can be. Plus you are under a lot of peer pressure to help all the dps people in your guild, who all need you to form groups. It is a lot easier to opt out, and either respec or play a dps alt. But the more people opt out of the tanking and healing role, the less groups can form in total, and the more the remaining tanks and healers come under pressure. It's a vicious cycle, that destroys one of the most fun multiplayer aspects of this MMORPG, grouping. What could be done to save grouping in WoW?

One idea is to lower requirements for groups. If a shadow priest or enhancement shaman would still heal good enough to keep the group alive, even if the "tank" is a fury warrior, the possible pool of tanks and healer becomes larger, and more groups can form. But if Blizzard wants to keep high requirements of specialization for tanks and healers, another idea would be to make tanking and healing more attractive, by making tanks and healers more effective in solo PvE and PvP. A third idea would be to make switching roles easier, so a warrior could for example have two alternative talent builds and sets of gear, with an easy and free way to switch between them.

But maybe there are other ideas. How would you solve the tank and healer shortage in World of Warcraft, so that all the other players can finally find a group?

Friday, April 11, 2008

WoW monetary policy

Relmstein thinks that daily quests are Blizzards federal reserve rate of WoW, effectively controlling monetary policy and driving RMT by oversupply of money. I am not sure it is that simple, or Blizzard really intended it that way. I had more of an impression that patch 2.4 is a kind of a bribe, trying to keep people from leaving by showering them with gold, badge loot, and other assorted goodies. But even if it was intended, would it work?

The economy of World of Warcraft doesn't work like a real world economy, because it has two totally different types of populations: the player-controlled avatars and the computer-controlled NPCs. Real world inflation touches all parts of an economy, some faster, some slower. But virtual world inflation usually is limited to the player economy. Thus if dailies increase everybodies income, and there is far more gold in the economy, NPC-sold goods like epic flying mounts effectively get cheaper, because they stay at the same absolute cost amidst rising incomes. Training, repairs, and NPC-sold consumables like spell components or food all remain at the same price in absolute terms, thus get relatively cheaper compared to the amount of money everyone has.

The same isn't true for everything which is gathered and sold by players. For players the only real currency in WoW is time. A stack of herbs or ore or a primal still needs exactly the same time to be gathered. But if in the same time you can now earn twice the money, the value of time in gold terms doubles, and thus the prices for everything in the AH doubles too.

Whether this drives the gold farmers out of business depends on what players used to spend their money on. The gold farmers too make more money per hour now, just like everyone else, be it through doing dailies themselves, or by selling farmed items for more money. So while the price of 1,000 gold goes down, the gold farmers make up for that by selling more. But whether they sell more depends on whether players buy more, and that depends on what for they need gold. If the majority of the RMT gold was spent on epic mounts, the current gold inflation will hurt the gold farmers. But if lots of RMT gold was spent on things like gear from the AH, crafting materials, enchantments, and player-made consumables like potions, the gold farming business is effectively unchanged. Everything just doubles in price, and you get twice as much gold for your dollars, so in the end you still pay the same amount of dollars for the same high-end enchantment. Thus the "federal reserve rate" fails to do anything for the player-run part of the economy. Because what RMT is at it's core is one player paying somebody else to "work" for him for a certain time in the game. The gold is only the means by which the work is transferred from one character to another. How much one hour of work costs has a lot more to do with average salaries in China and the US than with the rate Blizzard floods the WoW economy with gold.

Do you suffer from pre-expansion depression?

Wowinsider has a post discussing pre-expansion depression: a certain lowering of the spirits between the last content patch and the arrival of the next expansion. It certainly was there before TBC, and there is anecdotal evidence of it now that we got the last content patch 2.4. There will presumably be a 3.0 patch a month or so before Wrath of the Lich King, adding the new WotLK rules for everyone. But new content will only happen when the expansion comes out, which is presumably planned to happen before christmas, with a possible delay in early 2009 if things go wrong.

Mrs. Tobold, the most casual player I know well, is talking about stopping to play WoW. After she finally found the perfect class for her, druid, and finally leveled up all the way to 70, she finds there is nothing left to do for an ultra-casual player. She doesn't group, she doesn't PvP, so she is only planning to do a couple more level 70 quests (not repetitive dailies) and then stop when she runs out. As so often Mrs. Tobold has a firmer grasp of reality than Mr. Tobold, because I'm still busy doing what is essentially repetitive content.

My priest is raiding occasionally, but as I like the 10-man raids more than the 25-man raids, and I got all the gear I'll ever need for 10-mans, my so-called "character development" through gear pretty much stopped. That is why I ended up selling my badges of justice for 24 gold each instead of saving them for the new badge loot. I also got to revered with the Shattered Sun Offensive with my priest, which is all the reputation he needs as jewelcrafter. But it turned out that you only get a handful of spell haste epic gem recipes. All the other epic gem recipes require farming Mount Hyjal for reputation, and I'm not sure I'll ever get there. I wonder what Blizzard will do with those recipes when the expansion comes out. Require level 80 people to farm level 70 raids for them?

My warrior is stuck as well, because silly me wants to play him as tank, and Blizzard makes that so much harder than playing dps; I can't get tanking epic gear from PvP. And without epics I have problems getting into pickup heroic groups, which are unreasonably spoilt nowadays and basically all only want a free ride from a full epic tank. And as my guild is long on tanks and short on healers, I can't get epics from raiding either. So I'm mostly using the warrior for his fishing, cooking, and alchemy. If I find out that deathknights are acceptable tanks, I'll just retire the warrior in WotLK.

I'm still having lots of fun with my mage, but I'm at level 69-and-a-half, and not quite sure how life will be at 70. I'd love to do lots of normal and heroic dungeons, but that usually fails because the group can't find a healer and tank. I might try PvP with the mage, at least the PvP epic rewards are good for dps. And I'm in the process of crafting him a set of shadowcloth epic gear. I also plan to do SSO dailies with him, but I still need to check up to what level of reputation that makes sense. Although I could just continue doing dailies with him for the gold. I'm at 360 enchanting, and I'd love to get to 375, but I know that is extremely expensive. And not only that, I will *need* to run lots of dungeons for the reputation and drops to get recipes, otherwise the skill by itself is useless.

So while I'm not suffering from pre-expansion depression yet, I don't know if WoW will still be fun for all those months until Wrath of the Lich King comes out. Too bad WAR has been delayed, although in principal I support the decision to rather release a good game later than an unfinished game earlier. Not sure if Age of Conan will release on time in May, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I'll just play that for the free month or so, it doesn't appear to be my kind of game. So I'm toying with the idea to make Yet Another Alt, but it isn't as if I hadn't seen all the low-level content many times already. Maybe if I played Alliance? I don't know.

What are your plans? What do you plan to do between now and the release of Wrath of the Lich King, assuming that'll be at least 6 months in the future?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Suspension of disbelief

Deep in our hearts we all know that the MMORPGs we play are just games. The dragons we slay aren't real, nor are the epic treasures we gain. MMORPGs are a fun way to spend your time, but few people mention their virtual achievements on their CV. Talk to somebody who doesn't play World of Warcraft and tell him how you did slay Illidan, and instead of any admiration you'll just get a puzzled look. That is not to say that to those who play, the virtual adventures and achievements aren't important. There is a concept of suspension of disbelief in which the audience knows that what they see isn't real, but is willing to forget that knowledge temporarily in exchange for being entertained.

The problem is that this suspension of disbelief isn't equally strong among all players. That was pretty much evident when we discussed PvP servers in WoW, where some players were talking about how PvP added more danger to their virtual lives, and others resented being ganked by pimply kids. Same situation, totally different perception, totally different levels of suspension of disbelief. And of course that can lead to problems with the success of a game: what if your game is about impact PvP, and you aren't offering non-PvP servers? The players who suspend their disbelief strongly will delight in the "impact" their PvP has on the virtual world. The players more strongly rooted in the real world will experience the same situation as being more disruption to their game style, and won't like that at all.

Suspension of disbelief is a good thing to a certain extent, as it allows you to overlook the shortcomings that every form of media has. You sit in a chair and don't really move all that much, but still manage to believe that you are living an adventureous life killing dangerous monsters and gathering treasures. If you see the rewards as just a bunch of pixels, you will be a lot less entertained and enthusiastic. But this suspension ends at some point for most people. A lot of people for example don't raid for the simple reason that in their perception the real world effort you need to do to raid (playing until late, staying in front of the computer for X hours straight, etc.) is too high compared to the value of the rewards, which is only virtual. Thus their comments about raiders having "no life" [insert various South Park jokes here]. Objectively spoken it is hard to say where exactly the sane border is. Some people need less sleep, and their personal situation allows them to raid every night until midnight with no negative effect on their work or family life. Others crossed the border into what is commonly called "addiction" (although I don't really like the term), where the suspension of disbelief is so strong that the virtual rewards become so important that the real life suffers. Where that border is isn't necessarily the same for everyone, you can't measure it in hours per week played or anything. "Hardcore" is jokingly defined as "somebody playing more than me", but the joke is only funny because so many players think exactly like that.

Developers are well advised to think about how their various game features appear to players of varying levels of suspension of disbelief. What is often called "casual friendly" is just that: making a game for people who haven't suspended their disbelief all that much, and can't overlook things like anti-social behavior from other players, or harsh time requirements of a game just as easily as some others.

Random Battle invents heroic Stratholme

In one of the best ideas I've read for some time, Cameron from Random Battle proposes that Blizzard should regularly create new "heroic" versions of older dungeons. He points out that when Wrath of the Lich King comes out, there will be 22 dungeons nobody goes to any more, and that isn't even counting the larger raid dungeons. Chances are that anyone who started to play World of Warcraft after TBC came out never saw Stratholme, and somebody starting after Wrath of the Lich King will never see any of the Outlands dungeons.

Of course the more different dungeons you have, the harder it becomes to get a group together for one of them, especially given the lousy current LFG system where you can't sign up for more than 3 of them, and "any heroic" isn't an option. So my suggestion would be the following:

1) Cross-server dungeons, including a cross-server LFG system, which works a bit like the cross-server battleground queues.
2) Every dungeon should have a heroic version, even the old Azeroth ones. Even the Deadmines! In most cases that is just a matter of increasing the mob's stats, creating new loot tables, and adding a badge of justice to the bosses.
3) When the level cap goes up, all heroic versions automatically also go up to the new level cap. So heroic Ramparts after WotLK comes out should be level 80, not level 70 any more.
4) Even old raid dungeons should have heroic versions. Hey, I'd love to revisit heroic Molten Core from time to time! The heroic raid dungeons from previous expansions should give less loot than the new normal raid dungeons, but should give badges of justice too. That could actually work as an ideal training ground for newbie raiders!

Where have all the farmers gone?

My financial situation in World of Warcraft never looked better. After doing lots of daily quests to get to revered with the Shattered Sun Offensive, which was already a good earner, I finally decided against using my badges of justice to buy the new badge loot. I only spent 25 badges on PvP bracers for my priest, replacing the last non-epic piece of gear I had. With my remaining badges I slowly bought nether vortexes and sold them for 360 gold each, thus making 24 gold per badge (minus 5% AH fees). A nice pile of money.

Using that money I leveled up tailoring with my mage to 374, planning to make the last point when tailoring the second piece of shadowcloth armor. Shadowcloth armor is great for a frost mage, epic armor with a frost spell damage bonus. To make it you need shadowcloth, 2 of which you can make every 4 days if specialized. And you need Primal Water. Lots of it. Now I spent the last couple of months making one or more Primal Water with my transmute master alchemist. I always sold them for just under 20 gold, although sometimes I needed to wait a few days when through oversupply the market value had dropped to 15 gold or below. So, getting Primal Water for shadowcloth armor? No problem! ... Man, was I wrong. When checking the AH now, for several days, there is either no Primal Water at all for sale, or they are selling for crazy amounts of money like 60 gold. My warrior alchemist is still making one Primal Water per day, unless transmute mastery procs and I get 2, but progress is slow. But as he happens to have 375 fishing as well, I hopped on my trusty flying mount, and flew to the elemental plateau in Nagrand, hoping to fish for some pure water. And there an astounding sight greeted me: there was nobody, absolutely nobody farming the elementals there, all the spawns were up. So in the end I only got one fishing pool of pure water, but made many more motes of water by killing water elementals.

I've never seen the elemental plateau unfarmed and the AH empty of primals. Where have all the farmers gone? One possibility is that Blizzard (Europe) just launched one of their periodic mega-bans, banning the accounts of all the thousands of gold farmers who have been found botting over the last months. The other possibility is that gold farmers are doing what everyone else is doing: daily quests instead of primal farming. Sure, you can only do 25 of them per day. But assuming the gold farmer has several accounts, there is no more limit. The amount of gold you can earn with dailies is higher than what you previously made with primals. And of course the activity is virtually undetectable, as presumably it doesn't involve botting, and the gold farmers just disappear in the mass of regular players doing exactly the same.

Whether they got banned or just changed what they do to farm gold, the absence of primal farmers is hurting. Fact is that the demand of primals for crafting and enchanting is as high as ever. And most people preferred to buy primals instead of farming them theirselves. So only with the 24/7 presence of professional primal farmers could the demand of the regular players be met. Contrary to a popular misconception, primal farmers had a deflationary effect on the economy, not an inflationary one. Now they are gone, my shadowcloth armor is going to be expensive.