Sunday, August 31, 2008

Wizard101 Review

In KingsIsle's Wizard101 you play Harry Potter a young wizard student in the magical school of Hogwarts Ravenwood. Under the guidance of headmaster Dumbledore Merle Ambrose you help to defend the school against the evil plans of the dark wizard Voldemort Malistaire Drake. As you can see from the lore, the game is targeted at children, and has all the child-proof features you could wish for. And the graphics are suitable for children too, even the undead look cute! So why would I be talking about a game for children? Because the combat system is more intelligent than that of World of Warcraft or any similar game.

Combat in Wizard101 is based on trading cards. You put together a deck, of which you draw a random hand of 7 at the start of combat, and redraw new cards for every card you played. Cards have a cost from 0 to 4 "pips", and you gain one pip every round. So if you want to play higher cost cards, you need to either pass or play only 0 cost cards for some rounds to accumulate pips. Every card you play results in some animation, usually summoning something that attacks the enemy. The downside of that is that you can't turn off or speed up those animations, so every combat lasts even longer than in WAR.

Cards come in 7 different magic schools, fire, ice, myth, storms, life, death, and balance. You choose one of these schools at the start, but you also get "training points" during your career, which allow you to buy spells from other schools. But as you can only buy the higher level spells of other schools if you already have all the lower level spells of that same school, it is usually best to put all training points into the same secondary school. You have infinite copies of the spells you learned. In addition to that you can put golden "treasure" spell cards into your sideboard, which you can access by discarding cards in combat and pressing the draw button. These treasure cards are one use only, and you can get them as loot, or quest reward, or buy them for gold.

Besides cards you also collect gear, which has bonuses to your health and mana, or to the spell damage of some school, or to spell resistances. Some items even give you access to new spells. Health and mana does not regenerate after combat. You need to find red and blue wisps to recharge them, or teleport back to the city where you can play various puzzle games at the fairgrounds to replenish.

Gameplay is typical for an easy MMO: You get quests telling you to kill some monsters or to talk to somebody. Doing the quests and killing monsters gives you xp, which make your level go up, which gives you more health and mana, as well as access to more spells. The zones in Wizard City are streets, where (how educational) you are safe if you stick to the sidewalk, but can be attacked on the road. If you run into a monster, a magical circle opens up with you and that monster, where you exchange attacks until one of you dies. Other players can join that circle, but then other monsters can add to the combat too, so that up to 4 players can fight up to 4 monsters at the same time. Big advantage: If you fight in a group all the kills count for everyone, so if you have to kill X mobs it is often faster to join other player's fights than soloing everything. But you can't form fixed groups, and there aren't any guilds in the game either. You do have a friends list, and you can teleport to where your friends are. The quest line is rather linear, if you play Wizards101 a second time, you'll play exactly the same quests again, only with presumably different spells.

Wizard101 is in the last phase of the beta, the headstart phase in which characters won't be deleted any more for release. Once the game is released, you can still try it for free. Half of the first world, Wizard City, is accessible without paying, which means you can level up to about level 12 and decide whether you like the game. If you want to go on, there is a monthly subscription fee of $9.95. At some point in the future KingsIsle also wants to introduce a RMT system, where you can pay real dollars for a second virtual currency called crowns. Crowns can be exchanged against gold, or you can buy extra good gear with crowns, if you want to advance faster.

Wizard101 is a good game. It is remarkably stable and bug-free. It isn't as big as WoW or WAR, and more linear. But if you can overlook the child-suitable graphics and like more tactical combat than classic MMORPGs can offer, Wizard101 might be the game for you. And as you can try it for free, I can only suggest checking it out. Recommended!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Open Sunday Thread

Another Sunday, another open thread where you can suggest subjects for discussion and talk about whatever you like.

Touch screen McDonald's

I ate at McDonald's today, something that doesn't happen all that often. So I was surprised how far technology had come in that place. They had touch screens there now, where I could place my order, pay with a credit card, get a receipt, and go with that receipt to the counter, where somebody was already filling my tray with my order. That went a lot faster than the usual dialogue with the person at the counter, especially when the restaurant is crowded and loud. Good idea!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Public Quests

Probably the most acclaimed feature in all the post-NDA reports on Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is public quests. Even the people who reported negatively on WAR usually had something nice to say about public quests. Pretty much everyone who tried public quests found them fun, and so did I. But I didn't want to write about them too early, because I think the analysis of public quests requires some deeper thought: How do they work? Why are they fun? And could they become a standard feature of every future MMO?

I'll start with a description of how public quests work in WAR. Public quests happen in open world areas: You walk around in the open world and suddenly find that you just entered a public quest, with a big message in the middle of the screen alerting you to that fact, and a smaller message telling you about the state of that quest. The state of a public quest is, as the name suggests, public, and not private like the other quests. While a normal quests would ask you to kill 10 foozles, a public quest demands 100 foozles to be killed, but doesn't care who does the killing. Typically a public quest has 3 stages (at least I didn't see any other number): In the first stage a number of normal mobs has to be killed, and there is no time limit. In the second stage there is a time limit, typically 10 minutes, to perform a smaller number of tasks, which are somewhat more difficult. For example to destroy 8 catapults, guarded by champion mobs. You can usually solo a champion mob of your level, but it takes much more time. In the third stage typically a hero monster has to be killed, which definitely can't be soloed, and again there is a time limit.

Everybody in the same public quest area sees the same quest status. And to kill the final hero mob of the third stage, players necessarily have to work together, or at least simultaneously beat on the same target. Once the final mob dies, a treasure chest appears, and loot is handed out in a so-called Vegas Loot System. Basically all your actions in the three stages of the public quest were counted in invisible contribution points. The person with the highest contribution point score receives a "gold medal", giving him +400 on his loot roll. The other high contributors get lesser medals and less bonus points on their loot roll. Then everyone rolls a random number between 1 and 1,000, and adds his bonus from the contribution to that. The rolls are invisible, but you can click on the loot window to see the details. The high roller gets the best loot bag, and the other players get lesser loot bags depending on their total roll. If too many players participated, some will get no loot at all. Obviously getting a +400 bonus on a 1 to 1,000 roll gives you an increased chance to come out on top, but you can still roll a 1 and come up empty, while people who contributed much less roll a 1,000 and get the top loot bag. A loot bag, when opened, gives you a choice of various treasures. Even epics can be found in the best loot bags, starting as low as level 10. If you already got the item from your loot bag, or better, you can always take the trade goods or money. After distributing the treasure, the public quest resets and starts over with stage 1.

Even if you never roll high enough to get a loot bag, you will be rewarded. Every monster killed gives out some influence points, distributed among everyone who contributed (including healers). Typically killing a stage 1 monster all alone would give you 100 influence points. Influence points accumulate on a bar to the right of the mini-map showing three reward levels. At about 2,500, and about 5,000, and about 10,000 influence you can get a reward (these values from the preview weekend, not sure about higher levels). Getting the reward doesn't reduce your influence point counter, and you can get each level of reward only once, so usually it is best to gather the 10,000 points and get all three rewards. The first reward is just a potion or so, the second a green item, and the last reward a blue item which is better than anything you could get as random drop or regular quest reward, albeit not quite as good as the best reward from the Vegas Loot System for the same public quest.

Usually there are several (2 or 3) public quests in the same zone, and they share the same influence point counter, but as far as I know have different Vegas Loot tables, so after winning the top loot bag you might want to move on to the next one. Or if you are in a group repeat the same one and hope a friend wins next time. There are even some RvR public quests, in which for example the orcs have to kill 100 dwarf NPCs, while the dwarves have to kill 100 orc NPCs. Only of course that doing so will flag you for PvP, and enable the players of the other faction to kill you and slow down your killing spree, so they can finish theirs first. First faction to kill their 100 enemies advances into stage 2, while the other faction can only try to sabotage them from completing the next stages.

If you are alone, you can solo the first stage and then usually fail to do the second stage, but will certainly fail on the third stage. So no solo epics for you, but at least you can grind influence points. A decent full group working together, or slightly more people if they don't cooperate, can finish the third stage (again this is observation from tier 1 and 2 from the preview weekend). But there is no way to limit participation, so sometimes there are 20 people or more in the same public quest. That finishes the public quest quickly, but of course you only have a 1 in 20 chance to get the best loot bag. And you'll have to decide whether you join a group (usually there is at least one open group going in any public quest), or just let everyone fight for himself. Groups are usually more effective, because influence points are evenly distributed between them. Not sure about contribution points, as they are invisible, but I didn't have the impression that they were evenly distributed in groups. Dirty little secret: Healing appears to give a lot of contribution points, my healer in one big public quest with over a dozen players came on top of the contribution list 4 times in a row.

So what makes public quests so much fun and so much different from lets say World of Warcraft gameplay? In WoW in the open world, other players are basically your enemies: The last thing you want if you are on a quest to collect 10 foozle ears in a certain area is to arrive in that area and find already half a dozen other players there hunting foozles. They'll kill "your" foozles, and force you to wait for respawns. Even if you could persuade them to group with you, you'd end up getting your quest items slower than if you had soloed with no one around. In a WAR public quest, other players are automatically your allies. The open group system makes it much easier to join them in a group, but even if you prefer not to group it is better to have those other players around, so there is a chance to kill the stage 3 boss and get some loot.

But shouldn't WAR public quests rather be compared to WoW dungeons? Lets do that! A WoW dungeon has an upper limit of players you can bring. And it is usually balanced so that you need a good mix of classes and talent specs. It is totally possible for 4 players to be looking for a 5th to start a dungeon, and then rejecting somebody who wants to join them because he doesn't have the right class. WoW is exclusive in forming groups, you want to exclude certain players to have a chance to succeed. In a WAR public quest the 4 players could already start killing mobs in stage 1 instead of stupidly standing around the meeting stone. *Any* 5th player joining them would be welcome, because there is no upper limit to people who can participate. Even if the person joining is contributing very little, he will contribute *something*, and have only a lower chance to win the final loot. Last guy joins the group and there is still no healer? No problem at all, lets turn the group into a warband, which is like a raid, only that you still gain xp and everything. At some point the group will be large enough to kill the final boss regardless of group composition. WAR is inclusive, you want to include as many people as possible into your public quest group to speed things up. You *could* make a closed group, but that wouldn't prevent other players from gaining contribution and influence points, so there is no advantage to it. Forming a big group is usually better, because it helps with healing and buffing.

Are public quests perfect? Certainly not. One problem is that they aren't marked on your map before you stumble upon them. So of the several public quests in the same zone it is totally possible to have one overcrowded, because it is closest to a road, while some other public quest is standing empty in some corner. Of course you can transform that into an advantage if you are playing with friends and guildmates, by leaving the crowded PQ and looking for the empty one you could have for yourself. There are some minor balancing problems, with some public quests being noticeably harder than others in the same zone. But of course the main problem is that you have very little control about the number of participants, and can be stuck either with not enough people to complete the last stage, or with so many players around that your chance for good loot is slim. But fortunately at least the overcrowding tends to auto-balance, with people leaving out of frustration or because they got lucky with the loot, or just filled up their influence counter to maximum.

So, if public quests are so great, what are the chances that lets say World of Warcraft just copies the idea for their 3rd expansion? Not as high as you might think. One obstacle is that you can't just borrow part of the concept. Imagine a public quest in WoW where the first group to deal damage to the final boss gets all the loot, with everyone else coming up empty; it's clear that this wouldn't work. The contribution points and Vegas loot system are integral to the public quest system. Even the open group system is, if not necessary, then at least a strong contributor to the overall fun of public quests. That's a lot of new features to add, especially since Blizzard already demonstrated that looking for group systems and contribution systems (in battlegrounds for example) aren't their strong suit. Another problem is that public quests are great if you have them from level 1 to the level cap, because they are a good alternative to solo questing if you want to level and gear up. How would WoW do that? Rebuild all the old zones to introduce public quests in every zone? That would be a huge amount of content to add, most of it barely used, I doubt even Blizzard would have the manpower to pull that off. And if public quests only existed in the new zones of a new expansion, lets say only from level 80 to 90, then their impact would be much diminished. They would also pose a risk to standard dungeons of the same level, as people might prefer getting their gear in public quests instead of wasting time looking for a group for a dungeon. In short, public quests are kind of incompatible with World of Warcraft in its current form, and I don't see Blizzard completely changing their game just to introduce them. We might see public quests in WoW2 or World of Starcraft, but not in some WoW expansion.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Blame the lore

My apologies for a recent flippant remark saying that there were only 3 people out there actually reading the lore. That was an unjust exaggeration. But I'm afraid I'm going to cause further unhappiness to the lore fans with this post. The thing is that both Keen and /random are discussing how sad it is that WAR only has 2 realms, not 3. Quote: "Rock-Paper-Scissors is a lot more fun than Rock-Paper, ya know?" That made me think *why* Mythic chose to go for just two realms. And the answer is definitely the lore.

Whether it is Tolkien, Star Wars, or the Warhammer lore, most epic war stories are good vs. evil. In real history "good" and "evil" aren't so clearly defined, but 3-way wars are still extremely rare. 3-way fights are a lot more common in video games which don't start out with an existing license. Dark Age of Camelot or Starcraft didn't have pre-existing lore which would prevent them from having 3 warring parties.

If you have "good" and "evil" fighting each other, what third party could you add to that? "Neutral" doesn't seem to be a good choice, because why would they fight the two others instead of just staying out of it? Furthermore the interest of 3 realms is that any two can gang up against the third. Can you see good and evil allying themselves against those wicked neutral guys? It is a lot harder to come up with a good story of why there are three realms, all equally strong, with any possible combination of 2 against 1 working as well as free-for-all combat of everyone against everyone.

So as long as MMORPGs use lore from other sources, we won't be seeing many 3-way wars anytime soon. A third party in Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning simply wouldn't work well from the lore point of view, even if it would be an improvement from the gameplay point of view.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

WoW is fighting back

Blizzard just announced that parts of Wrath of the Lich King content will already be released "in the coming weeks" in a patch that will presumably be called patch 3.0. So we get the new spells and talents, barbershops, new arenas, guild calendar, and the inscription profession in advance, for free. Death Knights and Northrend you'll have to wait and pay for. Not a huge surprise that, they did the same with patch 2.0 before The Burning Crusade.

But many people interpret the patch announcement, and the new features that were announced for Wrath of the Lich King and which just happen to be similar to features that Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning has, to be a defensive move by Blizzard. Are they getting nervous of losing a million customers to WAR? Well, they would be stupid if they did nothing. Even Age of Conan cost them subscribers, even if they said later that 40% of those came back.

I wouldn't read too much into specific announcement or release dates, nor into specific features. I don't think Blizzard conjured up Lake Winterspring in a week because they realized they needed keep siege warfare to counter WAR, features like that must have been in preparation for a long time. Who can say whether the inspiration for the new WotLK achievement system was WAR or one of many older games already having that? And frankly, stealing features from WAR wouldn't even be a good strategy to fight it; the WoW keep siege warfare and achievement system will naturally be inferior to the WAR one, because they weren't integrated into the game right from the start. If WoW wanted to really hurt WAR, they would have to announce features that WAR doesn't have, like player housing for example.

Anyway, I'm happy if both the Blizzard developers and the Mythic developers are well aware of their competition. I hope it will make them work harder and better. Especially Blizzard was a bit too complacent about their invulnerable market position. Competition in the end is always good for the customer.

Aren't you getting tired at night?

I get up at 6:30 in the morning, start working at 8, leave work at 5, come home around 6, eat, and start playing. Last night I was playing World of Warcraft again for a change, and my guild was interrupting their summer raiding break with some light Kara raiding. I wasn't signed up, but they needed another healer, so I joined with my priest. Raid started around 8, and by 11 I was deadly tired. Some other priest from my guild logged on and asked for a raid spot, and I let him have mine, happy to be able to go to bed. I'm sure the other guys continued raiding past midnight. Am I the only one getting tired at night?

Playing late is certainly part of the raiding culture. Raids don't start at 6 in the evening, but rather later, so everyone has time to come home, bring the kids to be if he has any, or do other family duties. If you are unlucky like me, you live in the later timezone of all the zones covered by your server; when it's midnight for me, it's only 11 for the Brits I'm playing with. On the weekends I can sleep longer in the morning and am less tired at night, but raiding until after midnight on Sunday night comes back to haunt you on Monday morning when the alarm rings. So I really wonder how everyone makes it. Are they just younger and less tired than me? Can they all sleep longer in the morning?

One thing I'm looking forward to with Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is that the group activities are less structured. Nobody cares if one healer goes to bed at 11 in the middle of a keep raid, it's not like a WoW raid which would stop if someone left until a replacement could be found. A public quest you can start whenever there are other people around, and leave whenever you don't want to play any more. There is no need to stay up beyond the point of exhaustion. I might be missing some 3 am keep raids, but I don't care. I need my 7 to 8 hours of beauty sleep every night!

Investment in MMORPG development

Mark Jacobs from Mythic borrowed some content from Dr. Seuss, and posted the following rhyme on Warhammeralliance (via Waaagh!):
I meant what I said
I said what I meant
I don’t need to get WoW’s subs
Not 100%.
There are a lot of good reasons why this is true, why he doesn't need 100%. One major reason is that half the famous "10 million" subscribers of World of Warcraft aren't actually subscribers paying a monthly fee. In China WoW is paid for by the hour with gamecards. The rate is much cheaper than in the US or Europe, and the local distributor The9 takes a big cut of the money. So a Chinese "subscriber" is worth only a fraction of a western one to Blizzard. Mythic is only going for the western market (plus Australia). So if instead of getting 100% of WoW's subs they only get, lets say, 10% of 10 million, they still get 20% of the more valuable market from Blizzard. Which comes down to a whole lot of money.

Blizzard made over $1 billion of revenues in 2007, of which half a billion was profit. A typical western MMORPG subscriber paying monthly fees and buying all expansions is worth about $200 per year. So if Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning manages to keep an average of 1 million subscribers over the coming years, Mythic's revenues will be around $200 million per year, and assuming similar profit margins than Blizzard they'll make nearly $100 million a year of profit. I don't know how much exactly the development of WAR did cost, but it was probably less than $100 million, so getting your whole investment cost back in just one year is pretty sweet. Assuming Mark Jacobs has some company shares, he'll be a rich man if WAR gets to just 10% of WoW's subscription numbers.

Anyone who invested in Blizzard has made big bucks. Anyone who invested in Mythic will probably make big bucks. Even Age of Conan, with 800,000 copies sold and 400,000 subscribers left, might have disappointed shareholders dreaming of Blizzard-like profits, but certainly made some profit; Funcom announced their next MMO already. In short, the idea that only Blizzard has the magic sauce recipe which allows them to make piles of money with a MMORPG is going to be very much discredited very soon. It is clear that Activision CEO Bobby Kotick only said that you'd need to invest $1 billion to make a competitor to WoW to scare away the competition. It is very much possible to invest $50 to $100 million into making a MMORPG that'll pay out a billion dollars or more over it's lifetime. That isn't a bad investment if you can get it.

Of course investing in a MMORPG is like investing in a movie: You never know if you get the next Titanic or the next Waterworld. It is totally possible to lose a lot of money by investing in a MMORPG. But once that the illusion has broken that only Blizzard can do blockbuster MMOs, other companies will try it, and more investors will be willing to risk their money. And for the players that can only be good, because among a flood of bad games, there will be some that are actually good. The more good games we get to choose from, the better for us.

One reason why there is hope for even better games as soon as there is more serious money flowing in is that there is definitely room for improvement in the production values of MMORPGs. The game industry isn't exactly known for their excellent project management. There is far too much focus on creativity and innovation, and far too few focus on making games that are bug-free, and are released on time and in budget. We are talking about an industry here where Blizzard managed to rise to the top by having somewhat better quality control, and making games with few (but not zero) bugs, albeit at the cost of being much slower than the competition. But just like the movie industry grew up and learned how to produce blockbusters every year, the MMO game industry will one day arrive at the same level. Good games will come out faster than once every 4 years. And that is something I'm looking forward to.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Broken Business Models

Scott Jennings, previously known as Lum the Mad, does his best Richard Bartle imitation and gives an interview in which he says something provocative, which gets a lot more attention than the rest of what he says, forcing him to explain himself. He says it is not the monthly fee subscription business model that is broken, but the fact that neither the monthly fee model nor the free-to-play model create good enough games. Quote: "There is little room for creativity and advancing the state of the art in any of those scenarios - either you are working too fast, have too little budget for your scope, or you don’t have the flexibility because you are responsible for a blockbuster-sized budget."

Scott is totally right in saying that "You Can Make A Lot Of Money From Subscription MMOs". But I think he misses the point when he says "People Enjoy Playing Subscription MMOs". They don't. If they could play *the same* game for free they would certainly prefer that. Many western WoW players would also prefer to pay the same hourly rate as the Chinese do, instead of paying per month. Monthly subscriptions are an absolute advantage over hourly rates only for those who play the most hours, and that is less people than you would think. The reason why players appear to prefer monthly fee subscription games over free-to-play browser games is simply that they enjoy all those elements that only huge budgets can buy: Better graphics, more polish, more content. Many players end up opting for a mix, paying both a monthly fee to the game company and microtransactions to a gold farming company, so clearly they aren't all that against paying for in-game advantages.

I agree with Scott that there are lots of low-budget games full of great innovative ideas, and nobody plays them because they are ugly, or buggy, or too small. I also agree that a development team with a $50 million budget will err towards being conservative. I can also follow his argument that monthly fees are responsible for gold farming, because microtransaction games where you buy the gold directly from the developer are immune to gold farmers, who can't compete. I do not agree that monthly subscription games encourage bad design. His argument of "You gotta keep those people subscribed somehow" is exactly as valid for free-to-play games with microtransactions as it is for monthly fee games. Grind and time sinks aren't unique to monthly fee games, in fact most Asian free-to-play games are a *lot* more grindy than WoW is. Creating unique hand-crafted content is more expensive than creating grind, so in the end the big budget games have more and higher quality of content than the free-to-play ones.

I also think that Scott (and Raph Koster, and Richard Bartle, and many others) overestimate the desirability of innovation. If innovation was so important to players, then why do they refuse to play innovative games just because they don't have the fancy graphics and quality of execution that the big budget games have? Why did games like Auto Assault, Tabula Rasa, or Hellgate: London fail, in spite of being not so bad graphically and technically, but being very much different in gameplay than WoW? "New" is not automatically better, sometimes an innovation is just a bad idea and doesn't sell.

What I find most unacceptable from all these innovation worshippers is how they manage to overlook the real, evolutionary innovation that took place all the time, and is still on-going. They dismissed WoW as a Diku/MUD/EQ clone, they are dismissing WAR as a WoW clone now. And thereby totally missed important innovations like the WoW quest system (Everquest, in spite of the name, was not a quest-based game), or the WAR open groups. Scott thinks public quests are the only innovation WAR brings to the genre, and completely misses the important development from WoW as a solo game to WAR as a group-centric game. He doesn't see the innovation in creating a gameplay where the best way to advance is to not grind the same stuff repeatedly, but to change from soloing to public quests to RvR and back repeatedly. How can you trust those bigwigs if they don't even try to play the new games and analyze how much really has changed? They remind me of old Marxists still waiting for the revolution, without noticing that the proletariat is now driving SUVs and watching plasma TVs, instead of being oppressed and ready to overthrow the establishment.

In the end you can't predict how good or bad a game is just from looking at the business model. Microtransactions and user-created content are fancy buzzwords that look good as bullet points on a PowerPoint slide, they don't automatically make any game they are attached to into a good game. Nor does the fact that a game has monthly fees turn it automatically into a bad game. The sad reality is that most game developers have trouble coming up with any new ideas that actually work. What business model a game has is secondary, if it is based on ideas that don't work. And a big MMORPG is such a huge collection of thousands of ideas that demanding that all of them are new *and* work better than previous ideas is just asking too much. Microtransactions, and a gameplay that works well with that business model, could work one day. But the reason I know that it can work is that I spent thousands of dollars on Magic the Gathering cards, increasing my power and options in the game with every card I bought. So even the microtransactions idea itself isn't all that innovative, it has been done offline 15 years ago. So make a good game first, see what business model fits best, and stop blaming the business model if your game just plain stinks. There is no such thing as a broken business model, there are only tons of broken games who couldn't have been saved by any business model attached to it.

The Tome of Knowledge

I must say I don't totally get the excitement surrounding the Tome of Knowledge feature in Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. Bundling all the bits of lore you picked up, all your achievements, and all your quests into one interface has at least as many disadvantages than advantages. And the thing is still missing the kind of personal history Everquest 2 was already offering 4 years ago, like telling you on which date you leveled up to what level, or made other big achievements and discoveries.

I'm all for achievement systems. If I kill 65,340,285 boars, like the South Park kids, it is nice to have that written down somewhere, and to be able to flaunt a "Boar Killer" title. Seeing the WoW version of the achievement system it also becomes immediately obvious why it is better to have such a system from the start, and not introduce it 4 years later. I'm annoyed about the fact that I won't have achievements like "killed Onyxia" or "killed Ragnaros", because WoW didn't register that at the time. I'm even more annoyed about the fact that some people who never made it to Onyxia and Ragnaros at level 60 will now kill them with a small level 80 group and get that achievement when it doesn't mean anything any more. The bestiary in the WAR Tome of Knowledge is much better, because it will count every single monster and enemy player you killed during your whole career. You'll even get xp, and not just titles as rewards for reaching certain numbers.

But while counting the achievements is good, the interface and particular implementation of the Tome of Knowledge isn't all that great. Your bestiary lists achievements on every monster's page beyond killing X of them, but doesn't tell you what you'd need to do to unlock that achievement. I'm sure that soon websites will pop up telling you all about "secret" tome unlocks. I'd rather get some hints in the game than a full walkthrough from a third party website. The achievement system of Lord of the Rings Online is easier to navigate and understand.

The quest log in the Tome is even worse, definitely sub-standard. There are color coded dots to tell you whether a quest has attributes like being a PvP quest, but there doesn't appear to be a color code or number telling you for what level a quest is. We're probably supposed to guess that from the column telling you what zone the quest is in. If you're the type that travels around a lot and not always fastidiously completes all the quests he has before leaving a zone, that can get messy fast. There doesn't even appear to be a shortcut key to open your quest log yet, you need to open the Tome and then flip from whatever page you were to the quest log page.

Now my apologies to the lore fans out there, all three of you, but the average MMORPG player clicks through any quest lore or other lore he finds as quickly as he can without reading it. Adding all that lore I've come across to the Tome of Knowledge doesn't do anything for me. I click on some rally master NPC to bind myself in the next village, and his whole bloody life story pops up in my Tome of Knowledge. But the life story of the only person the average MMORPG player is interested in, that is himself, isn't properly recorded. What is of more interest to you, the family story of NPC Seigmund Kraemer in Troll Country, or the day where you helped defending the keep in Troll Country and gained 2 renown ranks? So why is the Tome listing the former, and not the latter? Don't tell me that it is impossible, because the EQ2 Players website already does it for Everquest 2 for years, and even makes these achievements visible from outside the game.

So yes, kudos for the achievement system, but overall the WAR Tome of Knowledge left me unimpressed. I've seen each individual component done better in previous games, and the fact of bundling all these features into one big book only makes the user interface more clunky. This could have been done better.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A WAR for old men?

In the open Sunday thread Phantasmagoria linked to an "old guy's" review of WAR and asks: "Does WAR aim for the more mature player? (and if so, is this a viable business strategy)."

Turns out the "old guy" has exactly my age, 43, which is old in internet terms, but would be considered middle-aged generally. It is a generation which grew up with the early video games, and many of us never totally stopped playing. And it is totally possible that we "old guys" have a preference for slower games. Not only are your reaction times slower at 40 than they are at 20. But also the games we grew up were often slower, because the technology wasn't advanced enough for real-time combat. I played a lot of turn-based strategy and role-playing games, the RTS and action RPG genres came much later.

So this old guy says in his review how much he enjoys that WAR combat isn't so fast, and that this is especially enjoyable in PvP. I agree. It is great that in WAR PvP the combat isn't already decided the moment that mage casts his first spell and takes off half of your health with a single crit. No wonder crit resistance is considered to be the most important PvP stat in WoW. In WAR I can be hit from behind, turn around, and still fight back. Twitchy gameplay just doesn't do anything for you in WAR, even melee fighters have a 5-yard range, so getting out of their range before they can hit you is nearly impossible. In the big keep battle I participated in I rarely saw anyone doing silly jumping around, because people quickly realized it just doesn't help you at all. And I like that. Combat in a MMORPG shouldn't be about who can mash buttons faster, because that would be inherently unfair to people with a slower connection. Combat should be about keeping a cool head under pressure, and being able to quickly decide which is the best button to press in any given situation, having tactical choices to make. I enjoy PvP much more in WAR than I do in WoW, and the slower speed of it contributes greatly to that.

But I don't think that this enjoyment will be limited to just older players. Yes, older players have more money, and they tend to be more loyal to the games they play. I just don't think Mythic particularly targeted us with WAR. Even if the Warhammer license is 25 years old, most current players are younger. And while slower, more tactical combat takes a bit to get used to, especially if you played Age of Conan before WAR, I think everyone can enjoy it. In the end it gives you more satisfaction of having played your class well, instead of the frustration of having been stunlocked or surprised without being able to fight back. And as the only way to kill somebody quickly is to cooperate with other players from your side, WAR RvR becomes less of a solo affair and more about playing together with others.

Of course there is a risk for Mythic that the ADD kids won't like WAR as much as they like faster games. But frankly, as an old man, I won't miss those less mature kids if they decide to not stick around. The community might end up being better and more mature as a whole if those who are upset that they can't gank others without them having a chance to fight back leave.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

On the WAR path

Sidenote: This is a very simple blog. I play games. I write about them. If I had fun I'm more likely to write something enthusiastic, if I got frustrated I'm more likely to write a rant. There is no agenda for or against certain games. Nor is it inconsistent to write both good and bad things about the same game, because that is how games are, they have both good and bad sides. My apologies to those simple minds who feel the need to classify me as "game X fanboi" or "game Y hater", but that is not how this works.

So while I was having a lot of fun during the Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning preview weekend, I also noticed a huge problem: Pathing. Previously I had played mostly melee characters, where that wasn't so obvious. Or maybe the problem was introduced with a recent patch. But the Archmage I tested this weekend is a ranged spellcaster, and if you hit a mob with your first spell and that mob either stands still or runs into any other direction than directly towards you, that becomes quite noticeable. So I began to experiment. The Archmage has a lot of instant cast DOTs, think warlock/healer hybrid. So instead of standing still, I started to run around and cast DOTs on mobs. And that worked far too well. Quite often I could totally confuse the mob, which due to the bad pathing routines was unable to follow me, and wasted valuable time to just stand around or run in the wrong direction.

As I was playing from US servers, but from Europe, I wondered if that was lag related. So I logged on the European servers and tested the same strategy with a level 31 shaman, and that worked as well. I could cast a spell on a cat, and as soon as the cat had run up to me, I would just run away, turn around, and fire more spells on the cat, which hadn't followed but was just standing around looking for a path. So it isn't lag, it is really the pathing routine. Back on the US servers I discovered a public quest with nobody else around, where in the second stage I had to destroy 8 bolt throwers, each guarded by a group of 4 mobs, one of them a "champion". Normally that would be hard to solo. But I just ran around a lot and cast spells on the bolt thrower, and the 4 guardians never caught me. I even managed to do that with up to three bolt throwers one directly after the other, and 12 confused mobs running after me and never finding a good path.

That is really, really bad programming, and shouldn't happen in a triple A MMORPG. Pathing, and the prevention of exploits based on it, are very important. You simply don't want ranged classes that can't be hit by mobs, because the mobs never get there. Even the most bug-ridden MMOs of the last years at least got pathing right. Mythic will have some serious work to do if they want to fix that before release.

A n00b tests WAR RvR

As any of my long-time readers know, I'm not a big fan of PvP in general. But I was very much interested in how PvP is integrated with PvE in Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. So during the preview weekend I did a combination of both, to see how that worked out. I was doing this with a freshly rolled Archmage, because I want to play a Shaman in release, and Archmage is the exact mirror image in spells and class mechanics. Fortunately it turned out that Keen's judgement that shamans were "squishy" wasn't true, at least not as long as you targeted yourself as defensive target and got constantly healed by the various life drain abilities. Of course the Warrior Priest / Disciple of Khaine is more damage resistent, but then those make worse healers, because they can't keep up a constant stream of heals.

So I rolled my Archmage, did a handful of starting quests, and at level 4 I meet the first quest giver who wants to send me PvPing. I'm supposed to do a scenario, which is the same as a WoW battleground. Do, that is see it through until completion, not win. Now that is brilliant! In WoW there are far too many people leaving battlegrounds if they see they can't win. In WAR it is in your interest to stay until the end for the quest reward. And the quest is even repeatable! So I spend the next hour or so doing the same scenario several times. If I had wanted more variety, I could have flown to the starting area of the other races. As far as I can see there is a different scenario for every tier of every race combination, or 12 in total, twice as much as WoW has.

More nice surprises as soon as the scenario starts. The moment I move away from the spawn point my level is automatically adjusted to 8. Which means I still have the same sucky gear and selection of spells as a level 4 character, but my health and stats increased to that of a level 8, and I don't have the WoW problem that my spells are resisted by my enemies because they are of higher level. This means that while in WoW you can only realistically do battlegrounds at level 19, 29, etc., in WAR you can do scenarios at any level. You'll be better at the max level the scenario allows, but not outrageously so. Of course healers and spell casters suffer less from having less good gear than melee types would.

One huge advantage of WAR scenarios is that the less populous side has an automatic advantage: In the scenario both sides have equal numbers, and just like in WoW battlegrounds the less numerous side has shorter waiting queues. As soon as there enough player of the lesser side in the queue, the scenario starts, leaving the surplus people of the more numerous side waiting without an opponent to fight.

Later I try open world RvR in the designated RvR zones. But there Destruction can bring their superior numbers to bear over Order, and if there is any PvP action at all, Destruction wins. But that then leads to Order not entering the RvR zones any more, and Destruction getting bored alone in there and leaving too. So I did manage to tag some battlefield objectives in a small 3-man group, just by virtue of nobody else being around. The battlefield objectives and keeps are guarded by NPCs, so you can't solo them, but a small group is enough for the small objectives, only keeps need a larger group. MMORPG players are notorious sufferers from attention deficit disorder, and nobody takes the time to defend, especially since all the rewards are in attacking. So during the preview weekend the elf tier 1 RvR zone changed hands often, without much actual PvP taking place. Big group of one side rolls in, tags all the objectives, gets bored, and leaves, only for another group from the other side to turn up 15 minutes later and tag all the objectives back. Trying battlefield RvR solo doesn't get you anywhere, you need at least to join an open group to achieve anything. I did like the feature that the location of the latest PvP battles is marked on the map, so its easy to find where the action is.

So with me testing all this PvP, the rewards come rolling in. The first thing to get used to is that PvP kills and taking objectives gives PvE experience as well. You could theoretically level up your PvE level by doing PvP all day, although I had the impression that it wasn't the fastest method. In parallel to the regular xp, you get renown points, which level up your renown rank, aka PvP level. Every renown rank gives you one point to buy permanent stat increases with at the renown trainer. And of course increasing your stats is helpful for both PvP and PvE, so getting your renown rank up is helpful even for PvE fans like me.

The second type of reward for PvP is access to the PvP gear vendors. In the first warcamp you'll find merchants selling all sorts of weapons and armor which is often better than what you got from quest rewards (but not better than the public quests rewards). But to buy that you not only need money, but also have a minimum level in both PvE and PvP. Keeping your PvP level to at least half of what your PvE level is should get you access to everything. A good way to fill gaps in your equipment.

That worked well for my Archmage at renown ranks 2 and 4, but then stopped being all that great at renown rank 6. You see, the vendors for renown rank 6 and 8 gear are on the second floor of the keeps in the tier 2 RvR zones. And as these aren't quite as easy to tag as the tier 1 objectives, Destruction was in control of all keeps all Saturday. I ended up rolling a Destruction char and running to the keep just to verify what the vendors there had on offer. You better be in a guild big and organized enough to take a keep if you want to access the renown gear on the Order side. On Sunday I checked again, and luckily the tier 2 keep in the Chaos / Empire pairing now was Order controlled. I went there and bought my renown gear, and found about 20 Order players in the keep, with a similar number of Destruction players outside, trying to take the keep. So I participated in that keep battle, and it was a lot of fun! Both sides can bring various siege engines into play, which you can buy for 20 silver and install at specific points. For example as keep defender I had the choice of burning oil, a ballista, or a hellblaster. Burning oil was very effective, but limited to the immediate area in front of the door. The hellblaster was easiest to use, shooting several enemies if they stood close to each other, but for not so much damage. The ballista was best against single targets, but difficult to use if those targets were moving. I ended up with renown rank 8 there, but the renown gear for that also needed PvE level 14, which I didn't have at the time.

All in all the various forms of PvP were quite fun at times, frustrating at other times. Because you get nice stat and gear rewards for PvP, it is well worth doing, and helpful for PvE later. The system is cleverly done so that neither pure PvP nor pure PvE gives maximum rewards, but you're best served by doing a variety of different things, which is ultimately most fun anyway. The WAR RvR is far, far superior to the PvP in WoW or AoC, with more options, more balance, more motivation to do it in a varied way. Balance isn't perfect, and probably can't be in a level-based, gear-based, stat-based game. But you are able to contribute in a meaningful way and have fun at regardless which level. That is already pretty good in my book. I don't think it'll reach the holy grail of "impact PvP" some fans were dreaming of, but that is an impossible ideal for a MMORPG. We get persistent worlds, but all conquest is just temporary. I can live with that.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Open Sunday Thread

So here's the deal: I get a day off from blogging, and you get the comment section of this post for yourself. You can discuss what you want, suggest topics for me to write about, ask questions. It's the open Sunday thread.

Friday, August 22, 2008

How Mythic solved the realm imbalance problem

They said they would come up with a way to solve the realm imbalance problem, and they did it! Lots of people in the WAR beta were complaining that Destruction outnumbered Order, making RvR imbalanced. Whenever you logged on, you saw how many people were on the server, and how many of them were Order and Destruction. You could also get the same information any time by using the /count command. In the current preview weekend version of WAR, Mythic found a brilliant way to stop these complaints: The /count command has been removed. You can only see the total server population on the server selection screen, but there is no more way to get any information about how many people are playing Order and how many are playing Destruction. The imbalance simply vanished into the unknown. Well, of course the less numerous side will still get whipped. But Mythic apparently hopes they won't notice. At least they don't have proof that they are outnumbered, so maybe they react less strongly to the fact.

Blizzard is said to be taking a clue from Mythic, and removing the incriminatory evidence from the armory that Warlocks or Rogues are three times as likely to win arena combat than Hunters. Then even WoW arena PvP will be balanced!

/sarcasm off

WAR group xp bonus

The WAR preview weekend is running on the US servers, and I'm playing there for the moment. Lots of people around, so I start a little experiment: With my level 1 character I kill the first level 1 mobs and note how much xp that gives: 60 xp. Then I invite another level 1 player into my group, and kill the same mob: Now we both get 45 xp each. Which means that even for a group of 2 the group xp bonus is already 50%. For comparison: In WoW the group xp bonus for 2 players is zero, I would only have gotten 30 xp in WoW if I killed a 60 xp mob in a group of 2.

50%+ bonus xp for being in a group, not bad!

Don't blame WAR for your burnout

I've been playing role-playing games for a quarter of a century, and MMORPGs for nearly 10 years now. During this time my enthusiasm for these games waxed and waned, I had periods of playing deep into the night, and periods of burnout where I didn't feel like playing anything. And looking around the MMO blogosphere at the moment, I detect symptoms of burnout in quite a lot of people. Blogs that went from daily long posts to occasional one-liners. Bloggers switching games every week without ever really feeling at home. And an eternal cycle of hope for the next big game, followed by disappointment that the game couldn't manage to conquer the burnout. All this is very natural. But I sure wish that people would stop blaming specific games for their burnout problems, like they currently do with Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning.

If you are so burned out of playing World of Warcraft or whatever similar game you were playing that you just can't stand this sort of gameplay any more, neither WAR nor WotLK will help you. I've had commenters complaining about the fact that WAR had quests, experience points, and gear, but then getting all annoyed when I suggested that if he doesn't want these features, he might be better of playing a game that isn't a MMORPG, like Spore for example. I spent my summer holidays playing Football Manager Live instead of WoW, because I felt burned out. If you want a complete change of gameplay, it makes a lot more sense to play a different type of game, than to complain that the new games follow the same genre standards as the previous generation. Mythic never said anything to suggest that they weren't making a game which broadly adheres to the genre standards, and then tries to improve upon them. The only fair way to judge WAR is to compare it to existing games, and see what it does better, and what it does worse. Comparing any new game to some totally hypothetical revolutionary messiah of an ideal game is just stupid, because nothing real can live up to the ideal.

The added problem of WAR is that World of Warcraft has so many more subscribers than any previous game. That means that for a large percentage of MMO players, WoW was their very first MMORPG. And people tend to look at their first game through pink glasses. Hey, I still have nostalgic feelings for Everquest, the first 3D MMORPG I really got attached to (UO was 2D and didn't grip me that much). But if I'm honest, EQ was a horrible game, forcing you into endless camping, grinding, and downtime, with little freedom and very harsh punishment for failure. The nostalgia sometimes makes people think of the "good old days", having forgotten how bad those old days really were. It is hard for any game to recapture that first game feeling, because it is based on lost innocence, and people look at newer games in a more cynical and jaded way.

The games that people are often most enthusiastic about are those that don't exist yet. People praised WAR when it was still far away. Now that the NDA dropped and more people get into preview weekends and betas, suddenly WAR isn't good enough any more, compared to the promise of the games of the next year. People earnestly say they won't play WAR, because Free Realms will be better. Then next year they won't play Free Realms, because Star Trek Online will be better. Then in 2010 they won't play STO, because Blizzard's next MMO will be better. Eternally falling for the hype for some future game, and never being happy with the games that actually exist, is never going to make you happy.

Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is not the perfect game. It does not rip the core gameplay out of the MMORPG genre, and replaces it with something completely different and better. It will not evoke the same level of emotions as your first MMORPG did. It might not even cure your WoW burnout any better than Wrath of the Lich King can. And it is totally possible that at some point in the future some better game is released, to which WAR compares badly. But all these are unrealistic expectations, which say nothing about the actual quality of the game. Nobody needs a review telling him how WAR compares to some future or past ideal. What people need is detailed descriptions of how Warhammer Online works, because many of them already have an idea what they could like or not like. For most people the choice comes down to something simple like either switching to WAR, or sticking with WoW and its expansion. And many will solve that problem by buying both WAR and WotLK, and then naturally drifting towards the game that suits them best, or giving up on both and playing Spore or something instead. We'll see in half a year how things developed. Because whatever bloggers write now, in the end it is the players who vote with their wallets.

Warrior vs. Death Knight discussion suspended

I'll stop discussing Warriors and Death Knights in Wrath of the Lich King from now on until the expansion is actually released. The reason for that is that Blizzard is still in the process of making HUGE changes to both classes, and that everything I said previously is already not true any more. So why waste my breath before things are finalized?

Small example: I said that Titan's Grip, the new Warrior ability that allows you to wield two two-handed weapons, isn't great. When I said that the talent cost 5 talent points and then still had you swinging the weapons 20% slower than you'd swing two one-handed weapons. Recent changes moved Titan's Grip to a different position in the talent tree, and now it costs only 1 talent point, and has NO speed reduction. Which means that now it is a must-have talent allowing warriors to deal awesome damage, approaching the damage output of Death Knights. I also said Death Knights can't tank, but the Death Knight tanking talents have been moved around as well.

I have no idea whether Blizzard can manage to make both classes equally good in various situations, or whether we still end up with Warriors being better tanks in most situations, and Death Knights being better in PvP and solo PvE. But apparently they are working on it, and I'm willing to reserve my judgement for the day when they are finished.

WAR combat is slow

Whether you measure it in seconds, or in the number of clicks or keys pressed until the enemy mob is dead, a single combat in WAR takes a bit longer than in WoW, and much longer than in AoC. Note that this is just true for a single combat, it takes fewer combats to go up a level, and there are fewer levels, so in the end you reach the level cap faster in WAR than in AoC; there is less grind in WAR. But if you start WAR for the first time and are used to something else, the long time it takes to kill your first mob might come as a surprise. My very first WAR beta character was a Runepriest, and after my first fight I thought healers in WAR were underpowered, because they killed mobs so slow. Then I tried the other classes and noticed that they *all* kill slow compared to other games, and that healers actually weren't all that underpowered.

There is no denying it: Some people will dislike the slower style of combat. It *feels* less powerful if your level 1 character needs to hit a level 1 monster repeatedly and using all your abilities to get it dead. In Age of Conan my first character was a Tempest of Set, and in the first part he could kill some mobs with a single lightning bolt. Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning plays very, very different from that. But of course power is relative, and once I got used to it, I actually preferred the slower WAR combat, because it gives me far more tactical options. Combat takes longer, but is more interesting than blam, blam, combo, dead.

This made me think of my frost mage in World of Warcraft, my third character I leveled to 70. I had spotted something of a design flaw, namely that there are very few character stats that affect mage combat. So I bought exclusively gear giving bonuses to frost damage, and ended up with a completely overpowered frost mage for soloing. I was able to kill mobs of my level or even slightly higher levels with between 2 and 4 frostbolts; so if I started combat at maximum distance I was able to kill mobs before they could even reach me, avoiding the need to use defensive spells like frost nova or doing maneuvers like blink. I reached level 70 having done over 80% of my lifetime damage with a single spell, frostbolt. That did feel powerful, compared to the holy priest and protection warrior I leveled up before. But it was also a lot more boring. The priest uses a combination of buffs, heals, shields, and damage spells to kill mobs. The warrior builds up rage first, and removes the mobs armor, before doing an execute killing blow. All that takes longer, but is more interesting, because it actually matters which buttons you press in which order. And combat in WAR is just the same as the slower WoW combat of my priest and warrior.

WAR has some classes that are simple to play, and just have health and action points (which works like mana for powering all spells and abilities). But more classes in WAR have additional combat mechanics. I already mentioned the Waaagh! build-up of the shaman, who gets bonuses to heals when he uses damage abilities, and bonuses to damage abilities when he heals. Ironbreakers build up "grudges", witch hunters collect "accusations", and so on. All of these work slightly different from each other, but the general thrust is that you are building up power during the fight, which you can then unleash for extra powerful moves. In addition to the class specific mechanics, every class builds up morale during a fight, which allows you to use special morale powers. All of this *requires* that combat takes more than a handful of blows.

Taking the example of my shaman, I'd start combat at range, hitting a mob with spells, but won't be able to kill it before it reaches me. I can keep damaging it with various spells, but am taking damage as well. Now I get various options: I could build up enough Waaagh! to be able to cast a large healing spell as instant, thus uninterruptible. Or I could use my detaunt ability before I heal, which reduces the damage I take from the mob for 15 seconds, or until I hit it again. By healing myself I increase the power of my next damage spell. And all the time I'm gaining morale, enabling me to use my first morale ability, which deals both damage and heals me. Yes, all that takes time. And yes, if I don't watch out and just spam damage spells I could lose the fight. But that is exactly the beauty of it: Solo combat that requires some skill, some thought. It still isn't rocket science, but you better think about what you are doing. I like it!

But there will be a number of people who will not be happy with WAR's slower combat. Some of them just prefer faster, more twitchy combat, like in Age of Conan. Some, to be brutally honest, won't like having to think during solo combat, preferring mindless hack'n slash killing. I don't think it is even possible to create a combat system that pleases everyone. The system of WAR isn't that far away from the WoW system to really risk alienating a large portion of the customer base. But after WoW there was definitely a trend towards making combat faster, with games like Tabula Rasa, Hellgate: London, or Age of Conan, and WAR is definitely moving in the other direction. They say WAR is everywhere, but maybe it is not for everyone.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

An offer I couldn't refuse

I've been playing a lot of Football Manager Live (FML) in the last months, a game currently in beta, developed by Sports Interactive and published by SEGA. Yesterday SEGA sent me an e-mail with probably the strangest pre-order offer I ever received: As a beta tester not only could I get early access, including name reservation, for the release version of FML if I pre-ordered, I also could get a 12-month subscription at half price.

For regular customers SEGA is offering 3 months subscription for £22.99 (at current exchange rate that is $42.82, or $14.27 per month). That is rather expensive for a football manager game with 2D graphics, for the same money you could subscribe to WoW or WAR. Taking a longer subscription for regular customers only reduces the cost slightly: 6 months for £43.99 ($13.66 per month) or 12 months for £72.99 ($11.33 per month). But beta testers pay 30% less on the 6-month price, and 50% less on the 12-month price. So a full year costs me only £36.50, advertised as "10 pence a day", or $5.67 per month.

I took them up on that offer, because I find at $5.67 per month FML is reasonably priced. But I am very astonished that this offer appears to be only valid for beta testers. If you consider the difference between what a regular customer will pay for FML and what I paid, I basically got paid $68 for beta testing. First time anyone pays me for being in a beta! And of course access to the beta was based on luck, not everyone who applied got in. Some people got randomly selected, and later everyone in the beta could invite some friends, at which time one nice reader of my blog thought of me, for which I am grateful. I got in by chance, profited by being allowed to play for free, and now get to continue playing at half price for one year. To me that appears to be extremely unfair. In my favor unfair, but nevertheless.

Now I hear that the Football Manager games of Sports Interactive have a highly dedicated fan base, especially in the UK. But I wouldn't be surprised if not all that many of these fans were willing to pay between $11.33 and $14.27 per month to play the online version of their favorite game. And people who never played the single-player game are even less likely to join FML. So for the benefit of the game I can only hope that SEGA reconsiders and makes this pre-order offer available to anyone, not just mailing a code to beta testers. Overpricing a game which is niche to start with is probably not a good strategy.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

What's the difference?

Hypothetic story: David Beckham, famous UK "football" (soccer) player, by some terrible mistake gets hired by a American football team. Trainer tells him to have a look around on the field. David goes there thinking that US football must be the same as UK football, and alone on the field he finds nothing to contradict that notion: The ball and goal have a different shape, but it is obviously a game with two teams trying to get the ball through the goal on the other side. He kicks the ball around for some time and feels totally comfortable. Then he goes back out, gives a press conference and says: "I played American football, it was called soccer". Sounds crazy? Well, several otherwise intelligent MMO players just fell into the same trap when comparing Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning with World of Warcraft.

The truth is that if you approach WAR with a closed mind and keep to yourself, you *can* play WAR for quite a long time exactly like you would solo WoW: You grab some quests, kill ten foozles, get a reward, level up, advance to the next quest hub, lather, rinse, repeat. But just like David Beckham in our little story, the surprise will pop up as soon as the other players enter the field. World of Warcraft in its current form is a massively single-player online game. Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is a massively multi-player online game. The average player in WAR will have far, far more interaction with the other players than somebody creating a new character in WoW nowadays. And in spite all the superficial similarities, the interaction with other players will make WAR play very differently than WoW.

The greatest new feature of WAR is the open group. When you log in and would like to play with others, you simply press the open group button under your character portrait, and you'll see all the open groups in your area, sorted by distance from you. There will be groups just doing quests together, other groups doing public quests, and there will be RvR groups, and the interface will show you what each group is doing, and who is already in the group. Just select one group that suits you, press the join button, and you're in. No need to negotiate for an invite, if the group didn't want you they would have switched group mode to closed. If nobody is around for the activity you want to do, you can just flag yourself as open group, so that others can join you.

If you are still in a WoW mindset, you're probably wondering how that could possibly work. If in WoW you're on a quest to find ten foozle ears, the last thing you want is somebody joining your group unasked, because that would make doing the quest more difficult, as you now would have to kill more foozles, and get less xp for each foozle kill. But WAR did away with that nonsense. You don't even have to click to loot the body in WAR to get quest items, everybody in the group will get a foozle ear on each foozle kill. And combat is slightly different in WAR too: It takes longer to kill a single mob (which is balanced by you needing to kill less of them to advance, so overall speed isn't slower than WoW); with fights taking longer, there is more advantage to doing the fight in a small group. The tank/healer/dps system ensures that the group performs better than the sum of its parts, only that now you aren't penalized for it any more.

It will take some time for people to realize that they could form groups for every quest and be better off. Thus the first groups will form where the advantages of grouping are a lot more obvious: PvP and public quests. WAR makes it easy to find where the action is in open world RvR, again with the open group interface, plus by marking where people are fighting in RvR on the map. And the advantages of grouping with other players for PvP are obvious to anyone, you just don't get very far alone.

Public quests are another interesting way of getting people to play together, because they give two sorts of rewards: Influence point rewards, and the chest with loot that drops from the final stage of each public quest, which is distributed by a "Vegas" system adding your contribution as modifier to a random loot roll. If you are doing public quests solo, you can get the influence points, but it would be impossible for you to kill the final boss alone. Several solo players can take the final boss down, but if they aren't grouped that is bound to be inefficient. If you group you end up getting influence points at the same or slightly higher rate, and you have a much easier time of killing the final boss and getting hold of the extra reward. Most public quests have open groups going all the time, with people coming and going, because every one of them wants to do the same public quest two or three times to max out his influence and get various pieces of the Vegas loot. Public quests are great for xp and getting your character equipped, you can get your first epic as early as level 10. Thus they fulfil the same function as World of Warcraft dungeons, but Warhammer Online public quests are more inclusive by a huge margin.

Open groups in WAR work because in nearly all cases more is better. If the last spot in your public quest open group is taken by yet another dps class and you still have no tank or healer, you just expand the group to a warband (raid group), without getting the stupid WoW penalty that in a raid group you can't earn xp or quest goals any more. In WoW, if you invite somebody into your group who is too low level, not as well equipped, or not playing as well, there is a significant risk that your group will fail to achieve anything, and that everybody gets hurt, so players mistrust each other and put up strict selection criteria to form groups. In WAR some lower level joining your open group is still making the group a little bit stronger, so everyone is welcome. Selection only would make sense if you had a full warband, but usually there aren't that many players around at any given spot. And a full warband will succeed any public quest anyway, even if they are all the same dps class.

Playing together with other people completely changes the feel of a game, in a way which a simple comparison of feature lists can't describe. Heartless nailed it when he said that ultimately Age of Conan is more similar to World of Warcraft than Warhammer Online is. It is just the graphics and combat which make you think at the start that AoC is somehow different, while WAR at first glance looks like WoW. But once you played it a bit longer you'll notice you're soloing your way up to the level cap in AoC just like in WoW, while WAR has a much larger variety of cooperative and competitive player interaction to offer. It is Mythic who are offering the real "next generation" of MMORPGs, the one in which we actually play together and against each other, instead of just soloing online.

Realm balance

There has been a lot of reporting that in the Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning beta the Destruction side consistently outnumbered the Order side on all beta servers. I've been playing on both US and Euro beta servers, and I can confirm that observation. On the other hand I must say that the more people got invited, the better balanced the realms got. And I'm not prepared to swear yet that Destruction will remain the stronger side in the release version.

The problem here is that beta testers are not a representative sample of the general population. Hardcore players are more likely to sign up for a beta than casual players. It is still completely possible that WAR attracts a large number of casual players who prefer to play humans or high elves, just because they are prettier, or because they are "good". If you saw the new WAR cinematic trailer, it did show off some very cool Destruction character abilities, like the squig herder summoning a big squig that eats him and the herder controls it from the inside (and YES, that is an actual game feature). But the background voice was telling the WAR lore from the side of Order, asking people to defend the lands against the forces of chaos. In World of Warcraft prettier races are played more often than ugly or stunted ones, and I don't think that preference will be much different in WAR.

WAR is somewhat special in that anything you do in PvE can have an effect on the RvR control of your current zone. Thus a large number of casual players just doing PvE quests or public quests for Order can still end up controlling the zones, even if Destruction for is winning more PvP battles. So Destruction is still far from winning the WAR, even if they were more numerous in beta.

Of course imbalance is imbalance, regardless of which side wins by being more numerous. And in a game like WAR, where losing the RvR means getting your capital city plundered, there is a risk that any initial imbalance gets worse with time, because losing players reroll on the winning side. So Mythic should balance realms very early in the game. Only they haven't said how they are going to do that. It is very hard to force people to play a side they don't want to. And if you try to balance things by making the losing side stronger, you get the perverse effect that you reward people for losing, and punish them for winning. This is not an easy problem. We'll have to wait and see how this will work out.

WAR kills AoC, not WoW

The most frequently asked question I got now the WAR NDA dropped was "Is WAR the WoW killer". Answer: No, it is not, don't be silly. WAR *will* take a large bite out of WoW subscription numbers, but not enough to cause WoW to die. In my opinion Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is of similar quality as World of Warcraft, doing some things better, some things worse, and having a different focus for the end game. Many people will enjoy both games, and then decide for one or the other depending on things like timing, what their friends play, or personal preferences between raiding and RvR. WAR will probably lead to a much decreased activity on WoW servers between its release in September and the Wrath of the Lich King release (probably around November). But many people won't cancel their WoW account before having seen both WAR and WotLK. Nobody knows how that will work out in the long run.

One big factor here, to which we don't have an answer yet, revolves around the quality of the WAR servers. Recent changes made at least the European beta servers more laggy, but as the release servers will be totally different hardware, it is simply too early to say how smooth the servers will run on release day. That is somewhat self-limiting the success of WAR: If WAR is too successful, the servers will have more problems, driving more people away again.

But while WAR won't kill WoW, it could possibly deal a fatal blow to Age of Conan. AoC fans were disappointed this week to hear that the latest mega patch still didn't introduce a PvP points and rewards system. Many players reached level 80 by now, and there simply isn't enough to do. Warhammer Online on the other hand already in the beta has a completely working PvP system, and more content for all levels than AoC has months after release. WAR is more mature in its lore than WoW, while avoiding the big nekid boobs kind of "mature" AoC has. So unless you are a huge fan of the more twitchy AoC combat, there really is no reason to not switch to WAR instead.

The current closed beta version of WAR albeit is not quite feature complete. For example the bank and auction house NPCs are there, but aren't functional yet. And as the crafting system depends on players exchanging materials, that part of the game isn't fully tested yet either, with some indications that the higher level recipes are still missing. There doesn't appear to be a system yet in place to balance server populations to prevent either Order or Destruction outnumbering the other side. Nevertheless WAR is already a lot more bug-free than Age of Conan, and could really hurt that game.

WoW meanwhile escaped into immortality, and will easily survive the next 5 or even 10 years, even if subscription numbers will probably decline slowly. I'd say not even Blizzard could really produce a "WoW Killer". There might be painful things ahead like server mergers, but I don't think it is possible that subscription numbers drop so low that it isn't commercially viable any more to keep the servers running for years. WoW lives forever, like it or not.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Healers of WAR

So you want to play a healer in Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. Good choice, because unlike other games the healers in WAR aren’t gimped for damage, and have no problems whatsoever to solo. And, of course, they are always welcome in groups, be it PvE or RvR. But what kind of healers are there in WAR, and which one is right for you? Here is an overview:

First of all, it doesn’t matter whether you play Order or Destruction. Both sides have 3 kinds of healers, and every kind exists on both sides. The class might be called differently, and the spells might have different names, but essentially there is a close copy of every healer kind on both sides. Great, that reduces our choice from 6 to 3. They are:

The regular healers

The Dwarf Rune Priest and the Chaos Zealot are the kind of regular standard healer you find in pretty much every game. Like all characters in WAR, they have action points, and they consume those action points by using their abilities. The regular healers have both damaging spells and healing spells at their disposal, plus some buffs. The regular healers have no special game mechanic; they can cast any one of their spells at any time, with no restrictions or bonuses. They could be healbot in a group, or damage caster. They have low armor, although here there is a slight difference between the two factions, as the Dwarfs have a natural bonus to armor, which makes the Rune Priest somewhat better armored than the Zealot.

The alternate healers

The High Elf Archmage and the Greenskin Shaman are healers with a twist: They perform better if they alternate between healing and damage dealing occasionally. They have similar healing and damage dealing spells as the regular healers do, with slightly inferior buffs. But whenever they cast a healing spell, they gain a damage spell bonus point, up to a maximum of 5. And whenever they cast a damage spell, they gain a healing spell bonus point, up to a maximum of 5. These bonus points are called Waaagh! for the Shaman, and High Magic for the Archmage, but they work the same. Depending on the particular spell they either increase the effectiveness, or decrease the casting time by 20% per point. And yes, that means that with 5 bonus points you can cast some spells as instant which had a long casting time before. Only downside is that you can’t have both, the first healing spell you use after casting some damage spells will reset the healing bonus to zero, and start the damage bonus at one.

The effect of this is that while you *can* still act as a healbot if you want, there is an obvious advantage to at the very least use one instant damage spell every five healing spells. And when you are solo, and mostly using damage spells, the bonus makes it easier to heal yourself occasionally. Similar to the regular healers, the alternate healers have low armor.

The melee healers

The Empire Warrior Priest and the Dark Elf Disciple of Khaine are more limited in their healing abilities. They start out with 250 points, called Righteous Fury for the Warrior Priest, and Soul Essence for the Disciple of Khaine. Any healing spell they cast uses up between 30 and 70 of these points. Any melee damage ability or spell they use adds 15 to 50 of these points, up to the maximum of 250. That means that melee healers can use damage abilities without limit, but if they cast several healing spells in a row, they run out of points, and will need to use damage abilities again to recharge. Thus they can’t function in full healbot mode. They have enough points to keep themselves healed most of the time, but as main healer of a group they are less useful.

So why would you want to play one of these? Because the melee healers have a much better survivability; they have more health and better armor than the other healing classes. They play differently than the healers you might have played in MMORPGs, they are more similar to the priests in Dungeons & Dragons or medieval bishops in plate armor. If you like your healers to dish it out toe to toe instead of casting spells from the back, Warrior Priest or Disciple of Khaine are for you.


Personally, I’ll be playing a Shaman in WAR (my guild is going Chaos). I like the idea of getting free spells if I used one kind often enough, whether that is to cast an instant damage spell from the back while in a group, or casting an instant big heal after a solo fight. If I would only consider soloing, I’d probably play a Disciple of Khaine instead, because I like melee damage more than ranged spellcasting; but then, I don’t think the melee healers will be all that great in groups, running out of healing energy too often. I tried the Zealot, and he isn’t bad, but they are too much similar to a WoW healer, and I’ve played that one too long. I like what Mythic did to shake up the healing classes, and recognize they had to put in a standard healer for the conservative players. But I’m looking forward to gather some Waaagh!

WAR NDA is lifted - Any questions?

NDA is now officially lifted. Expect an explosion of WAR related articles all over the MMO blogosphere. I have a lot to say about that game, but I'll take it slow, there are still over 4 weeks until release to fill with posts. But if you have any questions or suggestions what you think I should be writing about first, feel free to ask in the comment section of this post.

Monday, August 18, 2008

WAR Preview Weekend

Recently Mark Jacobs announced that Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning would have a Preview Weekend before the open beta.
"Regarding the pre-order, Collector’s Edition and the Standard Edition, I’m pleased to announce that we will be holding a special “Preview Weekend” in addition to the normal Open Beta. Those people who pre-ordered the CE will be given priority entrance into the PW. You will need to download the client (of course) from one of several download options, none of which will require any additional payment of any kind. Once the CE buyers have had their chance to register and download the client, we will allow our Closed Beta testers into the PW as well. We would like to have around 100K people load testing and playing the game so depending on how many CE purchasers sign up for this, we will invite other people into the PW as well."
Today I got a mail from Mythic saying:
"It is our pleasure to invite you to the Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning Preview Weekend taking place this Friday, August 22nd thru Monday, August 25th. Join thousands of your fellow players and experience the Age of Reckoning for the first time as you adventure through two tiers of content across three campaigns.

This is an invite-only event, so don't delay in preparing for WAR and be one of the first to engage in the thrill and glory of RvR combat before the rest of the world!"
I do have a Collector's Edition preordered, but it is a European CE, and last time I checked the European WAR account site where I should enter my preorder code isn't even up yet. The only reason I got this invite was because I'm also in the US WAR press beta. So I'm not quite sure who all exaxtly got this invitation. US only? Everyone who already entered their CE code? Every beta sign-up?

Anyway, apparently there is a way to enter your pre-order code at Fileplanet:
"Pre-Order Customers

- Download the open beta client from ( You will be required to create a free FilePlanet account and input your open beta pre-order code to access the file.
- In addition we also provide the client via bit torrent as an alternative means to download. You will find the link to the Torrent file here:"
I just don't know if that works if you have a pre-order code, but didn't get that e-mail inviting you to the preview weekend. Good news (again) is that closed beta participants don't need to download the preview client at all, they can just patch their closed beta to the appropriate version.

Necessary but unloved

Rohan from Blessing of Kings has a great post on the problem of WoW healers:
"However, my problem is that it doesn't look like that many people want to heal. In my experience, healers are almost always the bottleneck in recruiting, and they burn out the fastest. Then the top tier guilds recruit healers from the lower tier guilds, and that means the lower tier guilds have even harder time picking up new healers. ... The basic fact is that the number of healers Blizzard wants to balance around simply does not match the number of players willing to heal. That contributes to the instability of raiding, and makes it harder for people to actually raid."
Very good observation. Your best chance in World of Warcraft to get invited into a top raiding guild is to make a holy spec priest. Been there, done that. Fortunately I belong to the minority of players who actually like raid healing. I once went to Karazhan with my frost mage, and was bored to death by the experience. Raid healing is a LOT more exciting than spamming damage spells. But I agree it is also stressful, and your most likely to get blamed for other people's mistake if you play a healer. Certainly not for everyone.

So how can we fix this? Rohan sensibly suggests tuning raid content for a lower number of healers. Only problem is making sure that it doesn't get too easy if raids bring more healers anyway. If really nobody wants to play the healer, maybe the raid group can get some NPC mercenary healers: SOE just announced the 15th (!!! Take that, Blizzard !!!) expansion for Everquest, and it'll have AI-controlled NPC mercenaries. I just doubt they'll heal well enough to raid with.

The other possibility is making healers more popular. Mythic has announced that healers in WAR will be more than just healbots. (More on that after the NDA drops.) The idea here is that if healers are better in PvE soloing and in PvP, more people will want to play one. And even Blizzard improved healers some time ago by making one third of their healing bonus count as spell damage bonus. Wrath of the Lich King even completely removes the distinction between spell damage bonus and healing bonus, and rolls both of them into one single stat, which hopefull will increase the damage output of holy priests even more. The downside of this is that now priests will have to fight mages and warlocks for the same cloth gear, while the other healing classes still are the only takers of leather, mail, and plate armor with spell bonuses. I hope Blizzard did consider that with their loot tables, because otherwise there will be some nasty guild drama everywhere, and ultimately even less holy priests.

WAR NDA drops tomorrow

Via Keen and Graev I got the news that the Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning NDA will drop tomorrow morning. As during a similar occasion Keen was hopping mad at me, because I had taken such an announcement too literally and posted my first review on the day the NDA was supposed to drop, but 8 hours before the Americans due to difference in time zones, this time I won't post anything before I get the official green light. And I'm not planning to write a complete review anyway, there are already far too many of those around. Instead I plan to pick out features and subjects around WAR and discuss them in the light of what I learned in the beta. The NDA drops just in time for Mark Jacobs, who had previously written that games that drop their NDA less than 4 weeks before release have "a lack of confidence in the product". So 4 weeks and 2 days is fine. :)

In related news, same source, the WAR open beta starts only September 7th, and will only last 1 week. Which means that bug-hunting won't be a priority in that open beta, it's just a mix of server stress test and disguised "free trial" marketing. The really good news is that apparently you can simply patch your WAR client from "beta wot is closed" version to open beta version and even to release version, no need to redownload or reinstall the game. This seems such a simple thing, but it isn't common: Quite often you need to uninstall the beta and install the release version to get a MMORPG running. Kudos to Mythic for being user friendly.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Preparing for the Wrath

It is still months away, but the Wrath of the Lich King is throwing a long shadow. The closer it gets, the more you have to ask yourself how much time you want to spend on achievements which are rendered obsolete by the expansion, and how much time you want to spend on preparing for the expansion. And if you want to prepare, what could you sensibly do?

I haven't been playing all that much World of Warcraft recently. But I've been logging on occasionally to do things like Shadowcloth and alchemy transmutes, and to put things on the auction house. Or playing short bursts, doing a few daily quests. I've also been cleaning up my inventories, for example selling the metal bars and gems I had stored for jewelcrafting. All that accumulated a lot of gold, and this weekend I had the 5,200 gold for my third epic flying mount together. So now my mage joins my priest and my warrior in having an epic flyer. Not immediately useful on release, but as I'll probably level the mage to 77 before I do the warrior (if ever), I wanted the mage to have that mount. So, cleaning up inventory and buying an epic flying mount are definitely on my list of things to do in preparation for Wrath of the Lich King.

While metals and gems were certainly things I don't foresee needing in WotLK, cloth and herbs are a different story. Death Knights start out with 270 in First Aid, and will need Runecloth and up to train that skill further. And anyone trying the new Inscription profession will need tons of herbs of all levels. I think many people already stored the lowest level herbs in abundance, and most alchemist have stock in Outlands herbs. But the mid-level herbs could suddenly become extremely expensive on the auction house, and gathering those, or buying them for cheap when available, could be a great money-making opportunity. I'm not 100% sure about enchanting supplies, but the new ability to put enchantments on scrolls and sell those could also increase demand a bit there.

As I mentioned in the intro, getting new gear for your level 70 characters might not be the best use of your time right now, as the stuff you'll find in Northrend will quickly replace even your epics. But what about Death Knight twink gear? I wouldn't bother with anything below level 60, as the starting gear for Death Knights is so good that they won't need twink gear for the first 5 levels. But level 60 to 70 blue bind-on-equip plate armor and weapons, for example a [Blade of Misfortune] might well be in demand shortly after the expansion comes out. Death Knights can use one-handed and two-handed axes and swords, as well as polearms. In plate armor they'll be looking for gear with strength, stamina, and critical hit bonuses, like a dps warrior. BoE stuff will be valuable because the classic bind-on-pickup gear from dungeons will be difficult to get for Death Knights; there just won't be any healers in Outlands.

Did I forget anything? How are you preparing for Wrath of the Lich King?

WoW and intellectual property

DeSlisser is asking a tricky question: Where is the border between good fanfiction and bad theft of intellectual property. He found an intentionally misspelled WaoW comic in a shop, which clearly was using Blizzard intellectual property in telling a funny story of a n00b in Westfall. But then Blizzard clearly allows and even promotes online fan comics and machinima.

And then Blizzard themselves aren't squeaky clean when it comes to intellectual property. Hands up everyone who believes Blizzard paid a license fee to the IOC for their Spirit of Competition Olympics event, with its fancy 4 colored intertwined rings logo! Hmmm, don't see any hands. So where exactly is the difference between Spirit of Competition and WaoW? Is World of Warcraft, like the Olympics, so much part of the general culture that you can make "cultural references" to it without breaking intellectual property laws?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Open Sunday Thread

Yeah, it's Sunday again, with the open thread in which you can discuss whatever you want, and suggest subjects for further posts and discussions.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Are some raid bosses just too hard?

Mank alerted me to an interesting story in The Escapist, where one of the top raid guilds in Final Fantasy XI gave up on a raid boss after 18 hours of nonstop fighting, as people started to get physically ill from playing for so long. Apparently there are very, very few raid guilds who have ever killed that boss without using some exploit. Which makes me wonder why such a boss is in the game at all. What purpose does content serve which can't be beat?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

So how do you feel about downranking?

Big outcry on the World of Warcraft forums: Blizzard is changing the way spell ranks work, making the mana cost a percentage of base mana, not a fixed number. Thus the mana cost of lower rank spells increases with higher level, and low ranks cost equal or more mana than higher ranks of the spell. That prevents the strategy of downranking, casting lower rank spells on the cheap if you only want a smaller effect. I did that for a while with healing spells for my priest, until the last nerf of that strategy. But now downranking is truely dead.

Personally I'm not that angry about Blizzard removing downranking. But I think the move is not to their advantage, because it shows up a huge flaw of WoW: There aren't all that many different spells. Especially in Wrath of the Lich King, what I saw on the trainers was 90% just higher ranks of existing spells, and only 10% new spells and abilities. If Blizzard can make the mana cost of spells go up automatically with level, then why doesn't the effect go up with level too? The only reason it does not is that then in the second half of the game your trainer wouldn't have anything for you to train in many levels. Removing downranking means visiting a trainer is not a joyous occasion for you to increase your options, but an annoying trip back to the old world with added cost, just to keep your *relative* power constant compared to your level. Where is the fun in that?

My Dark Age of Camelot Experience

Rick from /random was surprised that Van Hemlock didn't play Dark Age of Camelot. So in the interest of full disclosure, I'm going to tell you about my Dark Age of Camelot experience. Because I fully agree with Rick that one's DAoC experience might well influence one's impression of Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning.

I did play Dark Age of Camelot when it came out in October 2001, but only for a few months. RvR had nothing to do with me joining or leaving DAoC. In fact, at the time the very idea that the endgame would be important didn't even occur to me. I had played Everquest for 19 months, and my highest level character was level 42. There was some EQ guild drama, and a couple of unlucky deaths resulting in me not gaining a level for a month. Yes, hard to believe nowadays, but a death in EQ at that level could set you back a week's worth of xp. I felt stuck, and DAoC offered a chance to see something new, and to level up again.

After some experimentation with character classes, I chose the friar as my main character. Very cool class, combining standard priestly healing with extremely good-looking martial arts maneuvers, using a quarterstaff. I actually had other players stop and watch me fight, the moves were so cool. The PvE adventuring was great. What was also a big improvement over EQ was the tradeskill system, where you would level up by doing crafting quests, which not only rewarded you with skill points, but even earned you some money. Even the death penalty was less harsh than in EQ, you still lost experience points (and constitution) on every death after level 5, but didn't have to do the naked corpse run any more.

I hadn't come alone, a couple of friends from EQ joined me in DAoC, and we founded our own guild, the "Waldmeister", with me as the guild leader. I learned HTML and created my very first website for the guild, having a simple guild roster and some maps. The guild wasn't big, and it was neither a raid nor a RvR guild, we just hung out together to have some fun. Among the members there were a girl and a young man who had met in the game, lived far apart from each other, but began to form an online relationship. Totally harmless, I don't think there was any cybering involved. And while we weren't really much into roleplaying either, somehow the idea of an online marriage came up. With me being a friar and guild leader, I ended up performing the ceremony in the big cathedral of Camelot, after which we moved into a tavern to party. That was pretty much the highlight of my DAoC experience, but unfortunately also the beginning of the end.

First there was trouble at the marriage party, with one other guild member obviously jealous about all of the attention the "couple" received, and trying to grab some of that attention for himself by misbehaving. Words flew, matters escalated, and in the end I had to kick the guy out of the guild. But the trouble didn't stop. It turned out that the father of the girl was also playing DAoC, and he didn't approve of her having an online relationship. So what did he do? He deleted the girl's character and forbade her to contact the boy or our guild again. Lots of guild drama about this and some other events, and somehow my guild expected me to fix everything, which I of course couldn't. I felt under immense stress, until I really didn't enjoy playing any more, and quit the game. Being a guild leader is a tough job, I don't envy anyone doing it.

So, as I said, RvR had nothing to do with me leaving Dark Age of Camelot, I quit because I had bitten off more than I could chew when founding my own guild. But what I had seen up to then in RvR didn't really convince me either. You must remember that this was very early in the game, and the ruleset wasn't the same as it was later. This was before the patch which prevented high-level characters from entering low-level RvR zones. So the first time I entered a RvR zone I was one-shotted by some high-level archer. Later I participated in some larger battles and keep fights, but was disappointed when I found out that the keep we had fought so hard for to conquer was taken back by the other side at 3 am in the morning when we were sleeping. And being a healer I got shot *a lot*, archers were a huge nuisance in early DAoC, before they got nerfed. But this was all just casual PvP in pickup groups, I never was part of a big guild with well-organized RvR. Maybe I would have liked PvP better if I had had a better experience of it, but DAoC wasn't really a good game for casual PvP. It only taught me that the bigger side wins most of the time, and that skill isn't really part of a zerg rush.

Looking at WAR now, I recognize the improvements, well, improvements from my point of view. This isn't 2001 any more, we are now in the much gentler, post-WoW era. We have the anti-ganking chicken, and generous PvP rewards even for the losing side. We don't have an experience point penalty on dying any more. A DAoC player using a time-machine to move from 2001 to end of 2008 would probably consider WAR to be pretty carebear. But me, not having enjoyed the harsher original DAoC version, I'm having more hope that the gentler WAR PvP will have a broader appeal, also to the more casual players. Whether it can also provide the "impact PvP" that the PvP-fans are dreaming off remains to be seen. Me, I'm mostly wanting to play the PvE part of WAR, just like I did in DAoC.