Friday, October 31, 2008

Blogging and MMORPGs

"I'm quitting WAR" blog entries are currently a dime a dozen in the MMO blogosphere. But nevertheless I would like to link to two of them, to illustrate some fundamental differences. I very much liked pΘtshΘt's Getting out of WAR, for being able to say in much fewer words than I'll ever be able to what exactly is wrong with WAR. Snafzg's announcement of I'm not having fun in this game is much longer, but much more personal, and revealing how quitting a game is not just the game's fault, but also a matter of how your expectations fit with the reality of the game.

But what struck me the most as difference between the two posts is the outlook for the respective blogs. pΘtshΘt has a general MMO blog, subtitle "Perspectives on online gaming". He quits WAR, he probably picks up another MMO, and keeps on writing, no biggy. Snafzg's The Greenskin blog is a WAR blog. If he quits playing WAR, there isn't much of a perspective for his blog. If he wants to keep on blogging, and I hope he does, his options are all not quite as easy. He can transform his existing blog into a blog about some other MMO or MMOs in general, but the WAR-specific URL and blog title are getting in the way of that. Or he can open a new blog, in which case he'll lose a lot Google page rank and readers.

So my advice for anyone thinking about lets say making a Star Wars: The Old Republic blog is to consider how to name that blog very carefully. Even if it might be tempting to use your blog title and URL to clearly announce what game your blog is about, it will run you into trouble if ever you want to switch games. Take a more general title, and just switch content whenever you move from one game to another, it makes your blogging life a lot easier.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Guilds and raiding

My WoW guild worries me. The officers made an announcement about the plans of the guild for raiding in WotLK, and it contains pearls like "we have too many tourists in our raids and tourists won't make us progress. If people want to be tourists, they should give up raiding or join pugs instead of wasting a guild effort". Oh great, the expansion isn't even out yet, and I have already been banned from raiding and told to join a pickup group raid, just because I didn't apply for a special internal guild rank by promising to raid every Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday. The raiders are even going to get a super secret forum section, no regular guild members allowed.

It isn't as if this comes as a surprise, as if in the 4 years of guild history I hadn't seen pretty much the same before. But what worries me is that this kind of movement systematically lead to guild splits, big dramas, and nothing but unhappiness, while at the same time completely failing to advance the guild's raid progress. Serious raiding of a small fraction of a large guild inevitably leads to them progressing a bit and getting stuck. By making a strong distinction between raiders and non-raiders, and not taking any "tourists" on raids, there simply aren't any replacements arounds when inevitably some serious raiders leave for some even more serious raid guild.

But I think the fundamental problem in this lies in the fact there are two very different definitions to what a guild is, in regard to raids. My preferred definition is:
A guild is a group of online friends who decided they want to play together. A raid is an opportunity for a larger number of guild members to play together, with the purpose of maximum fun, enabling a maximum number of them to advance their characters.
Features that point into the direction of this definition are the removal of attunements, and the introduction of badges, which enables the more advanced guild members to raid with the less advanced guild members, and still get something out of it. The other possible definition of a guild, the one I don't like, but which is very widespread is:
A guild is an organization with the purpose of advancing as far as possible and as fast as possible in the raid content. For this purpose it is important to have a tight circle of dedicated raiders with a maximum attendance rate to progression raids.
Now these two definitions don't necessarily sound as if they were incompatible. Theoretically it would be possible to have a guild with just exactly the number of raiders and composition of classes needed to advance, with each of them being available for every raid. In the real world there are some serious obstacles to that: Nobody is *always* available, and the right number of raiders and perfect composition might change with time. Typical example was The Burning Crusade, where a guild would have had to organize three Karazhan teams at the start to have enough raiders to continue to Serpentshrine Cavern. In Wrath of the Lich King the initial progression will go from one 10-man raid to the next, but it isn't clear that the perfect composition for each raid dungeon will be the same, and sooner or later all the 10-man raid dungeons will be completed, and then you need to come up with 25 raiders to move on. You don't need to be a great psychologist to foresee that there will be guild dramas in many guilds at that point in the progression.

I believe that a guild run after my preferred definition of purpose not only would have a lot less guild drama, and more fun, it would also have a more steady raid progress. Slower, yes, but more steady. Reality is rarely black and white, a sliding scale of grey tones is more likely most of the time; making a strict distinction between "raiders" and "tourists" is not a good idea. Whoever sets up the criteria always makes them so that he still qualifies as a raider, but in reality there is always somebody playing his class even better, is available more often, and is better informed about each raid encounter. Somebody who can't or won't raid three nights a week isn't necessarily a bad raider, but he becomes useless for raiding if you systematically exclude him from raiding and he thus ends up undergeared. If you have a much larger pool of potential raiders in a guild, each of them participating less often in a raid, raid progress is of course slower. But there is a much better chance of being able to find a replacement if some raider unexpectedly leaves the guild or doesn't show up for a raid.

And then of course you have to think about why you play World of Warcraft in the first place. I always maintain that fun and entertainment are the real purpose of MMORPGs. Social factors, like recognition, are important too. But even there standing with the most leet epix in front of the bank isn't necessarily as rewarding as being recognized as helpful by a large number of your guild mates. Do you want to be recognized as a person, or do you want to be a collection of numbers, stats, a specific role in a raid, and a talent build, interchangeable with anyone else with better stats?

Why are there no enchantments on the auction house?

One of the great improvements of patch 3.0.2 to World of Warcraft was that enchanters can now cast their enchants on relatively cheap scrolls, and sell them that way on the auction house. They don't have to stand in cities any more, spamming the trade channel and waiting for customers. And they can now easily sell scrolls even for not-so-popular enchants, because somebody will always want those too. Only, it isn't happening. There are very few "scroll of enchant ..." on the auction house of my server, and then only for prices multiple times those of the ingredients.

Did all enchanters just give up and learn inscription instead? Or why aren't there any regular priced scrolls of enchant on the auction house? Why are there still enchanters spamming the trade channel, instead of putting their wares on auction and going to do something more fun?

The market share of PvP

Apart from the pure Warhammer Online blogs, there is a distinctive feeling in the MMORPG blogosphere of people becoming disenchanted with WAR. Even Heartless_, who calls himself a WAR fanboy, now says that he'll leave WAR in three months if things don't get better. In a way that cycle of pre-release hype, and post-release popping of the hype bubble isn't anything new. But hype is only a distortion to players slowly revealing their true preferences.

The problem with the MMO market in the last months was that it was dominated by "bored with WoW" players. They bought Age of Conan, they bought Warhammer Online, they bought a lot of other games. But November 13th many of them will buy Wrath of the Lich King, and be back to World of Warcraft. And in early 2009 we will see some of them being bored of WoW again and looking for other games again. But at that time WotLK will still be relatively fresh, and there won't be any big new hyped game around, and players will slowly tend towards the game they like the most.

While it isn't immediately obvious if you only look at level 1 characters, at their core World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online are two very different games. That becomes most clear in the end game. It is hard to find a good description of the two different end games which doesn't use any terms that might be considered judgmental. But the endgame of WoW is one of PvE, and the endgame of WAR is one of PvP. In WoW you repeatedly fight raid bosses with various abilities and in various surroundings, but these bosses act on a script and are ultimately stupid. In WAR you repeatedly fight other players with a limited scope of abilities and always the same fortress / city surrounding, but these opponents react in a far more intelligent way. Both endgames have their advantages and disadvantages, and thus their fans and detractors. Some people simply prefer the one, some people prefer the other. The discussion of which one is "better" is about as pointless as discussing whether strawberry ice cream is better than chocolate ice cream.

While the motives of individual players might differ, on the large scale we can assume that people who prefer PvP will drift towards WAR, and those who prefer PvE will drift towards WoW. The two games together will totally dominate the US / European market for MMORPGs. And it is interesting to see how PvP fares against PvE when you give players a choice of two games with similar high quality, but different basic gameplay concepts. It appears that PvP in the western MMORPG market has a significant share, but there are about 4 times more players who prefer PvE. Worldwide the PvE to PvP ratio isn't all that different, after adding the Asian players of WoW and games that are big in Asia like the Lineage series to the count.

So I think PvP games will have a solid future, because somebody will always figure that its easier to go for the 20% of PvP players than competing with many others for the 80% of PvE players. I don't think we will ever see a game that makes players of all types happy, there are some fundamental incompatibilities between perfect PvE and perfect PvP. Perfect PvE means continuous advancement of your character in power, be that in level or gear. Perfect PvP requires characters being not too far from each other in power level, so that factors like skill and organization have a chance to influence the battle. I don't think that we will ever see a situation where PvP games have a larger subscription base than PvE games. There are simply too many people around who prefer to fight only against the game, not against the other players. I wish WAR the best of luck, and I am quite happy that it managed to give people a good alternative to WoW, but personally I prefer PvE games too.

WoW glyphs and market value

My mage in World of Warcraft is still making good money selling glyphs, but only with minor glyphs. That seems strange, because "minor" glyphs have a much smaller effect than "major" glyphs, and should be less valuable, given that the cost to make them is about the same. But the very idea that the value of something is determined by its utility or cost to make it is flawed.

If you observed European stockmarkets this week, you might have heard something very funny happening: The shares of Volkswagen, a German car manufacturer, gained over 300% in value in two days, before falling down again. At one point Volkswagen was the most valuable company in the world, having a market capitalization higher than Exxon Mobile. So what had happened? Before this week there were many speculators betting on Volkswagen shares, like most automobile shares, going down in the future. These bets were made in the form of short selling, a practice in which you sell shares you don't have, either by borrowing them, or by making an empty promise to sell without having anything, the so-called "naked" shorts. But this week Porsche announced that they were in the process of buying Volkswagen shares, and that they were already controlling by various means 75% of the shares. And it was known that another 20% of the shares were held permanently by the state in which the main factories of Volkswagen are in. Thus 95% of the Volkswagen shares were in the hands of people who wouldn't sell them. It quickly became clear to the shortsellers that if noone was selling, then the share value drop they betted on would never happen. So now they needed to "cover their positions", that is buy the shares they didn't have but already sold. And they had to buy them at any price, which drove up the VW shares to so fantastic heights. Apart from a valuable lesson about the dangers of short selling, the story tells us that the market value of the Volkswagen company has absolutely nothing to do with the fundamental value of its factories, or some projected earnings expectations. The price was determined by having a small supply and large demand.

The economy of World of Warcraft is a lot simpler, but the same basic truths apply: The market value of items, in this case glyphs, has nothing to do with any fundamental value of that glyph, and everything to do with supply and demand. Inscription is a new profession, so many people learn it just because it is new. And to skill up, they can only make major glyphs, as those are the recipes learned from the trainers. The minor glyphs are learned by research, one recipe per day. Because people are impatient, want to skill up fast, and have excess money to burn, they buy the ingredients (herbs). Then they produce lots of major glyphs, which floods the market, and drives the prices down. In the end they paid more for the ingredients than they get back for selling the glyphs, accepting that skilling up a profession means losing money. But as nobody makes minor glyphs to skill up, and everyone has only a few minor glyph recipes compared to lots of major glyph recipes, the minor glyphs are relatively rare. And although their effect is often just cosmetic (polymorph penguin for example), some people are still willing to pay for that. So it comes that minor glyphs sell for considerably more than major glyphs. I check the AH every day for all minor glyphs that I can make, and then only produce those where the current market price is over 20 gold, which is my standard sales price. As even with high herb prices I can make that glyph for about 10 gold, I'm making good money. Plus often I don't pay that 10 gold, but gather the herbs myself, so I only incur an opportunity cost.

But I'm fully aware that there is no such thing as a fundamental value of glyphs. The price for major glyphs will rise once there are few new inscriptionists skilling up, because if you are at the skill cap, there is no reason to make a glyph to sell at below cost. The market value of minor glyphs will go down, as every inscriptionist will learn a new recipe every day, and they will become less rare. In the end the prices for the two types of glyphs will be very similar.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Do WoW battlegrounds need a time limit?

Silent has an interesting screenshot on his blog, about a Warsong Gulch battleground that was already going on for 9 hours 52 minutes when he joined it. We talked in a previous post about how this was caused by people doing PvP achievement farming, several players on that screenshot certainly got the "do 300,000 damage in a single battleground" achievement, as well as those about killing flag carriers.

In many ways the Warhammer Online scenarios are very similar to World of Warcraft battlegrounds. But the WAR scenarios have a 15 minutes time limit. With Horde leading Alliance 1:0 in the screenshot above, the battle would have been over and declared a victory for Horde after 15 minutes, and not dragged on 9 more hours.

So, should Blizzard change their battlegrounds to introduce time limits like this, to avoid one side stalling the battle completely?

More on WoW zombies

Just a short note that yesterday the Lich King invasion world event evolved only slightly, by increasing the number of attacks from the necropolises. Which is good news, because previously there weren't enough undead to go around, and now it was much easier to get those quests done and collect enough necrotic runes to buy some nice epic pieces and fun, but useless, trinkets. Although I dislike the term "welfare epics", it has to be noticed that you can get a set of 4 epic pieces, including set bonus, having not more than 1 hour and 2 friends to help you kill the elite.

The discussion of whether that world event was a good idea rages on. The funniest contribution comes from the WoW forums, of all places, where somebody wrote a letter from the Lich King:
"My deepest apologies.

It is my understanding that my invading forces, in their attempts to besiege your cities and snuff out all life on Azeroth, have inconvenienced the activities of common civilians. In the future, I will ensure that your commanding officers are informed well in advance of planned invasion times so that they may properly fortify themselves.

I have also looked into the issue of my plague being too quick in its purpose and too difficult to cure. Please be reassured that I have taken the matter up personally with my top necromancers and that any further incarnations of said plague should be only a slight challenge for your natural immune systems to overcome. Please forward any additional complaints to either Kel’thuzad or Anub’arak.

Regards, the Lich King Arthas."
Kudos to Scott Jennings for delving deep enough into the abyss of the WoW forums to find this gem. Another unexpected highlight in the discussion comes from Kill Ten Rats, where Dragon discusses in detail the phases of the zombie invasion, and its implications. Both the parody letter and Dragon's analysis show the fundamental problem of it being impossible to have a world-changing dynamic event (which so many people were shouting for) without inconveniencing some people in their daily routine.

The current phase, in which attacks happen in places like Azshara, where otherwise few people venture, and fighting the attacks nets you phat rewards is at the same time much more uncontroversial, and more boring. I have to keep an eye on WoWInsider, just so I don't miss one of the phases of the event. The zombie infection was much harder to miss, and therefore made much more of an impact than just adding a few more mobs with more loot. If we want MMORPGs to break out of their static shell, we have to allow those changes to affect us in sometimes negative ways. And with the event only lasting a few days, there really wasn't all that much to complain about.

WAR introduces auto-win for bigger realm

There is a very weird change in the patch notes 1.04 of Warhammer Online: "Victory points towards zone control will be granted if a realm has enough players in the queue to launch the scenario and the other realm doesn’t." Of course the exact effect of this is still unknown, as it depends very much of how many victory points are awarded for waiting in a scenario queue. But it is evident by very simple math that the more populous realm will always be the one having more people in waiting queues, and thus get more victory points out of this.

I really liked the previous method better: Scenarios somewhat favored the less populous realm, because they could play them more often. Open RvR favored the more populous realm. Done right this could prevent one realm dominating the other, just because more players chose that one realm than the other. After the change all kinds of RvR favor the bigger realm. Order might as well pack up and go home.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Please explain why I shouldn't have an opinion

When I buy a newspaper, there are sections that I like, and sections that I don't like. So I'm using a clever trick: I read the news, technology, economy and whatever else section I'm interested in, and I simply skip for example the sports section that I'm not interested in. What I don't do is write angry letters to the Washington Post, telling them that they should stick to politics, that they have no idea about sports, and they should stop printing a sports section, or I'd unsubscribe. But exactly that is what several readers are regularly doing on this blog, whenever I write about anything but games. Funny thing is that a lot of readers writing to the Washington Post to remove their sports section or they'd unsubscribe have a better chance of succeeding as people threatening me with the same if I don't stick to games. I don't know if you noticed, but you aren't actually subscribed to this blog, and I don't actually make a single cent from you reading this. Which means your leverage is pretty much zero. But in the interest of a fair discussion, I'd like to give everyone the opportunity to express their opinion on why I shouldn't be allowed to have an opinion. Why shouldn't I write about politics, religion, culture, current affairs, news, etc., if I feel like it?

One argument I hear is qualification. Some people say that because I'm European, I shouldn't be allowed to write about America. Which in this globalized society isn't really a sustainable argument. All the magazines and newspapers I read, all the TV news, always contain information about America. Just look at the recent financial crisis, and tell me how I could understand why my European stocks tanked without considering America and it's sub-prime mortgages. I'm well informed about American politics too, and I'm pretty certain that there are people living in the United States who know less about the presidential election than I do.

Another point of view would be that me writing about other things is to the detriment of me writing about games. But why would that be? For example I'm interested in real world economics, and my knowledge on real world economics opens up the door to interesting blog post about the economics of virtual worlds. The better educated I am, the broader world view I have, the better I can understand games and what people are doing in games. If I would start to post several posts on politics a day, and none about games, I would understand your concern. But that is certainly not what I am doing. Over 90% of my posts are on games, and I often post several posts a day. There is considerably more games content on this blog than on many other MMORPG blogs. So a post on something else once in a while can't really turn my blog into something other than a games blog.

So, explain me: Why can't you just skip the posts that you don't like? Why do you have to leave a comment to tell me to shut my mouth, whenever I talk about something other than MMORPGs? Why should I not be allowed to express my opinions on world events on my very own blog, free of charge?

Puzzle Quest: Galactrix

A reader alerted me to the news that Infinite Interactive is working on a sequel to Puzzle Quest, called Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, for the PC, Xbox 360, and Nintendo DS. And it's looking good, combining a slightly different puzzle with an Sci-Fi RPG this time, not straying too far from the original formula. Now this is one game I'll certainly buy. Too bad this time there isn't a PSP version.

SWTOR bigger than WoW?

I don't want to blame them for being ambitious, but the announcement by EA and LucasArts that Star Wars: The Old Republic targets a bigger userbase than World of Warcraft rightfully evoked mostly ridicule. Especially since it was often reported a them wanting 11 million subscribers (a number Blizzard then declared to just have passed). So lets put things a bit into perspective.

As far as I know neither EA nor LucasArts ever said "11 million", they just said "larger userbase than WoW". I think what they meant was "larger userbase than WoW in the US and Europe". So suddenly we are talking 5 million, not 11. I don't think Star Wars is such a huge brand in Asia (except for Japan), and it is hard to imagine how they could get 11 million players without Asia. While the 6 million Chinese players add a lot to the fancy marketing announcements of Blizzard on subscription numbers, they don't add all that much to Blizzard's revenue. Chinese players pay 5 cents per hour, are apparently limited to 3 hours per day, and of that money a large part goes into the pockets of the Chinese distributor The9, not Blizzard.

I would like SWTOR to achieve several million subscribers. I also hope WAR is passing the 1 million mark soon. Because the one thing this announcement from EA shows is that Blizzard has lost their aura of invincibility. Other companies now think they can beat them, or at least get rich trying. Because if you "fail" and get just one or two million players, you still get a huge return on investment, even if you spent over $50 million on making that game. Of course you can also fail totally, like Hellgate London, which is shutting down for good in February. But as long as there are several games out there raking in the money, somebody else will always want to have a piece of the pie. And that competition can only be good for us players. Even if it just would make Blizzard at bit less complacent, that would already be a good thing.

Not a political blog

I do have opinions on world politics. That includes opinions on US politics, and the US presidential election. Given that the US president has the power to declare war on my country or put me into a jail without a trial (which, admittedly, he is unlikely to do in my case, but has done to others), it would be strange for me to *not* have an opinion on that. So it would be easy for me write more about politics, do a funny political blog. It would be easy to blog about how it takes $150,000 worth of lipstick to turn a pitbull into a vice president, or how children know best what is really scary this Halloween. But the problem with that kind of post is that they are completely irrelevant, even if that is what people like to read in political blogs.

Yeah, it's easy to make fun of some of the stranger aspects of presidential elections. But how much Sarah Palin spends on her wardrobe, or whether she looks better on a bike than Obama really shouldn't affect people's votes. The thing is that if McCain is elected, he'll be the oldest first term president ever. That means that there is a chance that he could die in the next 4 years, in which case Sarah Palin would become president of the United States of America. And what people should do is seriously consider whether she has the qualification for that. As they should judge the qualifications of the two presidential candidates and the other vice presidential candidate. And they should ask themselves whether they would like the kind of politics that these candidates would try to introduce.

And these real subjects aren't funny at all. Abortion rights aren't funny, neither pro nor contra. Universal health care isn't funny. Finding the right moment to get out of Iraq isn't funny. So a lot of this circus that the presidential campaigns have turned into, the bad jokes, the mud-slinging, the accusations of who has ever sat next to which shady character during a political dinner, the "I'm more American than you are" posing, is just deplorable.

I can't vote myself, and I can't tell you how to vote if you are American. But I would like to ask you to ignore the circus, and try to imagine how the US and the world would look like with whatever candidate you like. And then please don't stay at home, but go out and vote. The current French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been elected with 85% of the eligible voters having cast their vote. US presidential elections usually just have around 60% turnout. You don't want the French surrender monkeys beat you, do you?

Zombies in the morning

I woke up at 5 am this morning, and couldn't sleep any more. Instead of tossing and turning, and waking up the wife, I decided to get up and play World of Warcraft. I had ended last evening trying to get some necrotic runes from the zombie invasion event for my warrior, but didn't have much luck. The attack places were heavily camped in the evening. So I thought 5 am might be a much better time. And that worked much better than expected.

Turned out I had two more sleepless guild mates, a mage and a priest. So we formed a group, with me gathering up all the undead, the priest healing me, and the mage using AoE spells to kill them. Worked like a charm. And then we started killing the elite Shadow of Doom with good effect as well. A bit over an hour later we stopped, but by that time I had two epics and 179 necrotic runes.

I flew to Light's Hope Chapel and handed in the quests, and spent the necrotic runes. I bought the other two pieces of the epic set (although the shoulders for some reason are shown as rare, not epic, in spite of epic stats). Only two things wrong with that set: It doesn't have any defense bonus, and is thus useless for tanking, and the plate leggings turned out to be a skirt. So now my warrior is running around in good-looking armor that makes him look like a priest or mage. Guess Blizzard didn't invest too much time designing these. Well, I'll only wear them for soloing anyway.

Then I still had tons of runes left, so I bought the tabard for the achievement, and the three trinkets: war horn, tome, and standard. The trinkets turned out to be all pretty useless. The war horn summons a level 60 paladin for a short time, who deals so little damage that he can't even kill one of those level 50ish undead in Eastern Plaguelands. He is funny though, because instead of just disappearing, he actually casts a bubble and hearthstones out. :) The tome just causes a holy explosion for minor damage, and the standard also deals holy AoE damage, but in several small pulses for a short duration. I'll probably end up deleting all those trinkets, because I don't have enough inventory space to keep them all, and even at level 70 they are sub par, at level 80 they'll be downright bad.

I'm pretty sure my priest doesn't need the epics you can get from killing Shadows of Doom or necrotic runes, he should have better gear already from raiding. But I'll have to check whether my mage still has some blue gear in one of the 4 spots you can get that new gear for. At least the mage has an easier time to reach an attack zone before it is cleared, even if I play in the evening.

In other news it appears that the zombie infestation part of the event ended naturally, a day after we got the quest that told us to visit various apothecaries to search for a cure. In the end the zombies were pretty bad, because the infection timer was down to 1 minute, from an initial 10 minutes, and the range and radius of the retching and zombie explosion had increased so much that it was pretty easy to wipe out the whole bank or auction house. I still liked that part of the event, because it got everyone involved, whether they liked it or not. You can't have a world-shattering invasion of zombies and have half of the population just ignore it. But its good that the infestation is over now, it would have been too annoying to let it run another two weeks until the expansion. I'm looking forward to find out how the story evolves further, and what will be the next part of the event. I find it great fun to be part of one of the few dynamic events of World of Warcraft, instead of just doing static stuff all the time.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Can't comprehend that cultural difference

Disclaimer: You might want to skip this post, it isn't about games.

I just read the news about the 8-year old who killed himself with an Uzi. That is tragic. The point where my comprehension stops is when the event was declared to be an "accident", and as "all legal and fun". So minors firing an Uzi is legal and fun, but if a minor wanted to drink a beer he would have to wait until he was 21? I think somewhere there is a confusion about the relative lethality of machine guns and beer. Nothing against hunting as a sport, but I don't think you hunt deer with an Uzi. Can anyone explain why children should be allowed to play with real machine guns?

Accessibility and rewards

Keen has a post on the state of WAR, in which he blames the players for going for the reliable scenario grind instead of doing open world RvR. Quote: "This industry has been plagued by the “I want it, and I want it now” attitude. Yes, this was largely introduced when World of Warcraft gained popularity because, for the first time, developers started realizing that the majority of players want the ease of accessibility. What started out as a good idea - making things more accessible - turned into the near extinction of effort, achievement, and earning your reward." Keen thinks that this will lead to a future in which we get only games with effortless grind, because that is what the players apparently want. Not so fast! A game offering a fast, repetitive way to maximum reward will see that mode of gameplay be preferred over all alternatives. But that move is self-destructive, because quickly the players get bored. In WAR the players are trapped between repetitive scenarios giving the best rewards and more interesting content for which no groups can be found. And they are leaving WAR because of that. Yes, players want ease of accessibility, but WAR doesn't offer that; by having a "best way to level", WAR effectively makes the rest of its content inaccessible and obsolete.

It is true that MMORPGs have one fundamental problem: There is a conflict of interest between the fun of doing whatever you want to do, and the fun of advancing your character. The solution to that problem is easy to formulate, and hard to implement: Make the rewards scale proportional to the effort. Parts of the game that are high effort and give low rewards will be ignored. Blaming the players is a natural reaction, not just of Keen, but also from many game developers. But truth is that the devs are at least as guilty as the players, because they failed to scale the rewards right.

In modification of an old dictum, a good game is easy to access, but hard to master. The solution can not be to close down access to parts of the game. I don't support the proposed solution to eliminate scenarios from WAR, just as I don't support the idea of having raids in WoW be only accessible for an elite minority of players. We are talking about games here which ideally are played for several years, having a large variety of different modes of gameplay accessible to the maximum of players is essential to achieve that. But "accessible" means just that, having access, not "getting the maximum reward for minimum effort". Rewards have to be proportional to effort, and effort has to be measured including ease of setting the activity up. Scenarios in WAR are crowding open RvR and public quests out not only because of a pure measure of "xp per minute spent in a scenario", but also because they are so much more easy to set up. To organize taking a keep in open RvR, or do a public quest, you need to travel to the area, which given the annoying travel system of WAR can take a lot of time. And then you have to set up a group large enough to overcome the challenge. In comparison you can join scenarios from everywhere, and the game relieves you of all the effort of travel and getting a group together. If there was no "join scenario" button, nor automatic groups, and you would have to gather a group yourself and with the group fully preformed and present click on the portal to the scenario, which actually exists in the game world, there would be a *lot* less scenarios going on, even if we left the rewards unchanged.

And the same principles apply to WoW: There should be lots of different activities, solo and group, PvE and PvP; and each of these activities has to be accessible to everyone, but give out rewards in proportion to the effort, including the effort to set something up. For example the group xp bonus for WoW should be a lot bigger than it is now. There should be an added bonus for visiting the lower level dungeons, because previously the reward from dungeons was the gear you got there, but with the now increased leveling speed that gear isn't really worth the effort of finding a group in a low-population level bracket any more. And at the level cap, there should be "low effort" raids with low rewards. Not zero reward, like "oh why don't you just raid Molten Core", but with a reward that is well balanced between the added effort of setting up a group of 10 instead of 5, and the difficulty of the encounters. If implemented well, the idea of WotLK to then offer the same dungeon in a high effort, high reward mode is great. It worked well enough with heroic dungeons, there is no reason to assume it couldn't work with heroic raid dungeons. Nobody says there shouldn't be ultra-hard raid bosses in WoW, giving out the best possible rewards.

In a way WoW has it easier than WAR, because PvE is more predictable than PvP, and thus easier to reward in proportion to effort. So at least for PvE raids, getting the rewards right should be possible. For the PvP part of WoW, as well as for most of WAR, the problem is a lot harder. On the one extreme the reward structure of PvP can be so much in favor of gaining some objective, that players end up not actually doing any PvP at all, but doing some pseudo-PvE instead. In WoW you can see that when two groups of 40 players rush in Alterac Valley, and then pass by each other on the way to the enemy fortress to kill NPC guards there, instead of fighting each other. In WAR you can see those 3 am city raids, where the players of one faction attack at a point in time where there are the least player defenders, and they only have to deal with NPCs to take the fortresses and city. On the other extreme, if you make the rewards for killing enemy players in PvP much bigger than for achieving an objective, you end up with everyone brawling in the middle, and nobody going for the flag or whatever the objective is.

I think it was Brad McQuaid who promised for Vanguard a perfect system where what is most fun would also be most rewarded. Obviously he failed to deliver, but that doesn't invalidate the goal. Players *do* have fun when they are challenged. But they also want maximum rewards. In a perfect game the rewards be exactly in proportion to effort, and then players would automatically search for the most challenging activity they can still win, continuously pushing the envelope, and having the most fun. But it is impossible to overestimate the pull that rewards have in MMORPGs, and if there is a flaw in the system that enables people to get higher rewards for lower effort, they will go after that. It is not that they are actively avoiding the effort, or the fun, it is just that the lure of the reward is so much stronger. Blaming the players is easy, but doesn't get us anywhere, because we won't be able to change player mentality. Making the perfect game, with a constant reward to effort ratio, is hard, but in the end it is the better solution. And maybe one day developers will come up with a way to create self-balancing systems, where there is no "best way" to advance.

My WoW today and tomorrow

In the open Sunday thread Spinks asked "What about Wrath of the Lich King are you most excited about/looking forwards to? And which character do you plan to level first and why?". Good question, but I'd like to first tell you all what I am *currently* playing in World of Warcraft, before moving to my plans for the expansion.

My number one priority at the moment is to experience all parts of the world event leading up to the Wrath of the Lich King. The motivation behind that is simple: This event is only happening now, it will end with the release of WotLK, and anything I missed I will never have the opportunity to do later. Yes, there are parts of the event that are annoying: Logging on a bank alt and finding the banker having been turned into a zombie, or dying to a zombie attack myself. But then, I timed the respawn time of a flight master, and it turned out that he respawns in 2 minutes. 2 minutes! That is really a minor inconvenience compared to the greater good of making this event feel like a real invasion. I got more annoyed when it took me forever to do the new quests to gather necrotic runes and kill a shade of doom, because it turns out the shades drop epic gear, and as soon as a zone is under attack the undead there get heavily farmed, and the shades killed, which end the attack. The scenes at the summoning circles reminded me of the scenes at the dark portal when TBC came out: A horrible kill-stealing fest. Most annoying was when I spent 8 necrotic runes to summon a shade, and then somebody tagged it and stole it from my group. And these summoning circles don't respawn in 2 minutes, the timer seems to be over 1 hour.

When I'm not doing the pre-WotLK event, I'm enjoying the other new features of patch 3.0.: Inscription, achievements, and easier dungeons and raids. Big news: My warrior, who I nearly had given up upon before, is fun again. Before the patch he was stuck in a vicious cycle, where I wasn't invited to raids or heroics because my gear sucked, and I couldn't get better gear because I wasn't invited to raids or heroics. Now there are far more "casual" raids and heroic groups organized. And I'm doing some silly stuff, like tanking Onyxia, and finally finishing Magister's Terrace on normal, in case I ever want to do it in heroic. Plus I'm dealing more damage in solo play now, in spite of still being protection spec. So I went to Karazhan with both my mage and my warrior, and my "raider" priest even got to the third boss of Mount Hyjal. I got a couple of epic upgrades on all my characters, but honestly that isn't the most important for me right now. The important thing is playing in a group with strong cooperation, having fun. The gear is likely to be replaced soon.

Which brings me to my plans for Wrath of the Lich King. Because my motivation doesn't change, just because some expansion comes out: I still want to play PvE in groups, overcoming challenges that can only be beat by coordination of the efforts of several players. I'm looking forward to the new dungeons of Northrend, and I'm very interested how accessible Blizzard is going to make those first raid dungeons. From that motivation comes the answer to what character I'm going to play first: My priest. There is nothing to suggest that healers will be any less needed in WotLK groups. Maybe even more, if the addition of the Death Knight really solves the tank shortage there will be a healer shortage just behind. And I'm comfortable soloing and leveling up with holy spec, even if that might not be the fastest way. Given how many players who have a character who *could* heal will be using some non-healing build to advance fastest, I think I should be able to easily get into dungeon groups on my way to 80.

Most probably I will play the warrior and mage a bit in parallel, for example for their tradeskills, but the priest is certainly the first one I want to get to level 80. Which character will be the second depends very much on how things develop on the tanking front. I mean, if I hear a lot of shouts looking for a tank for dungeons, I'm certainly going to log my tank on and play. But if there are hundreds of Death Knights, and everyone considers them sufficient for tanking purposes, my warrior will be unemployed. That is the big disadvantage of preferring group play: It depends on what everyone else is playing, and who they want to invite into groups. That is especially true for me as casual raider, if I want an invite into raids although I'm not a regular, I have to be of a class / build that there is a shortage of.

I've played a Death Knight a bit in the beta, and it was great fun. The "phasing" nature of the first two levels, in which the Death Knight learns all of his spells and talents, in combination with telling his personal story, is one of the best parts of World of Warcraft. But it only covers two levels, and every Death Knight experiences the same destiny. And then he'll have to level up from 57 to 70 using content I know all too well, after already having played three characters to 70. In addition to that, Death Knights will be "flavor of the month" for a good while, and I don't foresee groups searching desperately for a Death Knight in preference of any other class. So I might make a Death Knight as an alt, for fun and for doing some tradeskills I don't have on the others, but I don't think I'll play that one very much, or level him to 80.

I don't know how long all this is going to entertain me. Probably several months. Which, one the one side, is great news, I'm having something to look forward for months. On the other side I'm pretty certain that Blizzard will not bring out a third expansion in 2009, and that I will get bored with WotLK before the next expansion comes out. I'm not really making plans what I'll play then. LotRO Mines of Moria? Warhammer Online? Some other MMORPG? Single-player games? I don't know. I'll decide that when the moment comes. In spite of what some other players think, choosing a MMORPG is not the same as choosing a religion. It's just a game, and the most important feature is to have fun. I'll play what is most fun at the moment. That might be WoW right now, but it won't be WoW forever.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Open Sunday Thread

Sunday, a day of rest, for me, and the opportunity for you to tell me in this thread what subjects you'd like covered in this blog, or start a discussion among you.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Why WAR can't have 10 million subscribers

The discussion on the current World of Warcraft world event, where the zombie infestation allows players to inconvenience other players for a short time, and that causes a huge outcry of "I quit", reminded me why WAR can't have 10 million subscribers. How well would someone who can't support having to wait 5 minutes for a flight master to respawn react to being shut out of his capitol city for *days*, following a successful capture?

By definition PvP always inconveniences another player. At the very least by you winning and him losing, thus him getting less points than you. Any form of "impact" PvP, where one side can capture keeps or cities, prevents the other side from using those keeps or cities. And of course if you are in a PvP area, or PvP is on all the time, you can be killed. A large number of players simply can't stand being inconvenienced by other players in any way. They even go mental if another player accidentally pulls a mob they considered to be "theirs", or if some hunter rolls need on the weapon they think should have been reserved for their class. How do you want to get that sort of player into a PvP-centric MMO?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Fun or grief?

So I was experimenting with the new zombie infestation world event in World of Warcraft last night. Clicked on a conspicious crate in Booty Bay, took the boat over to Ratchet, and went into the pirate area, where I turned into a zombie. As zombie you continuously lose health, unless you attack humanoids. When you kill NPC humanoids, they rise as zombies as well, and you can beckon up to 4 of them to help you. You also have a ranged area effect with which to infect humanoids, which then turn into zombies after 10 minutes.

The pirates got boring quickly, so I headed into Ratchet itself, infecting NPCs, and battling the guards there. A low level player attacked me, so I killed him. Another just stood watching, so I didn't want to attack him, but infected him anyway so he could share the fun. A while later a level 70 pally turned up and killed me, ending the zombie infestation of Ratchet.

So far, so harmless, although I'm not sure how the player I killed felt about that. I stopped mucking around as zombie and joined a Karazhan raid with my warrior. But guild chat reported lots of people being unhappy with the world event. Some players used their zombie infestation power to take out centrally important NPCs, like the flight master in Shattrath, or bankers and auctioneers. Of course the NPCs respawn after a few minutes, but lots of people get annoyed if they have to wait for 5 minutes for a flight in Shattrath. And it seems the infestation is programmed to spread, this morning I noticed conspicious crates and infected animals in the cave that is the arrival for teleports in Thunder Bluff.

So on the one side players always complain how static the game is, and want events that change the world. On the other side they complain if something actually changes, and they can't access their flight master, banker, or auctioneer NPC immediately. One guy in guild chat got so angry, he logged out. And I'm sure we'll hear a lot more complaints before the event ends with the release of Wrath of the Lich King. Are game-changing events doomed, because players can't accept any change?

Ixobelle on crafting

Ixobelle, previously from NotAddicted, has an own blog now, with an interesting article on crafting interfaces. The principal question is whether crafting in its current form is too easy, just click a button with the ingredients in your inventory. I don't know if Ixobelle's crafting interfaces are the best solution, but I sure would like to see more crafting systems like in Puzzle Pirates or A Tale in the Desert, where you actually need some skill to craft something, and the better your skill, the better the item you craft.

Redefining Raiding

What you can do or not do in a single-player game is strictly defined by the program code. A massively multiplayer online game adds a social dimension to that, there are things that are theoretically allowed by the code, but practically not possible due to other players. The more players are involved in any given game activity, and the more they depend on each other, the more important the social rules for that activity become. In World of Warcraft raids are the activity that requires the most cooperation, and has thus been subject to the most social conventions and rules. But raiding changed from the original game to the first expansion, and it will change again in the second expansion. While the social rules aren't hard-coded into the program, they are nevertheless a logical consequence of the coded game rules. And as the code changes, so will the social rules. Whether we are considering ourselves as "raiders" or not, we will need to rethink the social rules of raiding. How do we define raiding in the new context of the Wrath of the Lich King?

The first thing to do here is to carefully separate what are actually coded rules for raiding, and what are only social conventions. For example you might be surprised to find out that many TBC raid instances can be entered at level 65. The "you need to be level 70 to raid" rule is a social convention. And did you hear the story about the druid soloing Onyxia? Well, we know for a fact that he needed *some* help, because you can't enter a raid dungeon unless you are in a raid group, for which you need at least 2 players (even if the second player stays outside). If they aren't hard-coded, why do social rules exist? Players make up criteria for inclusion or exclusion in reaction to the difficulty of the raid encounter. If 10 random players at the level cap can't beat the first raid dungeon, players have to organize a raid with a better mix of classes, talent builds, and equipment to improve their chances. That results in two lists: One list of inclusions of what you absolutely need to succeed, for example 2 tanks, 3 healers, and 1 warlock for a banish during a special encounter. The other list is a list of exclusions: You don't accept anyone who is not at the level cap, who has not a certain quality level of equipment, who does not have a certain talent build for his class, or who is not available to play at certain times for a certain amount of consecutive hours. Even if you exclude the hard-to-measure variable of player skill, there is something like a perfect raid composition for a given raid boss. The difficulty level determines how far you can stray from that perfect composition and still succeed.

In the Burning Crusade, when it came out, two factors made raiding relatively hard: The raid size was reduced to 10 players for the easiest raid, Karazhan, so after filling your list of must-haves, there wasn't much room left. And the difficulty level was high, so that as long as people were wearing blue gear, the raid composition couldn't be far off from perfect to still succeed. There were even guilds who changed raid composition for each boss, because they didn't have one composition that was able to beat them all. That strengthened the image of raiding being an elitist activity, that the average WoW player shouldn't even attempt. And raiding being only for the "elite" of most dedicated players was even supported by the developers, to the point that when other sources for epic gear were introduced, Tigole called those "welfare epics". But what is important to realize here is that raiding is *not* inherently elitist. This has been well proven by patch 3.0.2., which made raiding a lot easier by reducing all raid mobs health by 30%. Given that change, and the higher probability to nowadays find somebody who is well-geared and knows Karazhan already, the chance of success of a "pickup raid" to Karazhan is now much, much higher than last year. Guilds are taking their alts raiding, and while it isn't quite "raiding for everyone" yet, Karazhan is much more accessible to the average player now than before.

And if we believe what Blizzard tells us, raiding is supposed to remain more accessible in Wrath of the Lich King. And if they want to do it, there is nothing to suggest that it can't be done. Of course a raid dungeon which is easy enough to be completed by a pickup raid full of casual players will be way too easy for those who were into hardcore raiding before. But so what? There is more than one raid dungeon, every raid dungeon exists in two difficulty levels (easy for 10 people, hard for 25), and if the first dungeon is too easy for you, you just try the next, and the next, until you find one that is challenging enough.

This is a huge opportunity for Blizzard to redefine raiding as a possible activity for a much larger percentage of players. The difficulty of the raid dungeon determines the social rules of inclusion and exclusion that guilds and players will draw up to say who can raid and who can't. If the difficulty is low enough that most players can at least kill a couple of bosses in the first raid dungeon with minimum requirements of raid composition, gear level, and time commitment, then the image of raiding will change. The more people are participating in raid content, the better the business model of Blizzard that offers raid content as main course for the endgame holds up. Whatever else you think of WAR and its PvP endgame, at least that PvP endgame is totally accessible to anyone at the level cap, and nobody will be kicked out of a group for having the wrong class or talent build. WoW can't afford to keep their endgame exclusive for a small elite, they must open it up to a larger public to hold onto more players for longer.

If Blizzard really makes raiding a lot easier in Wrath of the Lich King, the only remaining barrier is in the heads of people. Social rules are slower to change than coded rules. Some people who didn't raid before will continue thinking that raiding isn't for them, even if they would perfectly be able to succeed in a raid. And some of the old raiders will resent not being that much of an elite any more. Which is silly, because of course the more hardcore players will always advance faster and further than the average player. It is just the entry into raiding that gets more accessible, and that can only be a good thing.

Do you like embeded commenting?

Blogger took me by surprise by adding embedded commenting, and switching my blog to that option by default. What that means is that there is now a comment input form at the bottom of each single-post page. If you click on the permalink you now see that form which wasn't there before. If you click on "comment" from the main page, you now actually land on the permanent page for the post, and it looks to you as if I changed my commenting interface.

Have a look at it, test it out by commenting to this post, and tell me whether you like the new way of commenting. If not, fortunately there is an option to override the default and go back to the old system.

[EDIT: In response to problems with the sidebar pushing the commenting field too low on Firefox and Chrome browsers, I modernized my Archive listing into a dropdown menu, which makes the sidebar much shorter. Just a hotfix until Firefox / Chrome problems are resolved by Blogger.]

Zombie world event starts in WoW

WoWInsider reports that the world event in preparation of the Wrath of the Lich King is starting already. It is a zombie infestation, where you can be infected by clicking on curious crates, and turn into a zombie, able to attack NPCs and other players. Good timing, as it obviously fits well with both Halloween and the arrival of the Lich King.

I don't know all the details of the event, but the big advantage of a spreading infection as world event is that it isn't limited to one zone. As previous world events showed, getting all your players to gather in one place causes more server problems than fun.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Can't rely on addons

Not having played World of Warcraft for a while, I used the opportunity of the patch 3.0.2 to clean up my addons. I deleted all the old addons, deleted the WTF directory with the saved variables as well, and then reinstalled some patch 3.0 compatible WoW addons manually. Finally I downloaded the Curse Client to help me keep my addons up to date in the future, because I don't want to repeat the same exercise next month. But I noticed that several addons I used to have either weren't supported any more, or had changed substantially.

The one I'm missing most is CTRaidAssist, which isn't supported any more. It was my main utility for raid healing. I tried to replace it with Ora2, but that one apparently doesn't display the health of all raid members, so I'll need another addon like healbot. I'm also annoyed about the new version of Auctioneer, which I used in the past mostly to post auctions 5% under the current price. That pricing model doesn't exist any more, there are several statistical models based on histograms and standard deviations and 95% confidence levels. I have a rough idea about that sort of math, but frankly it isn't of any help if you just want to shift your glyphs quickly. Statistical price models aren't any good in periods of rapid price shifts. You'd be a complete idiot to e.g. sell herbs right now based on historical prices.

As we interact with our games through a user interface, and addons change that user interface, we get very used to playing with specific addons. But you can't rely on addons, they aren't made by Blizzard. When a major patch makes old addons not work any more, there are always some that have been abandoned by their authors. Which isn't very surprising, because usually the authors didn't get paid anything, and didn't receive much recognition either. And of course the authors are usually players, and when they quit the game, they stop supporting their addons. Blizzard has a history of implementing the functionality of the most popular addons into their standard user interface. But that takes quite some time. And I don't think there are all that many people out there playing WoW without any addons at all. There being so many good addons programmed for free enables Blizzard to slack on improving the standard interface. I just wish Blizzard would stop modifying the LUA language of WoW, so old addons could be used indefinitely.

Your virtual gold is real under Dutch law

There have been similar cases in China, but now a Dutch court decided that virtual goods are real enough so that you can steal them, and convicted two teenagers for virtual theft. This is something game companies have been resisting a lot, because as soon as our virtual goods are considered to have a real-world value, the game companies would become liable for losses due to bugs or even due to changes in the game.

But highly theoretic considerations of virtual property rights apart, of course the courts decision was sensible in this case. Two kids stealing a toy from a third, younger, kid doesn't become any less reprehensible just because the toy only exists in a virtual world. From there to a comprehensive system of virtual property rights is still a long way.

Are you so silly that you only play one MMO at a time?

I am. Mark Jacobs said in a recent interview: "I play multiple MMOs... the idea that you only play one is really kind of silly." And he talks about research having been done on that subject: "We've done surveys on that, the industry has done surveys… so any comment along the lines of 'well if they're in my game they're not playing in another game,' flies in the face of all research that's been done among MMO players." Hmmm, I wasn't aware of that research. Anyone got a link?

Personally I have terrible problems playing more than one MMORPG at the same time. I am monogameous. The fundamental problem is that these games are designed to suck the maximum amount of time out of you. Playing one game for two hours is a lot more effective than playing two games for one hour each. Of course there are transition periods, where you decrease your activity in one game, and start up the next, and still are subscribed to both. And technically I'm "playing" Guild Wars and Lord of the Rings Online in parallel to World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online right now, plus a number of free games. But only if you consider having a valid subscription as being the same as playing a game, which kind of breaks down as concept with games that don't really have a subscription or where you bought a lifetime subscription. A better definition of "playing" is actually logging into a game and doing more than just emptying your mailbox. Practically for me it is hard to imagine playing several MMOs on the same evening.

So lets add to this research and do another survey: Do you frequently play more than one MMORPG on the same day? How many monthly subscriptions are you usually paying for in the same month?

Star Wars: The Old Republic will be a storytelling MMORPG

As I've mentioned several times before, I see a future for better storytelling in MMORPGs. Just like movies went from being watched for the fascination of moving pictures to being watched for the stories they tell, I think MMORPGs could become more of a medium to carry a story. So it was with great delight that I read the FAQ for Bioware's announced Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR):
How does Star Wars: The Old Republic differ from other MMO titles?

Star Wars: The Old Republic will be similar to other MMOs but with several key innovations. Traditionally MMOs are built on three pillars; Exploration, Combat, and Progression. We at BioWare and LucasArts believe there is a fourth pillar: Story. Our mission is to create the best story-driven games in the world. We believe that the compelling, interactive storylines in Star Wars: The Old Republic are a significant innovation to MMOs and will offer an entertainment experience unlike any other.
Melmoth thinks this will be impossible. But I think that while introducing better storytelling into MMORPGs is not an easy task, Bioware certainly is the best placed to try it. Their single-player RPGs have excellent story lines. And of course the Star Wars universe is a very strong license for storytelling. So I'm sure hoping they will pull it off.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Goals and activities

Rohan from Blessing of Kings has an interesting observation on achievements: "WoW shows you all the Achievements available, while WAR hides them." Green Armadillo explains a bit more on the WAR philosophy towards achievements, being more of a history of past deeds than a guideline where to go next. For me that is just one part of a hugely complex debate on how to introduce goals into virtual worlds, and how to make pursuing these goals more interesting.

I am a strong believer in having to have goals in a MMORPG. If there are no goals, you get a non-game sandbox virtual world like Second Life. The huge success of World of Warcraft can be explained by its excellent system for the management of goals. There are short-term goals, like quests, and long-term goals, like reaching a level cap, some exalted reputation, or killing some raid boss. The new WoW achievement system adds to both sides, having some achievements you can do in a few minutes, and others which will take you days or weeks to complete. In this context it is evident that the WoW achievements have to be known to the player, he needs to be able to see what achievements there still are to do for him. That is why WoW gives you more information on achievements than WAR does.

But words like "quest", or "achievement" evoke an idea of there being some difficulty in completing them. "Fetch me a bottle of lemonade from the fridge" is not a quest, it is an errand. And when you do it, it isn't much of an achievement. So the problem for game design is to create quests and achievements which actually have some degree of challenge to them. Many quests, and some achievements, limit that challenge to the act of fighting one or several monsters. And there is a growing dissatisfaction from players towards that model, especially when that fight is a solo fight, not involving other players. The sad truth is that the fight of a solo player against monsters in a MMORPG involves little or no skill. The outcome of such a fight is to a large extent determined by your level and gear, and to a very small extent to your ability to play your class well. There are many monsters you can easily kill by just mashing buttons randomly or in always the same sequence. There are many monsters you can't kill at all. And there are very few monsters which two players having the same class, level, and gear would find the more skilled player beating the mob and the less skilled player losing to it.

Other quests are even more trivial, just involving going somewhere and clicking on something or some NPC. So to make things a bit more interesting, most quests involve a certain amount of searching and exploration. Here the different philosophies of WAR and WoW are the reverse of what they are on the achievements: WoW gives you just a general direction and description where to find your quest goal, WAR marks the place you have to go to with a red circle on your map. On achievements WoW gives you more information, on quests WAR does.

I don't want to get into an argument here which way is better, because in the end the amount of information a game gives you often is irrelevant. A big problem here is that both quests and achievements in both games (and many others) are static: Every player has to perform exactly the same task to fulfill that quest or gain that achievement. In consequence there are websites listing all quests and achievements, and players who don't want to search themselves can just look up the information. If the game doesn't show you the exact quest location, then some website, or even an addon will.

Keeping players motivated with goals to undertake interesting activities is hard. The fundamental problem is that an activity that is interesting and challenging is often not the fastest way to advance towards your goals. Why search out that mob where your skill would make the difference between winning and losing, if you can find monsters that you are sure to win against and earn xp faster? Why lose time searching that zone when you can find the information where your quest target is on the internet? I couldn't find that quote attributed to Raph Koster anywhere that "humans tend to optimize the fun out", but he did say: "What people are doing is trying to make gameplay predictable--as predictable as putting on pants. Human civilization is based on making life boring. As boring as possible. Exciting can get you killed. Predictably is, therefore, good. In other words, every game is destined to be boring."

Initially the player sits around in a virtual world without goals and doesn't know what to do. So in order to incite him to do something fun, the developers present him with goals in the form of quests and achievements. But the most fun is in the unexpected, the dangerous, and millions of years of evolution have trained our brains to seek to avoid that. It doesn't matter that virtual death doesn't hurt, and only costs us a bit of time to reverse, we still are doing our best to achieve our goals without taking much risk. At which point game design degenerates into an arms race between clever developers who want to force players to take risks, and clever players finding ways to circumvent the dangers and still arrive at the reward. But in the end we, the players, tend to have the most fun when we can't avoid the risk: In balanced PvP, in challenging raids. Multi-player games keep us playing longer, and are more fun, because playing with or against other players automatically adds the unpredictability that is so much fun, but which we are trying to avoid. We want our multi-player games to have solo content, but nobody has come up with a good way to add that fun unpredictability to the solo part of MMORPGs yet. At the very least our actions in solo combat have to have a bigger influence on the outcome of that combat. Unless there are some major changes to the system combat is handled in MMORPGs, I don't see that happen anytime soon. Our goals end up ruining our activities for us.

A personal decision

I already mentioned that my WoW server had problems last weekend, preventing me from playing as much as I wanted. I didn't mention that instead of playing WAR instead, I reacted by a mix of impatiently camping the WoW servers, and walking away to watch some DVDs. I logged into WAR once, emptied my mailboxes, and logged out again, feeling absolutely no desire to play WAR. Meanwhile my head is full of all the things I want to do next in WoW. I have to face it: I effectively quit WAR already.

This isn't completely unexpected, even before I started playing WAR I said I would probably just play it until Wrath of the Lich King comes out. And me preferring WoW is not necessarily a judgement on the respective qualities of the two games. It is a personal decision, based on personal preferences. I like PvE more than PvP, always did, and World of Warcraft is simply the better fit to my preferred gaming style. I did like many parts of Warhammer Online, like open groups and public quests, but with everyone mostly playing scenarios, the parts I liked in WAR just didn't happen as much as I would have wanted them to.

And in the end it is like Melmoth says: It's a matter of whether you are having fun in a game, and not always easy to explain why you haven't. It isn't something you can really argue about. I am in no way dissing those of you who prefer WAR over WoW, that would be *your* personal decision, based on *your* personal preferences, which are exactly as valid or silly as mine. There is no reason whatsoever why we should all prefer the same game, and in fact I think it is healthy that *not* everyone prefers WoW, because competition is good for the genre. I wish Mythic the best of luck with their game, and hope they'll break that million subscribers mark. I might be back some day, and am looking forward to all those improvements they promised us. But for now my gut tells me to play World of Warcraft, and who am I to argue with my gut?

Monday, October 20, 2008

PvP achievement farming

I got an interesting mail from Machinima-turned-cook film maker Hugh Hancock, about the unintended consequences of introducing PvP achievements into WoW:
Thought you might be interested to hear about one of the first unexpected consequences of introducing Achievements to WoW!

So with the latest patch came all the Achievements, including a bunch of battleground achievements - capture the flag 5 times, kill a flag carrier 5 times, kill 50 flag carriers over your character's life, etc. Also, a whole reset on the powerscales, as you know.

So, I logged into WSG to check out my character's new abilities, and found something very odd - the Horde were entirely Tier 2-4 Gladiator kit, and were all sitting in their base. They didn't even attack Alliance who came in, even though their flag carrier - with the third flag of the game - was sitting right there with them. They just waited, patiently, until the unfortunate Alliance member walked up to their flag and took it, and then they killed him/her. Repeat.

Yes, the Horde were farming achievements. We figured they'd blown through "5 flag carriers in a single battle" and were going for either "50 flag carriers in career" or "300,000 points of damage done in a single BG"

The Alliance couldn't get their flag back, because they were horribly outclassed kit-wise. They certainly didn't stand a chance of capturing a flag. The Horde weren't going to end the BG any time soon, so we ended up essentially being the mobs being farmed - only rather than honour farming, which most people recognise as inefficient, this "achievement farming" was very sensible for the Horde, who presumably wanted to get their achievements quickly and easily, and hence the entire Horde team was cooperating nicely.

I'd guess, unless something changes, we can look forward to seeing this as a regular thing any time a PvP guild gets a new member who wants to complete some Achievements...

Raph Koster, "humans tend to optimise the fun out".
Funny, but somewhat sad. Have you seen anything similar, people behaving strangely in PvP to get some achievement? In WAR I noticed several people doing scenarios naked, because there are achievements for that too. Why do developers even put such achievements in which can only lead to weird behavior?

WoW Inscription Review

As you all should know by now, I love tradeskills in MMORPGs. So the new inscription craft in World of Warcraft was the most interesting part of patch 3.0.2 for me. After leveling it up to over 350, and learning all the recipes available from the trainer, plus a few others by research, these are my impressions of this new trade:

Inscription is a relatively simple trade, best combined with the herbalism gathering skill. You "mill" stacks of 5 herbs into pigments, turn the pigments into ink, and add some parchment to create mostly glyphs, plus a few other scrolls and off-hand items. You don't need any loot drop or crafted trade goods for inscription right now, just the herbs you can gather and parchments from an NPC vendor. This is spiced up a bit by "rare" pigments, but in reality these are more "uncommon" than rare, and aren't used for glyphs, which are the main product of the craft. They are great for skilling up, but the tarot cards and off-hand items you can make from them are mostly useless, and only the one rare pigment needed to make one type of vellums for enchanters is really useful. Sidenote: Inscription produces armor vellum and weapon vellum, which can be enchanted like armor or weapon, and results in a scroll of enchantment, which can be sold and applied by someone to his weapon or armor. If you already have an alchemist / herbalist, you might consider combining inscription with enchanting on another character. Other enchanters will have to buy the vellums on the AH. In any case this is a great improvement of the enchanting skill.

But as I said, the main product of inscription are glyphs, of which there are two types: Major glyphs and minor glyphs. Major glyphs modify one of your more essential spells or abilities. Many give a flat-out bonus, like 20% more effect to Ice/Frost Armor, or adding a heal effect to Power Word: Shield. Other major glyphs change the nature of a spell, like the glyph of Frostbolt giving 5% added damage, but removing the slow effect, which would be useful in a raid (where the slow doesn't work anyway), but bad for soloing. Minor glyphs are often mainly cosmetic. For example the glyph of the penguin turns people you polymorph into penguins instead of sheep. There are also minor glyphs that remove the material component of spells like levitate or slow fall, or that make your buffs cost 50% less mana. Characters get more and more slots for major and minor glyphs during their career; at level 70 they have space for 2 major and 3 minor, at level 80 they get another major, for a total of 3 and 3. The glyph page is a tab in your "spellbook" you open by pressing "P". To enter the glyphs in those slots, you need to stand near a "Lexicon of Power", which are placed next to the inscription trainers. Just ask a guard if you can't find them.

One great innovation hidden in the inscription profession is the way the recipes are learned. As far as I know, and only valid up to now, there are no loot drop recipes. Loot drop recipes ruined some other professions for me, because I can't go raiding with all of my characters, and grinding the same dungeon over and over for a 1% drop chance recipe doesn't appeal to me anyway. Up to now all the major glyph recipes are gained from the trainer. All the minor glyph recipes are gained by a completely new method: Research. You get a minor research recipe early in your career, with a 20-hour cooldown, using cheap materials. The recipe produces a random stat boost scroll, plus you learn a random minor glyph recipe. If I understood it right, the recipe you learn is completely random, and if you'd learn one you already have, the research "fails", yielding you nothing for that day. Getting all the minor glyph recipes together is going to take months, with no way to speed it up, except log on every day. Great lure to keep people logging in, and in my opinion a much, much better way to learn recipes than the loot drop or alchemy random discovery way.

So, should you learn inscription? The big question behind that is what other profession to give up to learn the new one. Frankly, I'd only do it you have a character where you are unhappy with his current profession. For example I learned inscription on my mage, dropping enchanting because I didn't have any of the good recipes anyway. It is true that I made a small fortune with inscription in the last days, but that was due to two factors: Everyone is buying his first glyphs, and I had enough herbs in stock to skill up and make glyphs. Herb prices on the auction house are crazy right now, so buying herbs to learn inscription would cost you thousands of gold. And I'm pretty certain that the prices for glyphs will stabilize at an affordable level. The main problem with inscription is that there will be little repeat custom. Most people will buy 3 minor and 3 major glyphs, install them, and forget about them. Only very few hardcore players will switch out glyphs on a regular basis, putting in "raid glyphs" or "PvP glyphs" for different modes of gameplay.

The main weakness of the inscription profession is that glyphs aren't terribly well balanced. Some glyphs simply don't sell at all, because others are just downright better. You can only put three major glyphs at level 80, and you'll want those to boost the spells and abilities you use the most. Even allowing for the possibility of different specs, and different play styles, that still leaves a good number of glyphs that simply don't make the cut. And I think Blizzard is aware of that, and is already talking about changing a lot of glyphs in the 3.0.3 patch, still coming out before Wrath of the Lich King. And then of course WotLK will allow us to skill up from 375 to 450, adding more recipes for glyphs. There are several rumors surrounding the future of inscription, like the self-only shoulder enchants replacing the previously planned bonus glyph slot. And some people speculate on glyph combos, which would activate if you put in certain combinations of glyphs. But I'd wait for Wrath of the Lich King to really come out before believing any of this, betas and rumors change all the time.

In summary, inscription is fun enough as profession. It appears to be especially suited as "crafting lite" for alts, for example Death Knights, as you don't need to visit specific dungeons to find the recipes (unless that changes with WotLK). Inscription will probably not be a huge money-maker once the initial excitement cools down, but it is useful enough, and low maintenance.

WoW server stability bad at the moment

I had a lot of fun this weekend in WoW, but didn't play as much as I wanted to, and not always where I wanted to. Because since patch 3.0.2 the European server I'm playing on, along with others in the same battlegroup, and some other server clusters, experiences lots of problems. This weekend there were several maintenance downtimes and rolling server restarts, and that was just the "planned" outages. There also were login server problems on Saturday, and on my server the whole Sunday long the world server for Outlands and all TBC content was down. We wanted to raid Mount Hyjal, but that instance wasn't up. We then wanted to go to ZA or AQ40, and these instances weren't up either, at which point we cancelled the raid. Anyway, there were several people who couldn't have participated, because their characters were in Shattrath, which was also down. Lots of players seeing lots of "World server down" error messages.

The WAR servers this weekend were in a much better state than the WoW servers. Too bad I didn't feel like playing scenarios.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Shattering of Azeroth

My World of Warcraft mage went to UBRS last night, with a pickup group, to get the Leeeeeeeeeeeeeroy! achievement. The pickup group consisted of my mage, who is a blood elf and thus was created post Burning Crusade, one guy who had the UBRS key, and three people who had never ever even been to UBRS, having started playing after TBC came out, and thus missed the period where people were still visiting level 60 dungeons. I had to show them where the door was, and tell them that we needed to extinguish the runes in the first room, and click on the altar in the second room to advance. Killing the 50 rookery whelps in under 15 seconds then was easy, because you just need a level 70 warrior to pick them all up, they don't really hurt him, and then AoE. It was obvious why nobody is going to UBRS any more: Who wants a trivial challenge that rewards you with useless loot drops? Large parts of Azeroth are effectively dead already, and Wrath of the Lich King will further reduce the small number of alts still using that content, because many alts will start as level 55 now.

So on the one side we have old content that isn't used any more. And on the other side we have Blizzard not achieving their promised one expansion per year rhythm, because creating new content takes so much time. So I propose to solve both problems, and do something that every ecologist loves: Recycling.

In practice this would me a new expansion, called something like "The Shattering of Azeroth", to come out in a year, in time for the holiday sales 2009. Besides the expected introduction of new hero classes, and raising the level cap to 90, the expansion would change the starting level of World of Warcraft to 55. So not only new hero classes, but newly created characters of any class would start at level 55. Any existing characters of level lower than 55 would see their level increased to 55.

This would liberate huge parts of the world, all the zones previously used to get from level 1 to 55. So the expansion would tell the story of a terribly cataclysm that transformed these zones. Instead of making a new continent for levels 80 to 90, old Azeroth would be transformed into zones from level 55 to 90. All the old mobs, and quests, and quest hub villages, would disappear, but the basic geography would remain, maybe with some modifications to zone connections. So now all these old zones and dungeons could be populated with new quest hubs, new quests, new mobs, spanning all the range from level 55 to 90.

I think veterans would enjoy revisiting old dungeons with new mobs and bosses. And for new players they wouldn't be any different from a completely new dungeon. For the devs it would take only half the time to repopulate the old dungeons and zones with new mobs and quests than it would take to create a new continent from scratch. And we would elegantly get rid of the depressing sight of deserted zones.

Of course clever people will realize that a game having only levels 55 to 90 isn't any different from a game having only level 1 to 34. But it is exactly this shortening of the level span that would be the big advantage of "The Shattering of Azeroth": The less levels there are in a game, the likelier it is to find somebody of the same level to play with. Instead of doing a rush job on new players to get them ever faster to the level where the rest of the players hang out, they would start at the same level as veterans doing hero classes. And while in WotLK 5 Death Knights make a lousy group, in the new expansion there could be functioning level 55 groups between hero classes and regular classes, because they all start at the same level.

The Shattering of Azeroth would remove a lot of content from World of Warcraft. But would that really be such a big loss? Isn't it better to reuse a zone like Westfall and the Deadmines instead of leaving it as a near-empty playground for a few solo players? Getting "boosted" through some old dungeon is a much less rich experience than going through that dungeon with players of your level. And of the quests that would be removed, only very few were memorable anyway. Who would miss some "kill 10 foozles" quest, as long as there is a new quest instead for killing the new mobs of now higher level in that zone?

So I think recycling the old world of Azeroth would be a great opportunity for the next World of Warcraft expansion. Because the old way of adding 10 more levels with a new continent at the end has its limits. It is better to recycle old content than to let it die a slow death of becoming insignificant.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Open Sunday Thread

Need I say more? The now traditional open Sunday thread, in which you can discuss what you like, or suggest subjects for future blog entries.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Karazhan easy mode

My guild did a short Karazhan raid last night, and I went along with my frostmage, who hadn't raided much yet, and got several nice epics. But since Blizzard has reduced the health of all raid mobs down by 30%, Karazhan was too easy for an experienced raiding guild with several raiders wearing much higher level gear. We had 4 mages in the raid, and our strategy at Moroes was "gather Moroes and all the adds on one spot, then AoE". This continued all the way through, we cleaned out the place in less than 3 hours, and even the final boss, the prince, just took 97 seconds to nuke to death. Nightbane never got around to use a single fear, we didn't need a beam rotation on Netherspite, all the bosses just fell over death before they could do anything serious.

I would have loved Karazhan if it had been like this in January 2007, with the mobs having low health like this, and no key requirement. It would have allowed even casual guilds to get into raiding shortly after doing a couple of level 70 dungeons. In October 2008 the changes are kind of silly. Even if there is anyone left who hasn't seen Karazhan yet, he'll still get better gear in Northrend in a month. And for those who already raided, the nerf just removes all strategy from the raid. At its current state the Karazhan bosses should give much less badges of justice, and there should be a "heroic" version where the bosses have more health and drop more badges. If the first raid dungeon in Wrath of the Lich King is like this, I'll be happy. But having an ultra-hard dungeon at the start of an expansion and nerfing it into sillyness at the end doesn't sound like a good plan to me.

Rohan on Retribution Paladins

I don't know very much about paladins in World of Warcraft. I only ever played one to level 32, and that was ages ago. So when I heard other players complaining about how overpowered retribution paladins are, I got confused. Aren't paladins the class that deals the least damage in this game, assuming all classes spec for maximum damage? So I asked an expert. And Rohan of Blessing of Kings kindly explained why retribution paladins aren't overpowered. Overall they still deal little damage, they just are able to use lots of abilities with long cooldown at once to deal a big burst of damage.

So if that subject interests you, I suggest you head over to Blessing of Kings and read Rohan's excellent analysis of the problem.

This WAR announcement is real

While I was making fun of Mythic with my fake "WAR light" announcement, Mark Jacobs posted the State of the Game, with some real improvements. It's long, so I limit my discussion to three central points:

"In December, the Black Guard and the Knight of the Blazing Sun will officially be part of WAR". Good! I'm not going overboard with praise here, because removing a feature just before release, and then delivering it later shouldn't earn you extra credit (Blizzard likes to do the same thing). But adding the two missing tank classes to the game is important. Some content, e.g. public quests, has been designed with tanks in mind, and Empire and Dark Elves not having any of those was sometimes a bother. Yes, you can fly to other zones, but that didn't happen often enough to solve the tank shortage for those races. Now things should slowly balance out.

"We will continue to enhance WAR’s mail system until it is one of the best mail systems found in any MMORPG." Translation: "We'll improve the mail system until it isn't any more the worst part of WAR, and isn't totally sub par to anything else found on the market any more." Mail improvements are sorely needed, and of course Mark has to put a positive spin on it. But before it becomes "one of the best mqil systems found in any MMORPG", the WAR mail needs several years of work.

"We will also be giving players more incentive to engage in open RvR by improving the rewards for both assaulting and defending in RvR." Good, but could we get the same improvement of rewards for public quests, please? This is an important first step to get people away from instanced scenarios and into the open world, but I wouldn't limit the incentives to just RvR.

So the announced WAR patch 1.1 promises some good improvements, very well targeted to combat the current weaknesses of the game. Kudos to Mythic for knowing what to focus on. In comparison, while I did like WoW patch 3.0.2, the WoW patch felt like a huge bag of goodies with something for everyone, and very little focus. But hey, of course WoW is at a very different step in its life cycle, and the differences are understandable.

WoW talent builds and identity

As promised I'm packing the more theoretical or philosophical aspects of my thoughts on World of Warcraft talent builds into this separate post. A reader directed me to the blog of a mage friend who is cancelling WoW, giving as one of his reasons the introduction of spec toggling. Quote: "To my mind, specs are an essential part of the "RPG" half of "MMORPG." They help to differentiate characters and define a character's personality." In other words, your talent build defines your virtual identity, and being able to switch quickly between specs destroys that identity.

I understand the idea, but I don't really agree with the sentiment. I'm always in favor of giving options, and let the players decide whether they want to take up or not those options. For example I feel strongly about the identity of my WoW priest as a healer. I tried shadow, and didn't like it at all, because it goes against that feeling of identity, of who that priest is. But I wouldn't ask Blizzard to remove the shadow talent tree from the game, or quit the game in protest because it is in.

In this context it is important to notice that talent builds in World of Warcraft affect different classes differently. If I can dual spec my frost mage into a fire mage, or build any other spec for him to switch to, the identity of my mage as damage dealer will never change. Whatever spec I have on the mage, he will never be the tank or the healer of a group. That is one reason why I said in the previous post that choosing a spec for my mage was easy: It didn't involve a choice of identity. I'd need to be much deeper into roleplaying before it would matter to me whether my mage hits his enemies with fire or with frost. For me, and most other players I'd guess, choosing a mage spec is simply a question of variations of style and efficiency. Maybe one build with more arcane is slightly better for very long fights like those in raids, maybe another build is slightly better for PvP. But however I spec him, the mage will always remain a ranged damage dealer with some crowd control elements. And very few groups or raid groups will kick me out for having "the wrong spec", because there isn't really a wrong one.

For the warrior and priest choosing a talent tree is more difficult, because there is a possibility to change your identity through talent builds. A tank and a fury dps warrior do not play the same role, don't have the same identity. And there is a risk of choosing a "wrong spec", one that excludes you from some part of the game, or seriously gimps you. You *will* meet groups or raid groups who don't invite you because of your talent build if you are a warrior or a priest. "You're a shadow priest? Sorry, but we need a healer." Yesterday there were several people in general chat complaining that they couldn't find a tank for their groups, because so many warriors had succumbed to the lure of Titan's Grip. Now several people tell me that protection warriors and holy priests are now much better for dealing damage after patch 3.0, so there is less of a problem of choosing a spec which is good for groups, but bad when you can't find one. But then of course that opens up questions about the use of the other talent trees. I think we will always remain in a situation where certain specs for these classes are more optimal for certain activities and less optimal for other activities. If Blizzard really introduces the promised spec toggling in a patch next year, classes whose identity is more strongly linked to their talent build will profit from having an easier time when switching from one mode of gameplay to another.

I do have less experience with playing other classes in WoW, but I can only imagine that identity is even more of a problem for more hybrid classes, like druids or paladins. I hear a lot of complaints about overpowered retribution paladins now actually being able to tank, heal, and deal damage at the same time. I have no idea in how far these stories are true, because I don't PvP much in WoW. But I can see the problem of rushing towards an enemy on a PvP battlefield, seeing he is a paladin, and not knowing what identity to expect. Is the guy a tank, a damage dealer, or a healer? My strategy towards him might be different depending on his role. With a druid at least I see what form he has. How much of an identity problem those hybrid classes have depends probably from one player to another. But at least a druid should already have experiencing in switching roles, even mid-fight, so the option of a second talent build won't cause him much of a problem.

Overall I think that introducing spec toggling will be a good thing. It won't solve every conceivable problem, but it will give players more options. And that more options are needed is not a question of identity, but a question of how useful different roles are in the different modes of gameplay. I prefer having a game in which you can do different things, solo and group, PvE and PvP. Being effectively excluded from some parts of the game because you play a class with a strong identity, which is useless for certain activities, is a bad thing. I'd rather have the culture shock of having to live with a different identity when e.g. I'm suddenly a melee dps class in PvP instead of being a tank in group PvE, than to have no useful role in PvP at all, or being forced to pay lots of gold to assume that other identity. As a warrior and priest I can see the advantages of dual specs more clearly than somebody playing mostly a mage can. For my mage the talent switch will be more or less fluff, for my warrior it solves some of his fundamental problems.