Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The activation energy required to sub

Because of Aspendawn's heads up about the deal that steam had going for Everquest II last week, I very nearly restarted up EQ II over the weekend. In the end, I found the thought of paying $15 to renew my sub in addition to the (fantastic) $15 deal on expansions too off-putting. With a lifetime sub to LoTRO; and having gotten used to URU, DDO, and Wizard 101; I was hesitant to pay $30 to walk around as my old EQ II characters and see how the game has changed. I have gotten used to being able move between games without having to pay extra to stick my head in and look around. I have been completely spoiled by one lifetime sub (LoTRO) and several FtP MMOs. To put it differently, the activation energy needed for me to sub up to EQ II was too high for the proper reaction to occur.

That is of course, crazy. Fifteen dollars is nothing, I often spend more on a meal. Yet now that I have gotten used to "no cover charge" MMOs, I am really hesitant to return to any MMO that asks for $15 to check in. To stretch the analogy, it's hard to justify spending $15 to see a band you like when you can go and check out three or four other bands that you also like for free . . . only paying for the CDs at the table if you really want to.

As if in answer to my quandary, SOE announced that EQ II was adding FtP servers [as I'm sure you have read elsewhere] a few days ago. Soon the activation energy needed for me to try EQ II again will be zero. With games as high profile as LoTRO and EQ II going FtP, I think there will be a lot of pressure on other moderately successful sub based MMOs like City of Heroes, Champions Online, and Star Trek Online to offer similar options.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

DDO: small feat, big difference

The last big patch for Dungeons and Dragons Online added a new feat for spellcasters: Augment Summoning. It adds +4 to the stats of everything you summon or charm, as well as +4 to hireling stats. With this relatively minor addition to the game, Turbine essentially created a new character specialization. The feat is a lot butcher at low levels than at high levels, but at low levels it is absolutely amazing. I discovered this by accident on a low level character I recently started.

On a low level wizard, a common strategy is to charm a foe in the middle of a big crowd. The guy you charm will start attacking, and gain aggro from the entire crowd. That leaves you free to come in behind the melee and beat down your opponents one by one. However, if you charm a minion you can't generally expect them to help much. They are mainly a distraction.

Not so now with augment summoning, at least at low levels. With augment summoning, a charmed target hulks out and becomes a killing machine. A random charmed minion in a crowd will sometimes murder everyone around them before you can even get within melee range. It's sort of like the scene from a horror movie (this seems to happen in anime the most often) where one of the good guys suddenly gets possessed/ infected / whatever and starts killing everyone before they die in a hail of gunfire. I'm having a lot of fun with it, but I have to wonder how long before it gets nerfed.

More generally, to me it's a good example of how something that doesn't sound like a big deal on paper can be a major change to a game. Being a summoning/ charming specialist is now suddenly a very attractive character specialization, especially for solo work. Turbine added a new development path for casters with a single feat. Specialized charms for foes such as undead and slimes I would not have really considered slotting before suddenly are a lot more attractive. Role Playing Games (MMO or otherwise), seemingly more than any other game genre, can be greatly altered by changes that would be equivalent to small tweaks in other games.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Fun of an Online Persona

Recent posts by Ardwulf and Tobold in the aftermath of the RealID fiasco have gotten me thinking about why I maintain an online persona. I've been posting as Yeebo for quite a while, for years on various message boards before I even started blogging. I am certain that when I started out, it just seemed like a cool fun thing to do to make up a name and start posting under it. Much like being known by the name of various characters I've played in different MMOs, it seemed natural to pick a net handle and be known by it in digital space.

I like using this net handle for several reasons. First off, I want things that I write to be judged on what’s there, not who wrote it. Secondly, I use blogging as a way to take a break from the rest of my life. Somehow, having my net handle only weakly connected to my real name makes my blog travels seem like more of an escape. Finally Yeebo is good net index for my MMO writings. If I started blogging about poetry or pastries, I’d likely do it under a different handle. There aren’t a ton of Yeebos on the web, but there are roughly a jillion individuals with my RL name.

While I don't hide the fact that I game, I also have to admit that in the field I work in having a bunch of MMO writings come up before my professional work when you Google my name would not be such a hot idea. To prospective employers the best I can hope for is that the reaction would be neutral, and I know the culture of my field well enough to be certain that in some cases it would not.

Finally though, in the end, what it really comes down to is that I enjoy maintaining this persona. I have had a lot of fun building up his visibility in different online communities. Yeebo is almost like a person I’ve created in digital space. To reduce or elevate him to synonymy with my real persona would feel like a loss.

I do not by any of this mean to imply that there isn’t some crossover between the digital and physical realms. I’ve often had digital friends become RL friends, and vice versa. In fact, as I get older the distinction between the two seems to get fuzzier.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

DDO update 5: an unpleasent surprise

I sincerely hope I am mistaken about this [Edit: yeah, I was...turns out it's an unintended bug in the patch]

As far as I can tell, the buffer for outdoor maps got changed from four (i.e., your character will remember where you have been in four outdoor zones until you hit a 5th, then one character specific map will get replaced) to zero. This means that if you have the temerity to explore an outdoor zone and log off before doing every single thing in the zone, when you next log on your map will be completely blacked out... as if you never set foot in the zone. This makes it one hell of a lot harder to figure out where to go or what you missed in between sessions in outdoor exploration areas.

Maybe I hit a bug in Tangle-Root Gorge. I really really hope so, because the alternative is that Turbine is bat shit crazy. The outdoor zones are huge, and it's hard to remember where you have been. Getting all the exploration points and all the rare kills critically depends on remembering where you have been. A map that shows where you have been recently is absolutely essential to exploring these areas. If they are having storage capacity issues on their end all they need to do is make the map storage data client side. Yes that means we could easily open up all of our maps with simple hacks. But really, who the hell cares? Figuring out where to go should not be the primary challenge of the game.

Being rewarded for exploring is awesome. I loved clearing out maps under the old system, it gave you a real sense of progress as you went looking for all the exploration points. Losing every bit of that progress the moment you log out is poor game design. If some of your users choose to set the exploration aspect of the game on fire to use cheated up maps, that is their loss. Those of us that enjoy exploring will still do it the legit way. Don't kick us all in the 'nads because you are too cheap to pay for storage space on your end, or too lazy to move it to our end.

My apologies for the rabidity of this post to my regular readers. There is some history. I was pretty ticked when I discovered the 4 map buffer after spending three evenings scouting out out the entire Three Barrel Cove map (yes, even the empty ocean bits). I hit a new zone, and my map got completely blanked. I rank pretty high on the explorer end of the Bartle continuum, and flushing maps I've filled out jams a "Yeebo angry" button on the back of my neck. But after some reflection, I realized you really don't bop back and forth between more than four outdoor areas that often. There is no reason to, the lower level maps you have filled out are largely useless to you once you level out of them.

No map buffer at all, on the other hand, jams the same button on the back of my neck about ten times as hard. In my myopic world, this change is insanity of the first order. Be on the lookout for a guy with long hair ranting on random street corners about maps, Turbine, and the number five.

Final Edit (Update): It seems that my nerd rage was unwarranted. The issue is a bug, that will get fixed in the next few days.

All I can say is thank goodness. Now I can get on with bitching about the realID fiasco. Oh, no wait, that's not an issue now either. Well, there's always the latest Allod's patch. Maybe I'll fire that up and see if it's as bad as they say on the forums ;-)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

DDO: The rest of update 5

Lest this blog become known as Yeebo's random DDO rants, I feel obligated to give some more details about book five now that I've had time to mess with it.

The guild leveling system I like quite a bit. Whenever you finish a quest chain, in addition to the normal rewards you are offered an item that will feed points to your guild. Even soloing low level quests I've managed to add a few thousand points to the guild I joined on Khyber to check the system out. The guild I'm in now is closing quickly on guild airship territory, I look forward to messing around with that system. A rumor I have heard is that the airship system strongly encourages you to buy items from the DDO item shop to fit out your ship. Not being in a guild that has unlocked one, I can neither confirm nor deny that. But I hope the worst versions of the rumor I've heard are exaggerations.

The new content pack is also absolutely brilliant. It's a bit puzzling that it's aimed at level five-ish characters, since we already have so much content in that level range. However, even doing normal mode on a level eight character I got a ton of XP from the first two adventures. I also found the story lines and quest mechanics to be really engaging. SPOILER ... For example, at one point in the second chain a bunch of barrels and boxes fly up into the air and assemble into a sort of trash monster...very surprising and very cool...END SPOILER. I'm really looking forward to the next quests in the pack, the first two were some of the best content I've seen in DDO. The only issue I ran into was that I had a bit of trouble figuring out who to talk to first to start things up. It turns out the first NPC is all the way in the back of the House P compound. Do not get distracted by the chick balancing on the head of a wolf near the entrance:

I also got stuck on one part where I was convinced that a Mario Brothers style approach to something would work. Many falls later I realized I was mistaken (at least at my jump level). However I didn't mind at all. The simple puzzle solving is one of the things I actually really enjoy about DDO.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Sacrificing the low level game to balance the high level game

I made it back from a conference (to which my recent lack of posts can be attributed) last night. Despite my jet lag, I decided to spend some time messing around with DDO's update five. I’m sure that the higher level features such as the new guild airships , the class spec line changes, and the new module are fine and dandy. However, on my (maximum of level 8) toons, the only real difference I've noticed so far is that dual wielding has been nerfed to hell and back.

[Beginning: technical details, skip down for the main points]

As it stands, with the first level of two-weapon fighting, you are giving up 2 attack bonus and very likely a shield (even at low levels easily 6 AC) for a 40% chance to proc an attack with your off-hand when you swing your main-hand weapon. Should the off-hand attack proc, you still have to make your to-hit roll or it is wasted. For my low level rogue, this means I get one successful offhand hit in roughly once every two or three attack cycles (based on looking at my combat logs), where before I was reliably getting one or two hits per attack cycle with my offhand weapon.

For low level characters that can use a shield, the benefit of TWF (two weapon fighting) doesn’t seem to outweigh the attack and AC penalty. Particularly when you consider the fact that shields which do damage to foes that strike you are fairly common. Add in that that your main-hand weapon is more accurate, and I suspect you are looking at similar DPS to dual wielding using a sword-and-board while having significantly higher defense. Even for classes like Rogue that can’t use shields, it’s iffy. Such characters tend to have low attack bonuses to begin with, so a -2 main-hand attack penalty for an off-hand attack that may or may not proc seems questionable.

The offhand proc chance can be boosted to 60% and 80% by getting improved and greater two-weapon fighting at higher levels. But that doesn’t help out any of my low level characters, or any new player that excitedly tries out dual wielding only to discover that it’s next to useless (until much higher level). In order to slightly reduce the DPS that TWF builds were putting out at high levels, Turbine essentially completely trashed dual wielding at low levels.

[End: technical details]

DDO seems to have a problem in general that the low level and high level game are at odds. One symptom of this is that very often a build that is optimal at higher levels starts off quite weak. For example, endgame focused builds of hybrid classes often use the primary spell casting stat as a "dump stat," in some cases eliminating the ability to cast spells at all until the teens. Now we see this problem extending even to overall balancing of the game. Turbine apparently can't figure out a way to balance dual wielding save to cripple it at low levels, when squishy melee classes like Rogue and Ranger need a DPS boost the most.

Oddly enough, Turbine's stated reason for modifying two-weapon fighting wasn’t primarilly to reduce the DPS it does. Supposedly, they did it to reduced combat lag in raids. They claim to have nerfed one of the most popular fighting styles across the board to address an issue that the majority of players will never encounter. My reaction to that is (A) we are not stupid, we know that the main point likely is to reduce the DPS of TWF builds, and (B) if combat lag in raids really was their main reason for the change, they just nerfed the hell much of the player base…particularly low level players and new players… to improve the endgame. That would be an abysmally stupid approach to the problem.

New players are the lifeblood of a MMO. Making their gameplay more difficult to help out the end game vets that are already committed to your game is poor business. The vets really don't give the first crap about the low level game. New players, on the other hand, will stay or quit based on it.