Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays!

That was the most holiday themed screenshot I had on hand. They look embarrassed and guilty to me, I will not speculate as to what they were doing before I came upon them. In any case, regardless of what you celebrate or don't, I hope the days winding down the year are good ones for you!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Adventures in the new Badlands (not to be confused with the Blasted Lands)

My gnome mage is up to the ripe old age of 51 now, and starting on his final days in the 1-60 zones. I ran out and bought the gnome epic land mount the second he turned 40. It's not the big deal it used to be back when epic land mounts cost 1000 gold, but I'm still pretty happy with it.

I did almost all the quests in the Eastern Plague lands, but couldn't for the life of me find the last two NPCs I needed to kill to finish out the zone and put the keep in the southeastern part of it in it's final phase. One of them even appeared on my mini-map, but I couldn't find him in the keep he's supposed to be in. I searched it long enough to kill all three of the other bosses twice, but never laid eyes on him. I imagine he hid under a bed or jumped in a closet whenever he heard me coming (a sensible course of action, really).

After spending a good hour looking for the guy, I gave up. A friend of mine had recently started questing in the Badlands and was raving about it, so I decided to head there and check it out for myself. Only I didn't go there I went to the Blasted Lands (doh!). Undeterred by the fact that the mobs were all Red to "??" level hostiles, I cleared out the map looking for the quest hub I presumed my friend was working from. "He's questing out here, really?!" I thought to myself more than once.

After at least two deaths, and with everything from Netherguard Keep to the Dark Portal on my map, I finally realized I had to be in the wrong zone.

Yes, I really did go to all those places when I was 46.

I eventually made it to the the Badlands, and I was really impressed. The quests have been cleaned up a lot, a zone I used to dread is now among my favorites. The new goblin area is delightful.

Follow the tacky signs ...

... to a brand new quest hub.

There is a quest there that involves launching sheep at high velocity off of mountaintops that had me giggling like a six year old. I managed to hit an ogre with one of them and it murdered the ogre (cool!). There is also a quest that involves mowing down waves of troggs with a cannon that I got a big kick out of. It played somewhat like asteroids.

Later in the zone there is one of the most gonzo awesome quest chain's I've ever done in an MMO. I will provide but one hint as to the content:

Godzilla Gnome!

The capstone quest in the zone is a boss fight that is genuinely challenging. I and my friend two manned it, and even with his help I had to use all my cooldowns and got beat within an inch of my life. It's one of the first quests (outside of an instance) I've encountered in revamped WoW that I really don't think could be soloed by most classes on level. The reward was a really nice blue item.

I've since moved on to the Burning Steppes. The progression there is certainly a lot smoother than it used to be. However, so far nothing has excited me enough to want to blog about it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dueling SWTOR previews

Recently Bioware has started letting journalists play through one of the Jedi Starter areas in Star Wars the Old Rebublic, and previews of it have been mixed. Mike Nelson over at 1up posted a surprisingly negative preview of it, upset that it contained fairly typical MMO style killing and gathering quests. That's a bit of an odd complaint to me, because I remember the KotOR games having a fair number of killing and gathering quests as well. Conversely, Brianna Royce over at Massively played through some of the exact same content and is positively gushing about it, claiming that the cinematic presentation and well acted voice-work elevate even the most mundane quests.

It seems from reading both back-to-back that Massively got to see a lot more of the game than 1up, and that some of the later quests are more interesting than the first few tutorial quests; which may explain the discrepancy in their impressions. It will be interesting to see what consensus emerges as more journalists get to play through the content Bioware is showing off. I look forward to the game regardless. I'm not allergic to typical MMO quests (could you be allergic to them and play anything but EVE and Darkfall?), and the dialogue options sound really well done.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Great deal on STO, an even better one on PoTBS

I posted somewhere recently that I was waiting for the price of Star Trek Online to get down to "practically free" before I was going to get it. Amazon is currently selling the collectors edition for nine dollars. With shipping it was 11, less than the price of the month of sub time I'll get with the box. I think that qualifies as practically free.

In other news, somehow I missed the fact that Pirates of the Burning Sea FtP has officially launched. You can look at the price matrix here. I have no idea what most of that stuff is, but apart from "ship storage slots" it looks like you get enough of them on a free account to see if they are any good and if you want to buy more. The sweet spot looks like "Premium Account" to me. All you have to do is sub for a month, getting full access to the missions and an XP bonus for Captain's Account for that month. Then, at the end of the month if you cancel you drop down to Premium, keeping all the extra slots and ship insurance. At least on paper, it seems like a good deal.

Finally, my gnome mage made 36 last night. My epic rocket chicken is only four levels away...

Monday, December 6, 2010

WoW activities, recent and planned

Unlike many players, I do not intend to get Cataclysm for World of Warcraft until some time this weekend. I'm currently leveling a gnome mage, so it's unlikely that any of the new content would affect me much. Listed below are what I've been up and my near term plans in WoW, in no particular order.

I have a shiny new gnome mage that I started a little over a week ago up to 32. I was really impressed by the new gnome starter area. I also like the fact that zones and quests lead right into each other. Previously you would run out of quests somewhere in the Wetlands and be forced to go to the area of Stormwind to continue leveling. So far I'm about halfway through the the Hinterlands and have never come close to running out of content. To me completely separate leveling tracks is a good thing, because it means replayability. I still have the entire Westfall -> Redrock -> ect. quest chain series in front of me untouched whenever I decide to roll my next alt.

I also leveled a tailor to 20 to support my mage. She will now be able to make gear that is relevant for him into the low 40s at least, and has sent around silk bags to all of my characters that needed them. I could make some very nice blue boots, save that spider's silk is going for berserk prices on the auction house. I refuse to spend 40+ gold to make one pair of boots for a level 30ish character.

Said tailor is also my first Drainei to hit 20. While the zones are very pretty, and the capstone quest in the 10-20 area feels utterly epic, I can't say I enjoyed leveling through there nearly as much as the dwarf/ gnome areas. There is too much running back and forth to the same spots from a central hub, and the whole "kindly space demons stranded in Azeroth" storyline has never really clicked with me.

The Drainei zones are quite pretty.


Said Drainei is also my first priest to hit 20. The fact that I was able to immediately see a DPS boost from going Shadow spec at ten really helped me out a lot. Before my priests always stalled out in the low teens when I got tired of wanding things to death (easily the best low level DPS for the old priest). The class is still a bit painful to solo with (at least compared to my mage, which can take down most foes in the time it takes to cast Pryoblast and Fireball), but much improved from what I remember.

I also decided to bite the bullet and join a PuG flagged as a healer. It was actually a heck of a lot of fun, everyone was really nice. I was able to keep everyone maxed out for most of the instance, even the mage who had a tendency to over-pull. I did however cause a wipe by not paying enough attention to my health bar. Surprisingly no-one gave me any grief about it. The reaction was "No worries" and on we went.

Future plans include getting my mage up to 40 so he can buy his rocket chicken, and maybe doing a few instances to improve his gear. Green gear from quests is starting to catch up to my blue gear, a sure sign I need to hit the dungeon finder.

Rocket chicken, how I covet thee!

I'll also be installing Cataclysm some time in the next week. I'm debating whether to start a Goblin, start a Worgen, or simply to keep leveling my Gnome. I'm curious to see whether BC content is more fun now that you can get a flying mount at 60, which of course has nothing to do with Cataclysm. The main content I'm looking forward to in Cataclysm is actually the new Archaeology system.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Bullet dodged, dongle ordered

When I was finally able to get back in to my WoW account, I discovered to my amazement that none of my gear or gold was missing. Apparently, someone hacked my account so that they could use it to send spam tells on a random server. The only change to the account was a new level one character with a name like "Dskjsdka" on a server I don't play on (quickly deleted). Many password changes later (g-mail, banking, ect.), everything seems fine. I haven't had any trouble with the account for the past two days, keeping my fingers crossed. In any case, I broke down and ordered a dongle yesterday.

Monday, November 29, 2010

My WoW carreer begins and ends in the blink of an eye

I've been playing WoW for about four days, and my account has already been hacked. I did full system checks with Spybott and Avast, and changed my password to something horrific that I have no hope of remembering (I had to write it down) filled with numbers, letters, and shift key symbols. Even after all that, my password got changed while I was out with some friends at dinner tonight. My billing is now canceled. I may be able to get in for my last few weeks on December 1st. However, any time investment in WoW is starting to seem foolish unless I spring for a dongle. When I calm down more, I'll decide whether to dongle up.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Healers of WoW PuGs, I salute you

Last night I started mixing in the Dungeon Finder with normal questing on my new mage. The fact that it takes me so long to get a group as a DPS is actually pretty cool, because it lets me mainly work on quests and get whisked off to a group every 30 minutes or so. My job in a group is also easy as hell: hit stuff in the face with fire until it dies, and don't get aggro off of the main tank. It's been really rewarding, Grizlith now is running with several pieces of blue gear that make his quest rewards and/ or anything my pocket tailor can craft look stupid. On my first run, I was the only cloth wearer and got three items.

In my second run, I wasn't paying enough attention and got aggro off of a boss from the main tank by opening up with big spells when he was still winding up. Our priest did his best, when he shouldn't even have to be paying attention to my health, but couldn't keep me up. Once the boss was down, as the priest was rezzing me, someone called a vote to kick him from our party. It was quickly rejected, but holy I spazzed out and got myself killed, and one of the other DPSs immediately blames the healer. If that is the kind of treatment healers normally get in WoW PuGs, my hat goes off to anyone that has the patience to stick with it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Obligatory WoW shattering post

After some internal debating, I decided to sub up to WoW for a month and see what the post shattering game is like. STO certainly has me intrigued, and I plan to buy the full game soon. However, the only way for me to try out the "new improved" WoW was to sub up.

I started a gnome mage named Grizlith. My first ever MMO character was a wizard in Everquest named Grizlith (a name I made up). Since then, I've recreated Grizlith in a variety of games. He was actually my first main in WoW. I got him up to the ripe old age of 62, and then decided I wanted a redo and deleted him. Soon after that I switched to horde on a different server, got a warlock up to 70 Burning Crusade era, and kind of forgot about him.

With the cataclysm revamp of WoW, I had a good excuse to re-roll him on my old alliance server. Poking around, it turned out I had all the alts needed to twink him to the gills. This chick is a maxed out tailor for her level:

And this guy is a maxed out leather worker for his level:

Because of armor kits, I was able to get Grizlith into cloth armor that has almost as much AC as plate mail would at his level. [As an aside, I defy anyone to get together a cooler looking set of level 20 leather than what Yarik (above) is wearing.] Grizlith also got lucky with drops, he ended up with a beer mug that went perfectly (low level stats wise) with a dagger that he got from a quest:

As to revamped WoW itself, all I can say is that I am stunned so far. The leveling game that I have seen up to 12 is substantially streamlined and improved compared to what I last played. I don't think I exaggerate when I say that Blizzard has achieved a level of polish that will be next to impossible for competing MMO developers to emulate. Almost every single quest in the old WoW has been replaced with something better. So far the storylines are more engaging and clearer than anything I remember.

The mechanics of quests have also been improved. Where before you would hit a hub with ten random quests, you now hit a hub with fewer quests but each quest directly contributes to the storyline you are playing through. Kill and gathering quests remain, but there are also now a large number of quests where you are doing interesting stuff like flying around in a plane and bombing foes or leading a robot around to clean up toxic sludge (two random examples).

Finally, class designs have been given a huge overhaul. I haven't messed around with all the classes, but the ones I have tried had (mostly) pleasant surprises. Like Anjin, I was really pleased with the redesign of Mages. Many spells have been updated or improved. For example, Arcane Missiles now can't be used unless it procs off of another offensive spell. Each spell you cast has a 40% chance to activate it. When it does become active, it cannot be you can use it in melee range. On even cons it's good for roughly half a health bar. In old WoW I barely used arcane missiles on my mages. Unless facing a foe resistant to frost and fire it rarely was worth casting. Now, it's one of my favorite spells.

I am not by any means claiming that "the new WoW" is a perfect MMO. It's still a shallow linear MMO lacking certain basics like housing and appearance slots. However, within the limited scope Blizzard has chosen to focus their game, post Cataclysm WoW sets a bar that I doubt any directly competing MMOs are going to be able to reach. This is some of the smoothest and most entertaining questing I've ever experienced. A five year old MMO that I was so burned out on I thought I'd never be able to play it again now seems fresh, engaging, and relevant to the modern market.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I might actually sub to something

For roughly the past year I've been playing FtP games (in the broad sense of any game that doesn't require you to pay a monthly sub to log on) almost exclusively. LoTRO was still technically sub based most of the year, but since I bought a lifetime sub a couple of months after launch is was effectively FtP for me. SWG never got a sub out of me, I barely made it to the end of the trial. I also dallied with Age of Conan, but again never ended up subbing. Due to a billing snafu I ended up with two free months to play it, and that was more time than I needed. Apart from those, Allod's Online, Myst URU, DDO, Wizard 101, and EQ2X have been filling my online gaming hours. I've gotten so used to bopping in and out of games whenever it pleases me that I've been really hesitant to actually sub up to anything.

That looks like it's coming to an end soon. On Monday I downloaded and played the demo for Star Trek Online. I was underwhelmed (to put it mildly) by the tutorial the first time I tried it. However, I gave it another go with tactical (DPS boosting) officer and made it all the way through the first mission you get with the demo. While it didn't exactly blow my socks off, I saw a lot of interesting mechanics I'd like to explore more. I could get the full game up and running for only $20, and I may.

And of course, there is Cataclysm. As any one reading this knows, World of Warcraft has been heavily revamped as of this week. Even without buying the expansion there is an almost entirely new 1-60 leveling game in place now. I am very much tempted to pony up $15 to check it out. However, it leaves me with kind of an odd quandry. WoW isn't installed on my current PC at all. Do I do a fresh install on my current PC using Blizzards horrifically slow down loaders (the worst I have ever experienced with any MMO company since leaving 56K behind [Edit: as it turns out Blizzard has updated their downloader, the new one is amazingly zippy...12 gigs in less than two hours]), or plug in the toaster living under my bed that has the entire game installed? Further, so great is my WoW burnout that I'm not entirely sure that even a brand spanky new 1-60 game would be enough to keep me entertained. I made it all of two levels into WotLK the last time I tried it.

In any case, too many interesting options is not a bad place to be. In either case, less than what I spend in a bar on a weekend is at stake.

Friday, November 19, 2010

LoTRO News Tidbits

A lot of little news tidbits have been piling up around Lord of the Rings Online lately. First off, the next expansion has been announced, the Rise of Isengard. Ardwulf posted a preview video on his site earlier today. Details include a level cap increase and a major revamp of monster play, including a new PvMP zone. My experiences with monster play in LoTRO have always been a lot of fun, I'm glad to see it getting some attention after all this time. I also can't wait to see Isenguard and Orthanc.

In other news that I can't believe I missed, back in September it was announced that Radiance is going to be removed from LoTRO. All I can really say about this is "thank god." The radiance system single handedly made high end crafted gear and the gear you can earn doing PvP useless for end game activities. Not because the stats on Radience gear are really all that much better than other gear that's available, simply because they have a "radiance" stat that is needed for end game instances. The entire radiance system struck me as a baldfaced attempt to stretch the limited endgame content of launch Moria. Presumably due to the addition of scaling instances, such system is no longer needed in current LoTRO. Endgame options now abound.

Finally, the upcoming Yule festival activities are generating some controversy. An entire new town is being added just for the event, which I am very much looking forward to. The contoversy has arisen because it is possible to complete the main quest chain either via normal heroic options (feed the homeless, give money to the poor, ect.) or by being a complete bastard (e.g., destroying a man's source of income and then stealing from him). Some players that have tested the content on Bullroarer feel a quest chain which rewards you for being a selfish jerk is out of place in LoTRO.

I have mixed feelings about it from what I've read. The option to act like an evil bastard certainly goes against the feel of the rest of LoTRO. However, I think that choosing to solve a problem through kindness doesn't mean as much if you don't also have the option of being a selfish jerk. Being a hero isn't nearly as heroic if it's your only choice.

Edit (Update): Blue Kae and Syp also have posts up about Rise of Isenguard, and Massively published a story with many details not mentioned in Turbine's press release. One thing that really stuck out is the mention that the Legendary Item system is also being revamped to make it less random and focus more on player choice. While I am delighted that the system is getting a revamp, I have to say that it's about freaking time they did something with it. The current LI system is more like a really grindy take on roulette than what I envisioned when legendary weapons were first announced pre-Moria.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

EQ II: There's an awfull lot going on in the background

Before leaving town last week I had the pleasure of doing the crafting quests in New Halas on both the evil and good sides in Everquest II.


The evil quest line has you trying to ensure an exclusive trade agreement between New Halas and Neriak using mafia tactics. Spinning wheels are broken, cloth is trashed with acid, and bombs are planted. On my next alt through that zone, I did the good quest line and discovered that I was largely reacting to stuff my last character did. "Some asshole trashed all the town's spinning wheels, could you make some new ones?" I even ended up setting the trap that my first character fell into. Very cool.

Even more impressive, I did the evil quest chain for the second time on yet another alt, and the quest dialogue made more sense because I had done both sides of the chain. For example, my evil quest giver couldn't figure out why the demand for fine china didn't spike after I trashed a crate of china in a storage house. That would be because my good alt crafted replacements.

End spoilers.

The thing that strikes me about these interlocking quest chains is that 90% of players will never notice the care that has gone into them. First off, to do either chain you need to be into crafting and know about the quests. Nothing in game tells you that there is a quest chain you can do for free access to all the tier II rare recipes, much less where to go to get the quests. Even assuming you are a hardcore crafter and do the research to find these quests, what are the odds that you will end up doing both the evil and good quest chains? Much less evil-good-evil as I did them.

The attention to details most players will never notice is even more clearly illustrated by a wolf that lives in the New Halas crafting hall. His name is Hagley:

Having run past him on a string of alts, I noticed that he has several behaviors. If you run by him on an evil character, he will growl and bark as you pass. If you run by on a good character he will either wag his tail or sit and look at you. His name is also a reference. Hagley is one of the five Everquest Online Adventures servers. I also presume it's an Everquest (the original) reference that I'm not familiar with.

EQ II is (along with EQ and EQOA for that matter) full of neat little details that I expect most players will never notice. Personally, these things suck me in and make a game a lot more "sticky." I'm still playing and enjoying EQ II well past the month or so that most MMOs get from me.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Exploration versus progress

I am an explorer when it comes to MMOs. Not only in terms of lore and in-game geography, but also in terms of systems. I really enjoy exploring the mechanics of MMOs. In fact, once I learn all of the basic mechanics of any given MMO I tend to lose interest in it.

I spend a lot of time fiddling around with the classes and crafting professions, then get bored once I'm not learning anything new. In most MMOs you can learn 80% of the mechanics in your first few weekends, and then need to put in another six months or so to get to the endgame where new systems start to open up. There are very few MMOs that have kept me hooked long enough to get to that last 5-20% of the game.

Even in the rare ones that hook me for more than a month or two, I tend to make slow progress. My approach to MMOs is more like ants crawling out in all directions from a nest than a horse charging forward. I always want to see all the starting areas, which takes some time. However, what really slows me down is my penchant for having an interlocking and self sufficient fleet of crafters. For example, in EQ2X I currently have crafters that upgrade abilities for both casters and melee characters, as well as crafters that make bags, cloth armor, leather armor, and metal armor. I'm waffling over whether to use my recently purchased fifth character slot to make metal weapons or jewelry. I may end up buying a sixth character slot for my silver account so I can cover both.

Getting all those crafters up to the point where they can make useful stuff for each other has eaten up most of my playtime. Going on adventures and killing stuff is sort of a side activity that helps me gather the mats needed to keep my family of characters in the best gear that can be crafted. The only MMOs I've played long term where I didn't fall into this cycle were either MMOs that had an absolutely grueling crafting system (e.g., DAoC and EQ) or MMOs that lacked any crafting system to speak of (e.g, DDO and COX). In WoW, LoTRO, and now EQ2X I have fleets of mid to low level characters that make great stuff for each other, and mains that take at least twice as long to level as the mains of users that play these games linearly.

I'm certain that to some players of these games, my diffuse approach to progression borders on insane. Particularly to players that think MMOs "start" once you hit the level cap (?!?). However, it's fun to me and that's really all that matters. . . at least to me :-)

An aside: apologies for the lack of posts lately. I am traveling a lot these days. This is the first weekend I've been in town since my last post. Regular posting will resume towards the end of the month I expect.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Too Many Halloween Events, too Little Time

All three of the MMOs that I currently play have Halloween events going. I made it halfway through the Halloween festivities in EQ2X last night. There are a series of events going on in different regions, the first two I went through both involve haunted houses. One event that started in Neriak especially impressed me.

Warning, spoilers ahead!

I talked to a goblin at the Neriak docs who sent me to the Loping Planes on a mission that was more than a bit suspicious. When I finally made it to the Loping Plains, my map told me that for my level 40 quest I needed to go through a swarm of angry red level 62 mobs to get to a graveyard. Skeptical but undaunted, I turned invisible and tried to sneak through them. As soon as I got near one he broke my invisibility and killed me in two blows. However, when I rezzed I found myself in the graveyard I was trying to get to, in what seemed to be a safe spot. Ok, that works I guess...

After running around a bit, an apparition appeared out of thin air and charged me. Before I could even react, my screen went black. After a bit, I awoke laying on a bed in the inn of a town at the edge of the graveyard. After talking to a few NPCs, it turned out that I was thrashed within an inch of my life and had been out for days. It also turned out that there was an abandoned mansion in town with hauntedness issues. I volunteered to check things out, and a very cool haunted mansion quest chain ensued:

The quest had some pretty creepy moments along the way:

It all ended in one hell of a tough series of fights (at least for a solo Warlock). A clever and elaborate quest that I much enjoyed.

End spoilers.

Based on the first two Halloween quests I've done in EQ2X, I can't wait to do the others. They really are some of the coolest quests I've seen there, with neat story-lines, fun puzzles, and goofy but fun rewards. For example, here is a shot of my rotating crown of glowing skulls from the haunted mansion quest:

As if this weren't enough to murder all of my spare time, Lord of the Rings Online also has a Halloween quest called "The Haunted Burrow" that is rumored to be better than any of the previous Fall Festival events. Dungeons and Dragons Online has also just launched update 7, which also includes a Halloween event.

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays (it's the only one I actually decorate my apartment for), and by far my favorite holiday in MMOs. I'm headed out of town for work reasons most of next week, it's going to be a struggle (but a fun one!) to get through all this content while it's live in the next few days.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Is Star Wars the Old Republic doomed?

Amazingly enough, Tobold and Syncaine agreed on something last week, that Star Wars: the Old Republic is doomed to financial failure. I suspect this was because it's too much like WoW (classes, quests, levels, PvE focused) for Syncaine and it's not enough like WoW for Tobold (who argues that no-one plays MMOs for the narratives). However, Ardwulf also weighed in, and running some off-the-cuff numbers also concluded that the situation for SWTOR looks pretty grim. I think Ardwulf actually raises some good points.

To be sure, at first consideration 100+ million looks like an utterly insane budget for any game, even an MMO. However, budgets for sub-free games are hitting 100 million in some cases, for example Grand Theft Auto IV. Those games make zero from subs going forward (though in some cases they sell optional content packs). Admittedly, all the games listed on that website cater to bigger markets than SWTOR because they are on both consoles and the PC. Further, if Bioware really has spent 300 million, I'd tend to agree with Ardwulf that Bioware and EA are screwed. However, with all those qualifiers, I think a budget of around 100-200 million would not be completely insane.

I think it will come down to how well BIOWARE executes the MMO part of SWTOR, and that's what we know the least about at this point (almost nothing really, I'm not even sure if there will be an auction house as I type this). A lot of commentators seem to assume that we are about to see another "sell a million boxes and then crash to 100K steady subs" fiasco ala Warhammer Online and Age of Conan (the last two really big budget MMOs). However I really doubt that.

Both WAR and AoC seriously fell down on basics at launch (for example, AoC was missing features listed on the retail box!?!), and despite that still managed around 100K steady subs. In contrast to those games (and modern AoC for that matter), I expect SWTOR to have a polished and enjoyable leveling game at launch. I don't think we can really generalize from the launches of WAR and AoC to what will happen with SWTOR.

SWTOR is going to be an important test for "PC alone" as a target for big budget games. Based on the fact that it's the unofficial sequel to the much beloved KoTR and KoTR II games, if Bioware was set to release SWTOR across PCs and consoles I think everyone would be a lot more comfortable with it having a big budget. Just on box sales, which would undoubtedly be in the millions, they could expect to recoup most of their budget. Any subs on top of that would be gravy.

However, by choosing to stick to the PC market...they are likely looking at initial box sales of no more than around 2 million. I do think they can top the 1 million boxes that WAR and AoC did, but not by a ton. Maybe over the first year they will get up to 3 or 4 million if the word of mouth is really good. Regardless, on box sales it seems obvious they are not getting back 100-200 million.

What success or failure will really come down to is how many of their users they retain, and whether the steady population grows or shrinks in the year after launch. At this point, there are too many unknowns to judge what is likely to happen. For example:

- What will be the population momentum of a game that sells 1 million + boxes and is actually polished and playable at launch? WAR and AoC certainly haven't given us a clue.

- How many people will stick around to play an MMO that emphasizes an engaging solo experience over typical MMO mechanics?

- How many fans of the rich narratives of single player RPGs want to play an MMO but find a market that doesn't really cater to them?

- How many Star Wars fans will play an MMO that isn't a sand box? Star Wars galaxies was north of 200K subs until the NGE according to most narratives, and to say it was (and still is) a niche product design would be a huge understatement.

There are a lot of unknowns in play that could shake out either way. In many ways SWTOR is aiming at a market that isn't well served by the current generation of MMOs, and really never has been well served : players that want a moment-to-moment play experience as polished and engaging as a big budget offline RPG in an MMO. Whether this will be enough to make a it a breakout hit is anyone's guess. However, I'm not ready to start composing pithy phrases for SWTOR's tombstone just yet.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Big ass sale for a very short time in LoTRO

Via Biobreak, there is a huge sale LoTRO starting at midnight tonight (runs until the 13th at midnight eastern time). Quest packs for the Lonelands, North Downs, and Evindim will all go on sale for 75% off (!). That is enough content to get you to the low 40s and ready for Foreschel if you really milk it. If you are FtP in LoTRO and don't have those zones yet, you'd do well to take advantage. Doing my part to spread the heads up.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The beggining of the end of sub-based MMOs?

Turbine recently announced at the Game Developers conference that LoTRO has done extremely well since going free to play. The number of users has more than tripled, 20% of all lapsed former subscribers have come back, revenue from the game doubled, and subs have actually increased. Sounds an awful lot like what happened when DDO went FtP.

We don't know how well EQ2X is doing, but SOE has already announced that Pirates of the Burning Sea will be going FtP and has hinted that they are considering switching Vanguard over as well. The real pudding will be the rate at which new content starts showing up in EQ II. If we start getting a lot of new content, I would take that as a sign of an increased revenue stream. If the pace doesn't change from what we have seen in the last few years, it may have been a wash for them.

On the other hand you have the recent announcement that World of Warcraft has surpassed 12 million concurrent subs. With Cataclysm coming down the pipe December 7th, it's almost certain that number will go even higher.

To me this really just formalizes what commentators have been saying for years. There's WoW, and then there's everything else. If I were running or developing a sub based "something else," I would be thinking long and hard about switching to FtP. I think Bioware has a good chance to crack a million subs with their Old Republic MMO, and GW II is also likely going to do extremely well. But for the most part I think you'd be daft to try and compete with Blizzard in the sub based MMO space, unless your game is budgeted out assuming (at most) 100K players when it goes live.


News Asides: Not sure how the heck I missed this, but LEGO Universe launched today for pre-order customers. I will be checking that out the very moment a demo becomes available. Also, IGN has an incredibly detailed write up of FF XIV. Unfortunately, due to a number of issues (e.g., the brutal system requirements and clunky UI) I'll be surprised if FF XIV does well on the PC. Hopefully the PS3 version will be better.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Watch This

If you blog, watch this video over at Broken Toys, it's great.

A lot of the talk is obviously aimed at an audience that works in game development. I don't work in the industry, nor would I ever want too (I applaud you guys, but consider you slightly insane for putting up with the work hours and lack of security). Regardless, his presentation had some pretty good advice for anyone that blogs. Well worth seven minutes of your time.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Purchasable Character Slots Coming to EQ2X

Today SOE announced that we will be able to buy character slots in starting October 5th in both EQ II and EQ2X. In EQ2X slots can be purchased at any account level (Gold, Silver, Bronze) and will be in addition to whatever slots you have at your current level by default. For example, if you buy two slots at Bronze and switch to Silver, you will have a grand total of five slots. Slots will be ten dollars apiece.

This makes a heck of a lot of sense for SOE financially. With the 1-80 leveling game being free, there isn't really a whole lot worth spending money on right now on a Bronze or Silver account after you have your current character slots filled. Plus the character slots will have a snowball effect for many players, where they will buy a slot and a new race and class to fill it. I will have to think long and hard about whether I want to roll my traditional Troll Shadow Knight in addition to the three toons I have now. In any case, this is definitely a "Yipee!" from where I stand (the land of hopeless altoholics).

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

World of Tanks: a Very Brief Impression

Massively was giving away beta keys to World of Tanks yesterday, and I decided to give it a shot. On paper a MMO focused strictly on tank combat sounds...well insane to be honest. I was motivated to try it mainly out of morbid curiosity. To my shock I actually came away fairly impressed.

As near as I can tell the NDA is still in force, so unfortunately I can't go into a lot of detail. I will say that the tech behind the game is impressive, with a speedy install and convincing graphics. The open beta game is a fairly simple PvP match game. However, there are some deep advancement mechanics on hand which could potentially be pretty addictive. I expect that match options will be expanded as the game develops.

Unfortunately, the current newbie experience is a lot like putting on a suit made of bacon and jumping into a cage filled with ravening wolves. I was dead within less than a minute in the matches I played. I assume this will get smoothed out by the open beta. As long as a few common sense changes are made to the introductory experience, I will definitely be giving this game another look in a few weeks or months. Color me surprised.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Played Lately: LoTRO and EQ2X

I finally got around to trying the new zone in LoTRO (Enedwaith) last weekend, and intend to head back there this weekend. It’s a surprisingly pretty zone with some neat areas to explore. I really didn’t get that impression from screenshots I’ve seen. It’s also fairly challenging, aimed squarely at level 65 solo players or parties of players in their low 60s. It’s a lot tougher than Mirkwood, and I doubt it would be a viable alternate solo path from 60 to 65 for most characters.

I’m also still having a lot of fun in EQ2x. My main is up to the ripe old age of 28, which is further than I’ve made it in the past. I believe my old record in EQ II Live is around 24, maybe higher as a crafter. Likely due to that fact that my AA slider is locked at 50% (i.e., only half the XP I bring in goes towards leveling, the rest go into a system that unlocks specialization points) I’ve found that there is a bit of a gap in the solo quests of Butcherblock Mountains. The only quests I have left involve mobs of around level 32, and in most cases I would need to be able to take them down in groups of three at a time to make any progress. To plug the gap I have headed to Nektulos Forest and starting doing quests there. How someone completely new to EQ II would know that this is even an option I can’t say. I can’t help but wonder how many Bronze and Silver players have hit the same wall I have and simply left.

The thing that I’m really digging about EQIIX is the depth of it. I’m a lot further down my AA trees than I ever have been before (the upside of not being able to move my AA slider). Now that I’m seeing the system in full I’d say that the character customization system in EQ II offers a very nice blend of flexibility and user friendliness. It’s a bit more flexible than WoW or LoTRO, while much harder to screw up than something like DDO. And if you do screw up, it’s extremely inexpensive to respecialize at first. As little as 4 silver the first time (which is practically nothing) for a full respec.

The crafting system also has very nice depth. Common recipes can be bought from vendors and come in books of many recipes rather than as individual recipes like most MMOs. There are also rare recipes that let you make superior items from rare materials, much like shard items in LoTRO. Every time you go up a level as a crafter, a new set of books (one common, one rare) opens up, which means that you might be learning as many as a few dozen recipes every time you advance as crafter. It really makes a crafting “ding” much more exciting than most MMOs. Books with rare recipes drop off monsters, can be bought on the AH, or obtained through a series of crafting quests. The discovery of the latter method of obtaining recipes is what has really made the game pop for me I think. It’s nice to take a break from adventuring to do quests that focus on crafting items and gathering resources for an evening or two.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Pirates of the Burning Sea going FtP

Via MMO crunch, Pirates of the Burning Sea is gearing up to go FtP. A bit of research reveals that PotBS is not nearly as mainstream in it's design as other recent sub-based games to make the switch, less so than even DDO. In fact, according to reviews, it plays a lot like a EVE Online with a pirate theme. Not a game I'd be willing to try if the purchase of a client was involved, but for free? Yeah sure. Why not? It will be really interesting to see how they decide to monetize the game. PoTBS is also targeted at a somewhat niche audience (the Pirate Sim crowd?), which could work for or against it competing against LoTRO and EQ2X.

I personally hope that it does well because I have the attention span of a humming bird (at least by MMO gaming standards). The more full featured MMOs I can mess around with that don't require an entry fee, the better from where I stand. Regardless, it looks to be a really unique entry into the FtP MMO market.

Edit: Ethic over at KTR, My moment of zen, and Jaydub over at Dub's Diatribe all also have posts up. It also occurs to be that PoTBS is a SOE game. Does this mean that EQ2X is doing well?

Friday, September 10, 2010

The great FtP experiment is upon us

With Lord of the Rings FtP going live this weekend, we now have three major MMOs (LoTRO, along with Dungeons and Dragons Online and Everquest II extended) that have switched from sub based to FtP. Besides those of us that obsess on MMOs as a hobby, I imagine a lot of industry folks are going to be watching these games closely.

I suspect that the success or failure of LoTRO and EQ2X in particular will have a big impact on the pricing structure of future and current MMOs. To be sure, DDO seems to have been an unqualified success. But it hardly counts because the game was in dire straights before. Any change of fortune that let Turbine justify keeping the servers running would have been deemed a success.

In contrast, if EQ II and LoTRO, two already modestly successful sub based MMOs, also manage to permanently double or triple their revenue just by "turning on the [FtP] newbie fire-hose" (as Ian put it when we were chatting last night), I think a lot of existing sub based MMOs are going to try it as well. For example, why wouldn't Age of Conan, Star Wars Galaxies, Dark Age of Camelot, or Vanguard try the same thing? On the other hand, if either EQ II or LoTRO experience a brief spurt of attention, but then go back down to normal revenue levels in the next few months, I don't think much is going to change.

A month in EQ2X does not seem to be slowing down. At the very least the newbie channel had such a huge volume of chat last night at ridiculously-late-o'clock a.m. that it was spamming half the chat from my guild away before I could read it. If SOE figures out sooner rather than later that most of the FtP players will never-ever sub and gives silver and bronze accounts more options, I suspect they will see a big jump in revenue.

I also bopped briefly in to LoTRO last night, and it seemed to be hopping. It took me a good long while to log in to my server, and I don't play on one of the more popular ones. I had 4500 free Turbine points, and relatively little worth spending them on. But then I'm a lifer, I already have all the quests, classes, bag slots, and such. About all the points are good for to me is expanding my bank (which is not to be sneezed at I will allow), at least for the time being. As an aside, I also noticed that Captains have gotten a major overhaul. They are a heck of lot more fun at low levels now.

I'm watching LoTRO with special interest, because I as much as I dig it personally I really don't think it's for everyone (as Jaydub has also pointed out). It remains a somewhat slow paced MMO with a very restrained feeling setting. There will never be more than four races or a class more flashy than a Runemaster. There are certainly a good number of Tolkien lore geeks out there, but I suspect the majority of those that were in to MMOs had already at least tried LoTRO. Who the legions of new players flooding the servers right now are and whether they will stick around, much less spend money, is hard to say.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Still obsessing on EQ2X

First off, I think the blogging community needs to decide what the abbreviation of Everquest II Extended is. Hell, even here you can find EQ2X, EQIIX, and EQII ex in various posts. There is also some movement towards EQ2E on some blogs. Forget unemployment, this is serious business ;-)

My new pixie death mage is definitely going to go tailor. After a bit of research, I realized that I was insane and tailoring is the crafting line that makes bags, not a separate crafting line. As a tailor you get cloth armor, leather armor, and bags. It seems like a solid production profession, and with all three of my silver characters being cloth wearers I think it will be a lot of fun to level it. I doubt I'll be wearing a lot of what I can make given how good quest drops are, but I'd be surprised if I can't fill in a slot here and there with some of the high end rare recipes.

The thing I always enjoy about the crafting in EQ II is everyone can gather everything. That means that one high level lead can gather enough mats for several alts to blow through their crafting tiers. If you gather everything in sight, you soon end up with more raw materials than you will ever be able to use, short of a crafter that makes consumables.

I was surprised to discover that the new auction house tokens are per character, not account wide. This is a bit of an annoyance, but ultimately not a big deal if you are silver and have a shared bank account. I have one character that almost never leaves the crafting hall in Neriak, he has become my designated auctioneer. After messing around with it for a night, I have to concur with Stabs that tokens aren’t worth using for anything but occasional single purchases. If you can’t sell drops and crafted products in bulk, it’s not worth the bother of selling anything. Certainly, it isn’t worth 15 cents a pop (the cost of a token) to list most items.

Finally, based on a tip from Green Armadillo and Stabs in the comments of my previous post, last night I hunted down the quest “A Gathering Obsession.” It led me to a continent I had never set foot on before, and the quest was so easy and rewarding that I ended up doing it on all three of my characters. 17-18 gold is a lot of cash for 20 minutes of work. I plan to do part II with all three of my characters eventually for another 17 gold each. To find the quest, hit a travel globe at any dock and choose “Island of Mara.” When you arrive cross the river nearby and look for Qho Augren, a little boy swimming around in a pond. He’ll be the only quest feather on your map at low levels, making him really easy to find.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Restricted classes and broker tokens now for sale in EQ2X

Today at around noon SOE released a small patch and an update to the item shop in Everquest II extended. Now silver and bronze players can buy access to restricted classes for $7.50 each, and can buy broker (auction house) tokens in stacks of ten for $1.50.

On the announcement I bought another $20 in station cash, bringing my total in EQ2X up to $45 since I started playing. I’m planning to buy access to the Arasai race and necromancer class, because I find the idea of playing an evil pixie delightful (along with half the players of EQ II it seems, based on what I remember from my days on the regular servers). That will still leave me with a bit to spend on AH..erm “broker” tokens. Each token allows you bid on or sell one item or stack of items.

At this point, unless more features are added it doesn’t look like I’ll be spending much more on EQ2X. I will soon own every race I like (I will have bought three packs after tonight), I own silver, and I won’t be buying any more classes unless more character slots become available. I’m also not going to get tricked into buying $6 worth of broker tokens every month, I’ll be using the broker sparingly. For what I’ve spent I have a heck of a lot of game in front of me, I feel like I’ve gotten a good value. However, if SOE doesn’t offer options like spell upgrade tokens, bag slot unlocks, or extra character slots I just don’t see anything else I’m going to want to buy. And even those options would have to be pretty inexpensive to lure me in.

As it stands, I plan to start leveling up a necro tonight who will focus on making bags. With the inventory restrictions in place currently, big bags is a huge priority. So far I haven’t had any other real issues with my silver account. Gear upgrades come in quickly from quests, and I’ve so far had more money than I need just from vendoring drops. Given the gold cap on silvers, it also doesn’t make a lot of sense to try and stockpile tons of cash.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

EQ II extended: great game with a sub-par FtP model

Apologies for the radio silence, I was at a conference last week and playing catch up early this week.

The first thing I did when I had some spare time was try out Everquest II extended. Everquest II is one of those MMOs I have dabbled in a few times, and like quite a bit, but have never subbed to for more than a month or two. I tend to get bored with it in long doses, despite the fact that it's overall a very solid game. Because of that, I was really excited about the announcement of the FtP variant of EQ II, EQ II extended. The idea of being able to stick my head in whenever the wild hair strikes, and yet not have to sub, is appealing. I've worked my way up to 9 and 7 in two different starting areas on two different classes, and thought I'd share my impressions.

First I should start with the good. EQ II remains a solid game, X or no. It has a character customization system that is flexible without being overwhelming, has a very solid crafting system, a full featured housing system, a good appearance slot system, and a great guild leveling system. The latter is only rivaled by DDO among MMOs I have played.

Character progression is very quick. You will hit level 5 within an hour of logging, and have roughly twice as many abilities by then as you would in the great bulk of MMOs. Questing in Timorous Deep and New Halas also gets you gear upgrades extremely quickly. You can expect to have a full set of gear with solid stats by the time you hit ten, and that's a time commitment of perhaps three hours.

The tech behind this new version is also amazing. I hit the EQIIX website and was playing the game within less than ten minutes, on a fresh install. The time barrier to entry for a new player is now practically nil. It runs considerably better than I remember from the last time I played, but then again this is by far the best PC of the three I've played EQ II on. It's hard to say whether the client has been streamlined or average PCs have finally caught up to their poorly optimized client. I'll give SOE the benefit of the doubt and assume there are some improvements to their to their engine in this version.

Finally, there is a ton of content available on a free account. There are months of quests available to a new player whether you ever decide to pay or not. Rumor has it enough content to get you all the way to 80. That's kind of insane.

To summarize to this point: mechnically and technically EQIIX is an extremely solid MMO. There is no reason it could not become the best FtP MMO on the market.

Unfortunately, without changes to their current pricing model, it never will because FtP accounts are gimped no matter how much you spend on them.

This has been covered elsewhere, but to summarize Bronze/ Silver players (i.e., non - sub accounts) will never be able to access the following features no matter how much they are willing to pay:

-most of the classes [Edit (update): this afternoon it was announced that classes will be available in the future]
-the auction house
-the ability to set up a merchant in their house
-more than three character slots
-the ability to send mail
-the ability to change the amount of XP that goes AAs versus levelling addition to other features. I may spend the ten dollars to upgrade to a silver account. It gives you an extra character slot, shared bank slots for passing items among alts, some extra bag slots, and better abilities. But at this point, knowing that I will never be able to play the classes that I really want to play or access the auction house, I'm really not inclined to invest much money into the game.

I could always sub up for $15 a month (i.e., go gold) and remove most of those that I'd still have to pay for extra races beyond the base four and for the most recent expansion. Or I could buy the most recent expansion for about the same price that it costs on a gold account, and get the entire game and all the races for free with a $15 sub to any of the regular servers. Any way you slice it, EQ II extended is a poor value. The sub options are a worse value than subbing to their normal game, and a silver account is so restricted as to be extremely annoying to play. It's about on par with a completely free account in most FtP MMOs.

I really don't think SOE gets the whole concept of FtP MMOs. They give away access to 90% of the content for free, but then refuse to sell most of the classes to anyone that doesn't sub. Those are both enormous potential revenue streams that they are setting on fire. Anyone prone to sub would be foolish to do it in a gold account that charges extra for races. In addition, anyone prone to sub to EQ II likely already is subbing on one of the regular servers. This isn't a good strategy for getting new subbers, and it's a horrifically bad strategy for retaining and monetizing FtP accounts.

I have had decent fun the last two nights in EQIIX. However, even after the few hours I've played, the restrictions on the FtP accounts have me so frustrated that I'm likely putting this game on my back burner as soon as I get through the new starter area. DDO, Wizard 101, and soon LoTRO all provide a much better FtP experience. Until SOE pulls their head out of the sand and makes FtP accounts viable long term investments, I honestly can't see spending a lot of time or cash in EQIIX.

That isn't to say EQIIX is a bad game. It's a great game. It just isn't a very good FtP game with the payment options that SOE has chosen. If you have never played EQII, want a FtP game with a lot of content, and don't mind being cutoff from the in game economy and most of the classes; it's a decent choice. However, if your idea of a good FtP game is being able to buy lifetime access to a full featured MMO piecemeal (ala DDO or Wizard 101), it's not really an option. FtP in EQIIX is really an extended trial that can be gimped or severely gimped depending on whether you go for silver or stay bronze.

Edit (update): SOE, proving that they are not completely insane, has decided to start selling classes in a future update. I find this news encouraging enough that in addition to going silver, I'm buying a race pack as soon as I get home tonight. There are still going to be a lot of restrictions on silver accounts, but this was the one that irked me the most by a wide margin.

Edit(update2): in a further response in the same thread, senior SOE staff member (head CM guy?) Smokejumper implied that we will be able to buy extra character slots in a future update, but that the AH restrictions will most likely remain firmly in place for the time being.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

WoW did not kill innovation in MMOs

I found a recent post at Don't Fear the Mutant and the comments that followed really thought provoking. In certain corners of the web there is a running meme that goes along the lines of "Every major MMO since World of Warcraft launched has been a WoW clone, WoW murdered innovation in the MMO genre. " Of course this relies on defining every MMO that has classes, quests, levels, and turn based combat (i.e., the great bulk of CRPGs, online or off...and a lot of PnP RPGs as well) as a "WoW clone." However, let's just accept that lunacy at face value and move on.

The basic problem with this meme is it's myopic focus on big hype big budget MMOs. A lot of MMO commentators seemingly only pay attention to the MMOs that have the biggest development and advertising budgets. Yes, indeed, the really big budget MMOs to tend to be Everquest style games with classes/ levels/ turn based combat, and have a lot of design similarities with WoW. Like WoW they are usually solo friendly, have a relatively easy to understand class/ level based advancement system, include a lot of quests, and have a UI very similar to the one pioneered by Asheron's Call 2.

However, seeing these these features in a big budget MMO should not surprise anyone because such games are by definition aimed at the mass market. Everquest was the most financially successful MMO of the first generation, and World of Warcraft was the biggest success of the next. If you are designing an MMO budgeted for more than 100K players, you'd be pretty stupid to ignore the mechanical similarities of the most successful past MMOs. And it is for this very reason that big budget MMOs don't count when evaluating whether the MMO genre is stagnating. No one sane is going to put a WoW budget behind a niche / experimental game design.

As soon as you take a single step away from the mainstream, you can see that there are actually a lot of successful post WoW MMOs that bear little resemblance to it. For example Dungeons and Dragons Online has the deepest character generation system this side of EVE, real time combat, and a guild leveling system more involved than anything I've seen elsewhere. It's also the third most popular MMO in North America according to the NPD. Wizard 101 is doing well enough to put out a new world roughly every six months. The card based combat, pho Harry Potter setting, and mini-game method of mana regeneration draw absolutely nothing from WoW, save perhaps bright colors. Puzzle Pirates is also doing quite well and has as little in common with WoW as I can imagine and still technically be an MMO.

Take two or three steps off of mainstream into the really niche products [and in many cases not financially successful at all, I will allow], and you will find even more innovative MMOs. For example Myst Online URU, a completely free to play MMO where there is literally nothing to do except solve puzzles and explore. Or A Tale in the Desert, where as far as I can tell you mainly craft. Or The Endless Forest. You play a deer. There is no combat, crafting, or even chatting. You communicate with others using only emotes.

Just because the only MMOs someone pays attention to are all DIKU/ WoWish doesn't mean that WoW has ruined the genre. It means that some MMO commentators need to broaden their horizons. Innovation continues to occur, and even be rewarded financially on occasion. When I see commentators say "WoW ruined MMOs", what I mainly hear is "no developer has been willing to put a huge budget behind a niche product that caters to my peculiar tastes."

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Quandary of Value

In responding to a recent post over at Bullet Points, it occurred to me that the makers of sub based MMOs have an odd quandary. Every time they add content to a game for free, the value of a sub goes up since it buys access to more. A side effect of this is that if you are thinking about subbing to a game but can't decide whether to do it now or later, waiting until later will always be a better idea from an economic perspective. High value sub fee games such as City of Heroes/ Villains or year one LoTRO, where tons of content is added for free, suffer most strongly from this effect.

At the extreme are games such as Everquest II that offer "all in one packs," where the core game and all previous expansions are included free when you buy the latest expansion. From a pure economic perspective, every year that you put off starting the game adds enormous value to it. Compared to someone that has been playing all along, a late comer gets tons of content for very little money.

Compare the above games to a game like World of Warcraft, where new content is only rarely added for free, and a late comer has to pay for the client and every expansion pack separately. There is little incentive to put off subbing, because it won't get you much additional content and it will make the game more expensive to buy. If you are thinking about subbing now, you may as well because waiting doesn't get you much.

Even more extreme is a FtP game, where waiting to start playing gets you nothing. The same parts of the game will still be free, and you will have to pay exactly the same amount to unlock additional content. The only difference is that there will be more content to unlock, which will potentially make the game more expensive to have unfettered access to for a completionist.

The better value a game provides (in terms of free content) for an ongoing sub fee, and the more generous the handling of past expansions, the stronger the economic incentive for potential customers to put off subbing. Of course the flip side of this is that the more quickly a MMO builds value, the more quickly it will build up to some critical threshold where customers only mildly interested in it might do the trial. That is exactly what happened to me with Star Wars Galaxies. Seeing that I could potentially get half a decade of content for $20 was enough to get me to take it for a spin (even if it didn't stick). Which of the two effects is stronger probably varies from one customer to another, and how interested they are in a game to begin with.

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.