Saturday, December 21, 2019

Endless Conquest (DAoC)

Endless conquest for Dark Age of Camelot, a new system that lets you play the game for free (with some restrictions), went live a little over a month ago.  A lot of other big changes came down the pipe with it.  My impression so far is that it's a bit of a mixed bag, both in terms of execution and in terms of the impact on player populations.

A random quest from the Hibernian new player series.  As simple as they are, some of these quests still have interesting choices.  For example, here depending on whether I choose to honor the past or be greedy, I will end up either with a unique looking horse or a hunk of cash and an annoying curse.

So what's it like?

In each realm a small but varied selection of classes are available to play completely free.  However, if you had a lapsed account, you can now also log into any character that has at least 24 hours played.  For example, I can log into almost all of my old level 50 characters regardless of whether they are from restricted classes or not.

Returning players will find the game much changed from what they remember.  With the launch of EC all alternative currencies such as aurulite and dragon scales were replaced with bounty points.  For example, the quest chains in Atlantis that used to yield glass now yield bounty points, and artifacts are now purchased with bounty points instead of glass.  You can get bounty points doing just about anything you like, from RvR seige battles to solo PvE, and almost any equipment in the game can now be bought with bounty points.  In my opinion this is a vast improvement, the number of different systems and gear currencies that DAoC had built up over the years was bewildering. Related to this, the free "starter epics" you get from the King at level 50 have been greatly improved.  It terms of raw stats they are now very solid, and will put you within striking distance of the effective caps on all the stats your class cares about.  In combination, these changes mean that gearing up a new character is a lot easier now.

Flying between quest hubs.  If I am not mistaken, DAoC was the first MMO to use "taxi cab" style travel routes, similar to what many more modern MMOs use.  WoW, of course, was the game that really popularized them.

On the not so great side an entire expansion that many players remember fondly, Catacombs, has effectively been removed from the game (apart from the races and classes that came with it).  Plans to revamp the Catacombs for the modern game once the Dragon's Curse campaign came to an end never materialized, and I'm skeptical they are even still in the works.  It's been two years since the changes to Catacombs went in, and returning vets still get confused by it (Surfer18's reaction to it here is pretty typical).  On Gaheris (the PvE server) this has contributed to a content gap in the level 36 to level 40 range, when the new player quest series runs out.  Until EC you had two options to get through this, Task Dungeons and repeating a series of quests in Atlantis.  With the launch of EC Task Dungeons have been disabled.  It made good sense the close them on Ywain, it helps funnel players towards the PvP battlegrounds. However, on Gaheris most of the battlegrounds (including Molvik) are also closed.  The low level quests in Atlantis also appear to be bugged, currently they are repeatable on Ywain but not on Gaheris.  Taken together, on Gaheris for roughly four solid levels there is now almost nothing to do but grind random mobs to advance.  Very old school . . . 

Here I am talking to my class trainer in the Hibernian capitol city to start an optional Epic quest.  These quests yield low level items tailored to your class, and also take you through a story that you only share with one or two other classes. However, you level so quickly in the modern game they aren't really worth doing for the gear alone (you will out level most of the rewards in a matter of hours).
So far most of the restrictions on free accounts seem minor to me. For example you can't open a bank tab just anywhere on a free account, you actually have to find a banker. When playing up two new free characters, a Runemaster on Ywain and a Blademaster on Gaheris, I can't say I really noticed the FtP restrictions.  However, a few penalties are more than slight inconveniences. For one, free accounts gain realm experience from PvP at roughly half the rate of subbed players.  That means it will take you a lot longer to get to "par" for RvR fights on a free account, though it's debatable how many ranks you really need to be competitive.  Realm rank five unlocks key class abilities, and my guess is that would take roughly a month of play on a free account for most players.  Free characters also can't use all the temporary buffs that are available to subbed players.  Together these factors potentially produce a significant power disparity.

A blademaster holding a free weapon from his trainer, a sword wreathed in green fire.  A benefit of visiting the class trainers in your realm's capitol city at low levels is that you get offered new weapons with decent stats and an interesting appearance every five levels.  The last of these is available to you at level 25.  However, you will probably find something better in terms of stats within an hour of obtaining any of these weapons, so very few players bother with them in the modern game. 
In addition, there is one restriction on free accounts that I find absolutely bizarre. A player can't log into the game at all without a sub for a few months after a subscription lapses.  That means that if you decide to sub for a month or two, you have to keep subbing or you will get completely locked out of your account during this period.  Meanwhile, players that never give Broadsword any money at all can still log in whenever they like. Largely because of this restriction I personally haven't even considered subbing since EC went live, despite having a good time on my new characters.  I would say that's a problem.

Treibh Caillte, a Hibernian Dungeon.  Currently on Gaheris the quickest way from level 36 to 40 is to grind mobs in dungeons (there are currently almost no quests in this level range worth doing).  It's not completely terrible, dungeon mobs drop a lot of loot for you to pick through. And of course I have been playing these games long enough to remember when finding a good grind spot was what you did to level in most MMOs.   

How successful is Endless Conquest?

Perhaps the most important question is how successful EC has been at boosting the population of DAoC. To get a sense for this I used data reported at this excellent website, which is organizes stats published on the Camelot Herald. Pretty much however you parse things (e.g., player numbers per week below), there was a significant jump in player activity around the launch of EC.  However, within a very short time nearly half of these players appear to have left.  As of the week of December 15, the number of active players seems to have settled at about 50% more than the game saw in the six months before EC.  Certainly a success, but probably not what Broadsword was hoping for.  The game is also still at a net deficit of players (or at least player activity) compared to December a year ago.

A year of player activity in DAoC, player counts are for level 50 characters.  I focused on player count rather than realm points earned because with the launch of EC the amount of RXP that most players earn per unit time was greatly reduced, and FtP accounts earn even less than subbed accounts. The spike in players near the end of the graph seemingly corresponds to the the launch of EC (the peak is Nov. 24).  I am not sure what caused the massive drop in player activity in the first few months of 2019, that looks like more than just normal seasonal player fluctuations to me.  This overall U-shaped pattern of player activity is remarkably consistent across classes, level ranges and measures of activity (e.g., player kills, player deaths), as is the conclusion that the gains from EC have been fleeting.

Update Dec. 23:  After fiddling with this post all weekend (e.g., expanding on why I keep ranting about Catacombs), I think I'm finally happy with it now.  I also did some digging to try and figure out what caused the "DAoC crash of 2019."  Between roughly January 20 and February 24 the game appears to have lost up to half half its player base.  There is nothing in the patch notes from around that time that hints at a cataclysmic change to the game itself.  However I did find that the free-shard of DAoC* that is currently the most successful went live on January 12, 2019. Very soon after that the live game started bleeding players (or at least the number of players logging decreased drastically), and a patch note from around this time seems bit panicked if you read it knowing everything that was going on.  I tend to think that player run shards of games are generally fairly harmless, but this may be an instance where one did serious harm to a live game that was already struggling.

*For the time being I will not be linking directly to any unauthorized servers for DAoC or any other live MMOs here, though I consider cases where you literally can't play a game any other way fair game (e.g.,  I might blog about the current state of SWG or WAR some time).  

Thursday, December 12, 2019

WoW Classic and Retail: Two for the price of one

With the launch of Classic, a subscription to World of Warcraft has become a pretty good value in my opinion.  Until August it had been years since I set foot in WoW.  In fact I skipped the last three expansions because I didn't want to support Blizzard financially. The studio had chosen to gradually close down a game that I really liked, one piece at a time, and replace it with some other game I didn't enjoy as much.  Warlords of Draenor was where WoW finally crossed a line that completely killed my interest.  The fact that Retail WoW shared the same world, classes and races as older versions made my loss sting even more.  It was as if an impostor was parading around in a suit of skin stripped from the corpse of my game, the eyes of  developers laughing at me through two dark misshapen holes in a crudely tanned hide.

All that changed when Blizzard launched Classic.  I really wanted the old game back (despite what some developers thought), and I have had an absolute blast in Classic these last few months.  Revisiting launch era quests and class designs gives me a keen sense of nostalgia.  However it's more than just nostalgia.  Like a lot of other commentators, I find Classic much more immersive than the modern game.  The stately pace makes it seem more like a living breathing world than Retail. You don't blaze through a zone in an hour, you spend days or even weeks of play sessions in an area, getting to know zones intimately.  "Cruft" like needing to learn skills for various weapons, or needing to visit your class trainer every two levels, fill the game with small events that seem important.  I also love other features that have been stripped out of Retail, like class quests to unlock basic abilities (e.g., defensive stance for fighters, the succubus for warlocks, Shaman totems) and the absurdly deep pet system for hunters.   It makes the experience of playing different classes feel really distinct, and again it adds a series of events to your journey that seem impactfull.

However, an unexpected side-effect of the launch of Classic is that I can now judge Retail on its own merits, since it isn't inhabiting the corpse of something I miss. If you think of Retail as a sequel to Classic, it's actually pretty good in its own way.  Much the same way that EQ and EQ II are both fun games set in Norrath, or FF VII, VIII and IX are all good JRPGs with a few shared elements, Retail WoW is an interesting take on the same setting as Classic. Admittedly some classes that I enjoy in Classic like the Warlock and Hunter have been completely gutted in Retail.  But other classes/ specs that are almost unplayable to me in Classic have also been greatly improved. For example, in Classic I can't stand playing Paladins.  They have terrible rotations and are just generally tortuously slow at solo questing.  In Retail I find Paladins pretty fun. In Retail my Balance Druid is an absolute joy to play (55 so far), yet I was barely able to get one up to level 20 in Classic.

Retail and Classic are different games with different core design philosophies.  Classic hearkens back to much older MMOs like DAoC and EQ, which were obviously inspirations for WoW at launch.  It includes a lot of details that serve no purpose save to flesh out the world being portrayed.  The modern game has stripped many of those out.  In some way it plays like a lobby game that happens to be embedded in a MMO, rather than a MMO per se.  Things like crafting and a world to explore are there if you want them, but really feel like an afterthought in the current design.  The quickest way to advance a character is to spend your time queuing up for dungeons and battlegrounds, and there is little need to even read the text of most quests.  However, that's not inherently bad.  If you are in the mood for a quick dungeon crawl or light questing where you don't really need to pay attention to anything, Retail is actually pretty good.  Somewhat ironically, it also has a slightly stronger emphasis on narrative than Classic.

Now that you get access to both games for one fee, I think it's actually a good thing that Retail is so different from Classic.  It would be similar to getting FFVIII for free when you buy FFVII.  One game is a classic that brought a previously obscure genre into the limelight, and the other is a controversial game with some (to my tastes) suspect design choices.  However, both of them together is a heck of a lot of entertainment for fifteen dollars a month.