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.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The impartial computer

A MMORPG typically has solo content and multiplayer content. To get to the multiplayer part, somehow somebody has to take a decision: Who do I play with? And in the case of a MMORPG like World of Warcraft, where the fruits of a group effort can be random items, a second sort of decision has to be taken: Who receives what loot? In the early days of MMORPGs these two types of decision were nearly exclusively taken by the players. But more and more these decisions are taken by the game itself, by a random number generator and an algorithm in a computer. Groups are composed randomly by the Dungeon Finder, and loot is distributed by random numbers and rules who can roll “need” or “greed” on what item. How did we get there, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of such systems?

We all have our ideas how a perfect group would look like, and in some cases we even manage to play in one: Grouping with friends who all agree on a common purpose, and are understanding towards the individual needs of each other. Unfortunately such a harmonious setup is very hard to organize over a long duration. Thus sooner or later people find themselves either short of group members and need to find more, or they find more people turned up than the game allows to participate for some specific content. The great classic in WoW is the regular 10-man raid, where either less than 10 people turn up, or the people who turn up don’t have the right class/role setup for the raid, or more than 10 people want to play. Similar problems can happen when trying to form a group via guild chat, or a pickup raid group in trade chat.

Now there are lots of ways to take decisions like that. Sometimes it is a single person taking all the decisions, as group/raid leader. Sometimes guilds organize a council of officers to take decisions on whom to take on a raid. In some cases there are even democratic votes being held, for example in the current system to kick somebody from a pickup group. The problem with decisions like raid invites or loot distribution is that they are typically *for* one person, and *against* another person. Thus often enough the person not chosen is unhappy. And in some cases the one losing out on such a decision doesn’t accept the outcome, and starts complaining about the decision being unjust: The raid leader always chooses his girlfriend over somebody with the same class, or some similar complaint.

Taking decisions is not always easy, and given the added risk of people complaining about the decision afterwards, players generally try to set up some set of rules to make decisions more impartial. For example in my guild, if you signed up and turned up for a raid but weren’t chosen, you received “a ticket”, giving you priority for the next raid. And endless pages on guild forums and blogs have been written about loot distribution rules, with sometimes elaborate and complicated systems being developed to make distribution “fair”. Unfortunately rules do not always solve the problem. In many cases it is obvious that certain rule sets benefit certain players more than others, and then guilds start fighting over the rules, leading to potentially even bigger fights. Some rules are “unwritten”, and it is only when the moment of truth arrives that it turns out that people don’t actually believe in the same set of unwritten rules, or interpret them differently. If you persuaded your shadow priest to be a healer for this one raid, how does the usual “main spec has priority over off spec” rule work for his case?

When organizing groups with strangers, rules often have to be simplistic to be clearly understood by everybody. And sometimes rules become customary which clearly can’t work for everybody, for example pickup groups requiring participants to have the achievement for having completed a raid before being invited; obviously that creates an impossible situation for people want to pickup raid because they don’t have a guild, and who consequently don’t have that achievement. A vicious cycle, where not having the raid achievement means you don’t get a chance to get the achievement. It is telling that WoW had addons to fake achievements, created just to break out of such an impossible rules set.

Furthermore rule sets, whether for guilds or for pickup groups, are in most cases skewed in favor of the more hardcore players, and against the more casual players. This is a natural consequence of an inherent dilemma of playing together for a random chance to improve your gear: The person most likely to gain something is the person with the least good current gear, because everything is a potential upgrade. But of course that person is also least likely to contribute much towards the common effort. A dungeon or raid is easiest when all participants already outgear it. The same thought is apparent in loot rules which give priority to players who raid most, because they are the most likely to be present for the next raid, and help the progress of the whole guild. Thus rules designed to guarantee a maximum chance of success are inherently discriminating against those who play less. There is perfect logic behind such rules, but they lead to increased segmentation of the player base, or even inside a guild. And thus these rule systems aren’t inherently stable, with guild splits being a frequent enough outcome.

In a game where access to content is based on gear “progress”, and players set the rules on who to invite to raids and how to distribute loot freely, the resulting player base segmentation often excludes large numbers of players from much of the group content. Thus Blizzard came up with the idea of imposing a less discriminatory rule set, with an impartial computer AI as the judge, to handle group invites and loot distribution for 5-man dungeons. As far as we know the algorithm for getting a group together is even designed to deliberately always have some less geared players grouped with more geared players whenever possible, so attempts by players to still impose their own rule set and votekick less well geared players just end up in them getting another undergeared replacement. Of course that does not take away anybody’s freedom to rather group with his friends. One could even theoretically organize a pickup group in trade chat using specific gearscore and achievement criteria; but in practice it turns out that being grouped with complete strangers, even undergeared and less competent ones, still has a high enough chance of successfully finishing a heroic run fast enough to make trying to organize a group in chat less effective. Players are basically rewarded for taking that leap of faith, and adhering to a more inclusive and less discriminatory rule set judged over by the impartial computer.

Of course that system has social consequences, but unlike some distracters say, they aren’t all bad. There is some inherent social value in preventing stratification in a massively multiplayer game, in getting everybody to play together instead of splitting up the player base into small cliques. But the negative social consequences do certainly exist as well: When players decide for themselves who to play with, they can use social criteria as well, and exclude players who are behaving badly, or are uncommunicative. Some people make an effort to be polite to their guild mates as long it is their guild mates who decide who gets invited to a raid, but won’t make that effort towards a group of strangers picked by the random Dungeon Finder. There is also a conflict when people try to graft personal rule sets on top of the computer-given rules of a Dungeon Finder group; just watch what happens if a plate-wearing dps rolls need on a tank item, some people would say that is okay because that is the rules, others think a “main spec has priority over off spec” rule should apply in pickup groups as well. Of course such additional rules can’t be enforced, because there are basically no negative consequences to breaking “soft” rules in a pickup group. So it is no wonder that players used to social rules enforcing good behavior find Dungeon Finder groups to be less pleasant. Although part of the lack of social interaction in these groups comes not from the computer choosing the participants, but from the rather hectic “go go go” speed some people push for to maximize rewards per time unit.

In retrospect at the end of Wrath of the Lich King it must be said that the Dungeon Finder system is a success. The combination of the impartial computer allowing people to play without segregation and awkward social decisions with the convenience and rewards of the system resulted in 5-man dungeons being heavily used all the time. Compare that to some raid dungeons, like Naxxramas and Ulduar, which are more or less standing empty. Having unused content in the game is not an efficient use of scarce development resources. Thus I am pretty certain that we will see a Raid Finder functionality added to World of Warcraft in one of the major content patches of Cataclysm. Blizzard already modified the raid lockout system to make it more compatible with an automated system to put a raid group together.

Some people will certainly fear that a Raid Finder will destroy guilds. But I would say that if a guild is held only together by the fact that guild membership is the only way to get into a raid, that guild isn’t really worth preserving anyway. I’m rather looking forward to a future where people who like each other still have the option to raid as a guild, while the people with less social contacts or odd play schedules have the option to raid via the Raid Finder. Having a computer decide who participates in a raid, and how loot is distributed, might not always result in a perfect group. But at least the computer is completely fair and does not discriminate against anybody. As long as the more social options to form a raid group are still in the game, I don’t see how anybody could have a justified complaint against random raid groups. They would be optional, and anybody signing up for them knows what he is in for. Sometimes an impartial computer is better at making decisions, because at least a computer can’t be a jerk.

Grapes of Wrath

I had a 4-day weekend with constant rain over here, which lead to me spending a lot of time online playing World of Warcraft [Edit: 30 hours played in the last 7 days according to the play time report I just received.]. As a result I'm way ahead of my schedule, and finished all my remaining goals I still had for the Wrath of the Lich King. My bank alt shaman got to level 65, and learned his portable mailbox for easier bank-alting. And my druid hit level 80, bringing me up to five level 80 characters.

I wouldn't say I have "finished" Wrath of the Lich King, for example I am not among the half million players who killed Arthas. But that was definitively due to lack of even trying, as I found WotLK raiding not that much fun: Too much "Super Mario Brothers" or "Simon Says" or "Don't stand in the fire", however you want to call that, and not enough focus on actually playing your class, if you know what I mean. I'm looking forward to Cataclysm, where at least healing appears to require more thinking (3 of my 5 level 80s are healers), and hope that Cataclysm raiding has a bit more tactical fights that require players to think on their feet instead of raid encounters resembling some sort of complicated ballet where the most important thing is that everybody stands at exactly the right position at the right time. Maybe I'll get to kill Arthas when I'm level 85 in some fun guild outing.

For the remaining three weeks I'll still play my druid a bit. I like playing dungeons, even if sometimes I have the impression that I'm the only blogger who doesn't hate pickup groups. And as fresh level 80 running heroics is at its most fun, because you can still find loot you actually need. I spent some justice points on a relic, and bought some cheap epics from the AH, but the rest I'm trying to get from dungeons. I'd rather save some justice points for Cataclysm. Maybe I'll also stock up on justice points with some of my other characters, so I'm not getting rusty playing those. I find it very interesting to play through the same content with three different healers, because it emphasizes the differences in healing styles, and makes me understand the strengths and weaknesses of the different healing classes much better.

One thing I was a bit disappointed about was seeing on my trainer that my druid won't get any new spells and abilities in Cataclysm. He is restoration and balance spec, and all the new abilities from level 80 to 85 are for feral. I got my last new spell at level 78, Nourish. And the tooltip and description of that spell fail to mention that it refreshes Lifebloom, so I had to ask another druid from my guild what that slow, weak healing spell was actually good for. But now I already practiced using it, putting three Lifeblooms on the tank and then just spamming Nourish. That results in a pretty good and consistent healing output at minimal mana cost. Yes, I know that mana isn't an issue at level 80, but as far as I know it will be at level 85, and practicing how to heal mana efficiently might result in some vital skills for Cataclysm. As I'm old enough to remember "healing rotations" in vanilla WoW raiding, I think I'm well prepared for the announced healing changes.

So in summary, I did everything in this expansion what I wanted to, and am prepared for the next expansion. Overall I enjoyed Wrath of the Lich King a lot more than I liked Burning Crusade. But I took one long break and had several periods of low play intensity during the two years, so ultimately the biggest flaw of WoW expansions for me is that Blizzard never made good on their promise to accelerate them to a one expansion per year rhythm.

Friday, November 12, 2010

1750 Borean Leather

One of my plans for Cataclysm is to make a goblin hunter, with the skinning and leatherworking professions. I never had any character with these professions leveled up beyond the basics. But I remembered from the little I did that you need more leather for the leatherworking than you get if you just level up skinning. So as my level 65 bank alt had one free profession slot, I decided to already level him with skinning and get some leather stockpile in preparation.

So I was looking for a list for what leather I'll need, and found this leatherworking guide. And in the total list of needed ingredients I stumbled upon the line saying I need 1750 Borean Leather to get to the level cap in leatherworking. Wow! Most of it is used to transform to Heavy Borean Leather, but as that is the only way to get the heavy version, there is no way past those 1750 leathers. At 1 Borean Leather per skinning of non-elite mobs, that means farming 1750 mobs in Northrend to max leatherworking.

Isn't that a bit much? Especially when Wrath of the Lich King isn't the most recent expansion any more, there are naturally less mobs killed in Northrend. Then leatherworking could become a serious treadmill in the 400 to 450 region.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

You don't get to censor me - I get to censor you

I recently wrote a deliberate misquote of Edmund Burke in a comment: "All it takes for trolls to triumph is that good bloggers do nothing." Sometimes I read something on the internet that I strongly disagree with, and I feel that it is better to speak out against whoever or whatever angered me than to remain silent and just let the trolls win. And nearly every time I get a lot of comments along the lines of "you shouldn't write that", telling me that for some vague reasons of "higher standards" I am not allowed to publicly attack people or opinions I don't like, or use harsh words, because that would be "sensationalist". That is bullshit. I have exactly the same rights as everybody else on the internet to attack anything I don't like in any way that is legal. And last time I checked the rest of the internet isn't exactly shy about using their freedom of speech in that way, so why should I?

Chastity from Righteous Orbs recently had a brilliant post that applies here, pointing out the fallacy of holding public figures to higher standards. This is true especially for prominent bloggers. There are no standards on the internet, and definitively not higher ones. If Gevlon is allowed to call everybody but him a moron & slacker, and Wolfshead is allowed to call all WoW players dumb (and call me a "drooling fanboy"), then why shouldn't I be allowed to call Gevlon a sociopath and Wolfhead's latest post bullshit?

Don't think I don't understand what these attempts from commenters to tell me what I can't write about are: They are the asymmetric warfare of opinions on the internet. Some people are afraid my opinions carry more weight than theirs, because I have a blog that gets a million visitors a year. So when I write something harsh they disagree with, they are trying to guilt trip me, telling me that *because* I have a big blog, I'm not allowed the same range of expressions as everybody else. Up to the rather ironic point where they think they can make personal attacks on me for making personal attacks on others. Sorry, but it doesn't work that way. You don't get to censor me. Just the opposite, I'll just use my comment deletion option more and censor anyone trying to tell me "you can't write that".

Is that unfair? No, why? It is completely symmetrical! You have exactly the same freedom as I have: All you need to do is to create a blog and complain there about me, and you can even censor all my comments on your blog if you want. You also have the right to, as some people call it, "unsubscribe" from my blog. That is a bit like "unfriending" somebody on Facebook, pretty much unnoticeable to the person being unfriended or the blogger being unsubscribed to. It's not as if there was a paying subscription here. If anything I'm probably better off if the people who don't like what I write get lost instead of hanging out here and complaining about my "journalistic standards" all the time. This blog would be useless to me if I didn't have the right to say whatever I want here.

EVE Clone?

Chris has an interesting look at Perpetuum as an EVE clone over at Levelcapped. As anything I say about EVE is being interpreted as hostile by the fanbois, I decline any comment. So check out Chris' post instead.

Playing with others means compromise

My random thoughts on Cataclysm provoked some comments from people with a very different philosophy than mine. While I was discussing e.g. what class/role to play to fit in best with both my guild and pickup groups, these commenters suggested that I shouldn't compromise. They said I should choose whatever I wanted to play, and then just look for a guild / friends to group with who are compatible with my needs of what class I want to play or what raid schedule I prefer.

I do think that the difference in philosophy is probably due to the commenters and me being of different generations. I'm relatively old for a gamer, technically still part of the baby boomer generation, and not of generations X or Y. Between online games and social networks over the last decade evolved the phenomenon of the "internet friend". People have literally *hundreds* of friends on Facebook. And one of the stories about Cataclysm was people complaining that guilds would be limited to "only" 1,000 members, up from 600. The consequence of having so many friends is that it becomes easier to change your friends than to change yourself.

Now I might be old-fashioned, but my concept of guilds developed in the original Everquest a decade ago, where loyalty was still regarded highly, and people quitting guilds frequently wouldn't get invites into the better guilds. And I do not have strong preferences on what to play, of all the 10 classes and 30 possible talent trees I find over half fun enough to play, and there are only a few I'm absolutely not interested in playing. Thus I prefer to compromise, to consider the needs of other people when selecting my main for example, or to adjust to the raid schedule of my guild, instead of changing friends whenever the current batch isn't a perfect fit for me any more.

Furthermore I believe that there is value in playing with strangers. All of my current online friends were strangers to me at some point. Being able to compromise is an asset in situations where you *can't* choose who to interact with. Just like you can't select the people in your class, or the people you have to work with every day, you can't select the whole population of your World of Warcraft server. Being able to recognize the needs of the other players, and being willing to compromise on e.g. what class and role I play, gives me advantages for example on my ability to find a dungeon group at any odd time and without a long queue wait time. If I insisted to play a dps, and only in groups with my closest friends, I wouldn't be able to group when I wanted.

In the end playing with others always means some sort of compromise. If I were unwilling to compromise on what I play and who I play with, I'd be forced to compromise on when I play group content. Team sports, whether that is soccer or a WoW group, usually requires some compromise on who plays what position. If for some reason your virtual identity absolutely requires you to play a frost mage and nothing else, you can certainly do that; but there is a price to pay for being uncompromising as soon as you want to play group content.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A living contradiction

Wolfshead proclaims that he has found a revolutionary new game which is far more intelligent and superior to dumbed down World of Warcraft: Zynga's Farmville/Frontierville. When not so long ago he was complaining about the Zyngafication of the MMO industry. How much did Zynga pay the man?

T minus 4 weeks

Cataclysm is just 4 weeks away, time to post some thoughts about my personal situation regarding the expansion. First of all I have to say that I’m looking very much forward to the expansion, but I’m trying to not spoil the experience; thus I won’t play on any beta or public test servers, nor do I follow the discussion of the expansion on sites like MMO Champion. I do however play World of Warcraft more these days. Due to me having turned on “parental controls” on my own WoW account to block RealID, I get a play time report every week by e-mail, and my weekly play time is back up to around 20 hours, having been just 2 to 5 hours per week during September.

The character I’m playing most right now is my level 77 druid, of which I am confident that he will reach level 80 in time for Cataclysm. I’m mostly playing him as a healer in dungeons, and that is a lot of fun. In this patch 4.0.1 environment I do like both holy priest and restoration druid healing, while I find my paladin more boring as a healer, him having a lot less options. The second character I play is a level 64 shaman, but he is enhancement spec and not a healer. Not my favorite character, somehow enhancement at this level is a lot less effective than it used to be, and in spite of using an optimized build and rotation researched from the internet, I’m doing at best mediocre on the damage meter. My general impression of patch 4.0.1 is that spell damage is a lot better than melee damage now, e.g. my priest as shadow or the druid as moonkin do awesome damage. If I really wanted to play the shaman further, I would have to switch to elemental, but then I’d need to replace all his gear, and there is basically no level 60ish blue gear available on the AH. Anyway, the shaman is mostly used as a bank alt, and the main reason I’m leveling him is to get the portable mailbox from engineering at level 65.

Assuming the druid reaches level 80 soon, I will have 5 different level 80 characters when the expansion hits (druid, priest, paladin, warrior, mage). I’ll have a level 60 rogue, 60 death knight and a level 65 shaman, and I’ll start a goblin hunter and a worgen warlock in the expansion, so I got all classes covered. But which character is going to be my main? Well, the paladin is out, being a lonely level 80 Alliance character on a different server, while my main should be in my guild on the Horde side. The warrior, in spite of being my first character on the European servers, and first to 60, has always been problematic. I have a distinctive impression that Blizzard hates tanks, especially warrior tanks. The removal of the defense stat didn’t help much; I’m still forced to have two completely separate sets of gear, one with avoidance stats like dodge for tanking, and one set for dps. And getting plate gear without caster stats has always been more difficult than getting any other type of gear. Playing a tank simply requires a lot more work and dedication to be useful than any other role. And if you don’t keep up, you’re quickly out: Nobody wants to play with a half-geared tank, while an extra healer can always get a raid spot.

As I enjoy playing in groups more than I enjoy playing solo, I also don’t want to make my mage my main. While that would certainly be easiest to play, a pure damage dealer has the longest waiting queue in the Dungeon Finder, and the lowest chance for a raid spot. Furthermore my priest and druid deal at least as much damage in their dps spec as my mage, albeit less AoE, so it isn’t as if I’d give up on damage dealing by choosing a healer as my main. So the choice is between the priest and the druid. Now as I said, I do like druid healing, and the druid has maybe the best “oh shit” emergency heal button with Tranquility. But I find the priest has even more options, between direct heals, heals over time, and more exotic healing variants. And the priest has always been my raiding character, so I think I will just stick with him as my main for Cataclysm.

Having said that, I’m not sure to be able to get into a raiding team with my guild. That isn’t my guild’s fault; in fact after years of working on that problem the guild is doing an excellent job of balancing the needs of the more hardcore raiders and the more casual guild members. But the timing of the Cataclysm expansion is somewhat unfortunate for me, so close to the Christmas holidays. I’ll be spending Christmas with family, away from my place, and so I won’t have all that much time to play, and only a laptop with not the best internet connection to play on. Even in a relatively friendly and casual guild, raiding starts when there are enough people at the level cap and well-equipped enough to start, which causes a certain rush to the level cap in the early phase of the expansion, and I’m a bit worried about missing the boat there. That is especially due to my experience in Cataclysm, where I was behind the curve, and then Blizzard decided to practically shut down the older raid dungeons before I could finish them. I never saw the second half of Ulduar. If I, as casual raider, am already stressed a bit about missing out on raid spots due to leveling slower, I can imagine how stressful this must be for a more hardcore raider than me, unless he has a guaranteed raid spot for being the organizer. I don’t think Blizzard has completely solved the problem of casual raiding yet, it probably needs an automated Raid Finder functionality in a future patch.

Fortunately raiding isn’t all there is to Cataclysm or World of Warcraft. I’m currently enjoying the events leading up to the Cataclysm, doing quests that have me run around with a “the end is near” sign, and closing rifts for the achievement. But I’m not doing those with all of my characters, just one or two. I’m also cleaning up my bank storage and inventory. What I’m *not* doing is hoarding specific items and materials in the hope of making huge profits on the auction house. Not because I don’t believe that wouldn’t work, but because I already have over 70,000 gold, and don’t really see the point of putting effort into making more, just to buy expensive mounts or the 310% speed flying skill, which is barely an improvement over the 280% I already have.

I am looking forward to playing a goblin and a worgen, with classes I haven’t played all that much up to now, and to try out archeology. But these are things that will be around for a long time, and I’m not in a hurry. The newbie zones for the new races will be overcrowded for a while; I think I’ll enjoy them more if I wait a bit for the first wave to subside. Archeology I don’t know too much about yet, as far as I’ve read it might be non-competitive, not lots of players camping the same few nodes at the start. That would be good.

So the last question remaining for Cataclysm is how to actually get it. The no-hassle, pre-downloaded digital version sure sounds attractive, provided that this works as advertised. On the other hand I also like having a disc for future reinstallations, and to support my local game store. So I decided to do both, as I anyway need two copies of Cataclysm for me and my wife. I pre-ordered one copy on, and I’ll buy a second copy in the store on December 7th.

So how about you? What are your hopes and fears and preparations for Cataclysm?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Preferring games to worlds

Having been disappointed by Fallout 3, I found myself looking for a similar game which is more fun to me. Now where do I find a more fun post-apocalyptic shooter/roleplaying game hybrid? Turns out I had already bought that game during some previous sales on Steam: Borderlands. So I spent most of the weekend playing Borderlands, and I was having a blast. The combat is more fun and varied, because now different weapons actually require different tactics. Instead of useless junk I loot only things I need. And instead of my weapons getting worse all the time due to wear and tear, I now get constant weapons upgrades. There are as crazy characters in Borderlands as are in Fallout 3 (albeit not so many), and the main story isn't any worse either.

Apart from the combat system (where Fallout 3 has no excuse), I can see that the main difference between Fallout 3 and Borderlands is that the former is mainly designed as an immersive virtual world, while the latter is mainly a game. Borderlands is more fun because it is *made* to be fun, and not designed to give an accurate depiction of a post-apocalyptic world. Which is all fine with me, I didn't find Fallout's vision of how a world after nuclear war would look very believable in the first place. I can see that weapons degrading is somehow more "realistic" than finding them as loot even from enemies that aren't using weapons, but "realistic" often ends up being the same as "tedious".

If I want to explore a coherent, realistic world, I turn off my computer and take a walk. Any virtual world in which I am a hero is by definition already unrealistic. So I'm really not all that worried about how immersive a virtual world is, as long as it is fun to play. The cell-shaded graphics and over-the-top whacky boss mobs of Borderlands are more fun to me than the realistic eternal grey-tones of Fallout 3.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Civ5 map of Azeroth

A reader wrote me to let you all know that a Civilization V map of Azeroth is available at Civ Fanatics. As in spite of the name and the origin of the series, World of Warcraft does not offer the possibility to conquer territory, this Civ5 map is your chance to conquer Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms. It's just the map, though, so you'll still play with English, Roman, or Chinese civilizations, not with Orcs, Human, and Blood Elves.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Fallout 3

No, the title is not a typo or something. Playing a lot of time-consuming MMORPGs, I tend to be way behind the curve with playing single-player games. So while everybody else is on Fallout: New Vegas, I just recently started playing Fallout 3. The joys of digital distribution: You can get a two year old game for half the price, and if the reviews were good two years ago, the game probably still is good today. Only that in this case, with Fallout 3, in spite of good reviews and starting out enthusiastically, I got bored rather quickly.

The start of Fallout 3 is great. Playing a character from birth on is brilliant, and I really liked how creating your character with stats and skills was woven into playing your childhood. And at first I liked leaving the vault and exploring the wastelands, scavenging the post-apocalyptic ruins for useful scraps. So I played, and played, and played some more, and 8 levels, lots of quests, and a bunch of hours later I was *still* scavenging post-apocalyptic ruins for useful scraps. More specifically I was searching still the same desks, file cabinets, and metal boxes, all of which look the same, for the same bottle caps, junk, and handfuls of ammo. There aren't all that many different containers in this game, and most of the loot isn't really exciting. I ran through endless same-ish looking metro tunnels, fought the same types of enemies over and over, until I just couldn't bring myself to continue. Yes, the characters are very well done, and the freedom to explore is great, but I found the main story-line a bit weak, and the post-apocalyptic wasteland soon gets repetitive.

Now at the heart of it Fallout 3 is a game of managing scarce resources. That should make the fights interesting, because the less ammo you use and the quicker you kill with minimal health loss, the better off you are. Given that, I'm not sure it was a good idea to design Fallout 3 with two different combat systems. And maybe I'm just lousy at aiming, but in my case the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System (V.A.T.S.) is much, much more efficient than playing Fallout 3 like a first-person shooter. I just get close to the mob, hit the key to enter V.A.T.S. mode, select 3 headshots, and easily kill about every monster with 3 or less bullets without getting a scratch myself. Not very exciting, and not very tactical either; I would have hoped that an alternative "turn-based" combat system would have more interesting choices than the obvious "shoot the head" best option. Playing the game like a shooter doesn't make it any more tactical, but I waste a lot more ammo and get wounded more.

Well, shooter games are always hit-or-miss with me, even if they are part role-playing game. I liked Bioshock and Call of Duty 2 a lot, but some shooter games I just don't warm up to. Life is too short to play games I don't really enjoy, and so I'll just stop playing Fallout 3 and try something else. Just goes to show that even a game with excellent reviews isn't necessarily for everybody.

Body control

Kinect, Wii Remote, PlayStation Move, there is a definitive trend towards console games being controlled with some sort of device that tracks the motion of your body, instead of just being controlled with the fingers. But I'm not buying any of these, after having tried out both the PS2 EyeToy and the Wiimote. Very simple reason: I like play sessions that last several hours. Technically I'm not a couch-potato (I mostly play PC games sitting in an office chair, not a couch), but a full body control game is a lot more strenuous than either a gamepad or a mouse/keyboard control scheme.

For exactly this reason I don't think that this sort of controller has any future for MMORPGs. The amount of hours people want to play a MMORPG for per week largely surpasses the amount of hours they'd like to work out. I think these full body control schemes are great for casual games, and have a potential to get people to play who think gamepads are too complicated. But they aren't the future of gaming.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Buyable faster advancement coming to a MMORPG near you!

Warhammer Online started selling the Specialized Training Pack for $9.99, an item which makes all of your WAR characters advance one full level. Meanwhile EVE Online is offering the EVE Online: Commissioned Officer Edition as a new boxed set, which allows you to create a new account with a new character which gains skills significantly faster for the first 30 days (beyond the usual newbie bonus). As players have shown that they are very much interested in faster advancement, companies react by selling that faster advancement to them. Where will that lead?

The purpose of a level cap

When I played the original Everquest a decade ago, the average time players needed to reach the level cap was 2,000 hours. When World of Warcraft was released in 2004, the average time to reach the level cap in WoW was 500 hours. Today the average is *less* than 500 hours, in spite of the level cap being 80 now instead of 60; a veteran player can level an alt from 1 to 80 in 200 hours without breaking a sweat. But even a new player has an easier time nowadays to reach the level cap, both due to better information from various guides and websites, and due to Blizzard having streamlined many parts of the leveling process.

Now some people believe that faster leveling is always better. Gaining a level is one of the stronger rewards a MMORPG hands out, and people just love getting rewarded frequently. But player levels are linked to level-appropriate content in a persistent, non-random world, and as we can't make infinite content, we can't have infinite levels. There has to be a level cap. And obviously the original Everquest and today's World of Warcraft have very different philosophies about what the purpose of the level cap is. Everquest had a lot of players who never ever reached the level cap, I was one of them. If you don't play a lot, and maybe have some alts on the side, a "2,000 hours to the level cap" requirement can result in the level cap being lifted by an expansion before you hit the cap. It is thus possible to be *always* leveling, and obviously Verant/SOE considered that as a good option: If you never hit the level cap, you never run out of content.

The big disadvantage of such a game with endless leveling is that it seggregates players, mostly by amount of time spent playing, and to a lesser degree by how efficient they are in leveling. And the experience of Everquest showed that the players who reach the level cap do not necessarily consider that as a "Game Over" message, but are quite willing to keep on playing with characters at the level cap, as long as the devs provide something level-cap appropriate for them to do, for example raiding. Thus the different idea of World of Warcraft: If everybody levels up quickly, then most players will be at the level cap for most of the time between two expansions, and will be able to all play together, being all the same level.

Unfortunately that didn't work out that way. Because even at the level cap character development is still important. It just isn't expressed in terms of leveling up any more, but in terms of improving your gear. Some form of reward to improve characters is necessary to keep people playing. According to the Daedalus Project of Nick Yee the average MMO player spends a bit over 20 hours per week in a game, which adds up to 1,000 hours per year, or 2,000 hours between two WoW expansions. Imagine you would spend only 200 hours of those 2,000 hours leveling up your character, and then you'd be completely blocked in development for the other 1,800 hours until the next expansion. Most players would quit long before that. Thus today players reach the level cap, and then switch into a different mode of World of Warcraft, in which they mostly level up their Gearscore in heroic dungeons and raids.

So now we arrived at a truly perverse situation, where people quickly level up to the level cap, but end up being NOT of similar power at that cap. As yesterday's interesting discussion pointed out, today one of the biggest social problems of World of Warcraft is the random Dungeon Finder putting people together into a level 80 heroics group with vastly different levels of gear, skill, and even goals. As I am currently playing a level 76 druid and a level 62 shaman, I made the surprising discovery that a random group assembled by the Dungeon Finder during leveling is *more* homogeneous in terms of power and purpose than a level 80 random group found with the same tool. To boot, "normal" dungeons played through with a level-appropriate group are *more* challenging than the average "heroic" dungeon, because the average group for a heroic is completely overgeared compared to the content.

Some people blame the Dungeon Finder, but in fact that tool works perfectly well to assemble a homogeneous group and provide a reasonable challenge to them in the lower levels. Where it completely breaks down is at the level cap, because the possible difference between two level 80 characters can be so huge. Imagine a freshly dinged level 80 tank in iLevel 187 decent blue gear: There is simply no way the Dungeon Finder can put him into a working heroics group today. His best option is to sign on as dps, because groups are used to at least one dps guy doing basically nothing on any heroic run.

And I'm not sure this will get any better in Cataclysm. Of course at first things will get better, when everybody at level 85 is of similar gear level. But as long as the justice points or other rewards enable players to get the highest level of gear from endlessly running heroics, the seggregation of players will continue in the next expansion. Maybe the Dungeon Finder has to be reprogrammed to put groups of similar Gearscore together and then upscale the monsters in heroics accordingly so that the challenge remains the same for every group. But then what's the point of becoming stronger if the content isn't getting easier by that? Maybe a game which took a bit longer to reach the level cap would be better after all.

Efficiency is irrelevant

Imagine a guy taking a month of holiday to do a road trip from New York to San Francisco. He sees a lot of America, has a lot of fun, and relaxes. A successful holiday. The fact that he could have gotten from NY to SF much faster and more efficient by taking a plane is irrelevant. Getting from A to B was not the purpose of the trip. Calling him a "n00b", or a "moron & slacker" for not having choosing the fastest route is utterly ridiculous.

The same is true for MMORPGs. Sure, some people have fun pursueing goals, and some like to reach those goals as fast as possible. But that does not make them better players than somebody who spends his time role-playing or exploring. There is no win-condition in a MMORPG; getting from level 1 to 80 with all best-in-slot items in the most efficient way is irrelevant. That is especially true for World of Warcraft, because Blizzard is notoriously slow in releasing expansions. Getting to the end of an expansion faster only means you are blocked for longer without anything left to do. And it doesn't exactly make the fast players more sympathetic that so many of them appear to use that time with nothing to do for berating other players for taking it slow.

One could even argue that the most efficient players are the least good, because by definition there is only one most efficient path and taking it is the least original way of playing a MMORPG. There is only a handful of players actively engaged in figuring out the most efficient path, the large majority of players just copies and pastes the findings of the theorycrafters. How many players rush through content in the fastest possible way, following somebody else's description of a most efficient path? That is certainly one possible way to play a MMORPG, but I see no justification whatsoever to claims that this would be the "best" way.