Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

More out of tradition than because I feel it is important, I'm reporting annual blog visitor numbers at this time of the year. From the first of January to the 31st of December 2010 this blog got 943,673 visitors, down 12% from last year where I still had over 1 million. As recently mentioned, this is intentional, and due to me having reduced posting frequency. In addition to the readers coming directly to my site, I also have 4,100 daily feed subscribers, up from 3,500 last year.

Since early April I ran an experiment to see how much money I could make from blogging, via PayPal donations. I made a total of $576.50 in 2010, from 42 donations. That is actually more than I expected, but mainly driven by a big surge when I started. In the second half of the year I made about $20 a month. Fortunately I didn't quit my day job. :) The money was "reinvested" for the benefit of the blog, mainly for buying games and subscriptions.

I would like to thank all readers, commenters, and especially people who donated, for their contribution to this blog last year. I wish you all a happy new year, and the best of success for all of your plans and resolutions for 2011.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Rift soul system impressions

I spent several hours in the third Rift beta event, playing two characters of the two different factions. While the guys from Trion are most proud of the "rift" system they named the game after, most MMORPG veterans remarked that rifts work pretty much exactly like public quests in WAR. Thus I'm going to talk about another innovation of Rift, the soul system.

Rift has 4 basic classes, warrior, rogue, priest, and mage. But each of this classes has 8 sub-classes, called souls, and players can freely choose 3 of them. Each soul has a talent tree, and in addition to the talents you get spells and abilities based on how many points you put into each soul. The overall effect is similar to being able to choose 3 talent trees out of 8 for your class, instead of your class choice determining which 3 talent trees you get. Furthermore you can buy souls and respecs, so while your basic class will remain the same, you can switch between the 8 possible souls and redistribute your points.

This gives you a lot of interesting strategic choices. You can choose souls where the talents of one contribute to the performance of the other, or you can choose souls that do very different things, like adding a necromancer's skeleton pet to your pyromancer fireball-hurling mage.

Rift has 50 levels, and you get 1 soul point per level, plus another point every third level, for an overall 66 points. You can only put as many points into a soul as you have level, so there are always some points to put into your second or third soul. Nevertheless, like every talent tree in every game, the best talents are at the very top, and I expect to see many 50/16/0 builds or variations thereof among minmaxing players. So while the different souls contribute a lot to the early game, where just choosing a soul gives you additional spells, in the long run the best tactical choice is to make your main soul dominant. Maybe Trion should give out slightly more soul points, e.g. 75 at level 50, to combat this.

The harder task for Trion is how to balance that all. The nearly forgotten term "tank mage" from the UO days springs to mind, describing people finding a template that is able to do everything, without having any weaknesses. Of course the beta was too early to say how balanced the classes and builds are. But fundamentally any system that allows meaningful choice also allows players to gimp themselves, or find the "flavor of the month" "best" template, until some nerf in the next patch changes everything.

Mengatur fungsi smart cut dan paste di Microsoft word 2007

Nirwana Sitoeking : Ketika anda melakukan CUT-And-PASTE pada document Microsoft word 2007, aplikasinya secara otomatis menambahkan spasi sehingga posisi teks menjadi kurang baik. Apakah tidak ada cara untuk mengatasinya ? jawabannya kita cari tau aja… Kejadian seperti itu merupakan tanggung jawab fungsi “smart cut & Paste “pada aplikasi Microsoft word 2007.

Fungsi ini biasanya memastikan bahwa tidak ada spasi yang hilang atau spasi ganda pada teks yang di salin. Hasil salinan table dari dokumen Excel juga sering tidak sesuai dengan keinginan kita.

Terkadang memang merasa lebih baik hasilnya jika fungsi smart  cut dan paste ini di matikan saja. Untuk itu klik icon  Office Button  pada Microsoft word 2007 lalu klik tombol “Word Options” (pada Microsoft word versi lama anda bisa membuka menu “Tool → Options” dan buka Tab “Edit”). Contoh seperti gambar di bawah ini :

Microsoft word 2007

 Pada windows “Word Options” pilihlah baris “Avanced” di kotak sebelah kanan carilah baris entri “Use smart cut and paste” dan hilangkan tanda cek dari kotaknya. Contoh Liat gambar di bawah ini

Microsoft word 2007

Jika anda tetap ingin menggunakan fungsi ini, coba klik tombol “setting” dan Aktifkan pilihan “Adjust Paragraph Spacing automatically” dan “Adjust formatting when pasting from Microsoft Office Excel.

Untuk Panduan Microsoft  Office 2003 silahkan klik disini  Dan untuk microsoft Office 2007 silahkan klik disini

- ( Baca Juga : Kumpulan Alamat Game Gratis ) 

Rift discovers the secret of MMO success

I received an invitation to the third Rift beta event, currently running, and I like the game. And instead of compiling a list like everybody else what Rift copied from what other game (UI from WoW, public quests from WAR, etc.), I'd like to say that it seems that Trion copied the secret sauce recipe from Blizzard: Don't worry too much about originality and features, but rather spend your time making sure that everything that is in the game works perfectly. Rift in beta is more polished than most MMORPGs that came out in the last 3 years on release.

And I do believe that this is the way to go for a MMORPG to have any kind of success in today's market. The buggy crap people put up with a decade ago simply doesn't cut it any more. A new game easily survives snide remarks in reviews that its user interface looks exactly like WoW's, but it doesn't survive its user interface being cumbersome, laggy, and non-intuitive, however innovative and original it might be. Just look what happened to Final Fantasy XIV!

Being polished these days is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for any MMORPG wanting to enter the market. Trion's Rift fulfills that condition, and thus I do think the game will do just fine. Not a "WoW Killer", but a game that will sell well and keep up a good number of subscribers.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Out of the limelight

A reader wrote me to tell me that I *didn't* make Massively's top 10 MMO bloggers list, in spite of the fact that there are 31 MMO blogs on that list. Interesting. First I wondered who Shawn Schuster is, and what I did to piss him off. But then I realized that actually that suits me just fine, I've always been bothered by the negative consequences of the popularity of this blog: The trolls, the spammers, the entitlement kids, the people wanting to censor me.

In related news, I confirmed the secret of successful blogging by applying it in reverse: By moving away from a daily publishing schedule I lost a third of my daily visitors, with Google Analytics showing a strong correlation between number of posts and number of visitors. Again, this is working as intended. Contrary to the generally held belief about websites, I am not actually better off with more readers. I would rather have a smaller community of people willing to intelligently discuss MMORPGs, than a larger, noisier, and much less intelligent crowd. As I don't really monetize this blog, apart from the failed donation experiment, being out of the limelight has only advantages for me. It gains me the freedom to express my opinions when and how I want, without attracting mobs with torches and pitchforks bothered about something "blasphemous" I said about their favorite game.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Thought for the day: Fishing skill

I'm slowly leveling various profession skills of my various World of Warcraft characters. But I noticed that I did most of my fishing by looking for the special pools with the more valuable fish, and those pools don't have any skill requirements. Thus my fishing skill appears to be pretty useless, unless I want to fish Deepsea Sagefish, for which no pools exist.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

How to miss a Steam Christmas sale

Christmas, a family holiday, where many people spend time away from home and at some sort of family gathering. So do I. But of course I took my laptop, so I would have full connection to wonderful world of the internet. Or wouldn't I? It turns out that the internet isn't all that "inter" these days, and there are a lot of invisible walls causing you trouble if you dare to move from home.

Every year Steam is doing a Christmas sale. Great offers, many very good games at seriously reduced prices. So I wanted to pick up this or that game, only to be blocked every time by some error message: "There seems to have been an error initializing or updating your transaction. Please wait a minute and try again or contact support for assistance." The message told me nothing, and trying again sure didn't help. So after a few days I contacted support, which replied to me another day later with this gem:
Thank you for contacting Steam Support. Our records indicate that your purchase was declined due to your current IP address differing from what is on file with your billing information. We have removed the lock on your account - you will now be able to purchase additional subscriptions.
Apparently traveling is illegal in Steam land, and leads to your account being locked and unable to purchase additional games. You need to contact customer support and beg them to let you buy games from Steam if you dare to use a laptop from a different location with a different IP. And they can't even tell you that straight in the error message on the site, leaving you only with some nonsense message of "an error initializing or updating your transaction" which tells you absolutely nothing about the real problem.

Well, since all this took several days, many of the games I wanted to buy weren't on sale any more. I'm so not buying them at full price, angry as I am at Steam right now. If they want to make their service unusable to anyone traveling, and confound them with stupid error messages, they are going to lose sales over it.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Goldfarmers in jail

A reader alerted me to this piece of news from China, where a couple running a gold farm for a Chinese MMORPG has been sentenced to 6 and 3 years of prison, plus a combined fine of 3 million yuan ($450,000). Besides "running an unlicensed business", the couple was found guilty of breaking various Chinese laws on Internet publishing and digital rights, as well as copyrights of the game company. The 3 million yuan fines exceeds the 2 million yuan income the couple is said to have made with their venture over 10 months.

Now you just have to make a macro that sends a link to the Chinese version of this article to every gold spammer you meet in a game.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Now that the NDA dropped I can reveal the secret: I am *not* in the Rift beta. I suppose that was a secret, because those who were in the beta weren't allowed to say they were, which only works if not being in the beta is also secret. ;)

Best description I've seen from Rift this far: "Warhammer Online done right". Apparently the class system is nice, but otherwise everybody is talking about how well polished the game is, not how innovative it is. I'll say more once I tried it out myself.

Kumpulan Alamat Game Gratis (United States) (United States) (United States) (United States) (United States)
- ( Baca Juga : Dynasty Warriors: Gundam 2 Unlockables )

Kumpulan Alamat Game Gratis, Game Online Gratis, Download Game PC, PS1, PS2, PS3 gratis

Monday, December 20, 2010

Simply Hospital

Hello, this time I have for you game that will probably like everyone who remember one of the best games from the 90' Theme Hospital. I don't know how old readers I have so if you don't remember that game, here is some info. Your task is to take care of your hospital and of course especially of your patients. Similar to Theme Hospital in Simply Hospital patient are coming to your hospital and your task is to diagnose patients with funny diseases and of course then to treat with even more funny way. So when in your hospital comes snowman your treatment for this disease is steam therapy. I've been really big fan of Theme Hospital so I'm happy that there is such similar game on facebook. Unfortunately it has the same problem as almost all facebook games. You have to for everything such a long time and that is concept that i s getting really boring if you see it for hundred times. Even with this big con it is good game and I'm sure that everyone out there who always wanted to manage their own hospital will love this game.
Rating: 8/10

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Legacy of a Thousand Suns

This time I can start with one thing. If you like sci-fi, then just stop reading now and go play Legacy of a Thousand Suns. No, I will be happy if you will read this article to the end. It is about two weeks since I've started to play Legacy of a Thousand Suns and I instantly knew, that it is one of the best facebook games ever. I really wanted to write review instantly and give the game 10/10, but that would not be wise. It is really better to give the game some time and see.
So what this game is about? Well I would say that this game is very similar to Mafia Wars, except it is sci-fi and also is on much higher level. When you start the game the first thing what is really apparent is that the game has beautiful graphics. Whole interface looks really cool and sci-fi, pictures are beautiful, everything rally looking fantastic.
There are 10 important menus in the game, but the first you probably open is profile. Unlike Mafia wars and few other similar games, in this game you can really see how do you look like, what clothes you wear, what weapons you use etc.. everything looks really great and after few days of playing you will start to look like real badass space guy or girl with lot of deadly gear.
Another menu is ship, in this menu you can see what ship(s) you have and what is the crew of the ship. Ships you use on raids, we will talk about them later.
The next window is lab, this is similar to collection vault in Mafia Wars. When you play the game you collect some stuff and here you can turn it into some cool weapons and so or you can get some points for you character, like +2 to health, stamina and so.
Another window is facilities, the is the same as properties in Mafia Wars, except in this game you don't get money from properties but stuff or crew members.
Window right after facilites is shop, here you can of course byu or sell various stuff, from weapons, ships, battle gear... to almost anything.
Next window of the game is missions. This is very similar to jobs in Mafia Wars, or quests in in epic Fighters. But there is something different in this game. This game has real story. Every mission you do is part of one big space story. This makes this game really different from the others. The other games also has some elements of story, but no game has such story that is really very important part of the game.
The window next to missions is alliance. Before you join any alliance you will see here list of alliances, after you join alliance you will se here really good looking window in style of the bridge of space ship with many control panels and screens. Here you can join alliance raids and check out alliance stats.
Yes, the next window is raids. In raids you are fighting agains bosses. You can go to the raid alone and then you use stamina. You can also join raid of your alliance and then you use honor. you can of course be on raid alone and also be part of alliance raid in the same time.
The last window is called pvp and here you can fight 1 on 1 with other players and win their money and of course experience.
This game is really something and right now it belongs among my best facebook games and probably will some time. I'm not going to give this game 10/10, because even it is great game, it is still the same as others. Go on mission, go on raids, wait for points to load, buy facilities, wait until production is complete. It is still the same scheme as many other facebook games, except this time it is sci-fi, has some new cool features and it looks simply amazing, but that is all. This is not revolution of facebook games, it is evolution.
Rating 9/10

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Blizzard's next MMO codenamed "Strawberry"

Actually it is not "Strawberry", but "Titan". But if you look at it objectively, Blizzard confirming that the code-name for their new MMO project is "Titan" is pretty much a non-event. "Strawberry" would have given exactly the same information, which is none. It is not even the name of the final game, just the name of the project. The game will most probably have a less generic name, as the term Titan is already overused.

Much of the excitement over the official Titan confirmation comes from the fact that the name was leaked as part of a Blizzard production schedule, and that some people now believe that if the leak got the name right, the rest of the information must be true as well. That would mean the next WoW expansion in 18 months, and the new Titan MMO in 2013.

I would be very careful with that sort of jump to conclusions. Even if the leaked schedule is real, Blizzard is not exactly known for sticking to schedules. Basically in the best case I'd consider that as a penciled schedule, which in all likelyhood will be much delayed in reality. Note that Blizzard already after the first expansion said they would work towards releasing expansions once a year, but still got their third expansion out only after 6 years. So my money is on the next WoW expansion end of 2012, and "Strawberry" being released in 2014 or 2015.

Time heals everything

I am a big fan of crafting and tradeskills in general. So my various characters in World of Warcraft cover nearly every possible profession. Nevertheless I not only did barely any crafting in Cataclysm up to now, I even sold the materials I gathered instead of using them for crafting. The reason I did that was that I realized that some players are very much in a hurry to skill up their professions, so much that they are paying rather silly amounts of gold for simple materials. The most basic ore of Cataclysm which I collected to skill up my mining skill I was able to sell for up to 15 gold per ore, 300 gold per stack. Now the prices are slowly coming down, and I'm pretty confident that at some point I can take those 300 gold I got for one stack of ore and buy several stacks of the same ore with it in a few weeks time. The same thing holds true for cloth, herbs, and the "volatile" elements. Sell now, buy back at a fraction of the price later.

While I was pondering this, I was also reading various comments on WoW blogs about the level of difficulty of 5-man heroic dungeons and raiding. And I made the connection, and realized that for those dungeons basically the same thing is true as for crafting materials: If you try to do them right now, a week after release, it will be hard. But with time they will get a lot easier.

This is not because I believe Blizzard will nerf dungeons or anything, but just a natural consequence of the system as it is now. If, for example, you group with 4 random characters for a pickup group today, chances are that some of them will enter the dungeon you are going to for the very first time, and that their gear is barely over the new "minimum average iLevel" requirement of the dungeon. Group with 4 random characters via the Dungeon Finder in a month, and chances are that people know the encounters better, and are better equipped. Group with 4 random characters in 20 month and that same heroic will be a facerolling AoE fest, because everybody is in iLevel 500 epics and did all those heroics a hundred times.

At least as far as dungeons are concerned, this is good news. Do you love wiping and extra-hard dungeons? Do them now! Would you prefer to have an easier time? Just wait! Do you have several level 80 characters and are worried that those you don't play will fall behind? Don't worry, the ones you don't play now will be able to equip themselves much cheaper than today from the auction house, and through easier dungeons quickly catch up.

The only possible pitfall in this plan is raid dungeons. Yes, raid dungeons will become easier as well with time. But if Blizzard manages them like they did in WotLK, the raid dungeons of today will also become obsolete tomorrow. So if you wait too long before visiting a raid dungeon, you might find that place completely deserted, and nobody willing to go there any more. This is exactly why I'm hoping for a looking-for-raid functionality in a future patch.

The funny thing about the effect of time on Cataclysm dungeons is that many people don't realize it. Thus right now you'll here a lot of comments that Cataclysm dungeons are "hard", some even calling them "too hard". But I bet that if you read blogs in a year or two, you will see people complaining how the Cataclysm dungeons are "easy", or "too easy", with various comments on how Blizzard is catering to an audience of low intelligence. But if you look at it without prejudice, Blizzard probably made the Cataclysm dungeons as hard as they could get away with, and the thing they are catering to is not "low intelligence" but the natural desire of all players to see their characters get stronger over time. By having dungeons always at the same difficulty level for the two years between expansions, and by allowing players to become stronger with time, the result of dungeons becoming easier is inevitable. The good news is that one *some* point in time the dungeons are at the perfect difficulty level for any given individual. The bad news is that this point in time is different for everybody, and we'll be forever stuck in beating the dead horse of the discussion whether WoW dungeons are too hard or too easy.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Laying claim to the 4th pillar

In May there was a funny story where Derek Smart from Alganon plagiarized a press release from Bioware's Star Wars: The Old Republic, claiming that "Traditionally, massively multiplier online games have been about three basic gameplay pillars - combat, exploration and character progression. In Alganon, in addition to these we've added the fourth pillar to the equation; a story." Meanwhile, in a different corner of the internet, Blizzard had released Wrath of the Lich King in 2008, and it included one special quest series, about the Wrathgate, which had a great cutscene telling a dramatic story, followed by a scripted event where the player contributed in liberating Undercity. Nobody called that a "4th pillar", but everybody agreed that this was one of the highlights of WotLK questing.

Fast forward to December 2010, and given the success of the Wrathgate quest it comes to no surprise that Blizzard used more cutscenes and scripted events in Cataclysm. If you do the 150+ quests of Vashj'ir, you'll be seeing several cutscenes, take part in several scripted events, and take part in a greater story spanning the whole zone and culminating in the Throne of Tides dungeon. Playing through that often feels like great cinema, and later zones continue in the same vein, even allowing you to participate in an Indiana Jones movie. The goblin starting zone has a funny story, the worgen starting zone a more dramatic, Victorian-flavored one. Whether you call it like that or not, the 4th pillar is well and truly implemented in Cataclysm.

I do not believe that this was a strategic move by Blizzard to preempt SWTOR, but whether it was planned like this or not, it might well have this effect. When SWTOR finally arrives and starts telling stories, people won't experience that as something totally new.

But as many people already noticed, the 4th pillar comes with some disadvantages. At least in the Blizzard version the cutscenes and scripted events only exist in one form. Thus the actions of the player don't matter at all for the development of the story. The Bioware version promises more choice, but it will remain to be seen in how far those choices are cosmetic, or whether they can fundamentally change the story being told.

And I can't help but question whether a MMORPG is really the best place to tell stories like that. I played through the Vashj'ir story line, and witnessed Erunak being sucked into the vortex, and held captive mind-controlled in the Throne of Tides. But when I take the portal from Orgrimmar to Vashj'ir, I still see him standing in the cavern where I arrive. I freed Will'hai, but when I swim past his location he is still being held by the same tentacles. By its very multiplayer nature, a MMORPG can not allow a player to really change the world, because other players need to have the opportunity to play through the same story. Playing through a story will always be more believable in a single-player RPG, where the player really *can* change the world.

So I'm wondering whether all this story-telling stuff isn't just the latest fad in MMORPGs, and might not necessarily last. Why pay a monthly subscription to play through a half-assed story, if I could play through a better and more meaningful story in a single-player game with no additional cost? The advantages of a MMORPG are in the interaction of players, and having the players play through phased and instanced stories alone just distances them from the core strengths of the genre. In the end a 5-man dungeon offers vastly superior replayability and interaction than cutscenes and scripted events. Does anyone really want to play through Vashj'ir a second time?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Numbers and interpretations

Blizzard announced that they sold 3.3 million copies of Cataclysm in the first 24 hours. That is a number. Numbers are easy, because they are either fact or false, so beyond "I don't believe this number is correct", there isn't much room for discussion.

Where it gets complicated is when you try to interpret the number, and put a judgement on it, saying whether this number is "high" or "low". So about the Cataclysm sales you'll read every possible interpretation from this being very high, compared to the 2.4 million copies Burning Crusade sold in its first 24 hours, or this being low compared to the 12 million subscribers they say they have.

Interpretations are often only half supported by facts, with the other half being made up by some assumption. In some cases the assumption is clearly wrong, for example the comparison between the 3.3 million Cataclysm buyers and the 12 million subscribers isn't valid, because we know that around half of the subscribers could not possibly have bought Cataclysm, because it wasn't released yet in China (and won't be for some time, they only just got WotLK). On the other hand Cataclysm certainly led people who *weren't* subscribers in October, when Blizzard released the 12 million subscribers number, to buy the expansion and resubscribe.

Whether 3.3 million first-day buyers are high or low thus depends on other assumptions, and a lot of missing data: How many people were subscribed to World of Warcraft in the countries where Cataclysm was for sale the day before the expansion? How many people resubscribed? And even if we had numbers here, it would still be hard to interpret: If we assume 6.6 million subscribers in Europe and America, and half of them bought Cataclysm on the first day, what does that tell us? I'd assume a lot of people simply weren't too keen on playing on the overcrowded first day, but bought the expansion in time for the weekend. I'd also guess that some people will find a copy of Cataclysm under the Christmas tree. And while I'm watching my wife playing a level 75 rogue in Northrend (in spite of me having bought the expansion for her), I'll also have to assume that some people simply decided they can play World of Warcraft without the expansion.

So in the end this number, 3.3 million first day buyers, isn't all that meaningful. Accountants might be interested by the over $100 million of gross revenue the number implies for Blizzard. But for an evaluation of the "success" of the expansion we'd better wait for the next press release from Blizzard announcing some new subscriber number record.

Thought for the Day: Starfire Espresso

My priest in World of Warcraft is quickly becoming addicted to Starfire Espresso, which restores 96,000 mana when consuming it between combats, meaning I regain mana faster and have less problems running after the others in the group who of course couldn't wait for the healer to drink up. The only thing that puzzles me is that Starfire Espresso is made from water and cocoa beans. Note to self: Never drink coffee at Blizzard's in Real Life.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Gevlon has a point

Sometimes I ask myself why I keep Gevlon's anti-social drivel blog on my newsreader. And then he writes something to remind me why, usually a highly intelligent analysis of something, followed by a completely disgusting interpretation and rant about morons and slackers. So if you manage to just ignore the sociopathic nonsense, you'll find that Gevlon has a point in his analysis that Cataclysm dungeons can be trivialized by simply taking two healers.

Of course if you look at it closely, the same analysis is true for Wrath of the Lich King heroics: Bosses don't have an enrage timer, so if you come with 2 healers and a tank sufficiently competent enough to keep aggro from the healers, a group can't possibly lose a fight, and thus will by definition eventually win. Only that in WotLK of course the group would also most probably win with just one healer, and bringing one more dps makes the dungeon go faster.

In Cataclysm wipes in dungeons are more common. I even wiped several times with guild groups in the new dungeons, because we were all of the mindset that it would be better to just try stuff out instead of getting a ready-made video guide from YouTube. So we fell in all the traps, like killing the fourth puppy at Beauty in Blackrock Caverns. We laughed, it made for a great story in guild chat, and we moved on. In a pickup group a wipe is likely to lead to the break up of the group, and not necessarily to players learning something and doing better next time. Thus with dungeons being a lot harder, a strategy to never make a pickup group wipe is definitely a possibility to consider.

Of course the analysis of the social consequences by Gevlon is completely wrong. The two-healer method is not going to become the standard for pickup groups, because it requires the tank and the first healer to queue together, with the healer "disguised" as dps, in order to get a second healer assigned by the Dungeon Finder. For that to work we need tanks having special relationships with one healer, but not with anyone else. That will happen rarely enough to not make any difference on the queue time for DPS.

What is more likely is that certain classes realize that they can benefit from being hybrids, and heal a bit in tight situations in dungeons. For example Tranquility is a great spell to heal everybody when things are starting to go south, even if the person casting it is currently a Moonkin. It is *because* everybody tends to blame the healer that even pickup groups might feel that some added healing would allow them to overcome their problems, and they might ask hybrids to help out with healing a bit.

Furthermore the discussion on how to make heroics easier is one which will only pose itself for a few month. Of course now, with people just reaching 85, heroics are very hard. But they will most probably stay at exactly this level of challenge for the next two years, while players on the other hand will continue to improve their stats through gear. Cataclysm didn't fundamentally change the emblem system of Wrath of the Lich King. Doing heroics long enough will still end you up with a set of gear that outgears the heroics. And if I understood the new system correctly, there is even a built-in progression, where heroics rewards get better over time, while people reach new raid dungeons. In a year nobody will consider bringing a second healer to a heroic a good idea. Right now it is a neat trick.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The dimensions of Cataclysm

In August 2007 I talked about the dimensions of a MMORPG, defining length, depth, and breadth. And I complained about Wrath of the Lich King offering mainly added length, and completely neglecting breadth, which would be needed for better replayability. In hindsight that looks like a design document for Cataclysm: The Shattering and Cataclysm together add enormous breadth to World of Warcraft, with over 4,000 new quests, two new races, four new starting zones, and so many remodelled zones. But as resources are never infinite, a consequence of this breadth is that Cataclysm might be the shortest expansion ever.

Cataclysm is not yet a week old, and without even trying to level fast I'm already in the middle of level 83, just by finishing Vashj'ir and running a few dungeons. Many in my guild are already at the new level cap. People who don't want to play alts, but only want to play their main character, will see that Cataclysm added less new zones and new dungeons than Wrath of the Lich King did. Of course with dungeons now being much harder it is well possible that raid progress will be slower in Cataclysm. But somehow one week to the level cap followed by two years of slow raid progress doesn't look very balanced to me.

I still think that this was a good idea. The renovation of old Azeroth makes World of Warcraft more likely to continue attracting new player, while at the same time giving old players a lot of content to play through with alts. But it makes me wonder who exactly Blizzard considers to be their core audience. I guess we'll have to wait and see how raiding develops in Cataclysm to find out.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Imagine you suspect that a certain MMORPG is dying, but the producers are loth to announce it. What kind of announcements would they make instead, the kind of stuff which sounds positive, but is a sure sign of a game going down the drain? Well, restructuring the development team and firing the lead designer would certainly be high up on that list. Prolonging the free trial indefinitely also rings that sort of bell. And postponing the console version of the game indefinitely is something that might happen to such a game as well.

Final Fantasy XIV just announced all three of those. Of course you might be an eternal optimist, speaking about how Square Enix is turning the game around, for it to emerge stronger and with a console version some time down the road. But it is extremely hard to believe in a game when these signs are there that even the publisher has just about given up hope. A re-emergence of Final Fantasy XIV at this point would require a miracle. Us old cynics don't believe in miracles any more.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Archeology and other Cataclysm thoughts

Archeology is a complete waste of time. I love it! This is exactly the sort of sub-game a MMORPG like World of Warcraft needs. Not strictly required for progress, but with nice fluff rewards in the long term. A simple mini-game, but well integrated into the world and lore of Azeroth, and playable for weeks and months. I especially appreciate how well Archeology ties in with the make-over of Azeroth and the ability to fly in the old world: Flying from dig site to dig site allows you to rediscover Azeroth in its new shape.

But of course at the moment I'm mostly busy leveling up my "main" to 85. I made level 81 on the first day, and that was just doing quests and a few dungeons in an evening session. Level 82 took two sessions. Unlike Wrath of the Lich King it appears that in Cataclysm each level takes longer than the previous one, which I find sensible.

I'm still somewhere in the middle of Vashj'ir questing, but that zone is already getting on my nerves. While I don't mind smaller quest hubs and being guided from one spot to the next, I think that this guidance should be optional, and include the ability to skip quests or whole quest hubs, like it is in new Azeroth. Vashj'ir is not only extremely linear, it also forces you through that linear tube without any freedom to skip ahead. You get to some cave, do half a dozen quests for the NPC quest givers there, and get sent on to the next cave. I must be on the tenth or so cave of that sort, and it is getting old.

Dungeons are somewhat more fun, although it takes time to getting used to wiping in a dungeon on normal in spite of full epic WotLK gear. Those epics are getting replaced by greens now, even if sometimes the benefit is somewhat doubtful. But to get to the third and fourth dungeon of Cataclysm requires you to have the new built-in WoW "gearscore", now expressed in the game as the average iLevel of your gear. The stat distribution is noticeably different than in WotLK, so my priest in new "level 79" green gear now has more health than my warrior still in his old "level 80" WotLK epics. I haven't been very lucky with finding blue gear in dungeons, I only got one or two pieces yet. Better luck next time.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

World of Warcraft overloaded

Due to their slow production cycle, World of Warcraft expansions very much suffer from a phenomenon of players unsubscribing after running out of things to do, and resubscribing when the next expansion adds content. Cataclysm having come out this week, resubscriptions are coming in fast and heavy, and servers are beginning to feel the load. During prime time their are queues on many servers.

Unfortunately that load isn't even. People who resubscribe usually want to continue playing on the server where their characters are parked. Thus for any given server the number of people coming back is roughly proportional to the number of people that unsubscribed previously, and that is roughly proportional to the age of the server. As the server I'm playing on is one of the original release servers, the volatility of player numbers on my server is higher than on one of the latest servers. Not only is the server full now, but it also tends to drop in activity between expansions more than younger servers do.

Except for games playing in space, it appears that the technology to have all players on the same server in a MMORPG doesn't exist yet. Many problems of server population have been solved by server clusters, which at least allow players from different servers to fight each other in PvP, or together in PvE instance groups. But that still leaves important barriers between servers. Changing servers costs money, takes time, and cuts social links, as you can't chat or guild with people on other servers.

While obviously it won't be possible for Blizzard to completely change their architecture to switch World of Warcraft to a single-server system, I still wonder if there aren't some improvements possible. Why can't server changes be automated to a degree where Blizzard can offer them for free, and happening within minutes? And why can't we have chat and guilds that span at least a server cluster? If changing servers were easier, population would automatically even out between the servers of one cluster, and there would be less problems of queues and population volatility.

Thought for the day: Does PvP make sense while questing?

I did some dungeons and quests in the new zones yesterday, and hit level 81 with my priest. I noticed that the new zones are rather crowded around the quest giver NPCs, and that Horde and Alliance often cross paths. That doesn't affect me, as I am playing on a PvE server. But from what I read in various blogs, and hear from friends, this does cause problems on PvP servers: Everybody is concentrated around the same few quest givers, and then the ganking starts.

Now, while not a fan myself, I completely support PvP that has some sort of objective: Be it some battleground, keep warfare, territorial control, that all makes perfect sense to me. But why would a game first force people to congregate around the same few spots to get and hand in quests, and then enable them to slaughter each other there without any purpose?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Expectations for Cataclysm and SWTOR

Rumor has it that some crazy European player managed to get to level 85 before Cataclysm was even released in the USA 7 hours later. But even for the average player the projected time to level 85 is measured in weeks, and unless they roll a goblin and a worgen alt and play through the 3,500 new quests of the Shattering, many players will have settled in some repetitive end game routine relatively early next year. With even the most optimistic schedules not foreseeing another World of Warcraft expansion before 18 months time, the current period of everybody being busy with Cataclysm won’t last forever, and we will have time for other games as well. And with Star Wars: The Old Republic coming out in 2011 (latest news says not before April), Guild Wars 2 in 2012, and some other games in between, there will be some choice.

But I’m afraid these other games have the cards stacked against them. Our expectations for Cataclysm were quite realistic: More of the same; and Blizzard delivered that, plus some bells and whistles. While the actual expansion isn’t revolutionary, the preceding The Shattering patch is the largest content patch in MMORPG history, and unique. When SOE had a “cataclysm” happening in Everquest that was sold as a separate game, Everquest 2, while the original EQ continued to exist as before. A complete rework of the whole level 1-60 game is quite daring. And nobody was surprised that the “new WoW” was a more streamlined version of the “old WoW”, with much of the same basic game structure of quests and levels. The other games don’t have it that easy, because we expect more of them.

I just read a print magazine in which the author described playing through the first 7 levels of playing a Jedi in a preview-version of Star Wars: The Old Republic. While acknowledging the great voice-overs, the writer was quite disappointed of his first quest being to “kill 10 flesh raiders”, and all the other quests until level 7 being variations of that theme, and having him kill other flesh raiders, with just one Jedi opponent at the end. And that disappointment derives from having expected something much different, and somehow grander and better.

There is a danger here that our expectations will doom SWTOR. If, in a quite realistic scenario, Bioware releases a solid MMORPG which has much of the same structure in terms of quests, levels, and how combat works as World of Warcraft, there will be a howl of disappointment from some quarters. If we expect the same gripping narrative in SWTOR that we are used to from Bioware’s single-player games, this disappointment might even be inevitable. Nobody has ever even penned a theoretical proof that it is possible to transpose the narrative of a single-player game into a MMO environment, much less implemented it. All our hope is based on a few hollow marketing slogans of 4th pillars and the like.

Cataclysm is a product of very high quality, minor problems with login during the first few hours in Europe notwithstanding. As this is the third expansion, and Blizzard has WoW up and running for six years now, and makes a billion dollars of revenue per year, this isn’t really surprising. It will be hard for Bioware, with less financial backing and no experience in launching MMORPGs, to just come up with a product meeting similar standards of quality. And if they manage to do that, people will still be disappointed, because they expect Bioware to deliver the impossible, the “WoW killer”, the “future of MMO gaming”.

My personal advice is to expect Star Wars: The Old Republic to be some sort of “WoW with light sabers”. If we expect the differences between SWTOR and Cataclysm to be more in the details than in the fundamentals, we have a much better chance of not ending up very disappointed. Hoping for the impossible will only destroy the enjoyment of what might still end up being a solid MMORPG.

Box vs. Digital

As I needed two copies of Cataclysm, one for me and one for my wife, I had the opportunity to buy them in different formats, one in a box, the other as digital download. This is a short comparison of the two formats:

Price: I paid €34.99 for the digital copy of Cataclysm, but only €25.90 for the box from the shop. Considering that making the box with the DVD costs more money, and that the shop gets a part of what I paid, the digital download price is too expensive. Depending on your interpretation this is price gouging, or Blizzard trying to keep retail shops in business. Box wins on price.

Installation: The boxed copy of Cataclysm installed quickly enough, but as the digital copy had already downloaded invisibly in the background for a while, the digital version was still a lot faster. The digital version also didn't require me to enter a complicated key. Digital wins on installation.

Timing: Theoretically the digital version was playable from midnight, while the boxed version could be bought midnight, brought home, installed, and then played. Practically the login servers were overloaded at midnight, so this didn't matter. I played the digital copy early in the morning for 10 minutes, but had to go to work. The boxed copy I bought on my way back home after work. Digital wins on timing, but only barely.

Backup: One reason I wanted at least one box for was to have a backup on DVD. But that is probably old school thinking, as the DVD will not have the latest patch version anyway. I'm not sure how much faster or slower installing the game and all three expansions would be from DVD compared with having to download all again. And I don't really want to have to try it. So no winner in this category.

Overall the two ways have different advantages and disadvantages, and it is up to you how important these are to you. For price sensitive people wanting the joy of holding a physical copy in hand, the box is better. But for getting into the game quick and hassle-free the digital version is great.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Been there, done that

I tried to log into Cataclysm repeatedly for 10 minutes, just minutes after release at midnight. It didn't work, the login servers are overloaded. I'm not surprised. I would have been surprised if it had worked, which is why I tried it. Now I'm going back to bed.

[UPDATE: Sleeping helped. The game was up at 6:30 when my alarm clock rang. But alas, now I have to go to work.]

Need help for Cataclysm?

In a world where a book like Farmville for Dummies exists, it would be foolish to assume that everybody will be able to level up his World of Warcraft character to level 85 without some helpful hints. Knowing that, some people will try to *sell* you those helpful hints, a business I'm not in favor off. Therefore I recommend instead, which appart from an affiliate link to a gold selling site is giving out its guides for free. There are leveling guides from level 1 to 85 for Alliance and Horde, plus starting guides for Goblins, Worgen, and Deathknights. As I've seen other sites wanting $30 and more for the same information, this looks like the better deal.

Epic Fighters

Oh it has been so long time since I've made last post here, but is really not my fault, there just weren't any games on facebook I would have liked so much to add it here. Well I have found one game I really like and play it every day and it is Epic Fighters. It is game I really missed on facebook. Well, not just this game, but this kind of game. In almost every game on facebook you can cooperate with your friends in some way, but there are only few games where you can also fight with your friends and that is I think much better fun. Epic Fighters is one of these games and I think one of the best. This game is from Digital Chocolate, company that created one very similar game and that is MMA Pro Fighter that is maybe even better, if you don't like fantasy, that you will probably like it more than Epic Fighters.
In Epic Fighters is your task building strong warrior. There are two ways how your warrior can become stronger and generally just better fighter. When you level up by getting experience you receive attribute points you can invest to health, stamina or energy. Health and energy you use in fights and stamina you need to do quests and to fight. To level up you need experience that you can get generally in three ways. You can fight in duels, you can do quests and you can fight against epic monsters. Well, here comes to funny part of this game. When you are fighting or doing quests you also receive money you can invest to learn new techniques. This is probably the most important part of the game, because it is necessary it invest your money wise. You can also buy some new equipment with your money and there are few other features in this game that are not so important. I really like the fights in this game, but the campaign in this game is absolutely linear so you cannot do anything to affect the story of the game and that is really shame.
Rating 8/10

Feeling unloved by Blizzard as a warrior

In the end I spent most of the time between The Shattering and Cataclysm playing two characters: A troll warrior and a tauren paladin. They were using similar degrees of twink gear, both went for their respective tanking talent spec, and after 15 levels of soloing concentrated on tanking with random pickup groups. Assuming that my tanking skills don't magically change when I switch from one character to another, and seeing how their gear was similar, the difference between these two characters is astounding. The warrior barely manages to keep aggro in multi-mob situations, and always comes in 4th place on the damage meter, just above the healer. The paladin plays like ultra-easy mode, tanks any size of mob group without ever losing aggro, and more often than not comes out on top of the damage meter at the same time. It is really ridiculous! And depressing for my warriors, not just the low level one, but also my level 80 by extension.

The differences between paladins and warriors are already quite visible when they choose their tanking spec at level 10. Warriors get Shield Slam, which is a melee range attack, hits only 1 mob, and often can't be used early in combat because the rage is lacking. Paladins at that same point get Avenger's Shield, which deals twice as much damage, then hits up to two more mobs, has a 30 yard range, and is perfect for pulling even casters, as it silences them. When soloing I one-shotted quest mobs with Avenger's Shield crits. Having that much better pull spell enables the paladin to grab a lot of aggro quickly, and keep it. The warrior needs a more complicated and less effective Rend + Thunder Clap for AoE aggro, with a much shorter range.

Besides getting aggro, the paladin also has the much better survivability, having two instant self-heals, versus none for the warrior. Between Word of Glory, which can be used several times in a combat, and Lay on Hands, which heals the paladin to full, I even survived big combats where the healer had lost connection. The only consolation for the warrior was that at least Blizzard nerfed the paladin's taunt to be identical in function with the warrior taunt. Previously the paladin version dealt damage, and the warrior version didn't, now both don't.

Now you could say that the lack of balance between low-level warriors and paladins doesn't matter. Both characters are strong enough to solo quests, and given the tank shortage it is unlikely that a group will votekick a warrior in the hope of getting a paladin the next time. But as far as I can tell, paladins are still far superior tanks to warriors in 5-man groups at level 80, and I'm not sure about which of them would be preferable in a raid now. Right now I'm hard pressed to find *any* role or environment in which I would rather have a warrior than a paladin. It really feels as if Blizzard hates the warrior class, and I can't understand why they would so obviously disadvantage them.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dungeon changes in the Shattering

I recently mentioned that my new low-level warrior had done 3 dungeons in a row, gained 4 levels in the process, and outleveled all his quests. Apparently Blizzard noticed that as a problem too, and significantly lowered dungeon xp. I think that is a very good idea. I love dungeons, but people tend to react strongly to incentives, and if one type of content gives too good rewards, other types of content end up getting neglected.

What surprised me more was to see the new list of dungeon levels. For example Scholomance as a level 38 dungeon feels strange to me, I will need some time to get my head wrapped around the new order. But I must say the new list will probably work better with the Dungeon Finder. When I leveled my previous character, the druid, before the Shattering, the Dungeon Finder tended to land me in the same dungeon for many levels. The new list is more evenly spaced, and so offers more variety when you choose a "random" dungeon.

My only concern about the leveling process right now is that between the renovated Azeroth from 1-60 and the already very good Northrend at level 70-80 there is this really sub-standard level 60-70 experience of Outlands of the Burning Crusade. The last time I did it, I refused to quest and leveled exclusively through dungeons; but even that wasn't optimal, because the expansion has a lot of level 70 dungeons which I never saw through the random Dungeon Finder. So I hope that as part of the next expansion Blizzard renovates Outland as well, at least streamlining the dungeons there as they just did for Azeroth. And fix the "Satchel of Helpful Goods" for level 60-70, which is currently just giving junk rewards.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The new new player experience

With The Shattering having added tons of new low-level content to World of Warcraft, and the new high-level content still over a week away, me and many other players rolled alts to explore the new "new player experience". I rolled a whole bunch of low level characters for comparison, and except for previously mentioned complications with the new troll starting area, the experience was quite pleasant. The low levels are more than ever a tutorial, there are even quests now that teach you how to train new skills and abilities and use them. The structure of quests is close to perfectly streamlined, you will never run into the "what should I do next?" problem; there are now even "Hero's Call" / "Warchief's Command" boards with a big quest marker prominently displayed in all cities, which based on your level and quest history send you to the appropriate quest hub.

With all that hand-holding some players tend to forget that you of course still have total freedom to stray from that given path. Just because there is a big neon arrow pointing towards the next quest hub doesn't mean you're forced to quest. Not only can you decide to go adventuring elsewhere, but there are two major activities where you aren't led to: Dungeoneering and crafting. At level 15 you get access to the Dungeon Finder, but that news isn't all that prominently displayed. And as most dungeon quests have been moved to inside the dungeons, there is very little leading you there. And there are absolutely no quests asking you to check out crafting; you'd need to stumble upon a profession trainer by accident to get explanations about that. Not only does questing not necessarily get you into dungeons, but dungeons also might mess up your questing. At level 15 I used the Dungeon Finder to run the Deadmines, Ragefire Chasm, and Wailing Caverns once each, and ended up making 4 levels; I'd basically need to delete all my current quests and use the Warchief's Command Board to find the appropriate quest hub for me. I think I'll just continue with dungeons, the new Deadmines were a lot of fun, and I want to check out the new Shadowfang Keep.

Of course while I'm discussing the "new player experience" here I'm well aware that the vast majority of the current low-level players aren't new players at all, but bored veterans waiting for Cataclysm. That leads to another interesting observation: The "Twinkability" of different classes is different. Casters don't benefit much from stat bonuses, 4 out of 5 of their stats have no influence whatsoever on damage output, and intellect has only a mediocre effect. What they would need is spellpower, but the only enchantment that gives spellpower to items under level 35 is a rare drop from Molten Core. Even a heirloom staff at level 1 gives only 1 spellpower bonus. A fully twinked mage is better than a mage in his starting gear, but not by a huge amount. Melee classes are far more twinkable. The first big difference is that their damage at low levels depends a lot on what weapon they are wielding, and a heirloom weapon or blue weapon from the AH is significantly better than what you can get from questing. And then they profit more from stat bonuses like strength and agility. Thus a fully twinked warrior or rogue is far more powerful than an untwinked version. All that is somewhat balanced, or unbalanced depending on your point of view, by the fact that a mage starts out far more powerful than a warrior or rogue, with his first ever attack doing three times the damage of the warriors first ever attack. Once twinked, the classes are more even, but there are obvious pros and contras to design class balance at maximum twink level.

Another observation about playing a new character is at what pace he earns new abilities. In its current state, World of Warcraft's only single-role characters are damage dealers. All healers and tanks are hybrids. And while some hybrids are as good as pure dps at the level cap, they do suffer in the early levels. Not only are their spells less powerful (e.g. Smite deals less damage than Fireball), but the damage dealers get more damage spells and abilities faster. Hybrids at some levels only get spells or abilities useful for tanking or healing, which don't help at all for the soloing part. No wonder we have tank and healer shortages: A new player trying different classes for a few levels would quickly conclude that tanks and healers suck in comparison to damage dealing classes, not knowing that this balances out later.

Apart from those balancing problem, I found the new "new player experience" quite pleasurable. There are now more interesting quests and events, and even before you get your mount at level 20 there are often rides on rails (literally in Azshara) that take you to the next quest hub. For those not into questing, the Dungeon Finder makes finding a dungeon group a breeze. And Blizzard even added a bunch of mini-games, like the Plant vs. Zombie game in Hillsbrad south of Dalaran Crater. Of course, if you don't like accessibility and "theme park" MMORPGs, World of Warcraft still isn't for you. But for the average player, the low-level game is better than ever.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Social engineering in MMORPGs

Imagine a tiny change to the code of World of Warcraft: When in a group, players would get twice as many xp per kill as they get now. That tiny addition of "x2" to the code would completely change the face of WoW. It would suddenly be far more advantageous to level up while grouping, instead of soloing. The forums would explode with some people calling this "forced grouping", some people would continue to solo, but a large number of players would simply adapt to the new situation and group a lot more on the way to the level cap. The dungeon finder would get used more, because, hey, if you already group, you might as well tackle the content with the good reward. But even when just questing and killing 10 foozles, you'd throw an invite to the other guy you come across killing the same foozles.

Chris Smith from Levelcapped this week responded to Syp's question of "If we are lazy and resistant to being social in MMOs (the path of least effort, etc.), is it the game’s/devs’ responsibility to encourage — or even force — us to do so?", by wishing for an Unsocial MMO. That resulted in an intense debate with Spinks on Google Buzz, who wants developers to encourage people to make friends.

Although some people tend to respond to this sort of question with polemic, like "if you don't want to play with others, play a single-player game", the problem is actually deeper than many people imagine. There is a sharp disconnect between short-term and long-term motivation to play MMORPGs. While in the short term players tend to react strongly to rewards, many surveys have proven that social connections are one of the major reasons for long-term motivation. The question of "should a game encourage/force people to be social" thus isn't just a philosophical question, but also fundamental to the perenity of a game.

After 6 years of World of Warcraft, the activities that occupy the player's minds are mostly social. There is far more discussion about raids and pickup groups than about solo gameplay. Solo gameplay is considered "not important", and dismissed as the tedious obstacle you have to play through with new characters before you can get to "the real game", which is social.

But while you might keep playing because of your friends, and your best memories of the game are about moments shared with other people, your worst memories probably also involve human interaction. Obviously the biggest idiots and jerks you meet in the game make for the best stories afterwards, thus what one reads isn't necessarily representative of the average pickup group. But grouping with complete strangers admittedly has its pitfalls; and a combination of the "barrier to entry" of forming a group in the first place, and the risk of that group failing to reach its objectives, makes grouping often less attractive than soloing, especially for short play sessions.

Using rewards in a clever way can overcome these obstacles. As I repeatedly wrote on this blog, World of Warcraft is failing to do so for groups outside dungeons, which explains why leveling has been nearly synonymous with soloing before the dungeon finder lowered the barrier to entry into high-reward group content during leveling. Many quests get actually *harder* to do when you group up for them, and the xp per hour in a group is lower than soloing the same content. Furthermore most leveling content is easy enough to be soloed. While changing the rewards could turn leveling in WoW into a more social affair, some players resent such social engineering. The term "forced grouping" is often applied for situations where in fact nobody is forced to group, but grouping is just the more efficient way to gain rewards.

Blizzard is currently introducing a system of rewards that encourages players to guild, by handing out guild rewards. It isn't quite clear yet whether that will work in a positive way, we will have to watch the system in action. There is a certain fear that the system inadvertedly favors huge guilds over smaller ones, which might actually end up counterproductively destroying social interaction, and lead people into huge, impersonal guilds instead. On the other hand the reputation you gain for your guild should prevent some of the worst excesses of guild hopping.

In summary I think it is a good idea for developers to use rewards for social engineering players into groups and guilds, because this can improve the long-term stability of the game. But as social engineering is difficult, care has to be taken not to inadvertedly do more harm than good. It is okay to offer better rewards for players to play together, but not to a point where solo players would feel punished, or where impersonal mega-guilds have huge advantages over closer knit small guilds.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Troll overengineering

Quests in World of Warcraft have come a long way in the last six years. While most quests in vanilla WoW were of the “kill 10 foozles” variety, with a few FedEx quests and rare escort quests thrown in, we now have scripted events, phasing, NPC interactions, vehicles and even mini-games in quests. That is a huge improvement, and questing has become a lot more fun over the years. The Shattering brought many of these improvements to the old level 1-60 zones, in an effort to improve the new player experience. Having said all that, I must nevertheless question the wisdom of using some of the most complicated quest technologies in the level 1-5 new troll starting area.

Now for a veteran, rolling a new troll character is fun; and the facts that trolls are now able to become druids, and not every Horde player wants to play a cow as druid, has led to a newbie zone full of troll druids. Far from being the usual fare, the new quests have you collecting a posse of baby raptors using a whistle, lasso an ultra-fast raptor mob and get a taste of riding, get a NPC druid friend/henchman named Zuni to help you through a dungeon full of nagas, and help the leader of the trolls Vol'jin to kill his nemesis, the Sea Witch, during which fight your friend Zuni tragically dies. But while these quests are interesting to veterans, they are often badly described and confusing to new players. For example the quest text for the final battle against the Sea Witch tells you to kill that witch, but as she had 600k health and you are level 5 that isn’t actually your role in that fight. Instead you battle low-level “manifestations”, and extinguish three braziers, none of which is listed in the quest text or the objectives in the quest tracker. You do this quest by *not* doing what the quest asks you to do. Furthermore many of the new quest texts were not very precise with directions. As a result the general chat in Durotar was full of players asking about this and other troll newbie quests, being unsure what to do. That is not the new player experience that would persuade a larger percentage than the current 30% to get past level 10 in the free trial.

So after playing a troll warrior to level 7, I created an orc mage to see how the old orc/troll starting area had changed. Except for introducing the orcs vs. humans lore aspect earlier, and grouping the first mobs to kill closer together, the orc starting experience was basically unchanged. Mostly kill quests, a quest to collect cactus apples, and one quest to hit lazy peons with a cudgel to get them to work. Simple, but still fun. The only depressing thing about it was to see in direct comparison how much WoW is skewed against melee now, and how much Blizzard still hates warriors: The mage at levels 1 to 5 was easily twice as powerful as the warrior in that level range, killed mobs with two shots, and got the more interesting and universally useful abilities at levels 3 and 5, while the warrior at those levels got only abilities that can be used only once per combat (Charge and Victory Rush).

So while I very much welcome added quest complexity and a Plants vs. Zombies mini-game in Hillsbrad, I think that for new players at least levels 1 to 5 should have remained simple, like the orc starting area is now, and not overly elaborate, like the new troll starting area. The troll newbie experience is simply overengineered, showing off all the new bells and whistles Blizzard added to their arsenal over the years, but somehow misses the basic purpose of a newbie zone when it comes to really new players.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Not for profit blog

Ah, Thanksgiving, a time of relentless shopping sprees. At least that is how I explain my inbox overflowing with mails from people who want to use the popularity of my blog to sell their goods. Offers range from actual games, over 3D virtual chat room pretending to be an "MMO", over Cataclysm gold making guides for "only" $97 (how I hate that sort of scam), over the promotion of gaming websites, to things that don't actually have anything to do with MMOs. It seems the bad idea that websites exist to make their owners a profit is alive and well, in spite of having caused the first stockmarket crash of this millenium.

As I'm getting tired of saying no to each of these offers individually, here again my stance in public form: I consider this to be a not for profit blog, and I don't advertise stuff because somebody asked me to. I write honest opinions about the games I play, played, or consider playing, and about news and stories from elsewhere in the MMO blogosphere. While that might end up with positive publicity for a product or site, I am not in the business of promoting stuff for money.

I do accept donations, as tokens of my reader's appreciation, which I reinvest into buying the games I then blog about. That is more of a theoretical exercise, after an initial wave the donations slowed down to a trickle. If I were in it for the money, I'd be a lousy businessman, with overall lifetime earnings of about 10 cents per blog post. Fortunately I didn't give up my day job for this, and can write just for fun.

So please stop sending me mails offering me linkbacks or a share of the profits if I promote your site or goods on my blog. I am really not interested. If you really think that I'm sitting on a valuable piece of virtual real estate, you might want to know that I never retracted an offer I once made on this blog: You can buy the whole blog including the "Tobold" brand name for $100,000. Any other offers of deals will be rejected.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Shattering vs. Cataclysm

For people who do not currently play World of Warcraft, and/or aren't keeping up to date with all the details, the upcoming "Cataclysm" can be somewhat confusing. What does the Cataclsym mean for you if you don't have a current WoW account, but would like to either try the game for the first time, or come back after a long absence? What exactly do you need to pay?

The confusion stems mainly from people associating the name of the new expansion "Cataclysm", with the changes to the world of Azeroth. And that isn't correct. The changes to the world of Azeroth, regarding the zones from level 1 to 60, are called "The Shattering", and are technically NOT part of the Cataclysm expansion. The Shattering happens in a patch 4.0.3a today on the US servers, and tomorrow on the European servers. The Shattering changes the look of all the level 1 to 60 zones, their quests, and also changes some other things, like the possible race/class combinations, and the healer talent trees. All of this is completely free, and requires only the basic World of Warcraft game and a subscription.

"Cataclysm" is an expansion. I costs about $40, and requires both of the previous expansions Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King. It has some additional low-level content, namely the two new races goblin and worgen, with their starting zones. But most of it is content level 81 to 85 (which is why you can't run Cataclysm without having the expansions that allow you to level from 60 to 80), with new zones, dungeons, and raids.

If you have never played World of Warcraft and want now to play a goblin or worgen, or if you want to play WoW up to level 85 and raid with people at some point, you will need to buy not only the expansion, but also the basic game and the two previous expansions. The good news is that those are on sale until November 29th: World of Warcraft for $5, The Burning Crusade for $5, and Wrath of the Lich King for $10. Add Cataclysm for $40 and the whole bundle will cost you $60. Plus of course a subscription for about $15 per month (but I assume the $5 WoW basic pack comes with one free month).

If you played World of Warcraft previously, and just want to see how Azeroth changed, without leveling past 60 or playing a goblin or worgen, you only need to renew your subscription, as "The Shattering" is free for everybody without the need of any expansion.

Finally a personal comment: World of Warcraft is a huge game, with thousands of hours of content. Thus the cost of the monthly subscription will quickly be much more than the cost of the game itself. If you don't have The Burning Crusade and/or Wrath of the Lich King yet, the current sale for these two costs just the equivalent of one month subscription. That is well worth it, whether you then decide to buy Cataclysm as well or not. You pay the same subscription with or without expansions, so playing the game without expansions is the less good deal.

FTC Disclaimer: I do not receive any money or other considerations from Blizzard. Never have, except for a press pass to a Blizzard convention once in 2008. It is actually possible to recommend World of Warcraft without being paid for it.

Monday, November 22, 2010

We'd be ashamed to take your money for this

In the complicated game of public relations and customer relationship management between MMORPG companies and players, giving out free play time to your subscribers is one of the stronger signals. Thus the decision by Square Enix to grant players not one, but two 30-day extensions of their original 30 free days that came with buying Final Fantasy XIV raised some eyebrows. Other companies hand out maybe a few free days as compensation for servers having been down, but Final Fantasy XIV players receive 60 free days as compensation for the game not being well received. Final Fantasy XIV has a miserable 51% review score on Metacritic, and sold only 630,000 copies worldwide by November, a result that disappointed financial analysts and contributed to Square Enix’ share price dropping by 15%.

One good thing in this story is that Square Enix obviously got the message the players were sending. Not only do they let buyers of the game play 90 days for free instead of just 30, but they also announced various major patches to address the main points of criticism, adding for a example a search function to the player economy, and promising to improve the tutorials. Unfortunately all this will take time, with some of the improvements scheduled for November, others for early 2011. And, as always when a MMORPG has a not-so-stellar launch, questions abound on why these obvious shortcomings haven’t been addressed earlier. It wasn’t as if the beta players weren’t sufficiently vocal about the game’s flaws.

Now optimists might claim that between major improvements and free months of playtime, Square Enix might be able to turn around Final Fantasy XIV, hold onto their 630,000 players and gain some more, to get to an overall quite respectable and profitable number of subscribers. Final Fantasy XIV is still planned to be released on the PS3 next year, and it isn’t as if Square Enix could silently drop a game with the “Final Fantasy” brand name on it. The pessimistic interpretation is that the 630,000 subscribers are a pure book value, because none of them had to actually pay for a subscription yet, and that the moment Square Enix will actually demand money for their game, that number will drop precipitously. With both WAR and AoC having lost two-thirds of their subscribers after the free period ended, that would hardly be unprecedented.

There isn’t exactly an abundance of console MMORPGs, and it appears logical that console players might have different requirements, and are used to different control schemes, than PC players. Thus the PS3 launch of Final Fantasy XIV might still be a success. On the other hand, even console players might check out the reviews of the PC version before paying for this game, and those reviews aren’t exactly likely to encourage people to buy it. So my best guess at this point is that the future of Final Fantasy XIV depends on the success of the PS3 version. For the predecessor Square Enix said at the time that they broke even at 200,000 subscribers, a number that is still well within reach of Final Fantasy XIV. So all isn’t lost yet, but as it stands Final Fantasy XIV is likely to be remembered as one of many MMORPGs with a botched release, and not as an instant success.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Pilgrim's Bounty

I am not a lore geek, and in general when given the choice between making a feature more playable or more immersive, I'll vote for playable. Having said that, I find it rather strange that the Thanksgiving-themed holiday event Pilgrim's Bounty is going on in the middle of the Shattering leading to the Cataclysm. Right now, standing in front of cities like Stormwind or Orgrimmar during an elemental invasion, you can see the city burning in the background with NPC citizens fleeing in terror. At the same time another NPC crowd is standing in front of the gates demanding to be let in, for a quest that requires you to search them. And right next to them there are the Pilgrim's Bounty tables having people throw food at each other. Isn't that somewhat incongruous?

Rumors have it that the actual Shattering of Azeroth into pieces, with zones breaking up and Deathwing appearing, will happen on Tuesday. And the Pilgrim's Bounty holiday event will still be going on for the whole week. Strange!

Friday, November 19, 2010

A cornerstone of good gameplay is making interesting decisions

We think a cornerstone of good gameplay is making interesting decisions.
Well, it is official now: Blizzard agrees with me that gameplay in World of Warcraft should not exclusively be based on execution, but that making interesting decisions is a cornerstone of good gameplay.

Ghostcrawler was responding to players complaining that making healing more challenging in Cataclysm was sign that "Blizzard hates healers" and "nerfed" them. It is easy to see why that accusation is impossible, even theoretically: Healers are not in competition with tanks or damage dealers, thus any changes that affect *all* healers are strictly neutral. If anything, healers are better off when healing isn't too easy; not just, like Ghostcrawler says, because "easy healing" means mindlessly pressing the same button over and over, but also because the easier healing gets, the less slots does a raid need to reserve for healers. Imagine the ultimate healing spell, which for 1 mana heals 1 million health for the whole raid as an instant: Every raid, even 25 man, would just need to take a single healer with them, and he'd just be spamming that one button. I'm much in favor of the Cataclysm solution of making healing more challenging, and much more interesting to play.

So when comparing how much Blizzard "loves" or "hates" the three archetypes, we need to check how much these archetypes are in demand in a raid or group situation, and how well each archetype performs outside of groups in soloing. Obviously damage dealers come out on top in this consideration: A raid will always try to take the minimum number possible of tanks and healers, and give all the remaining slots to damage dealers. Damage dealers have a reserved 60% of slots in 5-man groups, same or better percentage of slots in raids, and solo play is designed in a way that maximum damage advances you fastest. As in groups there are always several damage dealers sharing responsability for the damage output, a dps player can more easily get away with underperforming than a healer or tank. Damage dealers only have two problems: As it is so blindingly obvious that they are so much better off than tanks and healers, far more than 60% of players go for this archetype. And playing a dps involves a priority list or spell rotation which is independant of what you are actually fighting, and thus playing a dps often lacks those "interesting decisions". That has social consequences as well: Playing a damage dealer is considered easy mode, suited for those who can't cut it in the more demanding roles, and that attitude is reflected in pejorative terms like "huntard" being thrown around, regardless of how intelligent a particular player actually is.

Healers are pretty much in a sweet spot right now. Because less people want to play a healer than are necessary for a group or raid, healers can easily get spots in groups and raids, and have only minimal waiting time in the Dungeon Finder queue. The demand for healers goes up when moving from 5-man groups to raids. And dual spec allows most healers (sorry, paladins) to switch into a caster dps spec in which they can perform very well without having to switch out of their healing gear.

If Blizzard "hates" any archetype, it must be tanks. While tanks get into 5-man groups and 10-man raids as easy as healers, there is only one "main tank" in every raid, even among 25 players, and the other tanks are just necessary for bosses with abilitities that necessitate a switch, or for "off-tanking", and 25-man raids usually need less than 5 tanks. Tanking gear, even after the removal of the defense stat, still needs lots of stats which are basically useless in solo play. So tanks are either condemned to be less efficient than others in solo play, or they have to collect a second set of gear to switch roles to dps.

So if Blizzard wanted to further improve class or role balance, they would need to make damage dealing involve more interesting decisions, for example with a system of changing resistances and vulnerabilities of mobs forcing damage dealers to switch from one type of damage to another. They also would need to make damage mitigation or healing more important in solo play, so tanks and healers would do better in solo mode. But those are theoretical considerations, and Cataclysm is already an improvement over previous incarnations of World of Warcraft regarding role balance.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

How I would design raiding

The way raiding works in World of Warcraft, like other features of that game, is the result of the iterative approach to game design of Blizzard. The developers started with something, in part based on previous games, and refined, balanced, and modified it in major content patches and expansions. That is a solid approach, but it is timid, and unlikely to lead to major changes. In this post I would like to shine a light on the shortcomings of the current system, and give an outline on how I would design raiding. That is of course a pure thought exercise, I doubt my ideas will ever be realized, but maybe they can serve as food for thought.

Everybody agrees that the key problem of raiding is its “difficulty”, which has been endlessly discussed all over forums and the blogosphere. While everybody perceives “difficulty” as a problem, there is strong disagreement about whether raiding is “too easy” or “too hard” and not accessible enough; and of course that discussion flares up again with every modification making raiding “easier” or “harder”. So instead of making a controversial judgment call on raid difficulty here, I’d like to point out some less controversial facts about raid difficulty: I think everybody would agree that raiding is more difficult than the other content of the game, and that during all the years of WoW there was usually a big step change upwards in difficulty between whatever you could do to prepare for your first raid, and the first raid itself.

I might get more discussion with another observation: In Wrath of the Lich King, raid difficulty did not go up from Naxxramas to Icecrown Citadel. That is somewhat unintuitive, because of course a raid group in ICC gear would have a rather easy time today on many encounters in Naxxramas, like Patchwerk; but that is caused by gear, and the raid encounters by themselves are not much more complicated in ICC than in Naxxramas (with the possible exception of the last bosses of ICC). I’ve even seen raid group able to do the first ICC bosses wipe on some of the more complicated encounters of Naxxramas, in spite of their better gear. The “difficulty” of raid encounters in Wrath of the Lich King is mostly a function of how complicated the special attacks of the bosses are, and how well coordinated a raid team needs to be to avoid the huge damage done by these special attacks. This difficulty is specific to each individual raid encounter, and being for example able to beat Lord Marrowgar in ICC does not mean that you are also able to do “the dance” at Heigan the Unclean in Naxxramas.

It also has to be noted that in general it is more difficult for players to deal with special attacks that require coordination (e.g. “no player should stand closer than X feet from another player”, or “players with a random positive charge need to stand away from players with a random negative charge”), than those which only require the player to watch whether there is a spot of fire where he is standing.

Based on these observations, here is how I would design raiding:
  1. The overall difficulty of the first raid dungeon in terms of gear requirement and raid group coordination should be only a small step up from the hardest 5-man heroic dungeon of the initial release of an expansion.
  2. The encounters in the first raid dungeon should not be too complicated. I’m not calling for only tank’n’spank encounters here, but the boss special abilities in the first raid dungeon should be more about each individual player having to react to something, without adding additional requirements of coordination between players.
  3. The second and subsequent raid dungeons of an expansion I would then design to be noticeably more difficult in all of those aspects. That is they should require more damage output, damage mitigation, and healing, regardless of whether that better performance is reached by better gear or simply by playing better. And the encounters should become more and more complicated with each subsequent raid dungeon, so that the encounters in the last one would really be very difficult and require a lot of coordination between all players of the raid.
At this point some people will complain that “Burning Crusade proved that players hate raid progression”, which is a common misconception. The problems of Burning Crusade were mostly the too high difficulty of already the first raid dungeon, Karazhan, and a system that needed too many repetitions of the same raid before players had enough gear to be able to progress to the next raid. Players did not hate “raid progression”, but the fact that many of them couldn’t even get into raiding at all, and others “got stuck” and didn’t progress at all any more.

A relatively easy first raid dungeon would ascertain that “raiding” as an activity would be accessible to most players, even in pickup groups. That first raid dungeon would also train players in fundamental raiding skills like “don’t stand in the fire”. And it would provide players with sufficient gear to be able to progress towards the next raid dungeon, where they would be able to train more advanced raiding skills. Players unable or unwilling to learn raiding skills would significantly “slow down” in raid progress at some level of difficulty, but that is totally okay. I’d even say that it is a necessary feature to encourage players to learn, because if you can faceroll all the way to the last boss of the last raid dungeon there is no incentive to play better.

What should be avoided is players getting stuck simply through gear requirements, like it happened in Burning Crusade. That is actually not so hard, since Wrath of the Lich King already provided the perfect solution: Improving gear with a system of tokens. I would design rewards in a way that raiding would give more tokens than running heroics, to preserve the same risk vs. reward ratio, or even a bit more to compensate for the bigger organizational hurdle. The token system is useful to make sure that there is a constant improvement and progress, to make sure that it is really skill and not gear that determines how far and fast a player can progress. What I wouldn't want is token rewards from heroics being so plentiful that they make the first raid dungeons completely obsolete, as it is now the case. Thus a "pickup raid", while harder, and harder to organize, should give better token rewards than farming heroics.

What I think my raid design would achieve is the best of both worlds: Accessibility of raiding to most players, even casual ones, and faster progress and status for the more hardcore players. In such a system an automated Raid Finder functionality makes perfect sense, especially if like the current system for the Icecrown heroics it makes sure that you can’t sign up for raids you are completely undergeared for. Pickup groups *should* be able to do the first raid dungeons, even if they lack the coordination necessary for the later ones. “Pickup groups can’t do every raid” is a much better situation than “pickup groups can’t do any raid”.

Of course no raid system will completely eliminate the whining of the two extreme groups: The players who want everything handed to them on a silver platter without having to exert any effort, and the players who want all of raiding to be reserved for an exclusive elite. But in spite of the amount of noise these extreme groups often made, they are actually only small minorities in the overall population of World of Warcraft, their size often exaggerated by their opponents from the other extreme (“All raiders are elitist jerks” vs. “99% of players are morons & slackers that only want welfare epics”). It is the eternal naysayers who often create the impression that stagnation would be the best option. But a system with a low barrier of entry and rising difficulty level in the end serves the needs of everybody better than the current “one size fits all” raid difficulty model with its endless discussion about what exactly that one size should be. Players generally not only understand skill-based progress much better than some people claim, but they are actually attracted by it and encouraged to up their game.