Saturday, September 26, 2009

Do devlopers like it when we rage quit? [a rhetorical question]

Player versus Developer has a post up that I quite enjoyed. He talks about how many MMO developers pretty much ignore feedback from players and simply do what they think is best for their game. If you follow developer blogs, you'll find that one of the strengths of a good developer is that they are willing to set part of their player base on fire to realize their core goals in terms of audience (i.e., amputating limbs to save the patient). Mike Darga has a great piece that touches on it. What really caught my eye was a quote within the post: "Learn to recognize which parts of your game and playerbase aren't important."

Fairly chilling advice from a player perspective. However, the most successful MMO developers undoubtedly are the ones that execute this well. Of course it's better to have a core vision that works 100% right from the beginning. However hindsight is always clearer than foresight. Over the course of a successful MMO, changes both massive and minor will be needed. Any change will alienate some proportion of the player base. I get this, and I don't knock designers for making tough decisions.

All that said, I find it puzzling that many developers don't try to do any damage control at all when they make big changes. It's as if they are so isolated from their community that it seemingly doesn't occur to them that (a) players will notice a change and (b) it will really really piss them off if it affects a core mechanic that they enjoy. From a bottom line perspective, the worst that can happen is that players will rage quit over a change. Yet MMO developers often fail to take any action to limit the proportion of their player base this reaction encompasses.

The absolute worst thing a studio can do is spring a major change on the player base without any advanced notice. Yet I see developers do it over and over. For example the nerf to PvP gear in Warhammer Online (I rage quit over that one), the defense nerf in Champions Online, and most recently the swing speed nerf in Dungeons and Dragons Online. All of those changes were patched in with little, if any, advanced notice. All of them were major changes that fundamentally altered a game. In each case, it was only after the community went absolutely ape shit that the developers deigned to even comment on the reasoning behind the changes.

Regardless of what a developer does, they are going to lose a some of their players whenever they make a change. However, it seems to me that explaining the reasoning behind a change and warning players that it's coming ahead of time can be the difference between "Eww, I don't like this...but I guess I can cope" and "What the mother!@$#...are you #@!$ing crazy?!?"...rage quit.

Think about it. You can manage player expectations, or you you can hit them in the face with something that utterly defies their expectations. Which do you think will provoke a stronger response?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

DDO: not as bad as I thought

After giving myself almost a solid week to cool off, I decided to try the combat changes with a fresh eye. I'm not sure if swing speeds have been adjusted a bit from the last time I tried them (this is what I suspect), or if taking a break from the game and playing much slower paced MMOs like WoW and LoTRO for a week gave me a different perspective. In any case they don't seem so bad to me now.

After spending an entire evening with the system, I can describe it more thoroughly. The current attack pattern is that your guy does a three hit combo, with a slight (maybe one to two seconds) pause where he leans forward holding his sword out in between combos. I have read that you gain more attacks in your combo chain as your base attack bonus increases but I can't confirm it (mine is at +1 on a level two wizard). I also haven't rolled up a new wizard just to see if his attack combo is fewer hits.

Overall attack speed is slower than it was before (at least at the low levels that matter to new players like me). The transition from the old system to this new one was absolutely jarring, and I'm still not convinced that it was warranted. Assuming for the sake of argument that the change was warranted, the way that Turbine handled the transition was horrible. We all wake up one morning and find that the combat has been greatly altered, without any real warning from Turbine that it was coming.

That said, I think the combat system in DDO is still overall quite good. Once I gave myself enough distance to see it with fresh eyes, I find that I am still having a lot of fun in DDO. Spells and special abilities are still as responsive as they have ever been. After adjusting to the pauses in between swing combos, the combat even begins to feel a little more rhythmic and strategic than it did before.

Edit: After more testing, the difference between what I remembered from last week and the way the game is playing now is actually lag. The patch originally added lag for me in places I wasn't getting any before. The crazy thing is that the lag affected mainly my swing animations, not walking around or other animations. In the last week lag has apparently been improved immensely. Tonight, it took me a while to stumble on a spot that was still laggy enough for the bugged animation to show up again. In those spots my dude now appears to swing exactly as I remember, holding the sword for a good long while behind his head before he decides to swing. Now that I am seeing the real swing speed nerf, I can see that I overreacted. If you give it a chance it's not that bad.

Warhammer Online Expansion [that should have been] Announced

The new expansion is entitled "Rise of the Horned Rat." In addition to many other changes and additions, skaven are being added as third a playable faction. If you are any kind of fan of the Warhammer miniatures game, then you were likely disappointed that skaven weren't in WAR originally (I certainly was). The fact that they are being added at all has me pretty excited.

The addition of a third faction is even better. When there are only two factions, there is no real system of checks and balances and one side tends to get into a hole they can never climb out of. You can see this very clearly in modern WAR, when on the majority of servers either Destruction or Order pretty much completely dominates end game RvR. In some cases, even lower tier PvP is affected, and new players of the underdog faction tend to leave or change sides after a few evenings of getting their butts handed to them relentlessly.

To me this expansion signals to me the Mythic finally "gets" that they made a some major mistakes in their original design. In my opinion, the third faction really should have been launch WAR.

Edit: indeed, as Jaydub points out, the expansion announcement is completely fake. Hit the clarification link at the top of the page I linked. Sorry to get your hopes up :-)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Raph Koster is the man

I tend to agree and disagree with his opinions with close to equal frequency. But he is consistently and inarguably thought provoking. In the latest post on his design blog, he put up a link to the slides from his GDC presentation. Really can't recommend them enough, it's too bad we can't see the whole presentation. Even based on the slides, looks like it was hum dinger.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Swing speed nerf in DDO

I read a few days ago that a patch had reduced swing speeds in Dungeons and Dragons Online. My experience has been that often players of MMOs perceive nerfs disproportionately. That is to say, the real effects are minor compared what you would imagine based on the whining you will see on message boards. That's why I had an open mind until I could try it for myself.

This time, I am sorry to say, the whiners are correct. Turbine looked at one of the best aspects of their game (the real time combat) and decided to gut it. My guy in game, with a 16 strength (mine is at best 9), now swings his sword slower than I could swing a sword in real life. He spends most of his time holding it behind his head, and takes a swipe every five seconds or so. The following post, from a doubtless soon to be deleted thread on the official forums, is me at my most ticked:

The entire time that DDO has been online... players, game critics, and even rabid detractors of this game have generally agreed that the combat system was pretty fun. In response to this praise, you nerf the hell out of swing speeds the moment the game starts to become popular. This decision defies any logic that is known to me, or that I can imagine.

Yes, this horse is already beaten in multiple threads. I'm sure this will get deleted, and perhaps get me a ban. However I am upset enough that I really don't care. At least I have said my peace. My best wishes to all of you in your future endeavors.

Apologies that this post is so different from my norm. However, I do feel that Turbine has made a major mistake.

Some have claimed that the actual swingspeed remains unchanged, and that the only change has been to the animation. That is possible, however my characters also seem to be hitting a lot less often than I remember hitting pre-patch. Regardless, the bit of the attack animation where your character holds the sword behind their head and waits to swing absolutely hammers one of the core strengths of the game one week ago: the combat felt real time.

The CMs have already hinted that some adjustment is coming. However, they could have saved themselves a hell of a lot of effort in the first place and not screwed with something that most observers agreed was pretty good.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Bear models in WoW

The new bear models are driving me crazy. I think that the variety in models is a great idea. However, their hindlimbs are completely wrong and their butts should not be sticking up in the air. To whit, this is what a bear looks like from the side:

Notice that the back is close to flat, and that the shin of the back leg runs directly into the foot. In most mammals the only elements of the hindlimb that touch the ground when walking or running are the toes. If you have a dog or cat you should know what I'm talking about. However, bears along with primates (including humans) and a handful of other mammals have plantigrade hindlimb designs. The hindfoot consists of both the toes and ankle (running between them).

Here we have the World of Warcraft druid bear model:

Look closely at the back leg. Notice how the line of it bends three times, once just above the foot? That's because the skeletal design is non-plantigrade. As a side effect of adding this extra span of articulation to the hind leg, that shouldn't be there in the first place, the bear's butt sticks way up in the air. It makes druid bears look as if they are in lordosis at all times. This is a characteristic posture that females of rats and many other mammal species enter into when they are ready to mate (not to be confused with the medical condition of lordosis). Hips high and rotated.

Color me anal, but the hind quarters of the WoW bear model bug me. Druid is one of the classes I was really hoping to get into in my retry of WoW. The fact that my bear form is anatomically way off and begging to be molested at all times pretty much ruins it for me.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


As near as I can tell, it's Phantasy Star Online, for modern systems, set in a post apocalyptic world, with insanely beautiful graphics. If it lives up to expectations, looks like that one will be in my 360 tray for a long long time.

Edit: apologies for the broken link earlier, should be working now.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


One of my favorite bloggers has recently put up a post where a pen-and-paper roleplaying game design theory is explained succinctly and related to MMO design. A great read that I highly recommend. Another take on EVE versus WoW from a design perspective can be found here, but honestly I only punted a ball that Anjin has knocked out of the park.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Dungeons and Dragons Online

This is nothing like a review. Only a list of impressions from a few hours in game.

1. A surprising and stylish fantasy setting. A mixture of the fantasy races you'd expect and oddballs you never would have guessed. A standout is their take on halflings, more like short "punk" (go Sid!) elves than anything you are likely familiar with. Golems as a player race is also quite odd.

2. Runs really well even on my stone age backup PC. I get better frame rates than many free to play MMOs, despite graphics that are tons more detailed. Whatever engine Turbine is using is a winner.

3. Combat is twitchy. On a melee focused toon, you may as well be playing Diablo. It really is that fast paced. Reminds me quite a bit of Champions Online.

4. There is no reason to have more than one quest at a time. Each quest sends you to an instance that you have to clear. There are no quest objectives inside the instance. The objective is to finish your mission any way you can.

5. The game is a bit too easy on someone that is very good at melee combat, such as a Ranger or Fighter. Conversely, it's very challenging on a pure caster. For example, as a Wizard the instances you clear for missions start to feel like puzzles. You can only cast X spells, and those spells have to get you through the entire instance. It can certainly be done, but you may not get it right your first try.

6. The character creation system is crazy deep. Even as someone familiar with the PnP rules the game is based on and an experienced MMO player, I've been using their character templates so far (these make a ton of decisions for you). As a new player to the game, it's hard to guess where to place 20 skill points or what feat out of the twenty that are available I'll want on the character creation screen.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The future of MMOs is not a sandbox

As it stands now, World of Warcraft is the top western market MMO. Best guesses are that between North America and Europe it has around 4 million subs. It features classes, levels, quest based progression, and relatively restricted character customization compared to classless MMOs. These features are also found in Lord of the Rings Online, Runes of Magic, Everquest II, Age of Conan, Warhammer Online and a screaming ton of other MMOs that are relatively sucesful. Between them (along with WoW), these class/ level/ quest based MMOs serve the bulk of the western MMO market.

This is hardly the only possible way to structure an MMO. EVE online is often held up as a counter example by hardcore/ oldschool MMO enthusiasts (and crazy hobos). There are no classes, what you can do is limited purely by your skills and what ship you can afford. You are free to develop whatever skills interest you. You don't develop skills by crafting, killing fools, or standing in line at the bank. Instead, you decide what skills you'd like to work on and they start ticking up whether you are online or offline (as long as you pay a sub fee). There are a ton of other things that set EVE apart from typical MMOs. The entire game takes place on a single server, the crafting system makes the crafting in most MMOs look utterly shallow, and my grandmother doesn't bitch me out if my casting rotation isn't what is should be.

Can a non WoW-ish MMO prosper? Seemingly so. EVE now ranks a among the top ten western market MMOs. Likely among the top five, but the list gets very fuzzy past WoW (the rank depends a lot on who you ask). If the learning curve to even get started in EVE wasn't so insane, it might be able pass the 500K mark that most non-WoW MMOs seem unable to crack (in the western market). If any non-level/ quest based MMOs passed that mark, it would in turn signal the folks with cash to fund development that new MMOs don't have to be WoW/ EQ clones to prosper.

Sadly, I doubt that will happen in the next few years. I seriously doubt it will happen for EVE, DF, UO, or any other current sandbox MMO. None of them is particularly easy for a new user to pick up and play. Sure, they are incredibly deep and rewarding once you get past the initial hump. But the average western gamer doesn't like humps. I think EVE is roughly as successful as the current generation of sandbox MMOs has the potential to be.

I predict, instead, that Bioware's new MMO will be the next one to crack the 500K mark here in the West. It will feature classes, levels, and fairly linear gameplay. The wild success of the game will be attributed to its emphasis on story and solid professional writing. This will be an accurate assessment, as far as it goes. LoTRO, Guild Wars, and the more recent content from Blizzard have pushed forward the envelope on presenting compelling stories in MMOs. However, Bioware will likely take this to an extreme that will make NCsoft, Blizzard, and Turbine look like rank amateurs. The new MMO from Bioware will allow us to experience several movie's worth of story, all while chilling out in our undies in front of a PC. We will all be astounded, hail Bioware as heros, and perhaps get tattoos. "This is what has been missing!!!" we will all proclaim.

All the while, the concept of a sandboxy MMO with a big budget and a learning curve less harsh than getting afflicted with boils by Satan will remain untested. EVE, Ultima Online, Darkness Falls, Saga of Ryzom, and the editor that comes with Neverwinter Nights simply aren't new user friendly enough to give us a fair test. After watching the market fall in love with yet another class/ level/ quest based MMO, it will likely be a long time before we get a more openly designed MMO with a decent budget behind it.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Having an Attack of Fanboy

I generally don't get excited about products that are still months from release. However, this really looks like someone is making a game just for me. Fast paced combat, deep storylines, and branching narratives are all really big on the list of features I enjoy in RPGs. Online, offline, or on a train...that really looks like a game I'd like to play.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Thoughts on the Seige of Mirkwood

The next major LoTRO expansion is going to be download only, and it will cost $19.99. You can find a full feature list here, in the official announcement. Major features include:

1. Five new levels, and new traits to accompany them. I really don't care much one way or another about the five levels, but new traits would be welcome. I liked the revamp of the trait system in MoM, but most of the new legendary traits seemed mediocre to me. Certainly not worth the insane rep grind you had to go through to get them for the most part. Hopefully the expansion will improve this situation.

2. A new skirmish system (more details here). A series of encounters that scale to party size, from 1 to 12 man. Anyone missing from your party is replaced by NPCs. As you complete skirmishes, you get "skirmish points" that are used to develop a stable of NPCs that you can use to solo or small party ever more challenging skirmishes. A really interesting system , that once again shows that Turbine is not afraid to experiment. The monster play system, the legendary item system, and now this are like nothing else I've encountered in MMO space. Whether it will ultimately prove to be any fun or not, who can say. But I'm definitely intrigued.

3. A revamp of the legendary item system, and a way to earn new slots for your items. All I can say is thank god.

4. A new 12 man raid. Assuming it weren't radiance gated, I'd be quite happy about it. However, as it likely will be this content is irrelevant to me.

There is a lot of wild speculation flying around right now, including that the expansion is a stealthy a way to ditch the radiance system before the next boxed expansion comes out (wishful thinking imo), and that it's an excuse to push out a major revamp of the legendary item system (well, since they say that in their press release...sure..seems likely).

There has also been a lot of complaining by some players that this doesn't seem like something we ought to pay for, and that we haven't gotten nearly as many free content upgrades post MoM as we got in the first year after launch. In terms of free upgrades, I'm sorry to say the whiners do have a point. Let me break it down:

New Geography: Last year we got Evindim, Foreschel, Goblin Town, and a big hunks of the Trollshaws and the Misty Mountains for free. This year we got Lothlorian, which we were originally expecting in launch MoM.

Instances: Last year we got the Rift (a 12 man raid) and numerous 6 mans for free. This year we got a 12 man raid, and two mini raids, as well as 3 mans and solo instances. Altogether I'd say that both years were about even on instances. The big difference is the focus on solo and 3 man content post MoM versus 6 man and up content pre-MoM.

PvMP: Last year we got several major revamps of the Etinmoors, a new monster class, and a Darkness Falls style PvP dungeon. This year we got nothing whatsoever for PvMP. Instead, the freep PvMP gear was rendered utterly obsolete by MoM. This glaring oversight was never addressed or even acknowledged by the devs. They murdered and abandoned one of the core pre-MoM systems.

New Systems: last year we got several upgrades to the music system, an appearance slot system, a housing system, a faction system, and chicken play. This year we got absolutely nothing I can think of.

So what do I make make of all this? Honestly, it's not as gloomy as I just made it sound. Obviously LoTRO has a smaller dev team and a smaller budget for updates than it did last year. The pace and quality of the free content that we have gotten since MoM launched pretty much proves that. I also agree with the whiners to some degree, LoTRO certainly has been much less of a value this year than it was last year.

Even given that, I'd say it's still one of the best values among MMOs if you enjoy solo and small party PvE content. The digital expansion that was announced sounds larger than anything we have gotten for free in the past. And in my mind $19.99 sounds like about the right price. I'll withhold judgment until more details emerge, but the sky seems firmly in place from where I stand.

Edit: If you would like to read more about the expansion, Middle Earth Adventurer has a a great post with comments on details I didn't mention as well as links to reactions from the blogosphere.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


My PC is indeed still under warranty. One way or another I'll be back on with a decent rig by the end of the month. Missing most of the CO early start was a bummer. I was playing two slight updates of my open beta characters and enjoying the hell out of them before my PC croaked. Of course given the nerf cannon that was recently applied to the game, it seems as if I would have been in for some anguish regardless.

One quote that really bugs me in that producer letter is "A good number of players were complaining that the game wasn't challenging enough." I find this hard to believe, given that players almost never complain when they are overpowered. It has been remarked by folks more knowledgeable than I that the surest sign that a class is overpowered is that no-one that plays the class is complaining about it on message boards. I think there's a lot of truth to that. I also find it hard to believe that many players were complaining about the easy of combat in CO because it's a Superhero MMO, you should feel overpowered. Finally, the current most popular MMO on the market, WoW, is if anything easier than CO was during the open beta and early start. I know this because I switched back and forth between them in the same weekend (below).

I strongly suspect that what really happened is that Cryptic got terrified of how quickly players were leveling during the early start weekend, and decided that they needed to put on the brakes a bit. They tried nerfing XP gains in the last days of beta, and players whined up a storm. So instead, they buffed minion damage and nerfed defense across the board to slow down the pace of combat. Both inelegant solutions that won't have much impact on the core problem they are trying to deal with: superhardcore players will likely gun through the game and leave in droves withing the next few weeks.

I personally don't see that as such a bad thing, though the bean counters at Cryptic surely will feel differently. To me the strengths of CO are in catering to casual players and alt whores. It just not the style of game that hardcore players are going to dig long term, regardless of how long it takes to level. Hopefully things will have settled into some sort of sane medium by the time I get back to the game.

For the time being, desperate for something my backup PC can play at decent framerates and still run i-tunes in the background, I have fired up my old WoW account again. I had fun running around and buying everyone mounts and epic mounts. I also liquidated a level 62 character (my second highest) because his finances were in such terrible shape.

One thing that is really striking to me when I play WoW now is that the combat difficulty tends to be binary. Either encounters are so easy that you wouldn't have a chance of dying were you drunk and half asleep during combat (this has been tested!), or they are impossible at your level. There is nothing like the happy medium that you can find in most MMOs. For example, in Champions Online (at least over the weekend and in open beta) any time you are in a fight that includes a villain or master villain the game hits a "challenging but not frustrating" medium really well. Combat in general in LoTRO is also a good example of that in my mind.

WoW simply offers no real challenge for a solo player these days, at least not by the mid to high levels where most of my toons are sitting. Good for new MMO players I imagine, but to my tastes it becomes stale and repetitive quickly. I'm hoping that restarting one of my mains as a level one character of a super squishy class (Mage) will provide some entertainment.