Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fake news

With everyone already expecting and being warned of April Fool's fake news, I didn't even try to go for believability today. Instead I'm using the opportunity to toy with fake news as a writing style.

The question today is not whether anyone is fooled, not even whether the hypothetical games presented here are likely to ever become real. The questions are whether you would play these games: PvE EVE and Blizzard's Pokemon MMO. And whether these fake news are a glimpse into a future of MMORPGs in which games become more and more casual. Would we really be surprised if the next Blizzard MMO was even less hardcore than World of Warcraft? Is there a way to break out of the seemingly solid correlation of more casual equals more subscribers? Is hardcore forever damned to be niche, or will the pendulum swing back one day because extremely casual players are less likely to spend a lot of money on any single game?

Blizzard to develop Pokemon MMO

Blizzard wanted to keep it a secret for an announcement at the next Blizzcon, but their business partner spilled the bean: Nintendo leaked the news deeply hidden in their quarterly report that they sold the license for a "Pokemon MMO" to Blizzard. That fits with Blizzard's earlier statements that their next MMO would not be a WoW2 or be based on any other of their existing brands.

The writing was on the wall, with World of Warcraft becoming increasingly casual-friendly, so we shouldn't really be surprised that Blizzard's next MMO is going for an even more casual (and thus larger) audience than WoW. They probably realized that the competitor's game most likely to be a huge financial success this year is Free Realms, and not any of the more classic MMORPGs. And combining the formula of a kid-friendly virtual world with the addiction of leveling up your trainer and your pokemons could well become a game selling millions. Added advantage: The Pokemon MMO wouldn't canibalize WoW's user base.

I played some of the Pokemon games on Nintendo handheld consoles, and they aren't half bad. I really like the separation of having one trainer and many pokemons. So things like reputation are centralized, and you only have to grind them once per account, but you can easily switch to a different "class" / pokemon for experiencing different roles in combat. Add a nice virtual 3D world, and Blizzard's usual polish, and this could be a game I want to play, in spite of not being a kid any more.

EVE opens PvE server

When I played EVE Online nearly six years ago, it wasn't the game for me. There was relatively little PvE content, and as you all know, I'm not a big fan of PvP. But in the years since, CCP has added more and more PvE content to the game. Agents have been introduced which give "quests". The latest expansion, Apocrypha, added exploration of wormholes. It was clear that the developers tried to broaden their audience by appealing more to the PvE fans, and this strategy lead to a strong growth in subscription numbers, probably around 300k now.

But CCP realized that to grow further, they had to give better incentives to new players. EVE Online in its current form can be quite harsh to new players, because skills are gained over real time, so new players can never catch up. And a large number of players is found huddled in safe space, with very few players entering 0.0 space, because most players simply can't survive powerful alliances of veteran players killing everyone approaching "their" space.

So today CCP announced that they will open a second server for EVE, giving everyone the possibility of a fresh start and thus leveling the playing field. And the new server will have a different ruleset: It will be a PvE server, with only consentual PvP in the form of duels and pre-arranged battles between alliances. The existing classification of space from safe 1.0 to unsafe 0.0 will remain, but only be an indication of the number and strength of NPC space pirates attacking you, of which there will be more than on the PvP server.

I think this is a great idea, and I'm tempted to resubscribe to EVE Online and play on that new PvE server. I always liked the player-run economy of EVE, with auction houses that have not just sales but also buy orders, and thus the possibility to become a trader or crafter full-time. Without PvP EVE can finally be soloed, which previously wasn't really getting you anywhere.

The only downside is the risk that the old server will become rapidly deserted, because many players there are looking for a new start. Even a subscriber of EVE Online can be a carebear at heart. :) CCP already released the names of the two servers: The original PvP one will be called Felucca, the new PvE server will be called Trammel.

The nuclear option

Gevlon has made it his personal goal to be less nice and more outrageous than anyone else in the MMO blogosphere. Not an easy task, that. Especially if you already have people like Syncaine shouting and cursing invectives at anyone they don't agree with. So to beat Syncaine's "WoW tourist" insult, Gevlon claims that anyone leaving WoW for a while is the ghetto scum of the WoW population, because players who are either nice or good would stay with their friends in WoW.

And if that wasn't outrageous enough, Gevlon has a theory why Age of Conan failed: Blizzard deliberately banned half a million botters on AoC's release date, sending all that ghetto scum to AoC to destroy the competition. Gevlon says WoW has a million customers that are so bad that they would destroy any game community, except WoW's (where there is no community and they are diluted by 10 million other players). And whenever a competitor launches a game, Blizzard simply chooses the nuclear option and sends that ghetto scum to the competitor's game, trampling it into the ground.

Now that is the funniest theory I've read in a while. Syncaine's paranoia and desire to blame somebody else for the failure of his favorite game style is understandable, but such angst is never very entertaining, no matter how many swear words he uses. But if you go completely over the top with that theory, as Gevlon does, it starts to become amusing. I can't wait to read that in EA's annual financial report: "Warhammer Online failed to reach the 500k subscribers we announced as criteria for success because Blizzard used the nuclear option and sent their worst players our way to destroy our game. Not our fault, honest!"

Monday, March 30, 2009

Tigole on quests

As you might already have heard, during the GDC Jeff Kaplan aka Tigole not only admitted having created the worst quest in World of Warcraft, but also now thinks he can do it better, and lists 9 WoW quest problems. Not a very coherent or comprehensive list, I'm afraid, although there are some good points in there.

Stretched over 2 points Tigole talks about quest texts which are too long, or as he says: "Basically, and I'm speaking to the Blizzard guys in the back: we need to stop writing a fucking book in our game, because nobody wants to read it." In a third, related point he talks about how players don't read quests because the quest hub has 10 different questgivers with 10 different quests, and players just take them all without even looking.

He didn't say how to solve these 3 problems. Hopefully not because he has no idea, but because he doesn't want to give away the idea before he has implemented it in Blizzard's next MMO. For me the solution appears to be pretty obvious: Instead of the village having 10 quests you can take at once, it should have one quest chain of 10 quests you have to do in sequence. Besides text, audio and visual means can be used to tell the quest story, one in which you are the hero saving the village. And voila, instead of a bunch of errands you get a real quest with a real story, one which you'll actually be interested in and which you will remember. Like you remember Veteran of the Wrathgate.

Tigole makes some other good points, like that quest chains shouldn't span several levels, because you'll forget them while leveling up. Or that the quest should give sufficient hints for you to know where to go and what to do. But where I didn't agree was that "gimmick quests" are a mistake. Don't get me wrong, we all know they are a gimmick. But I'd rather do an occasional bombing run or similar gimmick than yet another kill 10 foozles quest. And gimmicks like vehicles are probably better placed in quests, where they are optional, than in raid dungeons, where they are not. Funnily the picture Tigole showed for a "gimmick quest without polish" isn't actually a quest at all, but part of the Occulus instance. Go figure.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Can there be other games after WoW?

The open Sunday thread was dominated by a discussion on whether future MMORPGs could get over a million subscribers in a market dominated by WoW. Mark asked: "When the Knights of the Old Republic Star Wars MMO launches, chances are it will sell a million plus copies in the first couple of weeks. What will it take for BioWare and EA to hang onto 75% of those customers beyond the free month? This is another way of saying, can anyone compete with Blizzard, or does competing with Blizzard mean your realistic goal is sub 500,000 subscription numbers?" Well, change the names and the numbers, and you'll have exactly the same discussion there was in 2003, where several games had tried and failed to surpass the success of Everquest. We all know what happened next. I can't say whether it will be SWTOR that will be the next big thing after WoW, but I *do* know that there will be a next big thing one day. There is no way for World of Warcraft to still be the dominant MMORPG in the US/Euro market in 2015.

The general pessimism on the future of MMORPGs comes from various factors, most of which are due to a lack of imagination on the part of those who do the discussion. Most bloggers and people discussing on game forums, and I'm not excluding myself here, suffer from the illusion that the ideal MMORPG is the one that caters to their particular preferences. But experience shows that people spending time reading and writing blogs and forum posts are already more "hardcore" than the average customer in the total MMORPG market. Developers who design games following what the fans tell them they want are unlikely to produce anything more than a niche game. So while the blogosphere is full of buzz around the release of Darkfall, the game more likely to reach over a million players by the end of the year is Free Realms.

The other misconception among MMO bloggers is that World of Warcraft was an accident, a stroke of luck. But if you look at Blizzard's total portfolio of games, you'll notice that quite a large number of them were more successful than the competition in their respective genres. Blizzard isn't simply lucky, they *make* their own luck. And they do that through excellence of production, often taking existing ideas and making a game out them with superior quality and attention to detail. Or as Samus commented yesterday:
Let's say I have my favorite sandwich shop. They didn't start out nearly as good as they are now, but they've had a lot of business in the last 4 years that they've been open, which has allowed them the time and resources to develop a lot of great sandwiches. But as is the nature of things, I grow tired of them. It's not that I stop thinking they're the best sandwich shop in town, there's just only so long you can eat the same sandwiches before you want to try something else.

So I decide to try one of the new sandwich shops in town. The first thing I notice is that the fries that come with the sandwich are terrible. When I say something, the other customers throw food at me and scream about how you come here for sandwiches not fries because it's a sandwich shop can't you read the sign what kind of illiterate retard are you...and so on and so forth. Fair enough, but I also notice that the bread is stale, whereas my old sandwich shop baked their own bread fresh. That suggestion nearly starts a riot, because if I wanted fresh bread, I should go to my old sandwich shop. Apparently, the owner knows my old sandwich shop bakes their own bread, so he is deliberately buying day old bread because he wants to be different.

So I try another sandwich shop. This sandwich shop is clearly trying to copy my old sandwich shop. Every sandwich is just a clone of one from my old shop...only not as good. Nothing about this new sandwich shop is any different or better than my old shop, except they haven't spent 4 years perfecting their sandwiches.

Perhaps the more important thing is the menu size. My old shop had lots of sandwiches, but all of these new sandwich shops have only 2-3 sandwiches. It doesn't matter how good those sandwiches are, I'm going to grow tired of them pretty fast.
Now this is the point where things are starting to look promising for Bioware. Because Bioware is another of the few companies known for quality games. Given enough time and resources it is totally possible that they can produce a quality sandwich, err, game.

The last point to address is the misconception that World of Warcraft is a black hole due to social interaction. Everybody plays WoW, so everybody has friends playing WoW, so people can't leave WoW because their friends are all in WoW? I don't think so! If anything, social interaction is one of the weak points of World of Warcraft. No other game has so much soloing, so much guild hopping, so little loyalty between "friends" and guild mates. Guilds draw together when there is new content to beat, but quickly fall apart once the content is beaten. Blizzard completely failed to introduce any purpose to guilds beyond raids. And as new raid content is being added at a relatively slow pace, there are large stretches of time in which WoW is vulnerable to large numbers of people being bored and leaving WoW to check out a new game. If that new game would be any good, and had better social cohesion, the social "pull" would be more likely to draw players out of WoW than back in.

It is easy to find various insulting descriptions for the average World of Warcraft player, from n00b to tourist. But all of these insults come from people who prefer games which require a lot of time and dedication, having features like non-consentual PvP or events which require people to keep playing in blocks of several hours. Of course people who like that sort of gameplay think that games that have this sort of features are "better", and can't understand that this is not what the majority of customers in the MMORPG market want. So they come up with all sorts of crazy explanations why those "WoW tourists" aren't sticking to their favorite "better" game, but go back to World of Warcraft instead. But the simple truth is that these people will stick to a new game one day, provided that new game has a similar quality level and is suited more to the needs of the average player. You can't at the same time criticize World of Warcraft for not being perfect, and then assume that nobody will ever be able to make anything better. WoW is good, and some of the competitors simply failed to match the level of quality, but WoW is still far from perfect, and it is getting old. Every year lowers the hold that WoW has on the market, because Blizzard can't produce content fast enough to keep everyone busy. And sooner or later a better game will come get millions of players.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Open Sunday Thread

Here it is again, the traditional open Sunday thread, in which you can discuss, propose subjects for future blog posts, or ask questions.

The Rage Bar on keystrokes per second

Vads from The Rage Bar asked me what I thought of his blog, and I found it very nice. Clear layout, about 2 posts a week, and a consistent WoW warrior subject. Not that I totally agree with his view that there should be more content which is only accessible for 1% of the player base, but I do agree that WoW is running out of content fast, and Ulduar will only push the bored point back a few weeks.

But the post of him that interested me most was one about Heroic Strike, with a link to a video in which a tank manages to deal 3.3k dps on Patchwerk, doing 10.5 keystrokes per second. 10 keystrokes per second are 600 keystrokes per minute, which translates to 120 words per minute. According to Wikipedia that is the speed of a world class typist, twice as fast as an average professional typist, and 4 times as fast as the average computer user can type. Personally I type at 50 words per minute (you can test your personal typing speed here). No wonder I'm not dealing that much damage with my tank!

I think it is a bad idea to have your damage depending on how fast you can hit your keyboard. Because if your dps depends on your keystrokes per second, the differences between players become even larger. Then either you have content where only world class typists can beat the boss, or you have content which even the slow typers can compete, and the fast typers are bored because it is too easy. Is this what the often discussed "skillz" boil down to, faster button-mashing?

Friday, March 27, 2009


So this week Battleforge was released in retail and online. Battleforge is an online real-time strategy (RTS) game with trading card elements. Before a game begins, you build a "deck" of cards, each of which represents a unit in the RTS part of the game. But to build the units you need power, gained from capturing power generators, and orbs, gained from capturing monuments. Lose power generators and your power goes up slower, lose monuments and you lose the orbs and can only cast less powerful cards. So you go on various missions, alone or with friends, capture generators and monuments, and beat computer controlled armies for some reward, in the form of new cards. Besides co-operative PvE mode, the game also has a PvP mode.

If you want to gain cards faster, you can buy boosters from EA for 250 Battleforge points, that is $2.50. The retail version of the game for $50 already contains 4 decks and 3,000 points, enough for 12 boosters. Boosters contain a random mix of cards, in different rarities. You can also trade cards with other players online, chat, or form groups for missions with up to 12 players.

I'm a big fan of trading card elements in games, and Battleforge looks very nice, and will undoubtedly make EA a bundle of money. Just not from me, because I don't like RTS games. I tend to get too focused on what is on the screen, and get my ass kicked by the computer in some areas off screen. And just like in the recent post about The Chronicles of Spellborn, I was again disappointed that in Battleforge you always have access to all the cards in your deck (provided you have enough orbs and power). There is no random draw. :( That makes building good decks relatively simple, as you don't need to account for randomness.

If you are unsure whether this could be a game for you, you can get a free demo. Or just watch the well-done tutorial videos that explain how the game works. Just be careful how much you end up spending for the game, trading card games can be an expensive addiction.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

MMORPG Quality

I have a shocking theory about why Age of Conan and Warhammer Online had such a low retention rate, losing most of their subscribers after a short time: These games simply weren't very good. Shocking, I'm telling you! I'm arriving at that conclusion from economic theory, particularly the theory of the homo economicus, or basically the idea that people know what they are doing. Given the choice between similar games at similar cost, the majority of players will play the best game.

Of course that sends us down the slippery slope of what "best" is. Fans of smaller games often claim that World of Warcraft is the Big Mac to their games caviar. Unfortunately the comparison doesn't hold. People are not unable to tell the quality difference between a Big Mac and caviar, they are more influenced by the difference in price and convenience. A quick burger is often preferable to a nouvelle cuisine meal, in terms of price, quantity, and speed. MMORPGs aren't so different from each other, AoC, WAR, and WoW cost nearly the same, and have the same requirement of time. To assume that the larger number of players tends towards the *worse* game means you need to assume that the majority of players is too stupid to recognize quality. Which is a rather insulting and elitist assumption.

But how can we measure the quality of a MMORPG? Often the fans of one game point at features or game design the other game doesn't have. There is no denying that Age of Conan and Warhammer Online brought some good new ideas to the genre. But then they don't have all the features that World of Warcraft has, and comparing the length of feature lists doesn't work at all to compare quality. A better approach is to look at areas where the games are similar or even nearly identical. For example the auction house in WAR has a very similar functionality and game design as the WoW auction house. But if you look at the two side by side, it is obvious that the WoW auction house works much better than it's WAR equivalent. Or we could compare mob pathfinding, checking how likely a mob is to get stuck or be unable to find a path to the player. While we tend to focus on the differences, all these games belong to the same genre, and are by definition somewhat similar to each other, because otherwise they would fall out of the MMORPG genre. Thus if these games all have icons on hotbars to start spells and abilities in combat, we *can* compare the quality of execution of the different systems, check for example how reactive they are, or compare the visual quality of the icons.

Back in 2004 the fans of Everquest claimed that World of Warcraft won out against the nearly simultaneously released EQ2 due to better marketing. It is possible that there are undiscovered gems out there few people are playing. But that argument falls flat the moment a game gets a huge wave of initial subscribers, who *after* playing the new game for a while decide that it isn't for them. In that case either the gameplay is less appealing, or the quality of execution, the programming is inferior. Nobody would ever react with "Hey, this new game is more fun and runs better than WoW, lets go back to WoW". A customer who leaves and goes back to WoW means the new game failed to attract him. WoW might be the standard by which he measured that new game, but obviously he was willing to try something else, and would have staid if that something else had had sufficient quality.

This is important not because I like WoW better than WAR or AoC, that's a pure random event, albeit with high statistical probability. I could as well belong to the smaller groups of people who prefer the other games. But the important part comes when we move the discussion away from the Neanderthal-like "WoW bad, my game good, uga, uga!", and start to ask what exactly attracts some people to one game and other people to another game. Do these games have qualities that are diametrically opposed to each other? Or could we identify the strong points of several different games and create a game that is even better than WoW, by combining WoW's strengths with the strengths of other games. I recently mentioned that WoW for example is weak on social interaction, and some hardcore games are strong in that field, and proposed that a game could be both accessible *and* have strong social interaction if designed right. I would love to see some other games than WoW succeed better in the MMORPG market and get millions of subscribers. But for that to happen, people need to learn to analyze details. Nobody says WoW is perfect, but it must have rather good parts. The idea that WoW is universally bad, and millions of players have been too blind to see that after spending 4 years and thousands of hours, is downright ridiculous. That doesn't mean that only WoW clones can be a mass success, but it does mean that developers of future successful games do have to be willing to analyze what WoW did right, and which features of WoW aren't necessary for success. In the end a "WoW Killer" will come from a pool of ideas, many of which have been contributed by WoW itself, others from other games, and a few actually new ideas thrown into the mix. It would be foolish to dismiss ideas from any game out of stupid turf war considerations.

How prepared are you for Ulduar?

Ixobelle is asking a good question: "Are we honestly going to be expected to zone in for the very first time on the first new raid content in a while, expected to already know what our role is exactly going to be, exactly where to stand, and exactly what to do?" This of course in response to a guild requesting just that, that people already study Ulduar on the PTR, or read tactics and watch videos that explain you exactly what to do. Well, at least the tactics reading part is also required in my guild, I guess I'll read about the bosses of Ulduar before I actually meet them.

Of course that basically destroys the most fun part of raiding, meeting an unknown challenge and figuring out how to beat it. People are rushing for server firsts, and now test server firsts, not just for the status, but because then they'll get to spoil the fun of everybody else. And everybody else is stupid enough to just follow the tactics other people posted. One day somebody is going to hack WoWWiki and change an entry for a new boss to "this boss can only be beaten while hopping on your left leg", and we will all hop on our left legs while trying to beat him, without even questioning why.

I'm not playing on the PTR, and I'll only do the minimum required in preparation before I go there for the first time. Which won't help, as the raid leader will explain tactics anyway before the fight. I'd propose we all go in there blind, wipe a couple of times, and come up with our own tactics, but I guess that proposal would just get laughed at. Just like in the story about the addons, the big question is: Why are so many people complaining that raids are too easy, but do everything in their power to make them even easier? All this talk about looking for challenge is just a big fat lie!

How prepared are you for Ulduar? Will you know everything there is to know about it before your first raid on the live servers? Will you have already played through Ulduar on the PTR before that raid goes live? Or are you daring to go unprepared, and come up with your own tactics?

Games for senior citizens

My father, who is 74 and hasn't played a single computer game in his life (after giving up on an early console that played Pong on our TV), asked me to install him a "computer game" on his PC. He sees how much time I'm spending with games, and wonders if he is missing anything. Okay, kudos to my father for being open-minded. But what game do I know that he could possibly play? My father has a computer, but constantly comes running to me with problems to which the solution usually is that he should have right-clicked instead of left-clicked. Complex games like World of Warcraft are out. And of course he doesn't have a teenager's reflexes, so simple but fast games are out too.

Up to now I came up with Mahjong and Peggle. He didn't want Solitaire or similar card games. Anyone else got a good idea for a PC game for a senior citizen?

50 million dollars are bad for you

Syncaine has an interesting theory about "WoW tourists": They ruin other games. Me, being a capitalist, I was under the impression that if 1 million WoW tourists buy your PvP game for $50 each, and then notice that your game isn't for them, you'll be left $50 million richer, which probably pays for most of your development cost. If you then have 300,000 dedicated "core" players left, you can afford to keep your servers running. Because with your development cost already paid, you just need to make more money than it costs to run the servers to be profitable. Even if you game is then a total flop, you can still take that money and use it to develop the next game, hopefully with better success.

But Syncaine says that those 50 million dollars are bad for you. Because the tourists cause login queues. Because after the tourists leave, you have to merge servers. Because the tourists complain on the game message boards that the new game isn't WoW. But most importantly because "the tourists interfere with the core player base, and that core is weakened because of them". He claims WAR would have had more core players, if they hadn't quit over tourist-caused issues.

Darkfall certainly tried to keep the tourists out. You needed to be pretty hardcore to even get into the game, first camping the website for days to get a copy of the game, then enduring login queues that last several hours. But Darkfall players are *still* complaining about tourists. Apparently if somebody tries out Darkfall and doesn't like it, it is WoW's fault. The possibility that somebody quits Darkfall for reasons that are not at all related to World of Warcraft isn't recognized by the fans. I think that one can like or dislike Darkfall completely independant of having played WoW. And I think that one can like or dislike Warhammer Online completely independant of having played WoW.

Yes, World of Warcraft might hurt other games, because it simply sets some industry standards for production quality. If you can get a Mercedes for the same price, why drive a Tato Nano? That does make life difficult for smaller companies, because they either need to make their games cheaper, or better, or so innovative that players are willing to overlook some flaws. Fortunately MMORPG players are good at overlooking flaws, as long as they are having fun.

So ultimately the WoW tourists are a great opportunity for other games. Not only because they bring in an initial big boatload of cash, which any company can certainly use in times like these. But because they give the game the *opportunity* to present itself to a larger audience, and maybe persuade some of them that a different style of gameplay could be fun too. Syncaine thinks that without WoW, WAR would have more than 300,000 subscribers now. I think that WoW increased the total overall market for MMORPG games, and in a world without WoW WAR wouldn't even have sold 300,000 copies, and would have less subscribers than it currently has. And I'm pretty sure that EA and Mythic aren't all that unhappy about those $50 million.

Market booths

What is it with Asian games and market booths? After exploring Bounty Bay Online for a while, I finally gave up on that game, mainly because I had problems selling the items I found or crafted. Like many other Asian games, BBO has no centralized auction house. Instead you need to find yourself a busy area, set up a market booth, and go afk. What a horrible, horrible system!

If you want to sell, you can't do anything else while sitting in your market booth. So unless you dual-box with some trader alt, you can't play while waiting for customers. And you can't even turn your computer off, you need to keep it running in away-from-keyboard mode. If you want to buy, you need to find the various places with market booths, and run from booth to booth looking at offers. There is no way to find out if some item is for sale at all, or to compare prices.

My guess is that the player economy is deliberately designed to work as bad as possible, because of microtransactions. The game company doesn't want an efficient player-run economy, because then they would sell less in-game items themselves. In Bounty Bay Online you can buy various crafting resources for real money, so of course the developers aren't interested in you being able to buy them from another player.

But as I am always very interested in in-game economies, I'll avoid games with market booths instead of auction houses in the future.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Chronicles of Spellborn

I played The Chronicles of Spellborn beta for a few hours. I didn't like it. I didn't even plan to write a review. But fortunately the guys of Killed in a smiling accident wrote a review which echoes many of my feelings about that game. So instead of writing the same stuff again, I'm sending you over to them to read their post. :)

What disappointed me most was the revolving hotkey bar, which sounds like a nifty idea from the outside, but somehow totally fails to be interesting. It is far too easy to string a series of reasonable damage dealing abilities on one row of the wheel, put a couple of buffs and debuffs on the second row, and that is all you ever need. It really isn't any more interesting than a fixed hotkey bar. The problem is that in TCOS, just like in WoW and pretty much any MMORPG, there is often no need to react to anything in combat. You can work with the same spell rotation for every mob. TCOS just puts that spell rotation on a rotating bar, which if anything makes it more obvious that you're not really making intelligent choices in MMO combat.

I'm still waiting for a MMO that works like Magic the Gathering, that is you prepare a deck of abilities and get a *random* draw. TCOS is like Magic after you stacked your deck, which removes the interesting surprise bit. So after a few hours in The Chronicles of Spellborn I started to ask myself "why would I want to play this?", and couldn't find an answer. So I stopped.

WAR official forums

I guess this post will solicit less response, but the subject is basically the same as yesterdays: A game company making life harder for their fans, and the fans going on strike. In this case it it Mythic, who recently introduced official WAR forums. And the Only-WAR fan forums are closing down, saying Mythic made them obsolete.

While official forums might be unfortunate for WAR fan forums, I do think overall it should be easier to follow what Mythic says now they have an official forum. I remember last year some people from Mythic made statements in the comment section of my blog. Well, I'm honored, but for anyone trying to run a "blue tracker" of all official statements that must have been hell to visit every single blog and forum out there.

Now many people are opposed to official forums because the quality is often bad, with lots of trolls clamoring for attention. But I do believe that is simply a matter of forum policing. If you get some strict moderators wielding a hefty ban stick, you quickly weed out the worst trolls and make even official forums a useful place to get information.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Addons and rights

Anyone remember the mazzlegasm? Two years ago there was an addon for World of Warcraft called MazzleUI which to advertise itself had your character /yelling "I've had an intense Mazzlegasm" across the entire zone, and many of the users of that addon didn't find that funny. WoW addons can do nearly anything you can do, including things your personal code of honor or decency wouldn't let you do. For example it would be easy enough to have an addon send a whisper advertising some gold-seller to everyone on your friend list and in your guild. So obviously there are acceptable and inacceptable uses of the power of addons, and somebody has to make rules where the line between those is. Blizzard posted the rules last Friday, and not everyone is happy. Because besides the obvious prohibition of offensive content and gold spam, the rules also make it harder for the addon authors to make money. Addons must be free of charge, may not contain hidden code, may not advertise themselves in game, or ask for donations in game. Authors are still allowed to ask for donations on their website, but they say that isn't enough.

The author of Outfitter has gone on strike and withdrawn his addon, and action which would have had more significance if upcoming patch 3.1 wouldn't make Outfitter obsolete anyway. The author of Questhelper says he currently making a full income from donations, and might not be able to keep that up if his addon doesn't ask for donations in game any more. And of course there is Carbonite, an addon you need to pay for to use, which recently developed a "Free2Play with advertising" version, which is rumored to have sparked Blizzard's new rules.

I think the Outfitter example shows well that addon authors never had many rights. Like so many addons before it, Blizzard is simply introducing the addon functionality in the standard UI in patch 3.1, making the addon obsolete. I wouldn't be terribly surprised if some future patch introduced functionality to WoW similar to Questhelper's one, other MMORPGs like WAR are already marking quest locations on the map. So relying on income from an addon was never a really good idea. But Questhelper was downloaded over 20 million times from Curse in its various versions, and the author rightfully claims that his addon has more users than many MMORPGs. Shouldn't that give him any rights? No, legally it doesn't. Because his addon piggybacks on World of Warcraft, and would be completely worthless without WoW, Blizzard is the sole holder of any rights. Blizzard can change the LUA addon language at any time, or even disable it.

As some readers noticed, the problem is that few people play without addons, and addons have become increasingly complex. Even the players who constantly complain that WoW isn't challenging enough have their addon directory loaded full of little programs that make raiding much easier, from threat meters, to addons warning of boss abilities, to healbots. Players have become too dependant on these addons, and now authors threatening to withhold them pose a real threat. But us having become addicted to addons doesn't really give the addon authors any rights, only some power to inconvenience us.

I don't think addons were supposed to get this complex, or to make their authors rich. Blizzard was allowing fans to add to the game, and not people to make a living with unauthorized secondary WoW products. So I find the rules they did set up quite reasonable. If those rules decrease the income of the addon authors, thereby preventing them from working on addon full time, and thus limiting addons to smaller, less complex things, that could ultimately be better for the game anyway. The "convenience" of addons might already have gone too far, removing some vital game elements and making WoW too trivial. I wonder if people would still find Naxxramas "too easy" if they would run it without any addons.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Open Sunday Thread

As every Sunday, I'm leaving the floor to you for discussion, suggestions, or questions.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Quadrupling my ADSL speed

I have the new computer for a week now, and I'm quite happy with it. But of course with all the installing of stuff, and often needing new versions for Vista, I'm doing a lot of downloading. So I got a bit annoyed that downloading wasn't faster, and decided to check whether I'm getting the internet download speed I'm paying for. So I headed over to Speedtest.net, and got a somewhat disappointing 1.7 Megabit per second. I was sure my ISP had promised me more than that!

I dived into the website of my ISP and tried to find the terms and conditions. And found something rather curious. With my subscription plan I should have 12 Megabit per second (that would be 1.5 Megabyte per second, over 5 Gigabyte per hour). But there was a little footnote leading to some very small print saying that by default I only get 4 Mbit per second, until I call a service number and specifically ask for a free upgrade to 12 Mbit. Grrrrrr! I bet they are counting on not many customers finding that info!

So I called them, and a few days later a technician called me back and told me it was done. I did the speedtest again, and now I get 6.7 Mbit per second. Still only half of what is advertised, but 4 times as fast as before. I remember hearing about stuff like parity bits and check bits making actual speed always slower than nominal speed. Anyway. the next software I downloaded really reached 800 kbyte per second download speed, nearly 3 GByte per hour, and that is a speed I can live with. Teaches you to always read the small print!

A bigger lesson

Darkfall sure evokes strong emotions. That, or syncaine developed Tourette syndrome. :) I'm watching Darkfall from the outside, by reading various blogs, and I noticed an interesting trend. Everyone who loves Darkfall is playing with a guild, everyone who hates Darkfall was trying to solo it. You can't really solo Darkfall any more than you could solo Everquest, another game evoking strong emotions. These games are designed to be played in groups, and soloing means playing against the underlying design philosophy, which usually ends up with unpleasant results.

But the bigger lesson behind that is that a game which is fundamentally hostile and unpleasant, not to mention not technically mature, can create strong positive emotions through social interaction. There is a barrier to entry, where players hate to have to rely on other players. But once that barrier is overcome, playing together like a real team is a lot more fun than soloing. In Everquest the idea that the game had to be hostile to force players to band together and ultimately create more fun by better social cohesion was called "The Vision". "The Vision" died a slow and painful death when it turned out that far more people were willing to play more user-friendly games. Today many people think that the World of Warcraft model in which the game lets you solo all the way up to the level cap is inherently more successful.

What if that is a misconception? What if we could have the best of both worlds, a game which is both user-friendly *and* fosters more social interaction? Maybe "The Vison" is right in saying that playing together is ultimately more fun than playing alone, but modern games are right in saying that getting there by making solo life unbearable is not the way to go. And the way to get to that point is so obvious, seeing how strongly players react to rewards and incentives. Just make a game you *can* solo all the way in a pleasant way, but add plenty of incentives to group instead. Make gaining xp and levels in a group twice as fast as gaining xp solo. Add tons of guild features which foster cooperation, guild projects in which people can work together even if they aren't online at the same time and having the same level. Introduce systems in which remaining loyal to the same guild for a long time gives you rewards, so it becomes better to solve minor problems with compromise instead of simply joining the next and more powerful guild. Extend social relationships to outside the game, using Facebook-like game websites accessible from everywhere.

I think we haven't reached the last stage of massively multiplayer online role-playing games yet. We found a lot of puzzle pieces which make those games better, but there is still room for a lot of innovation and putting these puzzle pieces together to form a better game. The "MMO accessible for everyone" is good, but the "MMO with strong social cohesion" is good too. And the game that'll manage to have both will be a huge success.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Quest based advancement

Muckbeast over at Brighthub has a theory that quest based advancement is bad, because it is the new grind. While I'm not saying that quests couldn't be better, I don't agree. There are a lot of advantages to quests that Muckbeast didn't see.

One major thing Muckbeast completely misses is the type of quest more and more used in Wrath of the Lich King, but already present in some corners of The Burning Crusade: Quests with vehicles or other unusual game mechanics. In TBC that was just bombing runs, but in WotLK there are giants to ride, abominations to explode, sea cows to mate, dragons to harpoon, landmines to lay, and a hundred other things that wouldn't be possible without quests.

Another big quest-related feature of Wrath of the Lich King is phasing, the technology in which you finally get to change the world. Okay, you only change it for yourself, but that was necessary to not have the first player to reach that content spoil it for everyone else. Without quests this phasing change of the world would be much harder, if not impossible to realize.

Muckbeast claims that quest makes people anti-social, because they are never on the same quest and so can't play together. Unfortunately people are anti-social even without quests. In games like Everquest or Final Fantasy XI they work together because they have to, not because there are fewer quests. If you would remove all the quests from WoW, people would still be solo grinding mobs, not start to form groups, because WoW has a screwed up group xp system. If Blizzard would make gaining xp in a group much faster than solo, people would form groups and overcome the obstacle of different quests. There is also the nice solution Warhammer Online introduced: Repeatable public quests, which would have been a smash hit if Mythic hadn't shot them in the foot by making scenarios much more rewarding. By giving out quests to people for going somewhere, not by clicking on an NPC, you can make sure that everyone around you has the same quest, and can group if the incentives are there. WAR also has quest items drop for everyone in the group, negating another disadvantage of quests Muckbeast cites.

Of course Muckbeast is right that 3,000 quests of kill 10 foozles doesn't constitute engaging story-telling. But eliminating quests, or quest-based advancement would do more harm than good. You can't judge the merits of a system based on just one of its implementations. When we look around we see a lot of different quest features in different games which could be combined to a system much better than WoW's, but still having advancement mainly based on quests. Final Fantasy XI has cut scenes with your player character built in. Age of Conan has a great destiny quest series up to level 20 (and WoW has something similar for starting death knights). Quests *can* be great vehicles for story-telling.

One thing that WoW could do for the next expansion is to have a lot less quests, but have these quests take more time to complete, and give correspondingly better rewards. Instead of doing 10 quests for 10k xp each, players would do one quest for 100k xp, but that one quest would not just be killing 10 times more of the same mob. By having fewer and longer quests, each quest could be more engaging, tell a better story, and have a better chance to find somebody else with the same quest. It's all in the fine-tuning of parameters in the implementation. A game without quests, where people log on next to a mob camp and kill them over and over and over until they level, because there is no reason to move, is a lot worse. Believe me, I've been there and done that. Quests, while perfectible, are still the better alternative.

Shadow run

Excuse the reference to an obscure cyberpunk pen&paper RPG, this post is about a Naxxramas heroic run I did last night with my priest in shadow spec. Overall the run was very successful, we cleared 3 wings in 3 hours, and got a lot of epics. In spite of several people who thought we weren't "hardcore enough" having left the guild recently, we are doing surprisingly well with a more relaxed attitude; one could even say better than before. We manage to accomodate people who come home late from work, or others who have to leave early, by swapping people in and out with very little fuzz. And we have people politely passing on loot that is a bigger upgrade for somebody else. We're probably not running the most efficient raids, but we're running very pleasant raids, which is a different value.

So with the guild not being overly strict, and us having tons of healers anyway, it was no problem for me to do one raid as shadow priest. I had pushed up my hit rating a bit more with tips from my readers, and got my miss rate down to 1.5%. At the end of the raid Recount showed me as having done 3k dps overall, and being 6th in total damage dealt, nearly 11 million points of damage. Considering that I was still mostly wearing healing gear, I was quite happy with that performance.

I mentioned before that in holy spec my priest rarely had any mana problems. That turned into a complete parody with the more powerful mana regeneration of the shadow build. For example at Loatheb I did nothing but stand still and blast damage spells as fast as I could at the boss for a full 6 minutes, and at the end of the combat I was still at full mana. If I had taped over my mana bar on the screen to make it completely invisible to me, it wouldn't have made a difference, I simply didn't need to watch mana in that raid. I consider that to be bad game design, because you are taking away a tactical choice between more or less mana efficient spells from the players. And I'm afraid the mana nerf in patch 3.1 will not be sufficient to fix that, if it only affects out-of-combat mana regeneration.

This shadow run was a test for the upcoming dual spec in patch 3.1. I'm feeling comfortable doing a shadow build as my second spec now, and switching to it whenever more dps is required, without being a burden to the raid. But I did realize that while dual spec offers the possibility to have two sets of talents and corresponding sets of glyphs, I do not currently own two sets of gear. My solution to just change gems isn't viable for dual spec, unless I want to spend a fortune on gems for every switch. But then I might not really need to. While stats like hit rating might be "most efficient" for shadow priests, they are not absolutely necessary. And for holy priests hit rating is completely useless. So if I concentrate on different stats, like spellpower, int, and crit, I will get stats which are excellent for the holy priest, but still good enough for the shadow build without needing a second set of gear. Yes, having a second set of hit rating gear would be nice, but any piece I take for that set is missing for somebody else in the guild who might need it full time.

So I'm declaring the shadow experiment as over, and will switch back to holy tonight. I'll switch out my hit rating gems and replace them with gems that are useful for both talent builds, so I'm prepared for dual spec when it comes. And I guess I can count myself lucky that as priest I'll be able to do two specs with one set of gear. A lot of other classes, for example my warrior, will definitely need two completely different sets of gear for switching from one role to another.

Free Realms on G4TV

G4TV has an extensive video preview of Free Realms, the soon to be released Free2Play MMORPG from SOE. While the game is squarely aimed at children between 8 and 14 (compared to a minimum age of 12 for World of Warcraft), Free Realms looks as if it has some features that will also be interesting to grown-ups.

I especially like the idea that you make only one character, but that character has access to all 14 classes in the game, leveling them up separately. Also interesting is an automatic character webpage, similar to a Facebook page, which tracks your characters exploits and achievements. Child-safe social networking for beginners. :)

Free Realms is financed with microtransactions, with various options, allowing for example parents to give a fixed monthly allowance to their kid. The video only mentions outfits that can be bought, there might not be any stuff that advances your character faster. But as the different classes appear to be playing different mini-games, advancing your character doesn't seem to be the focus of this game. It probably is more a social space with various games than a classic MMORPG. Which, for the target demographic, might not be a bad thing. I'll certainly check it out, but probably won't play it very much.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Naxxramas loot table

Using WoWWiki and WoWHead, I compiled a table of all epics that drop in Naxxramas-10. And it appears that there are no "common" and "rare" drops, every item on the loot table of a particular boss has an equal chance of dropping. Clear Naxxramas-10 five times, and statistically speaking you have one of everything. In reality of course Murphy's Law applies, and you get several times the epic nobody wants, and the most wanted thing doesn't drop at all. :) But the loot table gives us an idea for what raid composition Naxxramas is designed, or which classes have the best chances to gear up there.

I didn't go into details of classes and talent trees, for that you'll have to look at WoW-Loot. I just sorted the loot into cloth, leather, mail, plate, and other, with other including all sorts of weapons, off-hand items, jewelry, and trinkets. I subdivided plate and other into categories of caster, melee dps, and tank. And I subdivided leather and mail into caster or melee. I didn't count tokens.

The result was that there are 16 cloth items, 16 leather items, 15 mail items, 24 plate items, and 53 other. The cloth is obviously all for casters. The leather and mail is split half and half for casters and melee/ranged dps. The plate has 9 caster, 8 dps, and 7 tank pieces. And in the other category there are 26 caster, 21 melee/ranged dps, and 6 tank pieces.

The count confirmed my suspicion that there is 50% more plate dropping in Naxxramas than other armor. Which is curious, because there are three plate-wearing classes and three cloth-wearing classes, so there should be equal amounts of cloth and plate. The easiest class to equip in Naxxramas-10 would be a holy paladin, who has 9 pieces of plate nobody else can roll on, plus the largest selection of other items. The hardest classes to equip would be a protection warrior or paladin, a long-standing tradition of Blizzard. Cloth wearers have the biggest competition for armor pieces, but benefit from the largest selection of other items. For mail and leather wearers there are a lot of items that are useable only for few classes and builds, which makes loot distribution there depend strongly on what classes and builds are actually in the raid.

Only about 10% of the epics in Naxxramas-10 are specifically for tanks, a bit more if you count items useable for feral druid tanks. Over half of the epics are for casters, that is healers and spell dps. So for loot purposes a "perfect" raid would only have one tank, 3 healers, 2 spell dps, and 4 melee dps. Teach your death knight to off-tank in dps plate gear, and you're golden. :)

The psychology of microtransactions

So I've been playing around with Bounty Bay Online for a while, on a so-called Free2Play server. As most of my MMORPGs up to now have been monthly fee based, it was interesting to explore the business model of microtransactions on these Free2Play games. So I decided how much money I would spend max, and bought 1,000 point for €30 in the Bounty Bay Online item shop. For the rest of the post I'll count costs in Euro cents, with one BBO point costing 3 cents.

In theory you can play BBO without paying anything at all. In practice the game company is doing their utmost to seduce you to spend points, and thus money, because they have to live of something. For example they are offering a very cheap starter kit for just 75 cents, which contains gear that improves your character and his ship, as well as a scroll which 5 times 1 hour doubles your skill point gain. As Bounty Bay Online is all about gaining skills, it is easy to get hooked on those scrolls. They cost 45 cents if you buy them outside the starter kit, so very quickly you end up paying 9 cents per hour if you constantly use them. Such "double points" scrolls are something I've seen in every microtransaction game I've come across.

Gaining skills is usually fast at low levels, and then gets slower and slower. Sooner or later there comes a point where you think your progress is too slow, and thus are tempted to spend money on faster skill gains. Besides the double skill scrolls there are potions with 100 charges for just 21 cents which refresh your energy, reducing the downtime between skill gains if you do something energy intensive like mining. Or for 60 cents you can buy a skill book with which you automatically gain skill for the next 6 hours without having to do anything. I haven't even tried out those yet, because to me that appears to pretty much kill the interest in the game. In a similar vein you can buy 10 million silver for 225 cents, which to me also appears to remove the interest of the trading part of the game. I thought the point was to do something like gathering or trading, and earning skill points and silver for that activity as a reward. Skipping the playing part and just buying the skill and the silver seems odd to me. But I guess there are enough people out there who want the reward without the activity leading to it.

The most expensive thing I bought, for 600 cents, is a basic bank functionality. Without paying anything you only get a local storage in your starting town. The bank you can buy for real money is accessible from every town. But even then you only get a relatively low number of slots and weight limit, both of which you can further upgrade in installments of 600 cents each, which quickly gets prohibitively expensive.

In Bounty Bay Online you can also buy repair kits for your ship for 45 cents, or first aid kits for you sailors for 45 cents, or first aid kits for yourself for 21 cents, each with 100 charges and useable instantly without restrictions. Which means that if you just spam them enough, it is really hard to get killed. Which is nice in PvE, but extremely unbalancing in PvP.

Apart from that there are gimmicks, like being able to ban another player from chat for 2 hours for 60 cents. Now that is an option I'd like to see in some other games. ;) There are also a lot of fluff items in the item store, like nice clothes without stats, or pets from rabbits to white tigers.

As Raph Koster explains, revenues from microtransaction games follow a power law. That is there is a large number of players paying nothing, and a small number of players paying a lot. If you don't set yourself limits, you could easily spend far more on a Free2Play game than on a game with monthly fee. But I do like the idea of having choices: I could play Bounty Bay Online on a monthly fee server, or I could play it for free, or I could spend as much as I want to advance faster and have ingame advantages.

Having played Magic the Gathering, I'm well aware of the traps involved in that, you ending up spending far more money than you wanted to. But then I have to wonder why most of us would consider it insane to spend $100 per month on a game, but find it totally normal if we spend 100 hours per month in a game, chasing after basically the same rewards. I certainly wouldn't be willing to skip the whole game and go directly to the maximum reward for some fee. But paying *some* money to advance faster is something I can live with, because I look at it as balancing the game between those who have a lot of time on their hand, and those who have less time but more money. Sad as it is, but most MMORPGs have progress based nearly completely on time spent in game, with very little contribution of skill, and somebody with a regular job and family simply can't compete against somebody who for some reason is able to play all day. Microtransaction games allow me trade money for time, but of course that only makes sense if the time I save is time that I wouldn't have enjoyed much playing anyway. So microtransaction games are frequently full of deliberate grind, to make skipping the grind more attractive. In the end I'd rather have a game which is fun all the time, so there would be no interest in skipping parts of it for money. I wonder if the only business model that allows that is monthly fees. Or will we see "9 cents per hour" business models in the future in the US and Europe, not just in Asia?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Perceptions of success

There are various ways to measure the success of a commercial product. Many of them are misleading. For example number of sales, or revenue, can be misleading if you don't know the profit margin. Selling a lot at a loss isn't success. And even profit numbers don't tell you the whole story, because $1 million of profit is a lot for a project that did cost you half a million, but is nothing for a project that cost you $100 million. So the good numbers you'd need are things like return on investment, or return on capital employed. And in many cases as an outsider you'll never be able to get hold of these numbers. So what remains to the observer is a perception of success which might or might not have anything to do with reality.

So kudos to Aventurine, makers of Darkfall, for their great managing of expectations. By running only one server, and limiting the number of people they let on that server, they effectively created a situation where it appears that people are banging on their door begging to be let in. The main complaint about Darkfall right now is the length of the time you need to wait in queue to get in. This creates a great impression of success.

There is no doubt that Warhammer Online has a lot more subscribers than Darkfall. But Mythic did exactly the opposite, opened up too many servers, and then Mark Jacobs made stupid comments on how WAR needed 500k subscribers to be successful, and how closing servers would be an utter failure. So when they reported first 300k subscribers, and then closing down 60% of their servers, the impression is one of failure.

Honestly I have no idea what the return on investment is on either Warhammer Online or Darkfall. I don't know how much these two projects did cost, I only have a faint idea of their revenues, and no idea of their profit margins. Darkfall took 7 years to develop, so maybe it was very expensive, but maybe they didn't have all that many people working on it, and it was very cheap. Do they really just need one server full of subscribers to survive? The only thing I do know is that there is a general perception of success surrounding Darkfall. Darkfall *seems* more successful than WAR, even if that might not be real.

Monday, March 16, 2009

How to deal with burnout

A commenter in the open Sunday thread complained about WoW and video game burnout, sitting in front of his computer and "just don't feel like playing". Well, the good news is that you are not alone. Especially World of Warcraft is definitely in a burnout phase, where lots of players have played through all or most of the new content of Wrath of the Lich King, and are bored or waiting for the next content patch.

Personally I'm a bit burned out as well with World of Warcraft, so I reduced the time I spend in the game. Curiously in my guild there has been a series of players quitting the guild, for reasons I can only assume are also related to burnout. I say curiously, because while several of these players cited the reason that our guild isn't hardcore enough, and want to join a more hardcore guild, our guild in fact finished Naxx 25, and is now working on Malygos. It isn't as if a more hardcore guild would have access to content our more casual guild isn't already doing. In fact it is likely that a more hardcore guild is having a far easier time than we do in Naxx 25, which is if anything *more* boring than playing with a guild which still needs to focus at the harder encounters. So while the train of thought "I'm bored" -> "Can't possibly be my fault" -> "Let's blame the guild and /gquit" is a classic one, I don't really see how joining a more hardcore guild is going to help right now. We're all in the same boat, waiting for Ulduar.

World of Warcraft or Wrath of the Lich King is like a book. A strange book, in which you don't have to read all chapters in order. But sooner or later you do have read all chapters, and your only options are to read the same chapters again and again, or to wait for the sequel. Burnout is completely natural, and there isn't anything negative about it. The negative thing is how some people handle it.

Switching to a different game doesn't always help, especially not if the new game isn't all that different. If you are burned out from WoW, playing another MMORPG in which you have NPCs with floating symbols over their head asking you to go out and kill 10 foozles might not help much. Or if you play one first-person shooter a lot, switching to a different one isn't going to bring back the fun for long. Sometimes switching the genre completely does help, especially if you go out and play various smaller games instead of concentrating on one big game.

But if you don't feel like playing, I can only advise you to not play. There is more to life than video games. Besides spending more time with friends and family, there are also lots of other entertainment options: books, magazines, TV, movies, DVD, surfing the internet, etc.

The important thing to realize is that burnout is something that is happening with *you*. No, it isn't World of Warcraft that suddenly changed to be less fun. No, your guild mates and online friends aren't to blame. It's you who is changing, who is getting bored, who is burning out. So try to handle it in a mature manner, without burning down bridges in a fit of rage. Explain to your guild mates that you will play less, or take a break. Unsubscribe if you really want to take a prolonged break, but don't delete your characters or give all your stuff away, there is a big chance you'll want to come back one day. If you are lucky enough to be in a good guild, with nice people, you'll still be welcome after your break, because the others in your guild cherish you as a person, and not just because of your character stats and raid performance. I'm very happy to be in a guild like that, and we had lots of burned out people recently coming back and be welcomed. Real people tend to last a lot longer than games and avatars.

Happy birthday, Everquest

Today Everquest celebrates it's 10th birthday. When I list all the MMORPGs I ever played, and sort them from longest played to least played, Everquest takes place 2 behind World of Warcraft, as I played it for 19 months (free month plus 3 times 6-month subscription) in 2000/2001. So I have a lot of good memories from that time, especially about the social aspects of the game. In EQ a pickup group wasn't a dirty word, but guild hopping was. How times have changed!

Nevertheless in terms of gameplay and user-friendliness I'm not missing Everquest at all. In fact when I see some of the people in today's MMORPGs complaining, I can't help but think that these people wouldn't have survived a day in EQ. Here are some examples of EQ "features" from the life of my level 42 druid which wouldn't be acceptable any more today:
  • My druid never made it to the level cap, because at the time that was estimated to take an average of 2,000 hours. For comparison, to reach the level cap of WoW when it came out took 500 hours, and it's probably shorter now.
  • The other reason I didn't get further in level was that in EQ you lost experience points, and even levels, when you died. A death at my level could easily wipe out a week's worth of leveling.
  • When you died, your equipment stayed on your corpse, and you had to run from your bind point to your corpse naked, the so-called corpse runs. If the corpse was in the middle of a dungeon surrounded by monsters, you risked dying several times before you had your gear back, unless you got help from a group. People didn't often visit dungeons with mobs of their level because of that.
  • I was playing a druid because most classes in EQ could not solo at all beyond newbie levels. Only druids and necromancers were able to kill the lowest ("green") mob that still gave xp solo, all other classes could only solo grey mobs that didn't give any xp.
  • Soloing as a druid consisted mainly of the so-called quad-kiting, because that way you killed 4 mobs at once instead of just one. In that method the druid would cast a speed buff on himself, and speed debuff on 4 mobs, and then run in large circles to get the 4 mobs at the same spot and cast an AoE on them. AoE's were limited to 4 mobs, thus the quad-kiting. Killing 4 mobs that way took 5 to 10 minutes. But then you were out of mana, and regenerating mana back to full took 15 minutes!!! Thus at best you killed 12 mobs per hour.
  • At lower levels the meditation to regenerate mana was faster, but you were completely blind, having to stare into your spellbook during that time. At higher levels you gained the awesome skill of actually seeing the world before you while you regenerated mana.
  • Traveling from one continent to another by boat was possible, but took about 20 minutes. If you missed the boat, you had to wait 20 minutes for the next one. In EQ druids had spells to teleport a group, and so I was running a successful taxi service, before the Luclin expansion made traveling a bit easier.
  • In spite of the name, there weren't all that many quests in Everquest. A single quest could take days to complete. Some quest NPCs only spawned every 6 hours or even slower.
  • Both quest mobs and mobs with valuable drops were often "camped", that is people just sat at the spawn point and waited for the mob to pop up, so they could kill it. I once camped a mob for 3 days, a total of 16 hours, killing it every 23 minutes, before it finally dropped the cloak I was looking for. Even regular mob spawn points were often camped by a group, and there was a strict first come first serve policy, with groups potentially blocking a spawn for hours. No wonder some people called the game "Evercamp".
So, nostalgia aside, you can see that not everything was better in the good old days. I'm proudly carrying the flag for the casual players and carebears, because unlike some of those who think they are hardcore now, I played the *real* hardcore MMORPG that was Everquest all those years ago (I think they softened it up a bit since then). I really wouldn't want to go back to those days, and I don't think we'll see many of these features in future games.


Stefan asked in the open Sunday thread what we all think about NASA's plan to develop an MMO. NASA thinks that "Persistent immersive synthetic environments in the form of massive multiplayer online gaming and social virtual world, initially popularized as gaming and social settings, are now finding growing interest as education and training venues. There is increasing recognition that these synthetic environments can serve as powerful “hands-on” tools for teaching a range of complex subjects." And we were just discussing learning from video games last week. :)

While I am certainly not agains MMOs or science education, I have to wonder whether it is NASA's job to spend taxpayer's money on an MMO. I don't think they will be particularly good at it. There is a distinctive risk that a game that sets out to be educational ends up being not much fun at all, and ultimately not teaching anything, because nobody wants to play it. You have a higher chance to learn something involuntarily in a game designed to be primarily fun, for example learning about basic economics of supply and demand by playing the WoW auction house.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Tales from the shadows

So my WoW priest went over to the dark side, and thanks to the help of my readers switched to a good raid shadow build. I know about the importance of hit rating for shadow priests, but as that sort of gear is also needed for a lot of other classes, I never got any pieces for an off-spec set. But being a jewelcrafter I had a lot of gems in stock, and just switched all my gems for +16 hit rating ones. That got my hit rating up to 190, and my miss rating down to just under 2%.

So now I needed a way to test the build and the suggested spell rotation in a raid. Luckily somebody I know was just organizing a raid to Vault of Archavon heroic, and I was able to join. And for a first try that didn't go too badly: Nearly 2.5k dps. After that we did another VoA raid in 10-man mode, and I was second place among the damage dealers on Recount. Not half bad for wearing the wrong gear and being new to shadow priesting.

I hope I can get into a Naxxramas raid with my guild this week for another shadow test run. But I think I'll switch back to holy right afterwards, healing is more challenging, because you need to react. But when dual spec comes with patch 3.1, I'm a lot better prepared now. Thanks again to all who helped with advice!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Open Sunday Thread

As every Sunday, this is the place where you can leave general comments, asks questions, discuss subjects, or propose themes for future blog posts.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Good news for underachievers

I'm an underachiever. That is to say I have considerably less achievement points collected on my characters in WoW than the average member of my guild. I collected exactly 1 title for each of my 3 characters over level 70, "the explorer" for the priest, "chef" for the warrior, and "Jenkins" for the mage. I got some achievements from simply playing. That included some achievements from holiday events, but I didn't complete a singe holiday overall achievement. So as I'm not actually chasing achievements, my achievement point score is rather low.

Now that used to worry me a bit, because I, as many other people, thought that at some point Blizzard would introduce a way to spend the achievement points, and by not having many I would miss out on some cool rewards. Turns out I don't need to worry. Blizzard has no intention of letting us buy anything with achievement points. They are pure fluff, only useful to compare progress between players. Great, now I can really ignore them.

That is not to say that the achievement system isn't a good idea. I know a lot of people who have a lot of fun chasing achievements, and that is fine. It is just that personally I score low in the achievement category in a Bartle test. I do like challenges, but not every type of challenge. I'm so not grinding thousands of grey low-level quests for hundreds of hours to get a tabard and a title, or doing similar repetitive stuff. Having to spend a lot of time on something trivially easy isn't something I consider a challenge.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Calling all shadow priests!

Although I've played my priest for 4 years, I played most of the time in various discipline and holy builds. I experimented only a bit with shadow, but that was quite some time ago, and the life of a shadow priest certainly has changed. So when patch 3.1 comes and introduces dual spec, giving me the opportunity to switch to shadow when the raid needs less healing and more dps, I'm woefully unprepared.

Luckily my guild currently has a surplus of healers, so I might have an opportunity to spec to shadow now for a while to practice. But while I found a bunch of different shadow talent builds, I'm not quite sure which talents are essential and which are just nice but fluff. And, more importantly, I have no idea about the spell rotation of a shadow priest in a raid.

Can anyone help me out with a link or advice on what spells shadow priests cast in a raid? The dps method I know for shadow priests, fear kiting a.k.a. face melting, is certainly for soloing only, and not applicable to raiding. So, what debuffs must a shadow priest constantly keep up on a tank and spank boss, and what spells does he cast in between debuffs to deal maximum damage?

Too many skills and talents?

In the open Sunday thread Dillon asked "Do you think WoW is reaching a point where it has too many skills and talents?". Good question! When recently we were discussing why warlocks were so unpopular in World of Warcraft, some readers suggested that it was because a warlock needed a more complicated spell rotation to reach the same level of dps than other classes. And personally I gave up on playing a shaman at level 43, because for me there were simply too many buttons with various totems for that class to be enjoyable to me.

On the other hand I leveled a mage from 1 to 70 using basically just a single spell, frostbolt, having avoided the need to use other spells by overgearing myself on spellpower. And that wasn't much fun either. When I play that mage now, I'm quite happy about recent additions like "Frozen Fingers" or "Fireball!", which at random times make it advantageous to cast other spells, like Ice Lance or Fireball.

So I guess there is some sweet point where you have a variety of skills, but not too many. And I'd think that this sweet point is different for different players, some enjoy playing with more buttons, some with less. Of course the speed at which you need to press those buttons also plays a role, some players enjoy slow and big spells, other like furious buttonmashing.

The problem Dillon mentions is that with every expansion, and sometimes even with content patches, Blizzard is adding new spells and abilities to all classes. If in 4 years we are all level 100, due to two more expansions adding 10 levels each, isn't there a risk that most of us become overwhelmed with the number of abilities at our disposal? The original WoW only had a single hotkey bar, now most of my characters already have 5 bars completely filled with various skills or useable items. Finding a less used ability in the thick of a fight can be a challenge among all these buttons.

In any case I would like to see more talents that have a chance to trigger a short timer in which you can cast certain otherwise less used spells to some advantage. The number of existing skills isn't all that relevant unless there is a reason to use more of them, and not just stick to the optimum one.

WAR server shrinkage

Warhammer Online is closing down 40 of its 57 US servers, and 20 of its 43 European servers, for an overall closure of 60 out of 100 servers. I'm very much tempted to just state those facts and not give any comment, because somebody is going to accuse me of being a WAR hater if I state the obvious: That closing down 60% of your servers is not indicative of a great success.

But of course for bloggers and MMO theorists the fact that WAR isn't really successful is less interesting than the speculation of WHY it isn't successful. Is it more a technical problem, of large scale battles not being fun due to lag? Is it a problem of incentives, with scenarios being too rewarding compared with the open world, leading to depopulation and lack of open world PvE and PvP? Is is related to leveling up PvE and PvP being much slower than in competitor games? Or is there a fundamental lesson somewhere that MMORPGs with just PvP as endgame are limited to a small niche market?

I don't have an answer, except for stating the likelyhood that it is a bit of all of the above. That is on one side I don't see all that many people interested in fighting over the same PvP keeps for months, but on the other side there would probably be more players interested if those battles had less lag, and leveling up to the endgame was faster and involved less scenario grinding. There is no way around the fact that at its core PvP is zero sum, that is for every winner there must be a loser, while in PvE everybody can be a winner. But I can't say how many people would still like to play zero sum PvP if only there was the perfect PvP game out there. I only know that the number of players in the theoretical perfect PvP game would be smaller than the number of players in the theoretical perfect PvE game. Which leaves game companies having to decide whether to try to make the perfect PvP game, or a sub-perfect PvE game and still get more subscribers. I foresee more PvE games and less PvP games in the coming years.

Learning from video games

Yesterday a 17-year old boy in Germany grabbed his fathers gun and went on a rampage in which he shot 16 people, before being shot himself by police. Today you can read the first explanations that violent video games were found in his room. I'm sure by tomorrow some politician will ask for violent video games to be banned to avoid such tragedies in the future. Video gamers tend to shrug this predictable reaction off. Pretty much every 17-year old boy has access to video games, and a large percentage of those games are violent. If of millions of teenage players of violent video games all over the world only very few run amok, the games can't possibly be the cause, or can they?

Earlier this week we had an interesting discussion on the psychological effects of video games. A reader mentioned that games were the oldest medium of teaching, long before schools were invented. So can we really exclude video games from the learning process? Can we say that there is no way that violent video games teach children to regard violence as a possible solution to problems?

One thing to consider here is that playing video games is only one medium among many that promote violence. If you managed to isolate a teenage boy from violent video games, he would probably still be seeing violent movies, see violence on the TV, or read violent comics. If a 17-year old boy is only watching Dora the Explorer and playing with pink ponies, he probably would be regarded as retarded. And given that the same boy on turning 18 can join the army and fight terrorists in Iraq, the idea of completely shielding him from all images of violence until then is utopian.

Behavior is influenced by both genes and environment, although there is an ongoing debate on how big exactly these two factors are. There is good evidence that boys are more violent than girls, and that this has genetic origins. Even if we regard violence as something bad now, in the previous millions of years of evolution it was a trait that improved your chance of survival. So it can be argued that violent video games and other media are just an outlet for violent genetic predispositions. Better let the kid shoot virtual monsters than hurt real people.

Of course video games engage us emotionally, and those emotions can encompass anger and hate. Muckbeast sent me a link to an article about MMOs causing real world violence, where people started fighting in the virtual world and then carried that fight over into the real one. But again there are just a handful of cases among millions of MMO players.

So I would say that the lessons that video games teach us are more subtle than just seeing violence and apeing it in real life. Humans are able to grasp much deeper lessons than that. There is some evidence that the reward structure of video games has had an influence on the reward expectations in real life of a whole generation which grew up with those games. Instead of just banning violence from video games, we could use those games to show the negative consequences of violence. MMOs can be used to teach the positve consequences of cooperation. As games evolve from simple shoot-em-ups to telling more complex stories and having more complex interactions, the influence that these games can possibly have on learning could be used in a positive way. Not by making overly preachy games nobody wants to play, but by making fun games which just happen to also teach you lessons for life. Already some people claim that managing a guild in a MMO is good practice for real world managing positions, although I'd say that while it might help it certainly won't be sufficient qualification. Games like Sim City can teach people about basic economics and dealing with interdependabilities and limited resources. And games like Fable can teach people that their behavior has long-term consequences.

So in summary I'd say that there is some influence of video games on behavior, although it isn't as simple as some politicians would like it to be. And far from being totally negative, learning from video games can often be good for the players. As video games mature, even violence in video games is being shown in more nuanced ways, not just as a simple solution without consequences. It is that mature treatment of difficult subjects we should demand from video games, not the simple removal of all content that could possibly offend somebody.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Goblin raiding

While I don't like his philosophy, I do have to admit that the Greedy Goblin is often entertaining, bringing new ideas to an old game. His latest adventure is goblin raiding, buying a raid spot for 4k gold from a hardcore guild, plus paying 1k each for the 7 epics that farm run netted him. So one evening and 11k gold later Gevlon now has better gear than my priest, who is raiding for months now. Of course the lessons him and me draw from that are radically different.

Gevlon thinks he has found the most efficient way to play WoW, or as he says "the fastest and most cost effective way of reaching content". Well, he thinks that "anyone" can make the "pitiful" amount of 2k gold per hour, which obviously isn't true. Gevlon is making money by what is called arbitration, and the profits of that depend on how many people do it. The more good businessmen are on a server, the less the amount of money you can make simply by using the auction house. But even if you make only 300 gold an hour with farming or doing dailies, paying 11K for a 7 Naxx25 bop epics is probably still faster than raiding for months until your less-than-hardcore guild starts getting Naxx25 loot.

But that assumes that "reaching content" and getting the best epics is the ultimate goal of World of Warcraft. So how about the following, completely hypothetical, offer from Blizzard: For just $200 you can make a special account with a single character of your choice, in God mode, for a single day. As you are invincible, you will be able to solo all the raid dungeons you want during that day, and come out with all the best epics in the game. At the end of the day you get a nice screenshot of your character, and a .pdf file listing all your epics, but the character itself is deleted and the account cancelled. So for the cost of just about 1 year of WoW, you'll reach the highest level of content and epics in a day that some other people have spent 4 years and on average $800 on. Good deal, or isn't it?

No, it isn't. I don't think many people would take that deal and pay those $200. Because reaching content and getting epics by itself is worth nothing. We play for various reasons, but one reason is simply to spend time having fun. Pressing the "I win" button and bypassing all the game means you'd lose out on thousands of hours of entertainment, which are far more valuable than some purple pixels. And where the value of the purple pixels comes in is them being the reward for a challenge you have overcome. Even Gevlon was proud that he didn't place that badly on the healing meter in spite of having had bad gear at the start, being just 0.4% of total healing behind the other healing druid, and ahead of the best healing priest. But fact is that there was no challenge, and if Gevlon had done absolutely nothing, the raid would still have succeeded, and he would still have gotten the same epics. The only challenge he had to overcome was finding a bored hardcore guild willing to sell raid slots and epics. And, although Gevlon doesn't believe in it, there is also value in social contacts. Finally beating that boss in a group of guild mates and friends is a lot more satisfying for most of us than beating that boss with the help of 24 strangers you paid for the service. Even strutting around in those epics in front of the bank trying to impress lesser geared players is a social function. Ultimately those epics are useless to Gevlon, because the only game function of those epics is to allow you access to harder raid content. By using the "goblin raiding" method he can probably get into Ulduar dressed in greens, as long as he is paying enough.

Being entertained, playing with friends, overcoming challenges, and through the rewards opening up avenues to new challenges, that is what raiding is about for most people. "Goblin raiding" is an interesting parody of that, but it wouldn't fulfill most of our needs. In economic speak, goblin raiding doesn't maximize utility. Or at least it wouldn't for people who aren't sociopaths.

Public test realms in WoW

Spinks asked in the open Sunday thread whether I was tempted to try out all that new content on the public test realms of World of Warcraft, playing patch 3.1 before it goes live. While I do like to play on the PTR to see the new expansions of WoW before they come out, I usually don't bother to preview the patches. So no, I haven't copied a character to the PTR to have a look at patch 3.1.

One argument against using the PTRs is that whatever you do there isn't copied back to your real character. Thus if you play through content on the PTR, you'll have to do the same content all over again when the patch goes live. There is a risk that you are basically spoiling your fun because of the sneak peak you had. The content of patch 3.1 will have to last us for several months, and I'd rather play through it for real than on the PTR.

The other problem with the public test realms is that they are changing much faster than the regular game. It feels like a waste of virtual ink to me to discuss new features, changes, or nerfs, and then find that Blizzard changed them again a week later. Testing is what the PTR presumably is for, so there is always the possibility that as result of the test things get changed again. Thus I'm not even following the discussion about patch changes on WoWInsider or MMOChampion, unless I know which changes are lasting.

There is one possibly interesting use for the PTRs, which is looking at changes to crafting, and trying to predict what the effect will be on the WoW economy once the patch goes live. I made 10k gold before patch 3.0.2 by hoarding cheap herbs for inscription, which promptly skyrocketed after the patch. But I'm still sitting on some stacks of dream shards, who were supposed to go up in value after patch 3.0.8, and never did. I bought some stacks of Black Diamonds cheap in preparation for patch 3.1, and I'm hoarding the Titansteel bars I transmute every day hoping they will go up in value after the patch. But I don't see any sure-fire business opportunity in this patch, only some general impression that prices might go up when people gear up for Ulduar. They might, or WoW might remain stuck in a deflationary spiral. Anyway, I don't need to play on the PTR myself to read about the changes to crafting.

Of course some people like to play on the PTR to already know about the boss fights in Ulduar, so that their guild will progress faster through it. I don't. I've realized that in Wrath of the Lich King the correct question on raid progression is "progress faster towards what?". I do expect my guild to be able to play through Ulduar before the next raid dungeon after that is released, at least on 10-man mode. The staggered release of raid content makes hurrying up unnecessary.

Are you playing on the PTR? And if yes, what is your motivation to do so? Aren't you afraid that by playing the content already now, you will only get bored faster after the release?

Bounty Bay Online / Voyage Century Online

Since the weekend I've been trying another MMORPG, called Bounty Bay Online (BBO), which is the European version of a game which is called Voyage Century Online in the US, which is a translation of a Chinese game called 航海世纪/王者世紀. I first tried the English language version of it, but that turned out to be very badly translated. So now I'm playing the German language version, where the translation is a lot better. The German version used to be with a monthly fee, but nowadays there is an Free2Play option just like the US or Chinese version has. I did spend a small amount of money on it, to buy a starter pack with some essential starting equipment, and a basic bank functionality. But I think I can live without most of the other things on offer in the item shop, so this should be cheap enough to play. And I like the idea that I choose myself how much I want to pay, and that I'm not paying anything when I'm not playing.

What attracted me to Bounty Bay Online is that it is pretty much the game I wished that Pirates of the Burning Sea had been. You can be a trader, a crafter, an explorer, an adventurer, or a pirate. But unlike PotBS you don't have to decide on a character class, because Bounty Bay Online is skill-based. You can have every skill in the game up to a level of 31, but only 7 skills plus navigation above that level. So I'm happily trying everything before probably deciding on some trader/crafter build. BBO is a lot more complex than lets say World of Warcraft, because fighting is only one option among many, it is totally possible to embark on some peaceful career. Getting into the swing of things is sometimes a bit difficult, especially since not everything is well documented. But at least there is a great tutorial about the first steps of every career on the website, telling you exactly what to do in the starting quests of each of those careers, including screenshots and everything. And I hope to find a nice guild on the Nordlicht server, where people don't mind me asking newbie questions.

I mentioned once that I didn't like the skill-based system of Darkfall, to which some commenter replied that I probably didn't like skill-based systems at all. That isn't true, I very much enjoy the skill-based system of Bounty Bay Online. The difference is that in Darkfall you would cast magic missiles at a tree to skill up magic, while in BBO you only gain skill if what you do is actually useful. Well, you can gain navigation skill by aimlessly cruising the oceans, but even that is useful by the discoveries you can make that way. But for example you get trading skill by selling goods at a profit, but how many points you get depends on the profit. If you sell at a loss, you don't get any skill gain at all. So I haven't found myself in a situation where I was doing something useless just to gain skill.

Bounty Bay Online certainly isn't for everyone. It has a typical quality of Asian games which is often described as "grindy". But the "grind" can usually be done without your input. For example mining is done by you clicking on a rock, which puts you into mining mode, and requires no input from you until your character is exhausted, his inventory is full, or his mining pick breaks down. Thus you can't simply go afk and let it run 24/7, but your input is required only occasionally. That is a design typical for Asian internet cafés. The game isn't supposed to require your undivided attention and constant input, because the player is probably eating, drinking, smoking, and talking with friends at the same time. That is a huge difference from games like World of Warcraft, which might require your undivided attention for hours during a raid.

At the moment that sort of gameplay suits me very well personally. When I play Bounty Bay Online, I can choose to do activities where I'm actively doing things, or if I want I can play in semi-afk mode and still gain crafting skill. That is a lot less stressful than classic Euro/US MMORPGs, where "downtime" is a dirty word. But the "downtime" in BBO doesn't feel wasted, and gives me time to chat, to do other things around the house, or read, or surf the web, or even play World of Warcraft in the background. Bounty Bay Online hasn't such a strong grip on my attention as WoW has, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Right now I'm having fun with that game, and that is all that matters.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Sorry for the long German word in the title, but it wouldn't have been the same if I had translated it. The literal translation is "coming to terms with the past", but in German the word is most often used in relation to the Nazi past of Germany. Via Brokentoys I've stumbled upon the story of the rabbi killing Nazis in Call of Duty 5, and saying that virtually burning down the Reichstag helped him psychologically with that past. Which personally, as a German, I find an excellent way of Vergangenheitsbewältigung. At least it makes more sense than blaming Germans born after 1945 for the sins of their ancestors.

I am just wondering how the same rabbi would feel about the hypothetical game Call of Duty: Intifada, in which you play a Palaestinian in the uprising shooting Israeli soldiers. Call of Duty 4 has American soldiers shooting Arabs in a fictional Middle East country, how would people feel about a game in which the Arabs shoot the Americans? Maybe this sort of coming to terms with the past is best reserved for conflicts from more than one generation ago.

A simple change to WoW armor

In the open Sunday thread there was a discussion about whether classes that can wear heavier armor should be allowed to roll on lighter armor. That is especially significant for healers. A paladin healer is presumably not highly interested in how high his armor value is, and would consider a piece of cloth armor with great healing stats as upgrade to a piece of plate armor with bad stats. So the healing paladin can roll on plate, mail, leather, or cloth armor pieces. A healing shaman can roll on mail, leather, and cloth. A healing druid on leather and cloth. And a healing priest only on cloth armor. Which means the lighter the armor piece that drops, the higher the competition. A healing piece of plate armor is going to the paladin uncontested. A healing piece of cloth armor can be rolled on by healing paladins, shamans, druids, and priests. And that is without considering that since "+ healing power" has been removed as a stat, the mages and warlocks can roll on cloth items with "healing stats" too, because the same stats are good for magic damage.

So I was wondering whether Blizzard couldn't introduce a simple change to the game: Disable the ability to wear lighter armor. Paladins could only wear plate, shamans could only wear mail, druids could only wear leather, etc., no more "downgrading" of armor. Why should one type of healer be allowed to wear more types of armor than another one? It doesn't make sense! If every class just has one type of armor to wear, things get a lot simpler, and there is less fighting over loot.