Thursday, July 31, 2008

WAR release date

I've read all of the news snippets in the last weeks: Paul Barnett saying that Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is in principle ready to ship, and just being polished more. Various rumors of a WAR release date on September 23, with head-start access starting on September 18. And I can only advise you to stop hyperventilating. Yes, it is *possible* that WAR releases on September 23. But it is far from certain. Let's wait at least for the official release date announcement before asking your boss for a week off end of September. :)

I am strangely reluctant to play in the WAR beta. Not because I don't like the game. But for the same reasons that I don't want to do quests in Northrend in the WotLK beta: I want to keep all that new content for the release version. I played enough of WAR to know I like it, and I pre-ordered the collector's edition. I know what race / class I want to play first. But I don't want to spoil WAR for me by already playing that class and then getting bored by doing it again in the release version. And I'd rather play in the release version with my guild than in the beta alone. So although I already have access to the game, I can't wait for the release. I'm just not willing to get overly excited about a rumored release date now, just to get disappointed later. And because Mythic already has problems with having promised more than they could eventually deliver, they would be wise to only announce the release date when they are absolutely certain they can make it.

Where the 23rd September date is coming from? Here is one possible scenario:
Underpaid low-level grunt at some website needs to fill out a web form to create the product page for WAR. The web form has a field for release date. He asks his boss what the release date is. Boss replies "Fall 2008", which is the official version. Web form doesn't accept "Fall 2008" because some bloody programmer formatted the field to accept only dates. Grunt looks up "Fall" in the dictionary, and finds that the astronomical start of autumn is on 23 September. Thus he enters 23 September into the web form and pushes enter, not aware what a rumor mill he just started.

Horizontal expansions to vertical games

Serial Ganker sid67 has a great post about horizontal expansions, the idea that you can add to a game by adding more stuff of the same level, as opposed to adding more levels. That inspired Cameron from Random Battle to compare WoW to Magic the Gathering, because in MtG all expansions are horizontal. Well observed. But then Magic the Gathering is a horizontal game, and World of Warcraft is a vertical one.

There are no levels in Magic the Gathering. If you buy your first cards and play against an experienced player, you will most probably lose. But you don't lose to him because he is level 70 and you are level 1. You lose because he has a wider selection of cards, and because he is more skilled than you through practice. You can even the card pool problem by playing in so-called "limited" events, where everyone gets random cards, and then winning or losing becomes a pure question of skill. Yes, playing more helps, but only because the more you play, the more you learn. You don't have to grind anything to get to a specific point. The game itself is horizontal, you can explore it and get better at it, but you'll never go up a level and start a combat with more cards or more life points than your opponent.

Now we add a new expansion to Magic the Gathering. The cards are ideally exactly as powerful as the old ones. But they are somehow different, have new special abilities, and allow new combinations with the old cards. The fun of the expansion is to explore the new cards, learn everything about their use, and advance in skill by doing so. The expansion is horizontal in the sense that the new content doesn't make the old content obsolete. But that doesn't mean that there is no character progress, because you progress by learning, not by accumulating some level or artificial points.

World of Warcraft is a vertical game: From level 1 to the level cap your power is mostly determined by your level, and not so much by your skill. Even at the level cap you still go up in what I call meta-levels, by increasing your stats further through better gear. Increasing your chance of success by learning how to play the game better does happen, but the effect is relatively small compared to the effect of levels and gear. World of Warcraft, especially the soloing part, is trivially easy if you compare it directly with a game like Magic the Gathering.

WoW being vertical makes it difficult to add completely horizontal expansions to it. You can add new races and new classes and new low-level zones to the game. But where a Magic the Gathering player can add some of the new cards of a horizontal expansion into his old deck, in World of Warcraft experiencing the new horizontal content means abandoning your old vertically advanced character. Blizzard wisely decided that you don't have to delete an old character in some transformation quest that turns him into a Death Knight. But nevertheless on the day Wrath of the Lich King is released you will have to decide whether you level your existing level 70 character, or whether you play the new Death Knight. In Magic the Gathering new horizontal content adds to the old content; in WoW new horizontal content disrupts the old content.

Of course in WoW new vertical content also disrupts old content, by making your old gear obsolete. This is in the nature of the game. You get to keep your old character, and get the chance to progress him further. But as progress is defined in this game as increasing your stats, your old methods of maximizing stats become obsolete. This is particularly harsh when you consider how much faster your power increases by levelling up compared to power increases by gathering epic gear. You spent over a year of several raids a week to get a level 70 epic which is worse than a level 80 green item common drop or quest reward.

And I don't see a way around it. Imagine in Wrath of the Lich King there were no new levels. Northrend was a new continent for levels 1 to 70, with playable penguin and walrus man races, and new classes. What would people be supposed to do with their old level 70 characters? Be forced to keep playing the stale old content or abandon them? Play in the new level 70 zones and dungeons and only get gear that isn't better than what they already have? There is no easy solution. Because the very gameplay of World of Warcraft consists of increasing your stats, a new expansion needs to offer more stat increases, or tell people to start over. You can't add a Magic the Gathering style horizontal expansion, because the progress in WoW isn't horizontal.

Some people already remarked that Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is planned with a different style of expansion in mind than WoW. Again this is logical, because while WAR does have the levelling that WoW has, it doesn't have the continued increase of stats through items at the level cap. The WAR endgame is a horizontal one, where you beat other players in PvP by better organization and better skill (or with the less nice way of simply outnumbering them). You can add new "battlegrounds" and endgame PvP objectives to WAR endlessly. For PvE even WAR can't do anything but offering a reset with new races and classes. I'm not sure if WAR expansions will ever increase the level cap, it doesn't appear to be compatible with the current content. I sure hope they'll never put in a PvE raiding expansion, they should have learned from Trials of Atlantis that this doesn't work well with a PvP endgame. So WAR expansions can be horizontal, because the gameplay goes into horizontal mode already when reaching the level cap.

I find this an interesting experiment. Will players accept the horizontal endgame of WAR, or will they miss the vertical endgame of WoW? Will WAR players accept that shortly after reaching level 40 their characters will not improve in stats any more, and their only way of improving their chances in PvP is to play better? And will high-level combat in WAR be sufficiently complex that you actually *can* play better? I'm looking forward to trying all that out.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Death Knight tanking

I wanted to test how good Death Knights are at tanking. Only problem: There are no other character classes than Death Knights in Hellfire Peninsula in the beta. But as my own Death Knight is a gnome, and thus Alliance, and all my level 70 characters are Horde, I had copied my level 60 human priest to the beta, loaded with herbs for the DK's Inscription. So I specced the priest holy, went to Hellfire Peninsula, and shouted for 4 Death Knights to come to Hellfire Ramparts with me.

I was quickly taken up on the offer, and we cleared out Ramparts, with only one wipe at Nazan. Due to their good starting gear, the DKs just crush the trash mobs. Healing them is challenging, but doable for a level 60 holy priest. By some fluke of fate we found, besides one staff for me, only weapons and armor Death Knights can use. And the good new for DKs is that the stuff was better than their starting gear. Hellreaver is a good upgrade to the runesword they have.

We killed the first and second boss by simply overwhelming him with damage. The third boss, Nazan, is a lot tougher, and there the tanking deficiencies of the Death Knight class became apparent. It's not that they can't withstand damage if properly geared. But holding aggro is a problem, they don't have much threat attraction abilities, and their taunts aren't good for main tanking. Death Grip has a 35 second cooldown and only works for 3 seconds. Blood Boil has a shorter cooldown, 15 seconds, also works for just 3 seconds, but only works on diseased targets.

I'd have no problems inviting one Death Knight into any group as off-tank. But once the Death Knights stop being overgeared in the mid 60's, using a DK as a main tank will be problematic. They *do* take more damage than a protection warrior, so need more heals, so the healer is more often getting aggro, and the Death Knight has problems managing that. Harder dungeons, and especially heroic dungeons, will need something else than a Death Knight to tank. As I said, protection warriors aren't obsolete. Too bad half of them will retire in frustration after playing a Death Knight for a while and exclaiming "why doesn't my warrior solo like that!". I don't think this attempt by Blizzard to solve the tank shortage will work. Improving the soloing power of protection warriors, or introducing the free talent swap, would have been a better plan.

WotLK achievement system

One thing I tested during the WotLK beta was the new achievement system. It isn't fully implemented yet, you can earn achievements and achievement points, but you can't spend the points on anything yet. Anyway, my level 70 warrior I copied into the beta has 88 out of possible 532 achievements, for a total of 820 achievement points. Still a lot to do if I wanted to collect them all. Which I won't do, because for already existing characters it will be next to impossible, as they would have to repeat a lot of old stuff.

The problem lies in the fact that up to now World of Warcraft kept track of some things, but not of everything. So the achievement system knew that I had done 1472 quests with my warrior, giving me the 1,000 quests done achievement. It didn't know that I had done more than 5 daily quests, as those aren't kept track of. It did know that I completely explored Outland, but it didn't know that I've been to many dungeons in Azeroth and Outland already. So the "Kill Archmage Arugal in Shadowfang Keep" achievement is still greyed out, together with every other "kill boss X in dungeon Y" achievement. Who is going to organize a raid to kill Ragnaros again, just for 5 achievement points?

I think the achievement system is a nice addition. But adding it to a 4 year old game has obvious problems. And some achievements, like gaining exalted status with various factions, aren't really worth doing just for some points and checking one more achievement off your list.

Spore and intelligent design

I was idly wondering whether the religious right would protest against Spore, because that game is based on the theory of evolution, which is contrary to the beliefs of the creationists. But then it struck me that Spore isn't pro-Darwin at all! The DNA mutations that lead from an amoeba to a race conquering space are not at all random and subject to the survival of the fittest; instead they are directed by a higher power, invisible to the creature itself, the Spore player. So in fact Spore promotes the theory of Intelligent Design. That should be okay with the religious crowd, although maybe they have problems with the whole god-sim concept.

More realistically is the scenario where nobody besides me makes any comments at all on the relationship between Spore and the conflicting theories of how man was created. If we ever see a big public protest against Spore, it will be because some teenager found out that he could create a humanoid biped with a pink texture skin and boobs, and that creature ends up being on the top spot of downloaded Spore creatures. :)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The future of grouping

There is an interesting discussion going on between Rob from MMOCrunch and Cameron from Random Battle on how soloable a MMORPG should be. And as happy as I am that Cameron is concentrating on his personal blog again, on this issue I'm on the other team, the pro playing together one. Or as Raph Koster says, "the single player game is an aberration".

That is not to say that I am against soloability. There are certainly times when I am not feeling sociable, or where I just don't have the time to play together with other people, and would prefer just to do something on my own. I do think that every MMORPG should offer the possibility to do things on your own, including gaining xp and advancing your character. But what I am strictly against is the system most prominently displayed in WoW where soloing is the *fastest* way to advance your character.

I do believe that there is a small group of players who absolutely want to solo all the time, and a small group of players who absolutely want to group all the time. Between them is a huge majority of players who have no strong opinion on the matter, and are mostly moved by the incentives. Most common argument in World of Warcraft against grouping for levelling is "it's not worth the hassle". Yes, but what if it was? WoW is simply badly designed in that aspect. The LFG tool is awful. The group xp bonus is so tiny that in most situation a group makes less xp per hour than a single player. And there is a huge gap in difficulty between the content designed for solo play and the content designed for group play. Solo content is trivially easy most of the time, group content is often designed in a way that one player making a mistake will wipe the whole group. "Pickup group" is an derogatory term in WoW, evoking fears of you being killed by somebody else's faults; but that comes not from people inherently being anti-group, but from WoW teaching them that a group is only useful for specific group content, and that one is so hard that a pickup group is likely to fail. In World of Warcraft before the level cap you only need a group to get better loot from dungeons; but as you can level up soloing so fast, spending that extra group time to gather that better loot simply isn't worth the effort. WoW distorts the picture, because developers see everyone soloing and think that is what players prefer, when in reality the players just followed the incentives more than their preferences.

Soloing by definition is the default mode of a MMORPG. You log on and you are alone. Getting a group together or getting into a group requires some effort. Effort in time, effort in social skills, effort in trust. But in the history of mankind people have always banded together against threats, because in the real world a group nearly always has a higher chance of success than an individual. The Neanderthal went hunting in groups, not solo. Any half logical virtual world should make adventuring in a group easier than alone; but instead they are now often perversely designed to discourage grouping. You kill a mob in WoW in a full group, and only get 28% of the xp you'd get if you had soloed it. Half of the quests are designed in a way that if you would need 10 monsters to kill solo, you'd need to kill 50 of them in a group of 5; and then there aren't 50 mobs around, the respawn time is slow, and doing that quest with a full group takes twice as long as soloing it. No wonder nobody groups any more before the level cap!

The Everquest approach of forced grouping is certainly the wrong one, but I still have fond memories of EQ pickup groups. Banding together with strangers to face dangers, building strong communities, making new friends. And I think that you can have all the advantages of this in a system that encourages grouping instead of enforcing it. Leave half of every zone as it is now, soloable and everything. Fill the other half with challenges that a single player of that level would be unable to overcome, but which would be no risk for a group of 5. Make it easy to find pickup groups around you, and make the group xp bonus high enough that playing in a group always gets you more xp per hour, and finishes your quests faster, than if you soloed. And suddenly you get a game where most people are grouping most of the time, and liking it!

People playing together has huge advantages for a MMORPG. Once the initial effort to work together with strangers is overcome, players enjoy playing together more than playing alone. There is lots of evidence that people play games in which they have strong social ties to other players longer than if they play alone. Developers should encourage people playing together for their own benefit, because players staying longer in a game means added income. If someone absolutely wants to play alone, a single-player RPG is nearly always the better option: No monthly fee, and the single-player nature of the game allows the player to be the hero who saves the world instead of one of 10,000 heroes killing monsters that respawn 5 minutes later.

And maybe a game where people group more than solo out of their own free will isn't so far away. Mark Jacobs announced at E3 that Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning will have a feature called "open grouping". That means that unless you flag your group as private, anyone in the vicinity can join the group if it isn't full. So an adventurer goes to some corner of the game world because he has a quest to kill 20 foozles, opens his looking for group interface, and sees that there is already a small group of people killing foozles quite close. He joins them with a single mouse click, doesn't have to run far to meet them, and kills the foozles together with them faster than if he did it alone. People leave the group when they finished the quest, but then new players join it, and create in effect a perpetual foozle-killing group for this one particular corner and quest. Now I can only pray that the designers of WAR made it so that being in a group gives you more xp per hour than soloing, and finishes your quests faster, not slower. But already the announcement that the LFG tool of WAR will be so much better than WoW's got me quite excited.

And then of course WAR has the public quests, where anyone entering a specific area is automatically at the same step of a quest chain, which can be repeated several times with a mix of rewards, some of which you get just by continued participation, and some extra loot you can earn in what Mythic calls a Vegas loot system. It should be blindingly obvious to most players that forming an open group in a public quest is pure unadulterated advantage. Groups always will be more efficient than the sum of their parts, and the unique incentive system of public quests actually gives you more rewards for more efficiency. A group of one tank, one healer, and one damage dealer will get more influence points per minute than the sum of influence points of an ungrouped tank, healer, and damage dealer of the same level and gear. More influence points per minute means faster access to the influence loot, and a better bonus on your roll for the Vegas loot. So finally we have a realistic system where a group is rewarded for being stronger than a bunch of loners.

Finally, while everyone knows I'm normally not a big fan of open-world PvP, the fact that the bigger team nearly always wins that sort of PvP is a big incentive for grouping in WAR. This is a game where you earn some sort of PvP xp for killing other players in open-world PvP areas of zones. And it is a game where you are polymorphed into a chicken if you enter such a PvP zone which is too low for your level, so solo ganking of lower level characters is out. Does anyone think that this is a system where you wouldn't advance faster if you just clicked on the open group button? If you refuse to group, your opponents won't, and they'll kick sense into you pretty fast.

So for me Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is the big hope, the future of grouping, the MMORPG which brings the genre back from the abyss of the massively single-player online game. This is why I don't care whether the graphics are superficially similar to WoW, or the feature list doesn't look much different. Because if WAR manages to be a game where you can solo, but the better option will often be to group, the actual play experience of the game will be dramatically different from World of Warcraft. It will require a certain amount of re-education of people having been lead astray by WoW, but if WAR pulls that off it might well beat WoW if not in subscription numbers but then at least in longevity. At the core most players want to play together rather than alone, and nudging them over the barrier can only be good for a massively multiplayer online game.

Moderate drinking

In the latest version of the WotLK beta drinking a potion now gives you a "potion sickness" debuff that prevents you from drinking any other potions until you rest out of combat for some seconds. Which means that even in very long combats you can only drink one single potion. That has zero effect on solo players, but casters in raids often drink several mana potions per fight.

I don't think this will hurt Alchemists very much. Yes, the demand for mana potions will probably go down. But what few people realize is that you don't actually make money with Alchemy (except for transmutes), the potions you make cost just minimally more than the herbs you need to make them. The real money is in Herbalism. And while Herbalism thus loses some demand for herbs for mana potions, they'll earn lots of new customers: Inscribers. As a bonus Inscribers are less picky than Alchemists, because they don't need one specific herb, but any of a similar level will do.

How raiders will survive without multiple potions is a different question, but they will adjust. Priests already use mana conservation and regeneration talents a lot, and get more of them in WotLK. Damage spellcasters will have to do the same. So don't be surprised if you see a Mage rolling need on some gear with a big spirit bonus. :)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Beta Warriors vs. Death Knights

Still in the spirit of doing in the beta what I won't do in the release version of Wrath of the Lich King, I copied my level 70 Warrior there. The good news was that in spite of him having only average level 70 blue armor, I could tank the first dungeon, Utgarde Keep, just fine with a 61-point protection talent build. The bad news was that even with some searching I found nothing in the current version of the WotLK beta which would significantly cure the problems that Warriors have in TBC.

First of all, if Blizzard plans to allow people to have two talent builds and switch easily and cost free between them, that feature isn't implemented in the current beta yet. Well, in the beta any respect costs only 1 copper piece, but that is just for testing, and won't make it into the release version. Thus the biggest Warrior problem, that they can either tank or deal damage, but not both, isn't solved yet.

Then I looked through the various new Warrior spells and talents, and found very little which really changes the way how a Warrior is played. For example the 51-point protection talent Shockwave isn't really all that great in practice. It suffers from the same problems as Thunderclap, that it'll break sheep and other forms of crowd control. And the 3-second stun. At best it combines abilities of already existing Warrior abilities into something which might be useful for AoE trash tanking. The 51-point Fury talent Heroic Leap is just a fancy-looking Charge. Many of the other new talents give you X percent more of this or that, but don't add any new game mechanics to the Warrior class. The new spells are just the same, there are even more rank upgrades and fewer totally new spells than in TBC. I've already heard mages complaining about the same, not sure for which classes the same is true as well. I know the paladin class is being much changed. But a Warrior at level 80 will play pretty much the same as he is playing currently at level 70. WotLK does not reinvent the Warrior class.

I tried an arms/fury spec for maximum dps, dual-wielding two-handed weapons with Titan's Grip. Even with 5 talent points put into that ability, you still suffer from a 20% speed penalty, which turns Titan's Grip into a talent which doesn't give more added damage than any other talent. Yes, with an arms/fury build you deal decent damage, but unlike a Death Knight you don't have any talents to heal yourself, and thus suffer from longer downtime between fights. Some people claim that MS Warriors dominate PvP, but that isn't true. They dominate PvP only as much as rock dominates a game of rock-paper-scissors, seen from the view of the scissors. They are flavor of the month sometimes in some arenas, but there are no data in the armory that suggest that Warriors would be generally better than other classes in PvP.

There will still be endless arguments in the coming months whether Death Knights are better or worse than Warriors in PvP or tanking. But there is no doubt whatsoever that Death Knights are better for solo PvE. They are what used to be called a "tank mage", a class without weaknesses, having both good offensive and defensive abilities. Death Knights even have self-heals, for gods sake! They are a complete tank, healer, damage dealer trinity rolled into one. And they can do it all with one balanced talent build. In fact due to how runes work (see post before), a balanced talent build might work better for them than a specialized one, unlike other classes.

That doesn't make Warriors obsolete. They still will keep their role as preferred main tanks for most raid bosses, and probably for heroic dungeons as well. But unless Blizzard really implements the talent-switching feature, which they occasionally think about, but haven't really even promised yet, leveling a Warrior is just a hard task you do in view of a main tank career later. Anyone who ever tries a Death Knight, and I guess most people will do, will have a hard time going back to playing a Warrior. I don't know exactly who will do more damage given equal equipment, but the Death Knight has so much more utility and abilities that just make his live easier. Death Knight is the ultimate soloing class, while Warriors even with the new talents and abilities still rank among the worst classes to solo with. My Warrior is now retiring and spending his old age as a pure alchemist, until Blizzard makes Warriors as easy to level as Death Knights, which they probably never will.

How the Death Knight works

From the first announcement of Death Knights as a class to the current beta status, a lot has already changed for this class. So some people heard outdated news and now believe things about the Death Knight that aren't true any more. In this post I'm going to explain how the Death Knight currently works, and try to dispel some of the rumors.

First of all the conditions to create a Death Knight have been significantly lowered since the first announcement. The only thing you need to have is one character of at least level 55 from another class, and you'll be able to create a new Death Knight. You don't lose your previous character, there is no transformation into Death Knight, you simply make a new character. You don't need to be level 80 or do some high level quest. Just at least one character on one server with at least level 55 will enable you to create one Death Knight on every server. You can never create more than one Death Knight per server, because they would make too good tradeskill or banking mules. Any race can be a Death Knight, not only the gnomes you see all over the beta. ;)

Second I'd like to talk about the Death Knights rune sword, which figured heavily in the early marketing. In the current beta version you start out with a two-handed green sword, which you upgrade to a two-handed blue sword. But you aren't forced to use only two-handed swords. You can use polearms, two-handed swords, axes, or maces, or even dual-wield one-handed swords, axes, or maces. So there isn't really a "rune sword", there are just runes which are associated with you, not your weapon. What you do have is runeforging, a selection of Death Knight specific weapon enchantments, with which you can add special effects to your weapons. I'll leave the theorycrafting of whether dual-wielding or two-handed weapons are better for Death Knights to somebody else.

So even without a sword, a Death Knight has 6 runes: 2 blood, 2 frost, 2 unholy. In some previews you could read that you'd be able to adjust that, for example take 3 blood, 2 frost, 1 unholy, or any other combination. In the current state you simply can't, you're stuck at 2-2-2, and if I read the beta forums correctly, this isn't going to change in release. As a Death Knight you have two sorts of spells: One sort uses runes, for example "1 blood", or "1 frost and 1 unholy". When you cast such a spell, the respective rune(s) under your character profile grey out, and then come back after a 10-second cooldown. As you have only 2 of each, if you use two abilities using the same type of rune shortly after each other, you're out of that type of rune for a while, and need to use abilities using other runes. Unfortunately that doesn't combine well with talent tree specialization: If for example you put all or most of your talent points in the blood tree, as my beta death knight, you get additional spells using blood runes. But then you have lots of spells using blood runes, and few spells using frost or unholy runes, and you can't use them because you are limited to 2 blood runes. So for me a system with which you could change your mix of runes would have been preferable.

The second sort of Death Knight spells uses runic power. Every time you use a spell that uses runes, your runic power bar fills up. There are also talents that add to your runic power in other ways. But otherwise it works a bit like warrior's rage: The runic power bar starts at zero, fills up during combat from you using your rune spells, and then allows you to unleash the runic power with various runic power spells. Runic power isn't blood-frost-unholy type specific, fortunately. By the way, one of the best Death Knight spells, Death Grip, which makes an enemy jump right in front of you, uses neither runes nor runic power. It's just for free, and instant, but with a 30-second cooldown. Nevertheless I think the thing will be extremely powerful in PvP, especially in large group PvP. If you ever fought in Alterac Valley, you know the situation that sometimes large blocks of enemy combatants face each other, and the first players to move forward are the first to die. Being able to pluck out a caster or healer at range from the enemy group and teleport him into your group where he will quickly be killed is a powerful thing. Or you can use it to remove a defender from a flag or other strategic position. Up to now WoW doesn't have all that many abilities that enable you to move another player, you can mostly only stop him from moving. Death Knights can do both. And the thing is useful for PvE pulling and prevention of runners as well, plus has a taunt ability added for group PvE.

So this are the Death Knight powers, but how does he play? A bit like a dps warrior or rogue, just with less downtime, because Death Knights have some blood talents to heal themselves. As I mentioned before, a Death Knight starts at level 55 in an instanced zone, shared with other Death Knights but no other classes. He has to do a series of destiny quests, which give him his talent points, his mount, his special abilities, and upgrade his gear from green to blue quality. At the end of that destiny quest series the Death Knight is level 57, and is released into the real Azeroth, in the Eastern Plaguelands. Lots of Death Knights level up there to 58, before moving to Outlands. I'd recommend moving to Silithus or Winterspring instead, where there are less other players around; or you could even already get to Outlands at level 57, with the help of a friendly mage, or by first traveling to Dalaran and porting to Shattrath from there. The Death Knight at level 57 is wearing gear which is nominally blue, but in reality has near-epic stats that surpass most level 60 pre-TBC blues. That means he is a killing machine, and makes xp faster by killing lots of mobs than by doing quests that require much traveling. In the Outlands a Death Knight can then start to find better gear, and level to 70 quickly, as the xp requirements for level 61 to 70 have been halved in WotLK compared to TBC, at least in the current beta state. I can't say much yet about how good Death Knights are in a group, but as solo leveling machines they are already awesome.

Finally one more word of advice: Don't miss out on training for your Death Knight! Death Knights can only train in Ebon Hold, a place they can always reach by a special teleport gate spell. But there isn't one class trainer in Ebon Hold, there are three: One for blood, one for frost, and one for unholy. To learn all the new spells when you make a new level, you must visit *all three* trainers, not just one of them.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

WoWGuild Manager Live

People sometimes ask me how I come up with all these ideas for blog posts. Most of the time I don't know myself. But this one I literally dreamt up. Woke up in the middle of the night with a vivid memory of having dreamt about this non-existing game: WoWGuild Manager Live (WML). I played WoW and Football Manager Live the day before, and my brain mixed the two up in my dreams.

In WML you play the manager of a World of Warcraft guild. You start by hiring players of different classes and stats. Unlike the real WoW, you need to pay the players a daily wage, out of a daily income based on your fame, so you can't directly hire large numbers or the best players. Every player has his regular WoW stats and talents, but also mental abilities like patience, punctuality, or lootwhoring. You put together a team, 10 players at first, define a series of tactics, and send them on a raid. Their success in the raid depends on their stats, and how adapted your tactics were to the particular challenge and the player's particular strengths and weaknesses. You can watch the raid, but it is only displayed with colored dots on a 2D map, and in fast forward. But you can press a time-out button and adjust tactics or bring in substitutes if there is a problem. Sometimes there are emergency time-outs, for example if a player left in the middle of the raid, or there is a guild drama random event.

By succeeding in raids your guild gains in fame and daily income. Your player's stats increase due to experience and the epic loot they got (not shown in detail). You can auction players off to other managers, and in regular intervals there are wage auctions where other managers can try to steal your players away by offering them higher wages in a sealed bid system. You might also be forced to sell or let go players because of some players not getting along with another one, or retiring. But if you manage your team well, you'll be able to raid harder dungeons, and ultimately the even harder 25-man dungeons.

I don't think anybody will make this game, I really just dreamt it. It plays just like Football Manager Live, only with WoW guilds and raids instead of football teams and matches. Maybe I'm missing the kind of computer RPGs where you controlled more than just one character, and gave strategic commands to a whole adventuring party. Apart from pets and the henchmen in Guild Wars, that aspect is sadly missing from modern MMORPGs. I'll just keep dreaming.

Inscription for bloody beginners

As promised, I explored the new Inscription profession in the WotLK beta. First thing to say is that it isn't finished yet. You can level it up to 125, and then the trainer only has one more recipe for skill level 250, but you can't reach that because you don't have the intermediate recipes. Obviously a lot of recipes still missing. From the promised recipes to modify spells there is no sign yet.

So, what is Inscription? Inscription is the tradeskill to make scrolls. You can make the regular stat-buffing scrolls, but also some special scrolls like the Scroll of Recall, which works like a second hearthstone. Useful! Furthermore you can make blank scrolls for enchanters, on which the enchanter can then place his weapon or armor enchanment and thus make it portable. This finally allows enchanters to put their enchants on the auction house, which is a huge improvement.

The first recipes use Peacebloom and Silverleaf, the basic herbs from the newbie zones. The recipes after that use pomace, for example Alabaster Pomace. The pomace is made with a new skill, milling, which you get when you learn inscription. It works just like prospecting for jewelcrafting: You click milling, then you click a stack of herbs, you lose 5 of the herbs, and gain 2 to 3 pomace. There are less different pomace than there are herbs, so Peacebloom, Silverleaf, Mageroyal all give Alabaster Pomace from milling. Finally a good use for those more common herbs nobody needs.

The pomace is turned into ink, and the ink plus parchment gives a scroll. The parchments are available at the inscription goods vendors. For Alliance I found the grand master inscription trainer in Valiance Keep in the Borean Tundra (you get there by boat from the new Stormwind Harbor), but the inscription goods vendor was in the mage tower at Amber Ledge. There was both a vendor and a trainer at Dalaran, but the trainer didn't seem to be working yet, although that was difficult to say with the horrible lag that place still has.

It is hard to say yet whether Inscription will be useful, as it is yet in a very unfinished state. But I'm looking forward to exploring it some more in some later build.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Open Sunday Thread

The traditional open Sunday thread, where you can talk about whatever you like, and propose subject for me to write about. In today's special edition you can even ask me about the Wrath of the Lich King beta, if you have specific things you'd want to know.

Friday, July 25, 2008

My first hours as a Death Knight

I spent my first few hours in the Wrath of the Lich King beta, and as there is no NDA, I'd like to tell you about it. As planned I made a Death Knight, and in the span of 4 to 5 hours leveled him up from 55 to 57, as well as out of his starting area, a little place I like to call Tortage.

Tortage? Isn't that the Age of Conan starting area? It is, and in Wrath of the Lich King it isn't really called that way. But taking a page out of the AoC book, the Death Knight starting area is an instanced region from which you can't reach the rest of the world until you haven't finished a series of "destiny" quests. And that plays just great, most fun I had in WoW for months. Your Death Knight starts with green armor and no talent points, and every quest gives you either a blue piece to replace a green piece with, and/or some talent points, and sometimes even some essential class skills. So by the time you finish your destiny quest series, you'll be fully clad in very good looking blue armor, have all the talent points you're supposed to have at your level, and all your essential class abilities.

And of course by being instanced, there are things possible that wouldn't be possible in the normal WoW, like the passage of time. For example when your destiny quest series is nearing the end, you're asked to go back to base by using a specific teleport portal. But that portal also transports you forward in time, to the same area, but looking much different from the advancement of events in the war between the Scarlet Crusade and the Scourge. Oh, and you're the Scourge, the epic destiny quest line tells how you'll eventually break free from the grasp of the Lich King. The whole thing contains some epic battles, with you doing various activities including steering a dracolich in a massive attack, or killing hundreds of enemy soldiers using their own canons.

Once out of the destiny quest line, you end up at Light's Hope Chapel in the regular world, and can start doing quests there. Or you can travel elsewhere. Fortunately all the flight paths are already available, you will not have to visit every zone in Azeroth on foot to tag all the flight points. I made my way to Stormwind City, used the new harbor there to get to Northrend, and learned the new profession Inscription there. I'll tell you more about that once I have explored that one more. But for a first evening in the Wrath of the Lich King beta it was a great success. I can only advise you that even if you don't plan on leveling a Death Knight up, do at least those 4 hours of destiny quest with him. It's well worth it.

Blizzard said that Death Knights should *feel* epic, and they certainly do. They also said that while feeling epic, Death Knights shouldn't actually be much better than existing character classes, especially the Warrior. Unfortunately they completely fail on that account. After 5 hours with the Death Knight I feel like deleting my Warrior (but won't do it because of his Alchemy). I can't say whether the damage output of a level 57 Death Knight is far superior to that of a level 57 fury Warrior. But his utility is far, far superior. How about a taunt that has a good range and not only forces the enemy to attack you, but also teleports him towards you? Finally a version of taunt that is useful for solo and PvP in WoW, as you can use it to keep enemies from fleeing, or even to pull. How about various abilities that convert either your damage or the enemies damage into healing, so you don't have all that downtime between fights that the Warrior has? How about spells that freeze the enemy to the ground or pelt him with spells from a distance? And that is just the start of the list. I don't know about the usefulness of Death Knights in groups yet, but I can already see they are much better soloers than Warriors, even in their frost "tank" spec. Right now census sites like WarcraftRealms show 12% of the players having a Warrior. I bet you that in a year that number will have dropped to 8% or below (if they properly update and don't count characters not played any more). Guilds will still need protection Warriors for tanking, but only a masochist would still play a dps Warrior if he can easily get a much better Death Knight. I sure hope that Death Knights are good enough as tanks in a group, because otherwise the only thing that is going to tank is the probability of getting a group together.

I want a WoW lifetime subscription!

As syncaine from Hardcore Casual so correctly remarks, some people are avoiding the Wrath of the Lich King beta because they fear if they play the beta, they will have seen most of the content before the expansion is even out. My WotLK beta is up and running, but as I said I plan to use the beta to play the deathknight I might not want to play in the release version. But I completely share the fears that the total amount of content in Wrath of the Lich King will not be sufficient to last until Blizzard manages to bring out the third expansion.

And with WAR and other interesting games looming at the horizon, I foresee me playing World of Warcraft on and off. New expansion or large content patch comes out, I play for a couple of months, then take a break for a couple of months to play something else. I pretty much already did that with The Burning Crusade.

The only problem in that mode is having to cancel and reactivate your account all the time. How annoying! What I'd really need is a World of Warcraft lifetime subscription for $200, which would allow me to play WoW whenever I want, without having to bother with my subscription status. Wouldn't that be a good idea? Even for Blizzard it might be a good plan. WotLK is probably going to come out this year, with the bulk of the sales being in 2008. But as they probably won't be able to make another expansion before 2010, their earnings in 2009 will be lower than usual, and investors don't like that. So why not launch a lifetime subscription option in 2009, and thus carry forward future earnings. After all, WoW is 4 years old now, and you can't really say with certainty that all the 10 million players are going to be playing this for more than $200 worth of monthly fees. Better grab the money now, while the game is still hot.

If you are paying for WoW right now, would you be buying a lifetime subscription for $200 early next year?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Project Lore

I don't know if you ever saw World of Warcraft video guides on YouTube, but there are tons of them, with vast differences in the quality of the explanations. But what unites them is the bad quality of the video images captured from the game, making it really hard to actually see anything useful on them. So a couple of guys went and founded Project Lore, a site with high-quality video guides through the dungeons of World of Warcraft.

They just started, and did Hellfire Ramparts first, and now progressed to the Slave Pens. The gameplay video is in the middle, small webcam cutouts of 4 of the 5 group members in the corner, and some text explanation at the lower edge. Generally quite well done. But of course right now it isn't terribly useful. Who needs a video guide how to beat Hellfire Ramparts on normal now? We've all been there a year ago. Slave Pens on heroic is somewhat more useful, but again most of us already know the place inside out. So I just hope the guys got enough WotLK beta keys to already start producing video guides of the dungeons there. Now THAT would be useful!

Copying features - good or bad?

Any feature in a modern MMORPG has a long pedigree, often dating back a decade ago to Everquest and Ultima Online, or even earlier to MUDs and Dungeon & Dragons. That makes the discussion of whether WAR copied features from WoW or the other way round pretty much futile. In Wrath of the Lich King new features are going to be added to World of Warcraft: siege warfare PvP and an achievement system for example. As chances are high that WotLK and WAR will be released around the same time, some people suspect that Blizzard is trying to preempt a possible success of WAR by nicking some of its features. But of course the achievement system could as easily have been copied from Lord of the Rings Online. Who knows? Who is copying whom isn't important. But what is evident is that we are moving towards a situation where the feature lists of all major MMORPGs will look pretty much alike. Now is that a good thing or a bad thing?

As I mentioned before, I don't think that feature lists are all that important. The implementation, and how the features interact with each other are far more vital. For example siege warfare in WoW is going to be strictly localized to one single PvP zone, just a fun diversion. In WAR keeps are far more essential to the RvR gameplay, as they give bonuses to zone control, and thus ultimately the sacking of the enemy capital. In Age of Conan siege warfare is mainly used to crash your computer. ;)

So for me it is always interesting how the various games implement the same feature. Player housing for example was a very different beast in Ultima Online than it is in Everquest 2, which again is much different from player housing in Lord of the Rings Online. I would actually *want* Blizzard to copy that feature, just to see their version of it. If a new game comes out with a feature that is fun, why should everyone be forced to play that game to enjoy that feature. Maybe the new game is otherwise not so great, and you'd rather have that shiny new feature in your old favorite game. Even if innovation is conceived at one point, we're all better off if the best features turn into industry standards. That doesn't turn all games into identical clones, because their basic structure and focus is often different. I'm looking forward to the WoW achievement system, even if it isn't a new idea.

Wakfu combines MMORPG and Anime

There is a flash-based MMO produced in France called Dofus, which in spite of its limited graphics has quite some success. So the makers, Ankama Games, started to produce an improved version called Wakfu, currently in closed beta. And this time they are using their game world to not only make an MMO, but also an Anime cartoon tie-in. This trailer is showing bits of both.

I did like the strategic turn-based combat of Dofus, but found the game overall to be a bit too grindy. It is surprising how Korean a game made in France can feel. :)

WAR press beta

I received a mail from Mythic's PR agency, inviting me to the Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning press beta. Interesting, I didn't even know there was such a thing as a press beta. In the earlier stages of the WAR beta, press was excluded; so if they are now opening up it appears as if the game is getting closer to release.

What is a beta actually? I think everyone understands that word differently, just look at all the Google "betas". As I could see in the comments to yesterday's thread, the WAR beta is a particularly touchy subject. Mythic made lots of advertising to get people to sign up for the beta, then used the large number of people signing up for the beta as marketing tool ("look at us, we got millions of people signing up for the beta"), and then only let a small number of people actually get into the beta. And as this beta is already running longer than some other MMORPGs had in total lifetime from release to being shut down, that leaves hundreds of thousands of beta applicants unhappy for never making it into the beta.

From the people who actually made it into the WAR beta there also have been some negative comments. These can to a certain degree be explained by Mythic having a different idea of what a beta is than many of the beta testers. Some beta testers just want to play for free, but Mythic actually wanted the beta test to, well, test their game. There are stories that for testing purposes the graphics were toned down up to recently. And you couldn't just make a character and play whatever you wanted, the beta test was very structured, and only specific races, classes, and levels were available at various times. So you might log in and find your character from the last phase deleted, and you having to play a new character of level X of some other race. Which *is* a good method to actually test stuff, but requires a certain dedication from the beta testers beyond playing for free. Mark Jacobs recently explained the decision to cut 4 classes from WAR by the feedback of beta testers, and them watching the numbers and seeing that people didn't play those classes in the beta because they weren't as much fun as the others. Compared to lets say WoW still struggling with the fact that people find protection warriors not so much fun since 4 years, using a beta to make sure all of your classes are popular is probably not such a bad idea.

But for marketing purposes the WAR beta isn't ideal. Because many other companies used their beta very differently, people are used to much shorter beta, inviting everyone who applies, and showing off the game near completion. These "marketing betas" serve better as free trial version, and to fuel the hype just before release. Their testing value is limited to stress testing the servers, and even there beta testers complain if during a stress test there is lag or login problems. Doh! I think Mythic did many things right with their beta to improve the actual game. But they shouldn't have asked everyone to sign up for the beta when they knew that is was still a long process not suited for the general public. It's not good to have potential customers disappointed before the game is even released. I hope they make up for it by inviting every applicant to some open stress test beta two weeks before release.

Personally I'm irrationally happy about my WAR press beta invite. Irrationally because it's for the wrong continent, and I'm already in the regular closed beta for Europe. I won't see anything new, and the press beta is still under NDA, so I can't write any more than I could before. But the simple fact that my status as blogger has risen to the point where big companies send me press beta invites, let me interview their top people, and give me press passes for events makes me very proud. My apologies for that pride, but the blog is a huge amount of work, and I get zero financial benefits from it. Positive feedback from readers and companies alike is my only reward. So you must excuse if I appear to be bragging about things like special invitations, reader numbers, and blog milestones of numbers of visitors, posts, and years. Consider them to be my salary.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Interview with Paul Barnett

Paul Barnett, creative director at Mythic Entertainment for the upcoming Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, gracefully agreed to be interviewed by me via e-mail. I sent him questions, and he replied to them, so the back and forth interactivity of a face-to-face interview is missing, my apologies. But it's an interesting exchange nevertheless, and I'm quite looking forward to playing WAR. Paul is a great guy to listen to, intelligent, and full of enthusiasm for the game.

Tobold: Paul, you are creative director and lead designer for Mythic Entertainment's upcoming Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning (WAR). Is there any feature in WAR where you'd say, "this is mine, my idea, I thought of this"? Or is your job limited to having an influence on the ideas of other people?

Paul: The first bit is easy as Mark Jacobs is the lead designer. After that you have a raft of dead clever people all dedicated to making a great game. These people are so clever that the need for additional core creativity from me is almost zero. So my job is to act as a true magnetic north for Mark's design. And that's a tricky, because so much of design at the start of a game is concept rather than mechanics.

I guess on reflection there are 3 parts to my job. Firstly, at the start of a project I have to be boundless in energy and enthusiasm for the game. I have to see the connections and concepts from the page rather than from the build of the game. So little code is finished, so few art assets are created and no real game mechanics are in place that I live most of the game in my imagination.

Add to that, good, hard working souls who are pouring energy into a targeted part of the game. These people are committed to a singular task, be it getting a render engine working, creating initial databases or making concept art. They don't have time to look sideways, to drink in all the other areas that are starting to spring forth.

So my second job is to be boundless in talking up the project and warming people to the idea that they are part of something larger. It's much like the alienation concept that Marx talked about. I mean Marx also talked some rubbish but the basic gist that a worker works better when they can see how they are contributing to the end is valid and one that my role is supposed to support.

Lastly, I like to see my role as acting as one who can confirm and give comfort to the ideas our teams come up with. I am not smart enough to have many ideas, but I am just about smart enough to spot a good one.

As for my contribution...

I would say that I added about 1% to the game. And that's a ton, a ton more than I thought I would be able to when we first started. My additions are, on the whole, small and curious. Most ideas sprang from the original design and the way that that design was birthed into the game we have today.

Tobold: At the LIFT08 conference you compared MMORPGs to movies. A century ago movies went from just showing moving pictures that fascinated because of this being a new technology to a medium that tells stories. Are MMORPGs heading the same way? Is WAR telling stories, and how does it do that better than the competition?

Paul: Hmm I think MMO's are hobbies, I don't think that the film point is valid. I used the history of film to put forth that the challenges film has faced where potentially industry breaking and yet film survived. I was attempting, a little ham fistedly, to make the connection that the online space faces industry-changing moments, but unlike film faces them faster and more aggressively. Where as film had five big challenges in fifty years we get about fifty big challenges every five.

On the topic of telling stories, I am with the people who see comics as a medium for telling stories and while you could say comics are like film, I mean they both tell stories they are radically different, a comic can not be made into a film, it just can't. You can take the basic ideas, some of the images and pervert them for film but you can't just transpose a comic to film. If you did you would get a static movie with no sound. That might be great for a comic, its lousy for a movie. So MMO's tell stories, player stories in much the same way as comics and films. It is the same desire driven by a different engine and rules.

As for progress in story telling, I am not sure I understand the question. I have seen some fantastic ideas and concepts from games. But most of the concepts and ideas appear in my head, in my imagination. Those emotions, those feelings are not really a shared experience, nor are they owned by the creator of the art. I find it odd when people want to review a movie, because while some of the review can be technical in nature on the whole it is the emotional understanding of the movie that matters and that is a singular experience and, I would hope, different for everyone. So I don't know if story telling will move on. I do know that while MGS4 is curious, I am not sure it's using the medium of a computer game to tell its story, it strikes me more of a passive wrapping up of an idea. I am not convinced that Bio-shock is telling a story with a computer game either. It's more like using a strong art style to fire your imagination. I got a lot of mileage from Lords of Midnight (a very old Spectrum game with basic graphics); have I ever played a game that told me a better story? No I don't think so, and that's not because of the technological limits. Game play is forever, tech is as deep as plastic.

I am not sure how you judge if we do it better than anyone else. I guess if the measure is monetary success then we are up against it. If it's critical response I guess we are in the lap of the reviewers and if it's a personal experience, I guess almost any game can do a good job of that. I fear your question confuses me, which is not that hard to do. We can play in the kitchen of design of a while but at some point we have to kill it, cook it and eat it.

Tobold: In other MMORPGs gameplay changes dramatically when you reach the level cap, will that be the same in WAR? How do you manage the design conflict of having to cater for those players who'd rather spend a long time in leveling-up mode, and those who want to reach the level cap as quickly as possible?

Paul: Er, you don't. Some people just finish things, heck people like finishing things; it's why jigsaws are popular with analogue people. It's why books have a last page; it's why we go on journeys in our car. I like the idea of the journey being as important as the destination, sometimes more so. But some people just don't see it like that. They want completion as fast as possible. So we just don't worry about them. That type of player is not really a core hobbyist. They just like to complete games, most have played a lot of MMO's, a lot, a heck of a lot. They are not true fanatics of the Warhammer game. It's like saying that a man who has a lot of one-night stands is a romantic. But our game caters for them and gives them a great game, but the real game is found in the journey, found in the people who are looking for a warm, challenging and fun game world. A place gripped with the three core drivers of a good hobby, which are skill, commitment and imagination.

Tobold: You described WAR as being Led Zeppelin to WoW's Beatles, with the difference being RvR, or as you call it, "beating the living snot out of other people". Now there are people, including me, who either don't enjoy PvP much, or who feel they can't compete with pimply 12-year olds ganking other players all day. How are you going to sell WAR to us?

Paul: Not sure it's a sales job. We basically took two types of play. I want to kill other people all the time, forever. That's one type and boy have we got a game for you. And the other type I never want to fight another player I want to build a history and enjoy myself against the environment. You can do those two extremes. And there is a third way, where you play as much or as little of each type as you want.

If a player never wants to fight another player, then they can PVE, wait for the cities to fall and enter those for additional PVE content. Attack the bright wizard college, take on the King of the city, wander in the sewers and dungeons, and so forth. There is a ton of game for the PVE lovers of the world.

And you know what, we have a bunch of people who profess not to love PVP and at some point they will give it a go, quite a lot after dipping in their toe find that its not as bad or horrific as they imagined. So you may find you like it, if not, no worries there is oodles of game for you.

Tobold: Thanks for the interview, Paul. Any final message you want to convey to my readers?

Paul: Sign up for beta, come on in and test it out! Give us feedback and enjoy yourself!

Star Wars Online done right?

Being on holiday I nearly missed the announcement from EA at E3 that yes, the unnamed Bioware MMO in the works is Knights of the Old Republic Online. Or maybe has a different name, but will certainly be based on the Knights of the Old Republic role-playing games. Good news indeed.

To understand why everyone is so excited, one has to have played some of the previous Bioware games. They are generally well done, smooth flowing gameplay, and have a stronger focus on storytelling than other RPGs. How that translates into an MMORPG is anyone's guess, but it could be quite exciting.

And of course any KotoR Online game will be significantly different from WoW in not having the typical orcs and elves. Star Wars is a great license to build on, and the previous MMORPG with that license, Star Wars Galaxies, got quite a solid number of players (for the time) in spite of lots of bugs, dubious game design decisions, and complete changes to gameplay in the middle. It is hard to imagine how Bioware could be doing *worse* with that license, so this has a shot at the "next big thing" label.

Of course we might do better to forget about it at the moment, and don't feed the hype. I don't expect this to come out before 2010, and we don't know anything yet about gameplay etc., so maybe it's best to just wait and see.

WotLK beta update

Just a short update to let you know that I got a beta key now. I just need to wait until the European WotLK beta download page is up, it is currently just showing a 403 error message. The US beta is apparently already up and running.

Somebody asked why I would want to play the beta and risk spoiling Wrath of the Lich King for me when it comes out. I've come up with a plan to prevent that: I've decided that when WotLK is released, my priority will be leveling up first my priest, and then either the mage or the warrior to 80, depending on what classes are most in demand for groups. I don't think I'll want to play a deathknight in the release version of WotLK. So the plan is to play the deathknight in the beta. Then either I find out that I like that class more than I thought, or in the worst case scenario, I find out I don't like deathknights, and already have it crossed of my list of things to do. I won't do questing in Northrend in the beta, so the content will remain fresh for me for the real release. I might just take a tour and have a look around the various zones, to help me with orientation later.

Of course I also want to look at the new profession: inscription, and check how it works. So my beta deathknight will be a herbalist / inscriber (apparently you need herbs for that skill). That will help me decide whether I want to unlearn any of my existing tradeskills of my level 70 characters (for example the enchanting of the mage, who doesn't have many recipes) in the release version. And it also helps to already find out what resources I'd need if I wanted to skill up inscription quickly. I did that for Burning Crusade, and already had all the gems needed to get jewelcrafting to 300 before the expansion even came out. Very useful, because after release you can't get the rarer stuff on the auction house any more for a while.

Monday, July 21, 2008

World of Warcraft - The Adventure Game - Review

At the WWI 2008 I saw that Fantasy Flight Games had brought out a second WoW board game, called World of Warcraft - The Adventure Game, which is a lot smaller and easier to play than the huge World of Warcraft - The Board Game. I couldn't get it at the WWI, but then managed to pick it up in a local games store for €30 (it costs $40 in the US). So now I played it first solo to learn the rules, then with my wife, and we both liked it a lot. Here is my review:

World of Warcraft - The Adventure Game (WoWTAG) is played on a 84 x 56 cm board, which is just small enough to fit on a dining room table with all the cards and counters around it. The board depicts the Eastern Kingdoms continent, pre-TBC, from the Plaguelands to Booty Bay. There are 3 major cities, Undercity, Ironforge, and Stormwind, and lots of other locations from WoW. In WoWTAG you play one of 4 possible classes (warrior, mage, hunter, or warlock), so a maximum of 4 players can play. The winner is the first player to collect 8 valor points, by solving quests or collecting trophies. Each game takes around 2 hours, once you get the hang of it. If you want longer or shorter games you could modify the number of points needed for victory.

In each turn a character first rolls a special movement die, which allows him to move 1 to 4 spaces, and also is marked to give 1 to 3 energy at the same time. After movement comes the exploration phase, where the character either interacts with discovery tokens placed by him or other players, or with resources printed on the space he landed on, which can for example heal wounds or give him new ability cards. The next phase is the encounter phase, where usually an encounter card is drawn. Finally there is a maintenace phase, where quests are finished and items are equipped, and then its the next player's turn. Most things in WoWTAG can have 4 levels: grey, green, yellow, or red, and the game comes with 4 stacks of 40 encounter cards for each level. There are nice card holders, which not only make finding the right color easier, but also allow you to draw from the bottom of the deck easily. Cards are drawn from the bottom, because every card has two sides: Usually a monster on the front, and an item on the back. In an encounter you draw the card, fight the monster, and flip the card to get the reward if you win.

Combat is a simple roll of two dice: One for you, one for the mob. You add your attack value to your die roll, and if you roll your enemies defence value or higher, you hit him for as much damage as your damage value is. Same thing for the monster. The 6 on the die is marked with a sword symbol, and often triggers special abilities or effects. The dice are only rolled once per combat, even if both combatants survive. Monsters all just have 1 health and die from any damage, but defeating another player is rather difficult due to this one-round combat; if he wasn't wounded before, it is unlikely you'll defeat him in just one round. There is both melee and ranged combat, with ranged having the advantage that it is counted first.

The 4 different character classes each have a deck with 23 spells and ability cards in it. Some of these can be played in the movement phase, others at the start of combat before rolling the dice, and a third class can be played at any time, or under special conditions listed on the card. Combat abilities modify your attack, defence, or damage values, or they are "weapon replacement effect". For example a frostbolt is such a weapon replacement effect, which works like a ranged weapon of attack value 3. You start with 3 such ability cards, there are various ways to draw new ones, and you can hold a maximum of 10 in your hand. Most of them use the energy shown on the movement die, but you can use mana potions and other effects if you didn't roll enough energy for all the abilities you wanted to use this turn.

What makes every game different is not only the randomness of the encounter cards, but also the quests. You start with two starting quests, which give one or two valor points each, and then go to elite quests, which give two to three valor points. As you need 8 valor points to win, you'll need to do four to five quests. Or you can attack a boss mob like Hakkar in Zul'Gurub for a 4-point trophy for a quick win, but of course these aren't easy to beat. Many quests ask you to visit specific locations, or kill a number of specific monsters. There are also "PvP" quests, in which you need to damage or defeat another player. If you don't like the quest you got, you can go to a quest giver in a city and get a new quest, discarding the old one. You always have two quests active, never more, never less.

World of Warcraft - The Adventure Game is cleverly named, because gameplay has a lot of adventuring in it. The board starts empty, but then fills up with quest locations, global events, location event cards, and undefeated monsters, making it different every time. You always need to make decisions of whether you want to hang around killing easy monsters, hoping for some good weapon or armor to help you, or whether you want to visit the special dungeon spaces to level up, or whether you want to pursue quests right away. Luck plays a big role in WoWTAG, but clever planning and use of abilities is also very important.

WoWTAG can be played with 2 players, although then you might want to add some house-rules modifying the PvP part; like allowing players to redraw when they get a quest requiring them to kill another player, because otherwise you get lots of stupid chases. With 3 or 4 players you can do PvP as intended, and the more players adding more stuff on the board also makes the game more fun. This is a fun adventure game, not a highly serious strategy game. I don't know for sure, but WoWTAG looks as if Fantasy Flight Games could release expansions, adding the other continent of Kalimdor, and more character classes for example. World of Warcraft - The Adventure Game is fun even for people who don't know WoW, but of course meeting familiar monsters and places makes it even better for people who played the MMORPG. Recommended!

Wrath of the Lich King beta started

So the Wrath of the Lich King beta started, making it likely that the expansion will come out before christmas. If you haven't "opted in" to the beta yet, you should do that on your World of Warcraft account page. Log in your account as normal, scroll down to the last option, and there should be the WotLK beta opt-in, which is free. Then you still need to wait for an e-mail to invite you. I haven't got one yet.

What I did get was a FAKE WotLK beta invite, but I didn't fall for it, as it lead to a site with a .tk domain. Be very, very careful of those. They lead you to a fake account login screen, and when you enter your userID and password there, you'll find all your characters stripped naked the next day, if not deleted. Do not enter your userID and password on any site which isn't https, for a safe connection, and is, or

I haven't entered my WWI code for "one future Blizzard beta" yet, because when I got it the codes weren't working yet. But even with the code one doesn't necessarily get WotLK beta access. What I *could* enter now that patch 2.4.3 is out is my code for the Tyrael pet, so now my priest has a somewhat chubby angel floating behind him. Cute!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Open Sunday Thread

Sorry for being late with the open Sunday thread, but I was busy with holiday activities. Anyway, here it is, your thread to suggest subjects and talk about whatever you like.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Playing football online

A note my American readers: This post is about online versions of what Europeans call football, which differs from American football in that it is actually played with the feet only. You might know it under the name of "soccer".

I'm in the last week of my holidays, and when I wasn't going out or doing other holiday stuff, I basically spent most of my computer time playing the beta of Football Manager Live. FML is organized in seasons taking about one real-world month each. And I just started less than a month ago, so for the first time I'm experiencing the end of a season. And it's exciting! I'm currently 4th in my division, so I'll probably make the playoffs, and get a chance for promotion to the premiership of the "early evening football association" I'm in.

The other exciting thing about the end of season is that the contracts of many players run out. You can only auto-extend the contracts of 5 of your players, for the others you'll have to bid against any other manager. As there is still too much money in the economy, some rich managers bid very high wages, up to 50k per day for world class players. But I bid much lower amounts for good, not-quite-world-class players, and got some good improvements and reserves on the cheap.

But as I mentioned before, playing a football manager in an online game isn't for everybody. It's great for strategists like me, but boring for people who want a bit more action. But one of my readers wrote me and alerted me to another online football game coming out soon: Football Superstars. Here you don't play a football manager, but a football player. The games are actual 11 vs. 11 "PvP" matches, with only the goalkeepers being AI controlled, the other 10 players on each side are controlled by humans. The game is download for free, play for free, probably with microtransactions for fancy outfits somewhere thrown in. Because when you aren't playing a match, you can hang out in bars or the gym, and chat with the other players, everything is 3D. Not for me, I prefer the text and 2D matches of FML, but I must admit that Football Superstars looks better. But then I guess most matches are pickup group vs. pickup group, as it will be hard to form fixed teams and get everyone together every night to play your leagues. I wonder how the teams will be managed, maybe they need a football manager after all. :)

Friday, July 18, 2008

Is World of Warcraft too easy?

If you take 10 million random people and sort them by height, you'll get a bell curve called a Gauss curve, or "normal distribution": There are very few very tall people, some tall people, lots of average height people, some small people, and very few very small people. The reason this is called a normal distribution is because most natural distributions look like this. And although it is much harder to measure, if you sorted the 10 million World of Warcraft players by skill, you'd get the same distribution. 7ou'll get everything from low skill to extremely skilled, with the large majority being somewhere in the middle. Only the very low skill end of the curve is missing, because people who don't have enough skill to even do one quest won't play very long.

And the same is true with every other game. People have different skills in video gaming. And if your skill isn't high enough for the minimum skill level needed to succeed, you don't play. I suck at first person shooters, so I don't play them. Which means my dollars are lost to the game companies making first person shooters. So Blizzard, clever as they are, made World of Warcraft very easy. Many people who have difficulties to succeed in the average video game still manage to kill monsters and do quests in World of Warcraft. And the learning curve for WoW isn't steep at all. You get new abilities every two levels, but most of them aren't any harder to use than the first two abilities you started the game with. If you managed to kill that wolf at level 1 to gain your very first experience point, chances are you'll also be able to kill that level 69 mob that makes you ding 70.

But shooting for the lower end of the skill curve has one disadvantage: Soloing in World of Warcraft in most cases isn't very exciting if you are of average skill or above. If a game is too easy, it isn't challenging enough to be fun. That is why so many people rush through the leveling game and try to get to the level cap as quickly as possible, even paying other people for power-leveling them to there. At the level cap you can group, and you can raid, and while you still don't need to be a rocket scientist to successfully group or raid, you definitely need more skill for that than for soloing. You need to watch what the other players in your group or raid are doing, and the combats last longer, forcing you to think about concepts like mana efficiency or regeneration.

Now if World of Warcraft was much harder, it probably wouldn't have gotten 10 million subscribers. Being accessible to everyone is a strength. But I wonder if WoW wasn't even better if it offered more challenge to players for who it is too easy. Sure, you can fight monsters of higher level than you are even now. But why would you? The fights last twice as long and don't give twice the xp, so in the end you'll level slower if you search the challenge. There is no solo content which would give better loot for higher challenge, like a group dungeon does. And groups at lower level nowadays are hard to find, if your time schedule would allow you participation at all. I'd love to see solo instanced class quests, like Age of Conan has in the lower levels, introduced to World of Warcraft as well. They could even be designed to teach you your various class skill, by having challenges you can only overcome by using your class-specific spells and abilities.

Or of course the expansions that add levels to the game could have those levels be more difficult (and not just longer) than the previous levels. Unfortunately I don't think Blizzard is about to do that. I'm looking forward to Wrath of the Lich King for the exploration of the new content. But I doubt soloing up to 80 will challenge me, or most other WoW players.

Watch your fingers!

Or even better, film them. I got a request from beginning game designer Sara Pickell, who is looking for footage of your hands while playing World of Warcraft or another MMORPG. I'd help, but I don't even own a video camera.

The request makes me wonder whether other game designers looked into how ergonomic their keyboard layout was, and how much button mashing it involved. I am good with keyboards for the rather ordinary use of typing (I type 50 words per minute), but some games get my fingers all tangled up. For example I found the combos in Age of Conan hard to type as fast as I wanted, and ended up putting them all on macro keys of my G15 keyboard. For WoW I'm not using keyboard macros at all.

How about you? Are there MMORPGs which you find easier or harder to use by keyboard than others?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Offline skill training

I stumbled upon a blog entry by mbp on The Tyranny of Skill Training, where he complains that he has to log into EVE at certain times to start the next skill training. In EVE you train skills in real time, whether you are online or not. If a skill training ends while you are offline, you are effectively losing training time until you log on and start the next; there is no queueing. Football Manager Live, the game I'm currently playing, has a similar system. But when you are not learning a skill, at least you are gathering the time as a bonus. So if you haven't learned a skill for 1 hour, and you start learning the next skill, you get 1 hour of double speed progress in the skill training. Good improvement!

Football Manager Live also has a skill planner, where you can say what final skill you want to reach, and the planner proposes the fastest way to get there, including all possible learning bonus skills and prerequisites. That *looks* like a queue, but still isn't one, you still have to learn skills manually. I guess that the reason that neither EVE nor FML have queues is that they don't want players to open an account and only log in once per month until they have a fully skilled character. That is a good idea. But the result is that you feel you need to log on at specific times, to start your next training, and sometimes that time is rather inconvenient.

So I was wondering why these games couldn't simply include a short queue, that is you are learning one skill and can already queue one next skill after that, not more. In that case you don't have to log on exactly when the first skill learning is finished. You could log on at any time afterwards, as long as the second skill is still in training, and queue up the next skill without loss of time. You still can't program skill training for long periods, but at least you don't feel as if you should log on at 3 am or lose valuable training time.

It's the numbers, stupid!

Sorry for borrowing slogans from Bill Clinton, but sometimes I think that we are overly fixated on feature lists of MMORPGs, and don't look enough at the numerical details. In this post I am going to argue that numbers are extremely important in the design of a MMORPG, and can completely change how a game is played.

But first a real-life example: In the air that you breathe there is 20.9% of oxygen. If for some reason the oxygen concentration drops below 19.5%, this officially counts as Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health. As you can see, a small numerical change in oxygen concentration (less than 2% absolute, 10% relative) can have rather serious consequences.

MMORPGs are ruled by numbers. Every sword blow, every spell is a calculation. Your level, and your experience points, are counted in numbers. Your whole character is a collection of numbers in the form of stats. And what these numbers are, and how they evolve, is to a large extent decided by game developers. A big part of game development consists of balancing numbers, and the decisions taken there have a huge influence on how the players will play the game.

I recently realized one interesting example when I made a gnome deathknight in the Wrath of the Lich King demonstration version at the WWI 2008 in Paris. I made a female gnome deathknight with pink hair, just because the idea was so silly. But in reality the gnome deathknight only *looks* silly. While in many other games a small character like a gnome or halfling would do considerably less melee damage than a big character like a tauren or ogre, in World of Warcraft there isn't any noticeable difference. The gnome deathknight is as efficient a killing machine as the tauren deathknight, despite the obvious difference in height and muscles. That is a design decision by Blizzard, and it leads to people playing and race/class combination without having to worry about the effect on stats.

Another example is the group xp bonus in World of Warcraft. There isn't any for a 2-person group, so if a mob gives 100 xp if you kill it solo, it gives only 50 xp if you kill it in a 2-person group. As in most situations a 2-person group does NOT kill twice as fast as a single player, you end up getting less xp per hour if grouped with a friend. There is a 40% xp bonus for 5-man groups, so the same 100 xp solo mob now gives 28 xp if killed by a full group. In that case you would need to kill 4 times as fast as a single player to make more xp per hour in a group than solo, which again is hardly possible; the spawn rate alone would prevent you from doing so. It is easy to see that the group xp bonus is completely arbitrary. But now imagine we would increase the bonus in a way that generally you would get *more* xp per hour if you killed monsters in a group than if you did it solo. It would turn World of Warcraft into a game where between level 1 and 70 a lot more grouping would happen than now. It wouldn't change the fact that you can solo all the way up to 70, but it would increase the incentive to group with strangers and make new friends, thereby adding the missing "massively multiplayer" part to the leveling part of World of Warcraft. Change the numbers, and you change the game.

My last example is combat. Having played several different MMORPGs this year, I noticed that one typical fight in each game takes a different amount of time, and a different number of keystrokes. For example in Age of Conan combat is very quick; at level 1 some casters can kill a level 1 mob with a single spell. World of Warcraft has a medium speed combat. And other games are even slower. Again that is an important design decision which is completely numerical. If combat is faster, it becomes less tactical. By the time my rogue in WoW has three combo points on a mob and could use the "expose armor" finishing strike, the mob is dead already, and the ability doesn't make sense for this short combat. When he is in a group, fighting a longer fight against some boss mob, the ability suddenly becomes interesting. Again the game would be very much different if there was a numerical change to damage output and health of characters and mobs, making fights longer or shorter.

Of course there are many more examples, I can't list them all. But I hope I was able to make my point that numerical parameters in games are at least as important, if not more, than the typical bullet point list of features you can see in any game announcement. If you see an announced Wrath of the Lich King feature like "New tradeskill: inscription", giving you the ability to modify your spells and abilities to do more damage, or crit more, or have added effects like knockback, that sounds very cool. But how important this new inscription profession is going to be depends solely on the numbers: How much do the inscriptions cost? How much more damage or crit or added effect are they giving? By changing the numbers inscriptions could range from totally useless to something everyone must have. There could be interesting tactical choices, or it could be a boring must-grind-for-best-mats affair where one inscription is strictly better than another. The bullet point announcement really tells us nothing. The real effect is in the numbers.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Happy 5th birthday, blog!

My two very first posts, and with them the creation of this blog happened exactly 5 years ago today, in 2003. Since then the blog has come a long way: From an initial readership of zero it has grown to nearly 3,000 direct visits per day, plus 2,000 readers of the RSS feed. I don't have a total of the RSS feed readers (which are only estimated by feedburner anyway), but the total of visitors is over 1.8 million.

Even more important to me is the smaller core of regular readers and commenters, who have managed to get something like a community going, with every post receiving dozens of intelligent comments, and only very few troll posts. While the discussion sometimes gets heated, in general the community here has much higher standards than those of typical official game sites or rant forums.

So I would like you thank you all for your intelligent and polite contributions. If you browse through the 5 years of history of this blog, you will find that it was the feedback from readers that encouraged me to continue. I couldn't have done it without you. Thank you!

Cheating and modding now illegal

The decision of the judge is out in the law suit between Blizzard and the makers of the Glider bot, MDY Industries, and it is broadly in favor of Blizzard. They didn't get through with their DMCA claim, but Glider was ruled to infringe Blizzard's copyright:
"The Court reaches the following conclusions on the basis of undisputed facts, construction of the EULA and TOU, and controlling Ninth Circuit law: Blizzard owns a valid copyright in the game client software, Blizzard has granted a limited license for WoW players to use the software, use of the software with Glider falls outside the scope of the license established in section 4 of the TOU, use of Glider includes copying to RAM within the meaning of section 106 of the Copyright Act, users of WoW and Glider are not entitled to a section 117 defense, and Glider users therefore infringe Blizzard’s copyright. MDY does not dispute that the other requirements for contributory and vicarious copyright infringement are met, nor has MDY established a misuse defense. The Court accordingly will grant summary judgment in favor of Blizzard with respect to liability on the contributory and vicarious copyright infringement claims in Counts II and III."
Which means that ANY program modifying the "copy" of World of Warcraft or any other game in the RAM is a copyright infringement. Any wall hack, speed hack, teleport hack etc. now not only makes you a despicable cheater, but is now actually against the law. Any unauthorized mod is a copyright infringement. Welcome to a brave new world!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Getting game economies right is hard

I mentioned before that I was in the Football Manager Live beta, that it has no NDA, and that the economy wasn't working yet. Please keep in mind that I'm talking about a beta, and of course the problem might be fixed before the game is released. But I found it a good example of why game companies might want to hire an economist, like the makers of EVE have done.

In Football Manager Live, you start out with a small amount of money, and a daily income of about £100,000. You select a team of players and substitutes, all of which want a daily wage. Those daily wages are your only expense (up to now), so you take players whose combines wages are less than £100,000, and there you go. If you make a profit at the end of the day (or rather accumulated over several days), you can invest that money into buying better players from other managers. By having better players, and by winning competitions, your reputation goes up, and so does your daily income. So, does this sound like a good economic model to you?

If you said yes, or are a developer for FML, you overlooked a small problem: Nearly everybody will be clever enough to pay less wages than his daily income. So every day the amount of money in the system is increasing. Managers on average get richer all the time. And as they can only spend that money on player transfers, this causes a huge inflation in the market value of all good players. On the game world I'm on, top players can go for over £10 million, and the prices are constantly going up.

Now originally the idea was that if you buy an expensive player, you would need to balance the added income he brings by increasing your reputation and chance to win competitions against his wage and the money you pay for the transfer. But if you know that the same player will be worth more tomorrow than he is worth today, you don't need to worry about whether he wins games for you any more. You don't even need to worry whether you can actually use him in your team, or you already have far too many strikers (they tend to go for the most money). If you bought the player for £3 million, and sell him at the end of the season for £5 million, the trading gain you make far exceeds any potential effect of the player on your match win ratio.

So some people now play Football Manager Live without actually caring a damn about line-ups or tactics. They just scout the markets daily for promising young players, or cheap offers of middle-aged players. If the managers have been playing a while, they got the "judge potential" skill, which shows them how good a young player will probably become when he gets a bit older, huge advantage if you're trading. So they buy cheap, sell at huge profits, and quickly amass great fortunes. And the sad thing is that because they have their teams stacked full of superstars, they also tend to win games a lot. New managers coming later into the game don't have a chance.

Fortunately the devs are on the right track, and are talking about adding other money sinks to the game. I hope that in the release version there is something resembling a balanced economy. Hyper-inflation destroys economies, whether they are virtual or real.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Are NDAs a good idea?

Rohan asked in the open Sunday thread whether NDAs were a good idea. He says: "My initial thought is that if you have a good game, an NDA will cut down on the amount of hype or positive publicity you can generate. If you have a bad game, people are going to ignore your NDA and post anyways, as the only repercussion is getting kicked out of the Beta/game." Interesting thought! Although it paints a grim picture of the only reason for people not breaking a legally binding contract is if the punishment for the infraction hurts them. At least the game companies must think that people who sign an NDA will actually stick to it, regardless of the quality of the game.

My take on NDAs is that they are a form of attempted control of public relations. I'm in one beta without NDA, Football Manager Live, so I can state freely that I like the game, even if the economy is screwed up. But then Football Manager Live probably needs all the publicity it can get, even if it's just me writing about it on a blog. I'm in another beta, for Warhammer Online, where the NDA only allows me to say that I'm the beta, and not what I think about the game. And I think that is what the guys from Mythic want. They have a huge and well-functioning marketing machine, one that is even more impressive than that of Blizzard. They have monthly newsletter, the Warhammer Herald, video podcasts, developer's blogs, they got everything. If they have bad news, like, hmmm, lets say not being able to finish 4 classes and 4 cities before release, they prefer to have Mark Jacobs doing the announcement and writing detailed explanations on various game forums. They have the PR under control.

And, beta leaks or no beta leaks, at least for them it works. They can live without the potential hype from people in the beta, because they already get enough hype from people who are NOT in the beta, who just react to what Mythic fed them. There are already lots of WAR fan blogs, in spite of the fact that the game isn't even out yet. I think they are much better off with the NDA they have. If you see some of the "beta leaks", you'll notice that they are based on outdated information, or misinterpret a test of something as being a problem in the future release. How would a game company be able to use a beta test to actually test something if then everybody went "I just saw this in the beta and I hate it" publicly? The purpose of the beta test is for the beta testers to say "I hate this" to the devs, and the devs to take it our or make it better for the release version.

The only "beta leaks" I believe in are those like in the case of Vanguard, where Sigil said "we are releasing this game in 3 weeks" and all the beta testers collectively went "no way!". But for games which still have months of development ahead of them, I'd rather have an NDA, and us relying on official announcements instead of rumors. I'm willing to worry if Mark Jacobs tells me that Empire won't have tanks, but I'm not willing to do so if some beta tester says that there were no tanks on the Empire character selection screen. Only when the game is released, or at least very close to release, or the developers say so, do we really know what features are in or not in. If NDAs keep the premature rumors low, than that is fine with me.