Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Queues are back in WAR

The guys from Mythic had this idea which sounded so good to make the server queues more bearable: If you were logged in and somehow left the game, voluntarily or involuntarily, game crashing, or just your internet connection having a problem, you wouldn't have to wait in queue to get back into the game. You would have a reserved spot and could log on and play immediately. Marvelous, isn't it?

Until you think of the consequences: Everyone leaving the game, whether he wants to come back soon or not, has this reserved spot. And the reserved spot is taking up a slot on the server, so no other player can play instead. Result: On my server, where due to cloning the server queues had shrunk from 300 to nearly zero the queues are back with a vengeance. Last night I was number 508 in line, and, also due to the changes, the queue advanced much slower. Took me an hour and a half before I was in.

Of course I didn't sit 90 minutes in front of my computer watching the queue, I went off and watched TV with Mrs. Tobold. Came back 2 hours later, and apparently had logged in and been kicked back out for being afk. But no problem, now that I *had* been in, I was able to log in immediately, and skip the queue. And then I had to test something: I exited the game via the menu in the regular fashion, and then restarted it. Bingo, I got back in again, although the server queue was still at over 300 people at 10:30 pm. So apparently even people logging out for the night have a reserved spot blocking other people from playing. And the reservation period seems to be rather long, not just a few minutes.

So what sounded like a good idea just made the problem worse. The law of unintended consequences. I think the reservation period has to be shortened to 5 minutes maximum, which should be enough to reboot a crashed computer and restart the game if the leaving was really involuntarily. Letting lots of people reserve spots for long periods just results in there being too many people with an option to play directly, and too few people actually playing, because the others are stuck in the queue. Bad idea, really; or at least a bad implementation.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Democracy works

The US House of Representatives rejected the $700 billion bailout package for Wall Street with 228 votes against 205. I have no idea whether that ultimately was the right decision or the wrong one. Everyone has an opinion, but most of it is based on rhetorics, not facts. Would the bailout have "saved the financial system" or have been "good taxpayer money thrown after bad fat cat speculations"? In the absence of a parallel universe where the vote went the other way, nobody can say for sure.

But in all the excitement most people missed how democracy won the day. 133 Republicans and 95 Democrats voted against the bailout, 65 Republicans and 140 Democrats for it. So while both sides quickly blamed the others, in reality we had something very special and rare here: Congressmen voting based on what their constituents told them, and their own political beliefs, and ignoring what their leaders told them to do. Perfect bipartisanship in the sense that neither side voted along party lines. There is a lot of talk about failure of leadership at the moment, but in my opinion this is a good thing. Politics shouldn't be determined by a handful of leaders, but by the voice of the people. And for once this actually happened. Democracy worked. And if you believe in the "wisdom of the crowds", maybe the decision was actually the right one.

Buying a license, not a game

Famous Wizard101 blogger Cap'n John posted an interesting theory on the last open Sunday thread: End-User License Agreement's (EULA) might be unenforceable in a court of law, because the license taker, YOU, have to pay before accepting the license conditions. If you don't like the EULA conditions, you cannot just go back to the shop and demand the money back. Hmmm, certainly an interesting theory. I am not a lawyer, but I'm pretty sure that the lawyers of game companies disagree with that interpretation.

But EA's lawyers are busy with a class action suit over Spore DRM installing the SecuROM rootkit on the users computer. And in another tricky maneuver they are trying to explain how the manual stating that you could run several accounts with one copy of Spore was just a misprint. Does that mean next time they can explain how the $49.95 price tag was just a misprint too, and in fact you now owe EA $4995? And of course the announcement that your Spore game could be rendered inactive if you dare to discuss DRM on the official forums is legally tricky as well.

Buying a game or other software is hard to understand for the average person. We *think* we bought the game, but in reality we only bought a limited license to use the software under carefully prescribed conditions. Only rarely the users revolt, like the 2,000 people leaving a negative review for Spore on Amazon, when the difference between owning the game and licensing it becomes too great. In most cases people just ignore the legal difference, and treat the game as if they would own it. DRM is often more an attempt to combat casual piracy than really designed to thwart serious hackers. A hacked version of Spore was available on Bittorrent before the game even hit the shops in the USA. And there is a big risk for game companies that the more DRM they pack onto their games, the more popular the pirated version becomes over the legally bought version.

As others so correctly remarked, it is a bad situation when the pirated version of the game is perceived as better (not just better value for money) than the legit version. The obvious solution for games with online components, and Spore easily could have done that, is to have no DRM on the disk, but make it impossible to create an account with a pirated version. People pay for World of Warcraft because even if you could play it with a pirated version on a free server, the game experience on the real servers is better. There is very little discussion about DRM regarding MMORPGs, because it simply is no problem. You can legally download the WoW client for free, as trial version. And while an anti-cheat program like Warden might be perceived as bad, a lot more people can live with that than with SecuROM.

Trying to sell your customers a complicated license and then going after them with for EULA infractions, or annoying them with DRM software, is not going to work well for mass market software like games are. You just get a mix of backlash and EULA breaches you can't do much against. Selling people just a game, and putting the license on the online service is a lot easier to understand. And if the online services are good, people are quite willing to pay for them.

Tobold’s Guide to Salvaging and Talisman Making in WAR

In economic speak an inefficient market is one where the people buying and selling goods do not all have all of the information, leading to price distortions. As in Warhammer Online I made a huge bundle of money by buying something for 3 silver 60, and after a trivial salvaging transformation selling it for 20 silver, I'm pretty certain that this market is inefficient. Many people appear not to be well informed about how the "gathering" crafting skill salvaging works, and how it relates to the talisman making crafting skill. So although it will hurt my virtual earnings, I decided to write this salvaging guide.

Salvaging is the act of disenchanting a magic (that is green name or better) item into fragments and essences. Both of these are used for talisman making, and salvaging is in fact the only source of fragments in the game. The most basic type of essences can also be bought from vendors, but for the higher types again the salvaging skill is the only source. Thus, as in WAR you can only take one gathering and one production crafting skill, salvaging is a natural fit with talisman making. But the other three ingredients to make talismans come from other crafting skills, e.g. gold essences from the apothecary skill, so unless you only work with the basic vendor materials, you will have to buy materials from other players with other tradeskills. There is no combination of skills that will give you all the ingredients, unless you work with alts.

The basic difficulty of salvaging is where to get the magic items to disenchant from. The economy of WAR has generally an excess of money, people earn more money by whatever they do, questing or RvR, than they need for training and buying the occasional siege engine. Due to that, magic items that aren't bound to a player can generally be sold for relatively high sums. Disenchanting your bind-on-equip items, or buying them on the auction house is just plain too expensive. So most players just salvage the items bound to them, that is old gear, or quest rewards they don't need. This very much limits the progress of your salvaging and consequently talisman making skill. With the first talismans you can make being rather weak, many people quickly lose interest.

But unlike World of Warcraft, in Warhammer Online you can buy unlimited numbers of magic items from renown gear vendors. And you can buy all renown gear and salvage it, even if you don't have the class or the rank or renown to actually wear these items. So the solution to the salvaging sourcing problem is to salvage bought renown gear. The cheapest green renown item I could find were the Squigkickas of Vengeance for 3 silver 60. I think that is a bug, and I put in a bug report, because the other rank 6 / renown rank 4 boots for other classes cost 8 silver 40. But even if I buy the more expensive other renown boots I make a lot of money by simply selling the fragments I get from salvaging, because on my server there aren't many people selling fragments, so people are willing to pay 20 silver for even the basic ones.

When you salvage a magic item, your success is determined based on your salvaging skill and the level of the magic item. Some items can't be salvaged at all, for example jewelry. You click on your salvage icon, which transforms your mouse cursor into a little hammer, and then click on the item you want to salvage. At this point, a window pops up, asking you what type of fragment you want to make. If you salvage a magic item with let's say a bonus to intelligence and willpower, you can make either an intelligence or a willpower fragment out of it. How high the magic bonus of the item is plays no role at all, the quality of the fragment is only dependant of your skill and the level of the magic item. Besides the fragment you will produce some echoes and whispers. If you right-click on a stack of 10 echoes, they will transform into one whisper; 5 whispers will transform into one essence. On average the number of echoes and whispers you get from salvaging one item is about enough to make one essence. If you fail your salvage, you will not make a fragment, but only whispers.

A low level item, like the level 6 boots I mentioned, will produce Silent Echoes and Silent Whispers, leading to Silent Essences, plus a fragment for talisman making requiring a minimum skill of 1. The next level of magic items produces Dormant Echoes and Dormant Whispers, leading to Dormant Essences, plus a fragment for talisman making requiring a minimum skill of 25. You can buy Silent Essences for 2 silver from a crafting vendor, but you can't buy Dormant Essences and above. So while the renown items you have to buy and disenchant for the "dormant" level cost around 15 silver, you can still make good profit from salvaging, because you can sell both the fragment and the essence. For every level of magic item and every possible bonus there are three different quality levels of fragment. For example if you make elemental resistance fragments of the lowest level, you're most likely to get Nascent Beryl Dust. Sometimes you will get a Nascent Beryl Stone, which is of better quality, although that isn't immediately obvious, as the name is white as well. In very rare cases you can get a green name Animated Beryl Stone of the highest quality. The quality of the fragment affects the quality of the talisman you make from it.

Once you have a fragment, you can start making talismans. You will also need a container, a gold essence, a curio, and an essence. The essence you got from salvaging or buy the lowest kind. The other ingredients you can buy the lowest version at a crafting vendor or higher versions from players with other gathering and production skills. When you open the talisman making window from your hotbar or ability window, you get a window with 5 spots. You need to first fill in the spot for the container in the upper left corner, then the fragment spot in the upper middle. When you fill in the other three ingredients, a power meter in the upper right corner shows you the power of the talisman. Higher quality ingredients increase the power level.

Many people dismissed talisman making when they made their first talisman and found out it gave a bonus only for some hours. But those are /played hours, and given the frequency at which you replace your gear at the lower levels, these hours might be all you need. Higher level talismans not only have higher bonuses, but also have longer durations or even are permanent. If you combine salvaging with talisman making, and thus get the fragments and essences at the cheapest possible rate, you can make good talismans at reasonable cost. And in WAR even low level items often have talisman slots, allowing you to boost your stats significantly. Of course the alternative, learning either butchering or scavenging as gathering skill, and apothecary as production skill, also can give some good advantages in terms of buffs from potions, or the use of healing or action point potions. But that apothecary chain has two annoying disadvantages: The extra time you need to spend to butcher / scavenge mobs after looting them, and the items gathered that way quickly filling up your inventory. The salvage / talisman making route only takes time when you have it available, and as you can do it when in a city, you can keep all the materials in the bank. So I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss talisman making as the "useless" one of the two WAR production skills.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Open Sunday Thread

A special open Sunday thread, because I'll be traveling a lot next week and am not sure how much blogging I'll get done. So here is an open space for you to discuss.

WAR rollback problems?

Shamutanti wrote me because he had a problem in Warhammer Online with his character having been rolled back a day. I found other people reporting the same, both on the US servers and on the Euro servers. Anyone here had his character rolled back and lost levels, had to redo quests, etc.? Would be good to find out how widespread the problem is.

Color blindness and MMOs

A reader wrote me because he is color blind, and in some MMOs that leads to problems. For example while in WoW the quest icons floating over the heads of quest givers have at least two different shapes, exclamation mark and question mark, in other games only the color of that icon changes. So if you are color blind, you have to click on all of them to see whose quest you alread finished, and who still has a new quest to give you.

Lots of other things in MMOs are color coded too: The relative difficulty for your level of a monster or quest, or item quality. So should MMOs have an option for a different grey-scale scheme that is better visible for the color blind? Or is that such a small part of the population that they can afford not to bother?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Mythic news: queues and rest bonus

Server cloning worked well in my case, my server used to have half an hour wait at prime time for Destruction, now its down to 3 minutes max. In a further improvement to queues Mythic announced that they'll patch in a small change: If you crashed to desktop and log right back in, you skip the queue. As that was one of the major annoyances with queues, this is a good idea. On the downside of course queues will advance more slowly.

In other Warhammer Online news, Mythic published a FAQ about how the rest bonus works. That's the bonus to xp you accumulate when not online. Just like in WoW it is limited to a level and a half. But the numbers are slightly different. In WAR you get the basic bonus everywhere, +50% when you log out in a war camp or quest hub with the "you feel rested" message, +100% in Altdorf or the Inevitable City, and +150% in the guild leader's hall, a feature your guild acquires with rank. So right now I can only recommend flying to your main city before logging off.

Bind on need

Of course in WAR as well as in WoW there are people who roll "need" for an item they actually don't need at all, but just want to sell. So I had this spontaneous idea: What if items that you win with a need roll are automatically bound to you? Should be easy enough to program, and would really enforce the meaning of "need".

Thursday, September 25, 2008

WAR Auction House

I first started to get worried about auction houses when I noticed that late in the beta there still weren't any. There were auctioneer NPCs, but clicking on them didn't do anything, just weeks before release. Then last minute the auction house interface got patched in. Now, one week after release, it starts showing its inadequacies. This is not something which has been extensively tested in the beta, and accordingly the WAR auction house interface has serious flaws.

The biggest flaw is a fixed limit of 500 results. Not 500 results per page, then scroll forward. No, 500 results, won't show you the rest. The only way to get past that is to refine search criteria. Which would be nice if they were all implemented and working correctly, but they aren't.

Where the auction house completely fails is for crafting materials. Anyone who studied the WoW auction house a bit knows that crafting materials are traded much more than other items, like equipment. The WAR crafting system actively encourages trading crafting items, because you can have only one gathering skill, but need several different items for crafting. But all crafting items are rank 0, you can't set a filter by that. You can set a filter to only show crafting materials, but you can't search for only apothecary materials, or only fragments for talisman making. And as there are more than 500 crafting materials on the AH, with no way to refine the search by class, a good part of them remains permanently invisible, with the sellers wondering why nobody buys their stuff. Only if you know the name, or part of the name, can you search for something. But as you are unlikely to know the names of all herbs or curios or whatever, your chance of finding things are slim.

For weapons and armor the AH works somewhat better, but still has flaws. That is mostly because items in WAR have a very inconsistent system of restrictions. Half of the items are restricted to a particular class, lets say Black Orc. The other half are restricted by race and type, lets say orc/goblin and heavy armor. Now if you put "Black Orc" as search criteria on the auction house interface, it shows you all items limited for the class Black Orc, filtering out all the items restricted to other classes. But it doesn't filter out items with race and type restrictions, so you will still see items for Chaos or Dark Elf races, although obviously a Black Orc can't use those. So you do a search for your class and rank, and still come up with tons of results you can't use. There is no "useable" filter criterion, showing you only the stuff you could actually wear.

If you actually manage to sell something, you'll have the dubious pleasure of interacting with the mail interface, which isn't much better. Good idea: A separate tab for auction house mail. But I so wish that tab would have a "open all mail, take all items from it, and delete them" button. Instead not only do you have to open each mail one by one, take the attached items or money, and then manually delete the mail. You will also often encounter a strange bug telling you that you haven't read the mail you just took the attachments of, and are you really, really sure you want to delete it? If you put a bunch of stuff on the auction house and sold it, that gets tedious pretty fast. Hint: The bug seems to appear less often if you open your last mail first and work back from the bottom instead down from the top.

In summary the auction house user interface of Warhammer Online is rather bad, even failing to fulfill basic functions like showing everything for sale of a certain type. It clearly has been programmed in a rush, and not properly tested. There are some drop-down fields with only one option, suggesting that there are plans to improve the interface. But as it stands now, the auction house is more annoying than helpful.

WAR clones servers

The population of Warhammer Online is growing, and in response Mythic opens new servers. But instead of just making new, empty servers, they have a novel approach: They clone old, overpopulated servers. Thus players on the old servers can choose whether they want to continue playing on their old server, or whether they want to move to the new server *without* having to do an irreversible choice. If your whole guild moved and you only realize that days later, you can still switch and find a clone of your character with the level and stuff from the moment of the split there.

Really good idea, why has nobody else thought of that before? This not only reduces the population pressure on the old servers, but also jump-starts the new server with higher level characters, so the newbie zones aren't too crowded. Better to distribute the new players over two servers than have them all on one server. Of course guild moves still remain a complicated affair, but the clone method is way better than the old server split method, where you had to decide whether you would move or not in advance, and somebody always was left behind.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


I totally agree with Mark Jacobs' approach of banning gold spammers immediately, instead of banning a large amount every couple of months. But I can also see why the decision to report bannings with pop-up windows to the other players isn't liked by everyone. And I certainly can't support Syp's proposal to ostracize your friends if they bought any gold. But I don't think any of this matters for the reality of gold selling in Warhammer Online, it's all just the inconsequential noise people make about the issue.

The best Mark Jacob's can hope for it to completely ban gold *spammers* from his game. Which would already be a big step forward, but is still a completely different league than banning gold *sellers*. The fundamental problem with banning gold sellers is that me sending you 100 gold in WAR would be completely legit, because we could be best buddies or something. You giving me 20 bucks in return is the forbidden part, but as that part happens outside the game, Mythic won't be able to verify if it happened or not.

Syp is right in saying that the problem of gold selling is the demand of gold buyers. But his solution is wrong, because he short-sightedly attributes the demand to notions of "morality or honor", which is just plain silly. Player's demand for gold is simply a function of how grindy it is to get gold, and what you need that gold for. And that are all questions of game design. It is a lot easier to solve the problem with good game design than to start a successful crusade to stop people from cheating in video games. Google has 80 million hits in a search for "cheats", most of which are about video games, that isn't something we can make go away if we all just hold hands and wish for it very, very strongly.

Fortunately WAR seems to be on a good way to if not eliminate but then at least seriously reduce gold selling by the simple means of making earning gold fun enough, and not having ridiculous money sinks like 5,000 gold epic horses. The level 20 mount in WAR costs 15 gold, and I already have that much money at level 14, without any grind. The trick is that you do earn gold whatever you do, even in RvR. Although the player you kill does not lose gold or items, you loot him and get gold or even items. So you can have fun all evening with lets say defending a keep, spend money on siege weapons, and still come out ahead with gold in your pockets. And there isn't all that much you could spend it on. Renown gear is usually better than anything you can find in the auction house, crafted consumables are cheap enough, because that is all you can craft, and training and mounts are reasonably priced. So we could well see a lot less RMT in WAR than in WoW. And that without needing to never speak to our friends again.

Do you play pen & paper RPGs?

My pen & paper roleplaying group just started a new campaign, this time playing the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying game (2005 edition). I'm playing with these guys for years now, various campaigns, usually every second Monday evening. But we are all around 40ish, and sometimes I feel like being a dinosaur when rolling dice and scribbling on character sheets.

So I was a bit at a loss what to tell the guy who wants me to review his independantly published pen & paper RPG Imperium Chronicles. He obviously put a lot of effort into his project, but I'm not sure I can make him much hope. Indie pen & paper RPGs might have been a good idea in the 80's, but nowadays I have the feeling that even the pen & paper games of big publishers struggle somewhat. I bought the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, but I got the feeling that it's release was a lot less talked about than the release of lets say Warhammer Online or Age of Conan. But maybe I'm wrong, and I'm just moving in different circles now.

So tell me, did you ever play pen & paper roleplaying games, and are you still playing them? Are strangely shaped dice a thing of the past, or is it still an active and vibrant hobby community?

The Dungeons of WAR

Last night my guild did their first dungeon crawl in Warhammer Online. We visited the Sacellum, the arena in the Inevitable City, which has three short dungeon wings. The first has mobs level 13 to 16, the second from level 15 to 18, and the last from level 17 to 20. We cleared out the first, did the last except for the final boss, but didn't get all that far in the middle one, where curiously the mobs hit a lot harder than their higher level brethren. We might have beaten them too if we hadn't had one other player and me crash to desktop, resulting in half an hour queue to get back into the game.

The three dungeons are supposed to be holding cells for the arena, and they look the part. Of course that makes them look rather drab, compared to the often very colorful WoW dungeons. But apart from the look, the dungeons were fun enough. The trash mobs are of "champion" strength, and there aren't too many of them. Each wing seems to have 3 boss mobs, which are "hero" strength, and tough to beat. While the first dungeon only had beastmen, the last dungeon held exotic monsters, so we fought a wyvern, a manticore, and a hydra, all very nicely animated and impressive.

Gameplay in the dungeons was classic WoW style: We made a group with a Black Orc main tank, me as Shaman healer, two Chosen off-tank/melee dps, and two Squig Herder ranged dps. Levels ranging from 14 to 20, with the main tank being the level 20, which was helpful. Went in, beat up the trash mobs, and then faced the boss mobs, who took longer fights to beat. The bosses all just dropped green loot, but we got a blue drop from a trash mob.

We had one quest from Barak Varr to find a goblin in the deepest dungeon, and there is another quest for the lowest level dungeon in the middle of the arena. Unfortunately the arena is populated by level 35 aggressive mobs, and getting to the quest giver alive isn't easy. I only managed it by using the fleeing ability, dying directly after accepting the quest. Really bad placement, and the quest rewards aren't special either.

So all in all the WAR dungeons felt like the devs ticking off a check box: Dungeons, yes we got those! Needing a holy trinity of tank/healer/dps, they are less easy to set up, and give less rewards, than public quests, so I don't see me doing them all that often. I did like the boss mobs in the final Sacellum dungeon, but for the rest the WAR dungeons don't come close to WoW dungeons. But of course PvE dungeons is the main strength of WoW, so that doesn't come unexpected.

As far as I read, Altdorf has a similar set of three dungeons in the sewers, fighting Skaven. So if you are level 14 to 20, and have some likeminded friends, whatever realm you are on, there is a set of dungeons for you to check out. Interesting to see once, but otherwise just a minor distraction from the much better public quests and RvR of WAR.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Got my WAR collector's edition

My Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning collector's edition just arrived, a huge box. There is a book with concept art, a WAR comic, the game, a mouse pad, and two metal Warhammer figurines. I went right to the game and entered the code, although with the CE preorder code one can still play a while before needing a code. But I wanted to see whether it works, and get the CE ingame items as well. Of course the only result of me entering the key was an e-mail telling me that the key wasn't valid. Checking the code under a magnifying glass revealed that one of the Z was actually a 2, but the code was typed in a font in which Z and 2 only differ by 1 pixel. Really, why can't people use fonts where every letter and number looks sufficiently different from the others? On the second try I got it right.

So now I'm good for at least 30 days. Only problem being that I can't find out for how long, nor can I actually subscribe to WAR in Europe. The GOA account site is only as far as absolutely necessary to enter codes. The "My licenses", "My current subscription", and "My billing information" buttons on the account page are still greyed out. First MMO company that *doesn't* want my credit card information even if I'm eager to give it to them.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Why don't we play innovative games?

A Tale in the Desert is an MMO without combat, but not a pure sandbox either, there are skills, a series of tests, and a complex social gameplay. Puzzle Pirates is a completely player-skill based MMO, where your success at anything is determined by your skill in various puzzles, not your level or stats. Wizard101 has more traditional levels and quests, but a completely novel combat system based on magic cards. And the guys from PixelMine just sent me a press release on how their MMO Ashen Empires won the Best Fantasy MMORPG award at the Independent Games Festival. And that is just a handful of examples I happen to know of. There are tons and tons of innovative MMOs out there. But each of them attracts only a few thousand players. Meanwhile millions of players play games like World of Warcraft or Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, and then whine loudly about the lack of innovation in these games.

Doh, guys! Most game companies produce games for the money, not because they hope to become critically acclaimed starving artists. They are always going to look out what kind of games seem to sell well, and then make that sort of game. If customers throw a billion dollars a year at Blizzard for World of Warcraft, and A Tale in the Desert is making peanuts, then of course other companies prefer to make a game more like WoW than like ATitD. They would be crazy if they didn't do it.

In the last open Sunday thread people were blaming the big companies to make games as bland as McDonalds bland food. I'm saying that the complaint would be a lot more valid if the complainers weren't actually sitting in the McDonalds restaurant and eating bland burgers, while right next door there is an empty, small gourmet restaurant with a varied, but foreign cuisine. As soon as about a million of you guys start playing innovative games, game companies are going to make more of them. As long as you go for games that offer small, evolutionary steps to a well-known concept, companies are going to make those. The question is not why WAR isn't more innovative, the question is why there aren't more people playing Wizard101 or other innovative games. Game companies produce what the customers want, and we only have ourselves to blame if we voted with our wallets for evolutionary approach. If even we as players are afraid to try something really new, then how can you expect a company to bet millions of dollars on really new?

The trouble with queues

As I mentioned my main character on the European WAR servers is a shaman, I'm playing on the Destruction side. Worldwide, on pretty much every server, there are more people who want to play Destruction than those who want to play Order. As that has obvious bad consequences for realm balance, Mythic introduced a radical measure: They simply don't let as many Destruction players onto the servers as there are people who would like to play Destruction. Servers have not one population cap but two, and if there are no spots left for Destruction, you only have the choice between playing Order, or waiting in a queue. That can get extremely annoying if you were in a group with your friends, crashed to desktop, and then need half an hour of queueing before getting back into the game. And I'm not even sure queues will fix the realm balance issues.

The trouble with the system is that it only works when the servers are nearly full, which is only during prime time at the moment. In the morning you can play whatever side you want without queueing. So to make servers balanced, Mythic has to trust that there are enough people who prefer Destruction, but are so annoyed by having to wait in line during prime time that they voluntarily switch to Order side. Unfortunately MMORPG players are a stubborn bunch. Some came to play with friends or complete guilds from previous games, and rather wait in line than play the other side on another server alone. Some just are fans of a particular race or class, and don't want to go over to the "enemy". Some even quit WAR totally instead of switching sides.

While the number of available servers only changes very slowly, and rarely goes down, the number of people wanting to log on and play changes every hour, and every day. In a mature game only 10% to 20% of subscribers are logged in during prime time. But in a game just after release the percentages are much higher, because few people buy a game and subscribe to then *not* play whenever possible. And subscription numbers too vary with time, Raph Koster has an excellent explanation. And that is just the natural cycle without outside disturbances. We all know that the number of people wanting to log onto WAR will drop significantly on November 13, when Wrath of the Lich King comes out.

So if there are 50% more players who want to play Destruction than Order, it means that one in three Destruction players is stuck in a queue when the servers are full. And when the servers are empty, Destruction still outnumbers Order by 50%. Order never gets to outnumber Destruction, except locally. Queues don't change that, unless half of the Destruction overpopulation decides to go over to Order *and stay there*. But as everyone knows that populations will go down in a while, many just stick to Destruction and wait it out.

The better method would be to find out why players prefer one side, and then make the other side more attractive to even out the numbers. But of course that is easier said than done, and easier done while the game is still in beta. I would have thought that after release maybe more casual players join the game and prefer the pretty races, but that didn't really happen yet. WAR isn't really targeted towards casual players all that much as WoW is. Casual listeners prefer the Beatles to Led Zeppelin (you need to watch a Mythic interview to get that joke). And the WAR elves and humans aren't actually all that pretty. And they aren't quite as cool or unique as many of the Destruction classes. Except for the White Lion, the High Elves are surprisingly bland and all look the same. As Greenskin you can always see who is who in your team, as High Elf only the guy with the cat stands out.

So I think that in spite of the queues, realm imbalance is going to stay with us for a long time. It is unlikely that Mythic completely reworks the Order classes to make them more attractive. And preventing people from playing the class they want only serves to annoy them, and doesn't solve anything.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Mourkain Temple

Mourkain Temple is the WAR tier 2 scenario in the dwarves vs. greenskins scenario. And it is very badly designed. The basic rules are that both sides start out at opposite ends of a map, and there is an artifact in the middle. First one to click on the artifact grabs it, and now carries it arround. Collecting the artifact and holding onto it gives points, and the side that gathers 500 points first wins. Unfortunately the scenario has two major problems: Mounts and hedgehogs.

Tier 2 is the scenario that can be entered from level 11 to 21. In Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning you can buy your first mount at level 20, for an affordable 15 gold. So while everyone is running for the artifact, the few level 20 players will ride there. If one side has at least one player with a mount and the other side doesn't, the mounted side always gets the artifact. It would be so easy to disallow mounts in this scenario, I don't know why Mythic allows them here, where their use throws the battle off balance.

But mounts aren't the worst problem of Mourkain Temple, hedgehogs are. As others have noticed, the best strategy for the side that grabs the artifact first is to run back to their own base and form one spikey ball to defend the artifact holder. The official rules say that holding the artifact damages the carrier, but if that works at all, the damage is insignificant. Even with the whole other team bombarding the artifact holder at range plus the damage from the artifact, a tank can hold on to the thing easily for the whole duration of the battle, if he has just one dedicated healer keeping his health up.

This makes Mourkain Temple extremely unpleasant to play. The side that got the artifact first plays directly next to their base, where anyone dying respawns immediately next to the action. The other side has to run all across the map every time, and has no chance in that fight. Very often the winning side gets 500 points, and the losing side less than 100, earning them nearly no renown and experience points for their trouble. There are no close battles, no back and forth, no fun.

And it would be so easy to slightly change the rules to make this a fun scenario: 1) No mounts allowed. 2) Holding the artifact damages the carrier much more, and gives him a debuff that prevents him from being healed. 3) Dropping the artifact causes it to respawn IN THE MIDDLE, not at the point where it is dropped. So instead of the thing dropping in the middle of the group that held it next to their base, and often the same side picking it up, suddenly control of the middle of the battlefield would be important. Until Mythic fixes the scenario, I can advise you to use the tier 2 scenarios of the other two pairings instead.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Open Sunday Thread

Time flies, especially in weeks where a new major MMORPG gets released. Sunday brings the open Sunday thread: Suggest subjects for discussion, or just tell us what you would write about today if you had a MMO blog.

Acer Aspire One 150

My Dell XPS laptop is sitting on my desk and rarely moving. Charger included the thing weights several kilograms, and even with "only" having a 12" screen, it is too big to fit into my briefcase. Great solution to take with me on holidays if I want to play games. Not so great on a business trip where I just want Office and the internet. So I decided to spend €399 on an Acer Aspire One 150 netbook, as it was said to be even better than the eeePC. I got the Windows XP version, with 1 GB RAM and 120 GB hard drive (in addition to a 8 GB flash drive).

I'll have to test drive it in normal business day application, but up to now I'm quite happy with it. It is small and lightweight enough to fit into my briefcase, but the 9" screen, keyboard, and touchpad are big enough to work with. The A150 comes with WiFi, but I do have an USB 3G modem recently acquired for when there is not WiFi signal to be found. Europe doesn't have all that many free WiFi spots, often you need to pay €10 or so for one hour of WiFi connection. So my 3G modem costing €5 per month plus €1 per day of use is actually cheaper as long as I only use it in Belgium. Roaming charges for data are horrible, so I'd only use it for emergencies outside Belgium.

I was laughing about this Acer Aspire One 150 review, where they even managed to get World of Warcraft running on it at 800x600 resolution and 24 frames per second. I don't think I'm going to use it for that.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

No Wrath without Burning Crusade

WoWInsider reports that Blizzard confirmed that you won't be able to play Wrath of the Lich King if you haven't got The Burning Crusade installed. Not a huge surprise, you'd have a problem to close the gap from level 60 to 70 without TBC anyway. But a reader was writing me and asked whether I thought that in the long run this could be a financial barrier to entry for people wanting to start WoW if they have to buy all the expansions.

I don't think that will really be a problem. You can now get the World of Warcraft Battlechest for $30, containing the original WoW and the first expansion. So you pay less for the bundle than either of them did cost on release. If on November 13 you want to buy WoW, TBC, and WotLK all together, it only costs you $70. And really, there is no good reason to want to buy WotLK for a new player right from the start. I'm pretty sure that by the time the third expansion comes out, there is some cheap package where you can buy WoW with both expansions for $30 or so.

The real barrier to entry into WoW nowadays is a completely different one. Like one of my readers commented yesterday, he had a friend joining for the first time, and that friend asked "where are all the other players?". That will be worse after Wrath than before. Not only will everyone be at level 80, which even with sped up leveling is a long way to go, but also there won't be all that many low level alts as in The Burning Crusade. TBC had veteran players making level 1 draenei and blood elf. WotLK has veteran players make level 55 death knights. Big difference for the future population of newbie zones.

Sad as it is, the best way to start WoW nowadays is via a friend, who recruits you with that triple xp offer and rushes you through the part of the game we used to love back in 2004/2005. Because in 2008/2009 that part of the game is an empty wasteland. You can still quest in the Barrens, but when you read some reference to the famous "Barrens chat" you won't know what they are talking about, because all you heard was eerie silence.

Hear me brag!

Writing this blog is a considerable effort, which I sustained now for over 5 years and over 2,200 posts. I don't do it out of financial considerations, which is why you don't see any ads here. I do it because I want my voice to be heard, and because of the recognition blogging earns me. Official recognition, in the form of a press pass to a Blizzard convention, and a comped account for WAR is nice. But the more important part is recognition I get by my readers, in the form of them showing up in the first place, and, even better, leaving comments, feedback, and discussing what I write about. And because that recognition is so important for my motivation, you'll have to live with me telling you occasionally about milestones I reached. Yes, that is a sort of bragging. I'm not ashamed of that. If you don't like it, you could simply skip those posts.

According to Sitemeter my blog just passed 2 million visitors since I installed the counter in February 2004. I had few visitors back then, but now get around 3,000 every day. I also have about 2,000 readers of my feed, with no way to tell how many of those are also visiting the blog directly, and how many read only the feed. Visits per month have been pretty constant recently, so I'll have nearly a million visitors this year. According to Google Analytics just over half of the visitors find their way here via a search engine, although some of them are specifically searching for me, with "Tobold" being one of my top search terms. The other half are split rather evenly between direct visits, and people coming in via links from other sites.

I'd like to thank all visitors for coming here, but am especially grateful for those who come repeatedly, and those who participate in the discussion in an intelligent and polite way. You keep coming and participating, and I keep blogging. Deal?

If it changes the way you play, it's innovation

I've read various reports of what people did during their headstart days of Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. And I'm sure there will be many more reports like that when WAR launches the release version today. And one thing I noticed with myself, and you can also see in posts by, for example, JoBildo, is that people group more and PvP more in WAR than in other games.

Imagine you would start a new character in World of Warcraft today, and leveled him up to level 9. What activities do you think that character would have done from level 1 to 9? I think he would have spent most of his times doing regular quests. He might have started a tradeskill at level 5, but he certainly wouldn't have done any PvP (unless he was ganked on a PvP server). And it is unlikely that he would have joined any group.

My WAR character at level 9 has done regular quests, and learned tradeskills. But he also joined more than 10 groups (not counting scenario groups, and I have the achievement to prove that), for public quests and for RvR. I also reached renown rank (PvP level) 8, having done scenarios repeatedly, a RvR public quest completed three times, and having visited all three open world tier 1 RvR zones, once even in a huge warband (raid group). And I didn't group and PvP to deliberately change my behavior. I did it because it was the natural thing to do.

Groups are so obviously better for public quests and RvR that you need to be completely alergic to other people to want to avoid them. There is no "it took us half an hour to set up this pickup group, and then one guy did something stupid and wiped us, at which point half of the group left" in WAR. Instead you get situation where you and the other players around you are already doing the same thing, be it a public quest or taking an RvR objective, and grouping up is simply better than every one doing the same thing in parallel. I even grouped sometimes for normal quests, as in WAR there isn't the same problem as in WoW that if you are more people you need to kill more foozles to get 10 foozle ears for everyone; every mob killed counts as one kill or one item drop for every one in the group. And the group xp bonus is large enough to earn more xp per time in a group than solo, unlike WoW's.

Doing RvR comes naturally as well. You stumble upon some quest NPC asking you to do a scenario relatively early. You try, and you notice that regardless of your level and gear, you'll be able to do *something* useful in a scenario. Yes, a level 1 will just be boosted to level 8, have only his initial 3 spells or abilities, and no gear, so he'll be crushed in a one-on-one duel against a level 11 in full renown gear. But there are few duels in a scenario. Your level 1 spell will be boosted to level 8 and be perfectly able to damage that level 11, who'll might not immediately notice you if you fire ranged spells from behind. If you are a healer (my main is a Shaman on the Euro servers), you can help your side significantly by healing. And you are exactly as valuable for capturing a flag as anyone else. And while doing all this you will gain both regular PvE experience points, and PvP renown points. Renown ranks (PvP levels) will give you stat bonuses at the renown trainer, which are useful for both PvP and PvE. And the renown gear merchant will sell you good equipment, easily financed by all the coin you get in RvR from every kill.

There has been a lot of discussion of whether WAR is innovative or just a WoW clone. But the people argueing that its just a clone do so based on screenshots and feature lists, which is about as useful as a movie review based on screenshots and a plot summary. The question is not whether WAR looks like WoW and has classes, levels, and quests like WoW. The question is whether WAR plays like WoW. And it does not. I'm not saying WAR is better than WoW, I'm sure I'm going to miss fixed-group dungeons and raids at some point. But I'm absolutely insisting on WAR playing differently for the average user. At no point do you think "oh, I'm just doing the same stuff as in WoW here". In WAR you have more different activities, all of them viable paths for advancement, during the leveling stage. While in WoW the bulk of the choices is concentrated at the level cap. Yes, that means that at some point in the future I'll write a post about how there isn't enough to do in WAR at the level cap. But right now, leveling up is a hell of a lot more fun than in WoW. And that *is* innovative, player behavior is not something that is easily changed. If you can get people who mainly soloed and never liked PvP to do lots of groups and RvR, you have done something new to the genre. It will take some time for everyone to realize this, but WAR changes what a MMORPG is; playing more together and against each other than playing alone, who would have thunk that?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Do I need labels / tags for this blog?

A reader wrote me and said he would prefer if my blog had tags, called labels on Blogger, where you click on lets say the WAR label to see all my posts about WAR. The reason I don't have those is that Blogger didn't have the option when I started the blog. While it would be easy enough to start now, I'm so no going back through 2,200 old blog posts to add labels, that would take forever. So do you think that it would be a good idea for me to add labels anyway, even if they only cover my new posts?

If yes, I'm looking for suggestions about what labels to use, beyond the obvious like WoW and WAR. I don't think it would be a good idea to have a label for every minor game, otherwise I get a too long list of labels. What do you think of an "other games" label? And I was wondering whether I should group my more theoretical posts that aren't really about one specific game into some "game theory" label. Suggestions about whether and how to tag my posts are welcome!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

On the way to e-sport?

A reader was asking me what I thought about the various class changes that Wrath of the Lich King will bring to World of Warcraft. He noticed that many of them seem to be for balancing, like removing all racial spells from the priest class, or giving druids a non-combat rez. Also lots of reagents have been removed, like rogue poisons and things like light feathers for levitate, removing some reagent-gathering from the game. His conclusion was that Blizzard is doing all that for their e-sports arenas. Balance is good for arenas, and so is the removal of reagents.

So, less atmosphere, less roleplaying, more arenas, more e-sports, is that the future of World of Warcraft? I'm not a big fan of arenas, so for me that would be a step backwards. But for other players arena seem to be quite popular. Are they fun, and Blizzard is right to push them, or are people just doing them for the epics? What do you think about the changes?

A great launch, but ...

The quality of consumer software at release is generally bad. If the industrial software used for applications like running nuclear power stations, life support systems in hospitals, or air traffic control had as many bugs and crashes as the average consumer software, we would be in serious trouble. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games on average have a *worse* quality level than other pieces of consumer software. Notaddicted has an interesting article on WAR release expectations by Isobelle, asking why our expectations are so low, and why are we willing to let game companies get away with bad launches. Quote Keen: "Opening day rocked. Complete server stability for Wolfenburg - no lag - few crashes. Yes, I CTD’d 4x yesterday and there were many in my guild who were crashing as well. Alt tabbing is a sure way to fubar your game. Obviously the issues still persist into launch. This was, baring any unforeseen issues when SE’s and normal retail join us, the smoothest launch I’ve participated in." Smoothest launch ever, "only" 4 crashes to desktop, and you can't use alt-tab (unless you run WAR in windowed mode). Talk about low expectations.

I totally agree that on a relative scale, compared to other MMORPG launches, WAR is having a great launch. On an absolute scale European WAR servers were down this morning for emergency maintenance, if you want to play destruction you'll be stuck in a waiting queue for half an hour after every disconnect, there is still a good number of bugs, and clunky way in which you have to accept the EULA and TOS twice on every launch of the client is driving me crazy. But for some reason everyone prefers the relative scale, where measured by things like server uptime WAR is even ahead of WoW at release for the moment. Without mentioning that if you phone company or electricity company would provide service like that, you'd be up in arms.

Gamers are far too willing to let game companies get away with anything. And me right among them, I was far too happy about playing the game without considering all the implications of the Spore DRM controversy, where I got fooled into thinking I was buying a game, when in fact I was only buying a limited license to install a game 3 times, with some strings attached in the form of rootkit software. Gamers only get angry at the point when something prevents them from playing, like the GOA accounts page problems. But once GOA put up a way to enter your code, everybody was happy, without remarking that the current system is still far from being a fully functional account site. What are we going to do in two days, enter our credit card details into a "temporary" form field on an unsecured, flash-based website, with no way to check your account details afterwards? Maybe GOA has a miracle patch up their sleeves and will bring up a fully functional account site Thursday. But if they don't, they'll be forgiven just as long as they allow everyone in via whatever temporary solution they'll come up with. People will even accept server queues for the more popular side, without complaining how that effectively limits their choice of what to play. And hey, if after release in regular operation the WAR servers would be down for half a day once every week, that'll be accepted as being the same as WoW.

Are we right in doing this? Should we say "it's just a game", and not expect a higher level of quality? Television is also "just entertainment", but we wouldn't let TV companies get away with the level of service that game companies provide. Will we "shut up and play" if the Wrath of the Lich King launch is buggy like hell in November? Why did we let Funcom get away with a horrible launch of Age of Conan? I guess it was because we were bored at the time and the parts of the game that worked were fun. But should we be satisfied with that? How can we expect the quality of games to improve if we are so obviously willing to pay up even for bugs?

WAR ships, Blizzard shares drop by 4 percent

From Ardwulf's Lair I got the news that WAR shipped 1.5 million copies, twice as many as AoC. Not bad, assuming they don't remain unsold on shelves. In other news Blizzard announced that Wrath of the Lich King will be released on November 13. Lots of people are trying to draw a connection between those events, but I don't think that is necessarily valid. I'll give you an example how easy it is to come to the wrong conclusion:

On the same day that WAR shipped, Activision-Blizzard shares dropped by 4 percent. "Hah!" the WAR fans will say, the shipping of WAR must be the reason for Blizzard's shares dropping, now that they get serious competition. Not so fast. Pretty much every share dropped yesterday, it was a day with the biggest loss on the New York Stock Exchange since 9/11. Electronic Arts shares dropped by 4 percent too; if WAR had been the reason that Blizzard shares dropped, there should have been a corresponding rise in EA shares. In fact it is much safer to say that the stock exchange completely ignored WAR shipping, it was just a coincidence that WAR shipped on the same day as the shares fell.

I am sure that Blizzard is aware that WAR is coming out. And if EA manages to sell those 1.5 million copies, plus the subscriptions going with that, it will rip a visible hole into Blizzard's earnings, because that would represent more than a quarter of their US/Euro customers (WAR isn't shipping to Asia yet). But frankly, I don't see Blizzard shaking in their boots. They are extremely confident about their products, and it was always clear that Wrath release will somewhat counter the WAR release, causing a spike in WoW subscriptions, and a dip in WAR subscriptions. November was always a good guess for the Wrath release date, I guestimated that date myself repeatedly on this blog. We can debate whether the date of the announcement is a dirty marketing trick, with Blizzard normally not giving us two months advance warning. But the release date itself probably depended more on intricacies of the Activision-Blizzard financial year reports than on Warhammer Online. Anyone remember Blizzard promising one expansion per year? If they release the second expansion 22 months after the first one, I wouldn't be talking about Blizzard releasing it *early* to counter a competitor. We should be talking about why Blizzard didn't release WotLK *before* WAR.

Having said that, I am fully aware that the Wrath of the Lich King beta is not in good condition. The WAR beta two months before release was a hell of a lot more stable than the WotLK beta is now. Blizzard still has a lot of work to do in the coming two months. The only thing I'm saying is that in a parallel universe without WAR, they'd probably fighting exactly the same problem with the same release date. Wrath isn't going to be released on November 13 because of WAR, it is being released on that day because it is bloody time, and players are quitting WoW out of boredom regardless of what other games are on the market.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The nature of quests

In spite of what you might have seen on South Park, it is not possible to level up to the level cap in World of Warcraft by killing 65,340,285 level 1 boars. It is however totally possible to level up to the level cap in WoW or Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, or most other level-based MMORPGs, by killing monsters of your level all day long, without doing a single quest. But although quests are thus not strictly necessary, they have become a more and more important part of the genre. Ultima Online only had a few escort quests when I played it, Everquest (in spite of the name) had a gameplay where killing the same mob repeatedly was a much bigger part of gameplay than doing the occasional quest. Anarchy Online and Star Wars Galaxies experimented with random quest generators, which wasn't a huge success. It was World of Warcraft where the quest system had its breakthrough, and questing became the main occupation of players. But after a few years the fizz seems to have gone out of the model, with increasing complaints about "kill ten foozles" quests being boring. So what is the function of quests, and how could we make it more fun?

If you tried to level up without quests in WoW, you would most likely go somewhere where there are mobs of your level and start killing them. If you found a large enough group, and not too many other players are around, the first mob will have respawned by the time you kill the last mob, and so you can go around in circles until you level up. At some point your level is so high that moving to a higher level mob would be the optimum strategy. But before that there isn't really a reason why you would travel around and look for other mobs than those eternal respawns. Of course killing always the same mob over and over isn't much fun, but there is some sort of activation barrier which you must overcome to motivate you to move on and kill some other mobs. And in a game with quests, the quests provide exactly that motivation. By handing out an additional quest reward in xp, gold, or items, it becomes more efficient to hunt one specific mob only until you fulfil the quest for that mob, and then move on to the next quest. The player does it because including the quest reward he receives more xp per kill. But the ultimate consequence is that he ends up traveling all over the zone a lot more than if he wouldn't do quests. That helps distributing players over the zone better, and is more fun, because you see more different areas, and fight more different mobs.

The other core function of quests is to answer the eternal "now what?" question. Especially at the start of a game it is easy to become a bit lost in a MMORPG, not knowing where to go and what to do. Place a very obvious quest giver with some floating symbol over his head in front of the player, and the problem is solved. Players quickly fill their quest log with lots of small goals, and so they always have a good idea what to do next. If well done, like in WoW or WAR, the quests even lead you to the next higher region once you've outleveled the zone you're currently in.

The only problem is that quest might not be the best name for that. Merriam-Webster defines "quest" as being "a chivalrous enterprise in medieval romance usually involving an adventurous journey", so the quest for the holy grail would be a good example. Going around farmer browns shed to kill 10 wolves there somehow falls short, and feels more like an errand than a quest. There are a few good quest lines, or destiny quests, or book quests, whatever the game might call them, that rise to the level of a real "quest", but they tend to get lost between the many errands in your quest log. What is most often missing is the personal involvement of the character in the story (honorable exception being the AoC destiny quest until level 20); most often the quest story is somebody else's problem, with the hero just being involved by accepting to help. Even supposedly evil characters are incredibly helpful to total strangers in MMORPGs.

I think quests would be more fun if there weren't quite as many of them, but they'd be more involved. Why not have one big quest line per zone, sending you here and there, but always keeping up one story line? The disadvantage of such a model would be finding a group for some step of a quest line, with everyone else being at some other step. But most people quest alone anyway, and other game activities like the WAR "public quests" (not a quest either, more like an event), or PvP scenarios, are more suited for players to play together. Stories are better told on an individual level, because in a group nobody has the time to read a story text or wait for a cutscene. Besides the big quest there could still be other motivations to not stay in one place too long, for example by introducing diminishing returns when killing the same mob too long. Instead of a a huge collection of short stories quests could become longer novels, with the player in the center as the hero of the story, with some personal involvement beyond just a reward. The starting quest line of the Death Knight in Wrath of the Lich King shows how that could be done.

In summary, quests serve a useful purpose right now, but I don't think this is already the end of the development. Running errands for some minor reward doesn't make the player feel like a hero, and it doesn't contribute much to the development of the personality. I don't know into what exactly this will evolve, but I'm sure there will be some improvement towards more involvement in the future.

Thoughts on first headstart day

So, as I mentioned, last night I was playing WAR in two windows on servers in two continents, and the game ran smoothly. Didn't experience any server problems either. But due to my router kicking me out twice, I spent a good while in the waiting queue for Destruction on my European server, while logging onto the US server Order side went much faster. We'll see if population balances out over time, especially if the more casual players come online on September 18th, hopefully preferring pretty Order elves and humans to ugly mutants and monsters. So I had opportunity to play two characters, and these are my thoughts on my first day.

Tobold the Bright Wizard on the US Averheim server had a great start. There was a war master, giving out the repeatable quest for the local scenario very close to the human starting point, so I took the quest, pressed the join scenario button, and got into a scenario before I could even kill my first mob. My first kill on that server was another player, not a mob, I'm in danger of losing all my anti-PvP credentials. I kept doing that scenario over and over, with little PvE questing in between, until I noticed that my renown rank was limited, and can't get past my PvE rank (level) before level 40. At that point I was level 4 in both PvE and PvP, and stopped doing scenarios for a while, to first bolster my PvE rank. You *do* get PvE xp when doing scenarios, but if you don't get the renown points as well, it feels like a waste. So I did some regular quests, and participated in a public quest for a while. The public quest was packed, with sometimes over 20 players. Mythic modified the public quest loot recently, so that with more players there are more loot bags handed out. But I only got one white (lowest sort) loot bag in three attempts, because with 20 players there are still over half going empty. On the positive side with 20 players the three stages of a PQ are done very quickly. I learned how to use my faster spells in those situations, because my main fireball spell has a casting time longer than the average lifetime of a mob in a crowded PQ. I like the Bright Wizard class, both for PvE and PvP. Great damage, and staying at maximum range works very well in PvP.

The Shaman was a bit harder to play. I already noticed that when I tried the Archmage in the beta, which plays the same: You need to get to about level 10 before the class really kicks off. Before you don't have enough damage spells, as every second spell you get is a healing spell. The other problem was that the same scenario tactic that worked so well with the Bright Wizard didn't work quite as well for the Shaman. The war master wasn't in the starting area, but a village further down the road, so it took me some time to find him. And then with more Destruction players online than Order the waiting queues for Destruction are necessarily longer. But I love the fact that you can join the scenario from anywhere, and be teleported right back to where you were afterwards, it allowed me to do PvE quests while queueing for PvP. Me coming into the European headstart 3 hours late also meant I was constantly facing level 10 players in renown 6 gear in the scenarios, which are tough if you are level 3 with a boost to level 8, but no gear. Again, good that I already tested the Archmage, I know Shaman will rock in PvP after gaining a few levels, it's just the newbie levels where it is a bit harder. I already enjoyed very much the Shaman PvP playstyle of mixing healing with damage spells for maximum efficiency. And even if I lost more scenarios than I won, I still got plenty of renown and experience points. I was luckier with the Shaman in public quests, there weren't quite as many people in the first greenskin PQ, and with a lucky roll I got the better green loot bag, and thus my first green item. Public quests of later chapters have blue, or even purple loot, but the first ones are limited to green.

I only played 4 hours combined on the two characters, and thus didn't get very far. But so far I'm enjoying both characters. And I was impressed how smoothly the game ran on the first day. The following days will need careful management of server populations, with more and more players coming online. But if Mythic and GOA can get past that, this looks like a very successful launch.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Out of the closet

Imagine you and me meet in a virtual world and have some sort of dispute, like the typical guild drama. And I go and blog about that dispute, ranting, telling only my side of the story, and naming you with character name, guild name, and server. My blog has a Google page rank of 5, if you have a half-way original name my rant about you would probably top any Google searches on it. And even if you replied in the comment section, I would have the power to delete that post. This sort of one-sided publication power tends to make people nervous, so since some guild drama a few years ago I have a strict "no names" policy on this blog. My European WoW / WAR guild knows who I am, but I'm not using Tobold as character name except for bank alts, and I'm not mentioning the name of my characters, or other player's characters, nor guild names, nor server names on my blog. In the virtual world I'm a closet blogger.

For the US version of Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning I'm making an exception to that rule. I am playing a Bright Wizard named Tobold on the Averheim server, and I'm a member of the Casualties of War guild. The reason I'm out of the closet there is that half of the bloggers in the MMO blogosphere are also members of that guild. In the event of a guild drama, everyone will be able to post his version of events on his blog, which will probably lead to the MMO blogosphere exploding. :) But with everyone else blogging about his participation in CoW, there was no reason for me to hide it.

Not that I expect to be involved in some guild drama, I probably won't even see much of the guys there during the week, because of the time zone difference. Weekends might be different. Yesterday I actually leveled Bright Wizard Tobold more than my Shaman on the European servers. I had some hickups with my router before I reset it, and Destruction being more crowded than Order, the wait time to get back into the game were much shorter for the Bright Wizard than for the Shaman, who waited in queue for half an hour after every disconnect. So most of the night I had two copies of WAR running in windowed mode, each connected to a different continent. And the game ran just fine! I'd say WAR is having a good launch.

Public apology to GOA

I'm an idiot. I entered the PBOB01 code instead of the PCEA01 code. The former is the open beta code, which *was* expired, which explains the error message I got. (Although I do wish error messages were a bit more explicit, like "That's an open beta code, you dumbass" in this situation, instead of "this key has expired"). The latter is the headstart code, which I should have noticed if I had read the leaflet correctly. My apologies to GOA, mea culpa, that one was completely my fault.

This key has expired - WAR Europe headstart

I am now officially screwed out of my Euro WAR Collector's Edition headstart. The CE headstart key I received got borked, probably when I tried to use it during GOA's registration site troubles. Now when I try the new page for headstart code entry, I get an "this key has expired" error message. And when I try to log into the game with my closed / open beta userid and password, I get an authentication failure. Which means that the previous registration didn't work well enough to get me into the headstart, but did register enough to make my key useless. Worst of all possible combinations. :( And of course GOA doesn't have anything resembling a working customer support up.

[EDIT: My fault. I entered the wrong key. See apology in later post.]

I reacted in a typical MMORPG player fashion, in the completely crazy way that counts as "rational" in our circles: I quickly grabbed a SE preorder direct download from direct2drive.co.uk, so I at least have the SE headstart key for tomorrow. Rewarding GOA for failure, sounded like a good plan. Anyway, rumor has it that there isn't much of a difference, as the Euro CE headstart supposedly only starts at 7 pm my time, to be simultaneous with the US CE headstart (1 pm EDT). So I guess tonight I'll hope I can get into the US headstart with my media account, and assuming no further catastrophes I'll start in Europe tomorrow.

[EDIT: Rumor was wrong. European CE servers started at 3 pm CET, or 4 hours before the US. Unbelievable! And I'm still locked out. :( ]

Goon Squad and WAR

The Goon Squad is a notorious PvP guild from the Something Aweful forums, with the explicit goal to annoy other players in whatever game they are playing. So it caused some consternation on the VNBoards for the US Sylvania server that the Goon Squad is planning to play Destruction on Sylvania (and Order on Red Eye Mountain). It even caused some players and guilds to deliberately choose another server. Well, that's one way to win PvP, if you make your enemies give up before you even start.

But then again, reading their forums, it appears that the Goon Squad won't be all that happy in WAR. As I mentioned in my review, WAR PvP is pretty much carebear, which makes ganking rather difficult. I had to laugh when I read that Goon Squad chose core ruleset servers, because they found the open RvR ruleset "retarded". And in EVE the Goon Squad is famous for having thousands of members and working with zerg tactics, which doesn't work all that well on overpopulated servers with a population cap. They ruled out Skull Throne because apparently there were already lots of Destruction guilds going there, which would have meant long queue times when trying to create characters for the whole huge guild there.

What I like very much about WAR PvP is that you get rewards for active participation, without necessary having to win. There certainly will be well-organized PvP guilds which will be hard or impossible to beat, but you can still engage in PvP with them and come out with xp, renown, and cash for your efforts.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

GOA registration half-working

A bit later than scheduled, the GOA code registration for the WAR European headstart went life this morning. You can enter your e-mail, userid, password, and Collector's Edition headstart code. But what you can't do is log into your account and check whether you are in the headstart or not. When I try to enter my code, I get a message "key is expired". Does that mean something has gone wrong and I won't be able to play in the headstart? Or does that mean that some previous attempt to enter my key has gone through and I'm golden? Nobody knows, because not only is there no site to check it, but the e-mail notification of previous code entry successes didn't work. So I can only wait until the servers open and pray it works.

Meanwhile the Warhammer Online account site from EA / Mythic in the US works perfectly.

But the good news from European WAR is that apparently all the beta testers have been credited with 7 days of free play starting September 18th. That is great news insofar as I'm not certain whether my copy will make it into my mailbox by day 1, as I had to order from the UK. The 7 free days should be sufficient to tide me over until I get my release version key.

Open Sunday Thread

Sunday again, so the floor is yours. Write about what interests you, or what you'd like to see covered in this blog.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Are players more stupid than the AI?

This post evolved from yesterday's discussion about the weakness of melee dps in large scale PvP. I had observed that a mage or archer standing back and shooting at people isn't all that likely to get attacked in PvP, while a melee class sticking his head out by running to the frontline is getting targeted by everyone. But has anyone noticed that this is only true for PvP, while in PvE, as long as there are no taunts, mobs will run after the highest thread, wherever he stands? Are players more stupid than the AI in targeting only what is in front of their nose, instead of the ranged dps or healer in the background?

My WAR open beta

Right now I'm waiting for the European open beta servers to come back up, GOA had a "technical issue" after patching to 4.1.1. one day late. As the open beta ends tomorrow, so Sunday the headstart period can begin, I guess that's the end of the open beta for me. So what did I do during this time? Not much, I have to say, due to a mix of various technical problems, and me being not that interested in a character that gets deleted a week later. So basically what I did is try out the Witch Elf class, by playing one to level 10.

First remark on the Witch Elf class is that there are no male witches, you need to play a female if you want to try that class. No problem, I'm not paranoid about playing female toons. But I must say it did bother me that in 10 levels I never ever found any item of clothing which would actually have covered her enough to not get arrested for indecent exposure in the real world. If you are the type who likes to look at nice ass all day, Witch Elf might be the class for you.

So I level my Witch Elf up doing a nice mix of PvE and PvP. The advantage of that is that I get up to renown rank 7, and get access to some very nice renown gear. But then I didn't do all that many public quests this time, which would have been the alternative for getting equipped. As Ryan Shwayder's Nerfbat says, public quests don't work all that well when too few people are online. Between the registration issues and the lower population caps for beta servers, there weren't always enough people around to really finish public quests. But I don't agree with Nerfbat that public quests are antisocial, when there were enough people around they usually helped each other instead of exploiting each other.

In PvE the Witch Elf is quite useful, especially with decent gear. In PvP the Witch Elf, well, what was the word, ah yes, SUCKS. Ranged classes are infinitely much better in PvP than melee classes, because enemy players you'd actually have a chance to kill usually just run away. After having played an Archmage, who with a mix of ranged dots and self-heals is very good in PvP, the Witch Elf was a huge disappointment. I actually once met an Archmage solo in a lonely corner of a scenario, and he had no problems killing me, although I was one level higher. I simply don't hit *that* fast that he can't heal himself. And at least in the levels I played him the Witch Elf doesn't have the stealth or stun abilities that make a melee dps Rogue viable in WoW PvP. I also duelled an Ironbreaker once, but this time he was a level higher than me, and melee dps don't look good against tanks anyway. I didn't do any keep combat (in the closed beta for keep combat I got boosted to level 18, in the open beta I didn't get any level boost when entering tier 2 RvR zones), but I didn't cherish the thought of defending a keep as Witch Elf either. Ranged classes can stand on the walls and rain down destruction. A Witch Elf has to run out to do anything, and bikinis don't do much for damage mitigation. For release I'll play a Shaman on European servers, and a Bright Wizard on US servers.

I also tested out talisman making as tradeskill. Thanks to some advice from a reader I finally found out how to make magical essence (it says you should salvage it, but in fact you should just click on it), and made one talisman that gave +2 toughness for 8 hours. Being relatively hard to make, needing a disenchanted magic item as well as other materials, I was a bit disappointed that the talisman has a time limit and doesn't work permanently like an enchantment. I guess for release I'll stick to apothecary, potions are more useful than that, at least while leveling.

After GOA finally let people who weren't in the closed beta register for the open beta, we founded our guild. One evening we got 9 people together, and decided to do some RvR together. First try we managed to get both groups into the same scenario, but lost badly against a hardcore PvP guild who had done the same thing. In the following attempts we always ended up with only one of the two groups in the scenario, until we gave up. Then we went and wanted to do some open world RvR, but most tier 1 zones were already fully under Destruction control. We found one corner with two Order-controlled battleground objectives, but taking that was rather easy. We met few Order players, and seeing a whole group of us, they all just ran away. Not very exciting, really. We should have done a public quest instead.

So, not the best open beta I ever had, but at least I learned more about the game, and know better what classes and tradeskills I don't want for release.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

How many of you are lore fans?

The closest I ever got to living the lore of a MMORPG was questing in The Shire as a hobbit in Lord of the Rings Online. Most other games I simply ignore the lore. In many cases it is far too generic, with no great story telling. But a reader sent me a question about how many percent of players do follow the lore, and I frankly don't know. I know it's more than 3, apologies for a snarky remark earlier, but I don't know how many more.

One problem with lore is that MMORPGs play on persistent worlds. Persistent not only in the sense that the world is still around when you log off; but also in the sense that monsters respawn, and five minutes after you rescueing the damsel in distress she'll be in captivity again and waiting for the next hero to free her. Many quest texts aren't exactly great fantasy literature. And even the best told story quest lines suffer from often being set up in a way that you are doing parts of them in between a dozen other quests, and by the time you get to the next part of the quest chain you don't remember the previous part any more. There are very few examples of engaging quest lines, like the book quests in LotRO or the destiny quest until level 20 in AoC. World of Warcraft gets something close to a destiny quest in the next expansion for starting Death Knights, but more often than not a quest line in WoW just means not being at the same step of the quest when you want to share it with others.

I think, but have no numbers whatsoever to support that, that a majority of players just click through quest texts without reading it. There is anecdotal evidence to that effect, like Blizzard having had to introduce a fast quest text option after a fast quest text mod turned out to be one of the most popular addons in the early game; or people in general chat asking for quest help which is contained in the quest text they didn't read. But I'm not sure if people ignore the lore because they don't like lore in general, or whether they, like me, just don't appreciate the current level of quality. I'm certain that MMORPGs could tell stories better, because I've seen better examples. There is a lot more that could be done with (optional) cut scenes and voice overs and using instances to simulate something changing in the world.

It somewhat reminds me of the early days of cinema, where movies were just "moving pictures", with not much story being told. People watched because the medium was new and interesting by itself. But soon they got used to the novelty, and demanded more, and then films started to tell stories. I still hope that story telling in MMORPGs one day raises to a level where I'll feel engaged with the lore.

So how about you? Do you enjoy the lore in its current state or do you just click through it? What are your examples for good and bad storytelling?

Free speech for people who work on MMOs

So Mark Jacobs has a blog. And some people are unhappy about that. I think we can all agree that Mythic's way to communicate with their players is substantially different than those of other MMO companies. SOE and Blizzard are so tight-lipped, letting out only carefully screened statements, that they make the KGB look chatty. But is Mythic's way better or worse than the old way? Part of the problem is certainly that humans are creatures of habit, and blanket statements like "devs shouldn't blog about their current games" are often accepted just because it has always been that way. But if we changed our expectations, why shouldn't they be free to communicate their thoughts however they like?

Everybody has an opinion. So game company CEOs, developers, and customer service representatives have opinions too. The only possible problem there is how readers are able to tell if somebody is making an official statement, or whether he is just voicing an opinion. As the private opinion of Iain Compton I'd have to agree that death threats to GOA because their account site isn't working are "borderline sociopath". As the official statement of Iain Compton, English Community Manager, WAR Europe, I'd have to say that calling your customers "borderline sociopath" is bad PR. As the private opinion of Mark Jacobs, helpfully labeled with "in my opinion", I have to agree with him that Iain's remarks were "way out of line". But to other bloggers Mark appeared to be "throwing GOA under the bus" or "cock-blocking your community managers".

Me, I like Mark's blog (but then of course I've been bribed by him). I find statements like "I think I’d rather shoot myself in the head than do another ToA" very helpful is judging into what direction WAR will head in future expansions (Hint: Don't expect a PvE raiding dungeon expansion with epics.). But I do see the danger of everyone reading too much into every single remark. Even Mark jokes about it when he says "I personally favor destro (Suddenly the Net lit up, Mythic Devs favor Destro, Order become red-haired stepchildren, news at 11!) but I’ll play both I’m sure." Can you imagine Mike Morhaime saying which his favorite class or side in World of Warcraft is? That would be a headline in every single game blog and game site covering WoW!

Why can't we accept that people working on MMORPGs have personal opinions and favorites too, like the rest of us, and that this doesn't necessarily influence game design? These games are created by large groups of people, there are lots of checks and balances. Even Paul Barnett cannot necessarily get his favorite bears, bears, bears feature implemented for launch, even if there is a video of him promising it on the official website. Do you really believe that all 300 Warhammer Online developers suddenly say "lets favor Destruction in the realm balance, because Mark likes that side more"?

If we would learn to accept a more open communication from various game developers, in the end it would be us who would gain from it, by being better informed. I personally would prefer if there was one unique place where official statements were posted, like the WAR Herald, because you can't expect your customers searching every blog and game site for your official statements. But putting a copy of that statement on the Warhammeralliance forums for discussion, why not? Why should I be upset that Paul has a video blog and logs his live on Twitter? Wouldn't it be great if we could openly discuss game design with developers on their blogs? Wouldn't the genre be better off with more rockstars in full public view, instead of the omerta of other companies? We just need to learn that, just like rockstars, the devs are fallible. They might not be snorting coke and trashing hotel rooms, but they *will* say stupid things, and they *will* promise features that are never going to be implemented. But as long as we take what they say with a grain of salt, that is okay.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Timing your entry

A reader sent me a mail with an interesting point for discussion: When is the best point to start playing a MMO, at launch or later? Hot subject insofar as I compared WAR to WoW and LotRO, and Serial Ganker sid67 and several commenters remarked that the validity of that comparison very much depends on whether I compare WAR at launch with WoW/LotRO at launch or WoW/LotRO years later.

World of Warcraft at launch had serious server problems and some quite annoying bugs, like being stuck in loot position. Blizzard fixed those bugs in the months after, and added a lot of content over time, in free content patches and one expansion. So for some time one can honestly say that WoW got better with time. On the other hand, WoW right now, pre-WotLK, is in some sort of a trough. If you started World of Warcraft right now as a brand new player, you'd have a rather lonely time leveling your character up. Leveling up in 2005, where you could easily find people to group with for every dungeon, was more fun than leveling up in 2008. Also how good a game is is very much a subjective thing. Many WoW veterans are kind of burned out, having been there, done that, and are getting bored, at least until the next expansion. Thus my on the surface conflicting statements that I will play WAR on release, but think that WoW is the better game. If you just finished reading the best book in the world, do you read it again, or do you read a new book which is not quite as good?

I always liked playing new games right from the start. For me MMORPGs are social games, and it is easier to play with other people when everyone is in the same level range. Leveling up in parallel with everybody else in your guild is more fun than joining later and playing catch up. But if you want to play from the start, you need to develop a thick skin regarding bug resistance. I already mentioned that I had some trouble recently with WAR, alt-tabbing out to see some website, or my virus scanner popping into the foreground for an update, and alt-tabbing back into WAR presented me with a black screen. So I had to shoot down WAR with the task manager, log back in, and promptly found myself in a waiting queue because the server was full. There are also bugs in the open beta (Mythic hopes to fix them still before release) with mobs that can't be attacked. Some jerks discovered how to exploit that in PvP when playing a pet class, attacking other player with a pet that can't be attacked. And I personally had a case where that bug prevented me from advancing a public quest. I also tried the tradeskill talisman making, and found that I couldn't place the magical essences into the recipe window, so even when I had all components I still couldn't make a talisman. Even with Mythic in full bug-fix mode, nobody in his right mind expects WAR to be completely bug-free on launch day. But hey, I played Anarchy Online on launch day, and Star Wars Galaxies, or more recently Age of Conan, which months after release still has more bugs than the WAR beta. I can survive bugs, as long as they don't prevent me from playing.

So whether you should join a new game on launch day or better some months later depends on what you are looking for. Many games had problems of lacking content on launch (can't really say that about WAR or WoW, but LotRO or AoC certainly fall in that category), and maybe you want to wait until they are more complete. But then you are missing all the release day fun, when every level 1 mob is camped by a dozen players. :) (Hint: If that happens to you in WAR, join a scenario queue, you earn xp there too, plus renown, and enemy players respawn faster than mobs.) Finding a guild, making new friends, playing together with others, all that is easier in the early days of a game. Plus some players consider MMOs as a race, where being the first to level to the cap or achieve something is considered a great achievement, and you can only do that if you start early.

For all those reasons most MMO players prefer starting a new game directly at launch. Which has serious consequences for the companies running those games. Industry rule of thumb is that later only 10% to 20% of your subscribers are online at the same time. On launch day you get 50% to 100%, because those who prefer to wait of course don't subscribe yet. So if your servers are totally well equipped to handle 20% of your subscribers at prime time, you can still run into trouble in the early days.

Vanguard free trial

Vanguard just introduced the Isle of Dawn with Game Update #6. This is a separate newbie area with a level cap of 10. And SOE plans to offer a free trial of Vanguard using that Isle of Dawn. It's not up yet, but is expected soon. Nice try, but the timing could have been better. MMO players will be kind of busy with a new game and an expansion for an old game coming out before christmas.

Better Mobs and Pitchforks!

Or what Mark Jacobs has to say on Toboldgate.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

WAR review

Some readers preferred that I do a specific WAR review with a recommendation of whether to play it or not, so here is my take on that. As I've already talked enough about how the game works, this post is pure opinion. I don't do scores, but rather prefer relative comparisons: Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is better than Age of Conan and Lord of the Rings Online, but not as good as World of Warcraft. This isn't to say that you should play WoW instead of WAR, because that totally depends on how burned out you are of playing World of Warcraft. If you've been there, done that all in WoW, WAR might be a good option, at least until Wrath of the Lich King arrives. So, lets have a look at various aspects of Warhammer Online to judge it by:

Graphics: As many people remarked, WAR graphics are somewhat similar to WoW's, being cartoonish instead of photorealistic. In my opinion that is a good thing, because photorealistic games have problems with high hardware requirements, and the Uncanny Valley. Nothing wrong with a game looking, well, like a game, and not like the real world. While similar, WAR's graphics are somewhat less cheery bright and colorful than WoW's, which is consistent with the grimmer lore. (Hah! Smooth transition to the next point!)

Lore: The Warhammer lore has a quarter of a century of accumulated material, a miniature game, a roleplaying game, and lots of books. It is considerably richer than WoW's lore, and more mature. Not Age of Conan's bare nipples kind of mature, but grim and serious. You won't meet any Haris Pilton selling gigantesque handbags in WAR. That is good. But there is also a serious downside: As Michael Zenke so correctly remarks, Destruction in the Warhammer lore is really, really evil. But only in the books. In Warhammer Online, playing a character on the Destruction side is exactly as good or evil as playing a character on the Order side. Dark Elves get quests to kill High Elves, but High Elves get quests to kill Dark Elves, so which of the two sides is "evil" is just a question of semantics. A Destruction character, just like any Order character, will spend a lot of time being helpful to complete strangers by running errands (aka quests) for them. In the Warhammer books the evil of Destruction might churn your stomach, but in the game this is unlikely to happen. WAR is more like a war between the red and the blue army than an epic struggle between good and evil.

Technical: I'm only talking about the game itself here, the European account registration site is a different chapter. Warhammer Online has less bugs than Age of Conan, but more than World of Warcraft. WAR is generally quite playable, but you *will* come across bugs, some of them annoying, in your daily gameplay. A week before release, and with Mark Jacobs' explicit statement that Mythic isn't doing miracle patches, the "this is just a beta" excuse for bugs is wearing thin. The current version 4.1 is rather solid, and improved things like pathing and the Tome of Knowledge. But it isn't bug free. You will still see some bad pathing, albeit less than in the first preview weekend, and you will come across mobs that can't be hit. My most hated bug: If you alt-tab out of the game and try to alt-tab back in, you are greeted by a black screen and can do nothing but shoot down the game with the task manager. But I finally managed to "fix" that problem by playing in windowed mode. Nothing game-breaking, but certainly one point to consider in our judgement.

PvE: Despite all the marketing hype praising WAR as a PvP game, WAR is a great PvE game. PvE fun might stop at the level cap, which is only 40. But for making alts and leveling them to the level cap without doing any content twice, WAR even beats WoW. You can level up at least 6 characters to 40 before doing any quest twice. And there are more character classes than in WoW, although I can't exactly say how many. Technically there are 20, but some are mirror images; an Archmage plays exactly like a Shaman. But not every class has a mirror image, so the number of different classes is somewhere between 10 and 20. And there are more different game mechanics than WoW has. WoW only has 3 right now, using mana, rage, or energy, with a 4th on the way for Death Knights using runes. WAR has more different basic mechanics right out of the door, but again I haven't played all the classes yet and thus don't have an exact count. Another great WAR PvE feature are public quests, which are a lot of fun. But WoW still keeps the PvE crown, because it has a wider variety of quests, and a huge PvE raid endgame.

PvP: I like WAR PvP. I'm a carebear. If you are a pre-Trammel UO, hardcore impact PvP fan, that should make your toes curl up: If I like WAR PvP, you won't. WAR does not have "meaningful" impact PvP with permanent consequences and the ability to free-for-all gank anyone you dislike. WAR has a solid system of carebear PvP, which is much better integrated with PvE than it is in WoW, and there is a whole lot more of it than in WoW. It just isn't much more permanent than in WoW. At best you can conquer the enemies capital, which will cause the map to reset a couple of days later. The keeps you conquer will be lost to a sneak attack at 3 am in the morning, unless you are crazy enough to organize a 24/7 substantial guard, armed with the telephone numbers of all your guild members, and your guild members are willing be woken up in the middle of the night to defend that keep. I think the WAR PvP is the best option for a mass market MMORPG, but the real hardcore PvP fans will certainly be disappointed by it. WAR PvP is substantially better than WoW PvP: Staying to the end is more important than winning, so no people afking out when they start to lose. But actual participation is better measured and rewarded than in WoW, so no people staying back in the cave and collecting rewards while absent either. Another great feature is good PvP reward gear for every level, not just epics for the level cap. In WAR you don't level up to the cap doing PvE and only then start with PvP. In WAR, just like the marketing slogan says, war is everywhere, you are best off if you do some PvP at all levels, and constantly switch between PvP and PvE. Maximum fun by maximum variety, a good concept.

Social: With open groups, public quests, and living guilds, WAR beats WoW easily in social functions. It is a lot easier to play together with a bunch of strangers in WAR than it is in WoW. Groups in WAR are inclusive, the more the merrier; groups in WoW are exclusive, you better take the right mix of classes, levels, and talent builds. But while in WoW "pickup group" is a dirty word, a good group in WoW is a marvelous machine of collaboration, and WAR is missing that somewhat. The social dynamics are very different, you group easier with strangers, but you don't feel that much of a bond with some once you finished beating that public quest together with them. It remains to be seen how that works out for WAR guilds; in principle it is easier to do something together with all online guild members, regardless of class or level, in WAR than it is in WoW. But by making cooperation easier, the level of trust required is necessarily less high. WAR will probably have a lot less guild drama than WoW, but we will have to wait and see whether a WAR guild raiding a keep will feel the same level of connection as a WoW guild raiding a dungeon.

In summary, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is a good game, albeit not perfect, and it will have some problems living up to the excessive marketing hype from Mythic. It is certainly worth buying and trying out for a month or two. But I honestly don't know yet whether I will play WAR or WotLK in December. And I certainly can't tell *you* which game to play. But I would suggest you give WAR a chance while Blizzard is still building their expansion. WAR has enough good, and new, features to justify giving it a try. Don't let anyone tell you it's just a WoW clone! Recommended!