Thursday, December 24, 2020

FFXIV First Impressions

ESO  wound down for me when I was in the high 30s.  The clunky combat eventually killed things for me, as enjoyable as I found the rest of the game to be.  I did find a class, necromancer, that was more fun to my tastes than the one I've ben using as my main so far. I am sure I will want to go back and play one up at some point.  However, for the time being  I have cancelled my sub, and I now only log once a week to hang out with a static group of my relatives.  As an aside,  meeting up in a game to form a party and murder monsters while you chat on Zoom is a heck of a lot more fun as a way to keep up with family than a phone call once a month!

My first character in FFXIV, soon after becoming a full fledged Black Mage and earning a set of class armor.  I already have more that a dozen random pets, but the cat is still my favorite.  The game is quite beautiful, but I have found it hard to get screenshots that really capture how charming it is in motion.

After ESO wound down , I moved on to the next of the "big five" MMOs* that I haven't played, Final Fantasy 14. I love most of the Final Fantasy games, and so in theory it should be right up my alley.  Like many sub based MMOs the up-front cost is pretty low. There's an endless free trial that let's you play to 30, which  I  played for a few days and found absolutely enchanting.  After that you can get the base game and both expansions (roughly seven or eight years of released content) for $60, or $45 if you discount the price for the month of sub time it comes with. Further, when I bought it there also happened to be a black Friday sale going, so I was able to get the all-in-one pack for only $30. It seems like quite bargain compared to other MMOs I've played recently.

*The big five being WoW, GW2, ESO, FFXIV and ....?  Sources seem to disagree about the last inhabitant of that list, though Black Desert gets mentioned a lot.  In any case, I fully intend to move on to Guild Wars 2 whenever FFXIV winds down for me.

The same character, soon after earning his first mount.  A chocobo of course.

So far I am only up to level 54. The core gameplay while leveling consists of an admixture of story heavy solo play and content that can only be cleared in a group.  Forced grouping is normally a huge turn off to me, but FFXIV handles it really well.  Most of main quest series is soloable, but about every five or ten steps you need to run a dungeon or kill a raid boss to continue.  In most MMOs that would bring your progress to a screeching halt. However FFXIV has a really well designed system for organizing PUGs.  You cue up for whatever specific dungeon you need, specifying your role (healer, tank or DPS) and then continue on about your business.  After the game finds three to seven players that want to play the same dungeon as you, a little window pops up asking if you are ready to go.  When you hit the accept button you get whisked off to the instance.  If you cued up for something related to a quest, at the end of the instance the game deposits you wherever you need to be to turn in the quest and continue the story line you were working on.  The entire process is amazingly painless.  

A scene from the Crystal Tower quest series.  This includes three raids that are mandatory to play through the game's main story.  There are some areas you can't even set foot in until you clear it, such as the capitol city of Ishgard.   That absolutely would have been a brick wall for me in most MMOs, but in FFXIV the raids were fairly painless. From queuing up to done, none of them took me more than 30 minutes.  I found watching strategy videos before hand really helpful. The "Updated for 2020" series by Mica (like this one for World of Darkness, by far the hardest of the three raids) were fantastic for this. 

As a DPS most cues take 5-25 minutes to pop. My understanding is that they are nearly instant for tanks and healers.  After that it takes roughly 20-30 minutes for a dungeon or five minutes for a boss fight.  In the 1-49 content everything is quite easy to anyone with MMO experience. As a DPS in low level content all I really needed to do was know how to use my abilities and "not stand in the stupid" (i.e., move out of the giant glowing orange zones that signal where a big attack is about to land). You can also count on your party members at least knowing the basics because to qualify for using the party finder you need to play through a series of solo training quests that teach you your role in a group.    However once you get into the Seventh Astral Era quest series, the difficulty starts to ramp up, and you will start dying a lot if you don't research particular instances before you run them.  Oddly I am finding that I don't mind the research, which is a bit shocking.  Normally a difficulty spike like the one I am playing through now would be a huge red flag for me.  

Crystals like these are found in many areas of the game.  You have to get fairly far in the main story before you find out where they came from.

Part of the reason I don't mind all the mandatory group content in FFXIV has to do with how painless it is to que up for what you want.  However a lot of MMOs have a similar system (e.g., the one is WoW is nearly identical, save that there are no "qualifying exams" to use the system like in FFXIV).  Another big part of it is the basic structure of the game.  You only need to muddle through something once, and then you can return to the relaxing and engaging solo game.  Overall the ratio is probably something like 5 to 30 minutes of group content to every two hours of solo content.  Even if you generally prefer to solo, there isn't enough forced grouping to completely turn you off if you are enjoying the game otherwise.  

  Aethernet crystals form the game's primary quick travel system.  Once you are attuned to one you can teleport to it at will.  It makes travelling all over the map for quests extremely painless.  A huge improvement over the "get your horse/ wyvern  taxi started and go make a sandwich" that we so often see in other games like LoTRO and WoW.  That said, I am still a bit fuzzy on why game designers so often feel the urge to send us across an entire continent for every second quest step in a chain.

I think the lack of friction also comes down to some clever social engineering on the part of the game designers.  Even after doing research, I have to admit I often slightly suck at a given instance the first time I try it (shocking no?). So far everyone I have met in my random PUGs has been extremely chill about me making occasional mistakes. Some part of that is undoubtedly the giant loot bonus they get for having me along. When you clear an instance using the party finder, if it's the first clear for anyone in the party you get massive bonus to your rewards.  For example dungeons that would normally only be worth 15 of the currency you can use to buy gear are worth 75 or 90 if anyone in your party clears it for the first time.  That's worth almost 1/3 of a very nice magic item in my level range.  Far from being disappointed when a "sprout"** like me appears in your random PUGs, you actively hope one will join. 

**Sprouts:  FFXIV helpfully puts a little green sprout next to your name when you first start playing until you hit some threshold of experience that I have yet to clear.  It lets players know that you are new, and a lot of vets go around handing out free stuff to any sprouts they encounter. It also lets players in PUGs know that you are probably the reason they are getting a 5x loot bonus.  Another clever bit of social engineering.  My experience in FFXIV is making me wish more MMOs took that aspect of game design seriously.

 This is the smaller of the two cathedrals in the capitol city of Ishgard, an area that was added to the game with the Heavensword expansion..  It took me nearly a month of playtime to get far enough into the game to see it, and so far I am still only about half way through the main story.   

The community itself also seems to be far above average.  I have met tons of really friendly players.  In fact I have yet to encounter a single asshat.  Though I am dead certain I'll encounter one eventually, FFXIV probably holds my personal record for "number of consecutive interactions with strangers without anyone being a dick."   I even got invited to my first in-game wedding a few nights ago. They are purely social events that you have to make reservations for ahead of time, there is only one chapel per server.  It was surprisingly elaborate and a lot of fun.  It was also fun meeting some of my guildies, that have just been random names in a chat box until now.  So far the community of FFXIV has been incredibly welcoming.    

I attended my first in game wedding wedding recently. Here a bunch of us are seated in the chapel waiting for the ceremony to begin, my character is the one wearing the black wizard outfit.  I had nothing more appropriate to wear because I had only been playing for a week at the time.

My only niggling concern is that there is a high end raiding scene that has a reputation for being exceedingly hardcore and elitist.  They are so serious about measuring their DPS e-peens that they rely heavily on parsing programs that are technically against the game's Terms of Service. That is a giant red flag, and it's entirely possible that the game will fall flat on it's face for me once I finish playing through the main story lines and hit the level cap.  However for the time being I am having a ton of fun.  This feels like something I could play for a long time, at least if there's anything remotely fun for a casual player like me to do when I hit the level cap.

The wedding was fairly elaborate, and a fun diversion.

You may have noticed that this post includes very little about what the game is like to play or game systems.  That's because I haven't gotten far enough to have much of an opinion, save that I like what I see so far.  I'm less that halfway through the main story, maybe 50% of the way to the level cap in terms of playtime, and have yet to attempt any side activities like crafting, fishing or house decoration.  I have also been digging the game so much on the first class I tried that I haven't wanted to put time into anything else so far.  I actually have no idea what it's like to play a melee for example.  I am sure I'll have more to say about the game once I'm further in.

Mainly I have been powering through the game's main story.  But I did pause to take part in the game's Christmas celebration, which I found charming.  It also came with a really goofy mount.  

Finally, as this will almost certainly be my last post for the year, Happy Holidays! May the rest of your year be safe and relaxing, and for the love of all that is good may 2021 be less "interesting" than this year has been :-)

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

EG7, the Future of DDO and LoTRO

An unexpected bombshell recently dropped.  Daybreak games was bought by a European company EG7 (the Enad Global 7).  The purchase included all of Standing Stone Games, the makers of Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online; two MMOs near and dear to me.  A presentation by EG7 to investors revealed a lot of juicy details about SSG. For example, it revealed that SSG has actually been owned by Daybreak for several years now.  Daybreak is not just the "publisher" of DDO and LoTRO, as SSG has implied.  Wilhem has a great post about the presentation, you really should go and check it out.  From a DDO and LoTRO perspective there is a lot there that makes sense of recent puzzling moves by SSG.

First off, the most recent tempest in LoTRO was the release of War of the Three Peaks mini-expansion.  It hasn't been well received because it's  pretty much the same size as previous content updates that have been given out free to subbers and lifetime account holders.  For example, we got all of Gondor for free, and that's quite a big larger than the Three Peaks area.  Yet, SSG decided to charge everyone $20 for access to the new area, and allowed whales to spend up to $100 for collectors editions with fairly anemic offerings.  Massively has a good write up on the whole mess.  However, this completely bungled release makes perfect sense if we assume that SSG desperately needed to get their revenue-per-player up ahead of the sale of Daybreak to EG7.  

Here Begins Wild Speculation 

In all likelihood SSG had planned the War of the Three Peaks as a free update to keep players engaged ahead of the release of the next paid expansion: Gundabad.  However, Daybreak likely forced a change to these plans in order to demonstrate to EG7 that SSG is a financially valuable asset.  Even worse, there may have been a danger of SSG getting left on the cutting room floor by EG7 during the daybreak purchase if they didn't take this chance to show their quality.  This scenario would also explain why SSG didn't release full details about what was included in the various mini-expansion packages until the last possible minute.  SSG wasn't originally expecting to sell the content, and didn't know themselves what would be included in them until pretty much the day they went on sale.  The boar mount  might represent a positively herculean effort from some poor designer tasked with adding value to the most expensive package at the last minute.

Prepping for the sale may also explain some of the difficulties with DDO's latest expansion, Fables of the Feywild.  It had a pretty rocky development.  Originally it was going to come with a raise in the level cap and "legendary levels."  However over the summer SSG changed their minds and greatly scaled things back.  They stated that it was because they didn't think they could stick to a reasonable release schedule without pruning features.  However things may have been a bit more dire than that, they may have had a hard deadline on the expansion release set by Daybreak.  Regardless, changing the development goals for the expansion mid-stream appears to have thrown a lot of wrenches into the works.   

The consensus that has emerged around Feywild is that it's a weak expansion overall.  It has some good quests, some that are only ok and two quests (Needle in a Fey Stack and the Legend of the Lost  Locket) that many players are calling out  as absolutely terrible designs.  Overall the content so far is of about the same size as the Ruins of Gianthold, an adventure pack you can buy for less than 1000 DDO points (though admittedly Gianthold is one of the most generous adventure packs).  On top of that, because the highest level loot is the same level as loot from Sharn (the previous expansion), very little of it is an upgrade for most players.  In heroics things are even worse, with the level five weapons that the expansion added being much worse than weapons you can easily craft in the same level range. The race that was added, Shifter, has also not been very well received.   All in all I have never seen the community turn sour on a DDO expansion so quickly.  Just about the only bright spot is the new universal tree Feydark Illusionist, which has opened up some interesting build possibilities and seems well received.   

The Future of DDO

The report from EG7 gives a lot of insight into the bottom line of DDO and LoTRO.  DDO has about 20K paying players, LoTRO has about 40K.  The overall revenue from LoTRO is higher than DDO.  However, DDO has the highest monthly average revenue per-paying-player of any game in the Daybreak portfolio.  In other words, the income of DDO is disproportionately dependent on whales.  That actually makes perfect sense, and may explain some of the design elements of DDO that seem stacked against casual players.

DDO more than almost any MMO I have played has a huge disparity in character power between the haves and the have-nots.  I've posted about it before indirectly, but the short version is that thousands of dollars or absolutely crazed amounts of grinding separate a character with maxed out past lives from one that only has a few.  A character with 100+ past lives under their belt is practically a god walking compared to a first life character, with much higher baseline stats across the board.  Good gear can help a lot, but obviously a character with jillions of past lives also has access to the same gear. So gear can't really close the power gap so much as make past lives a smaller percentage of overall character power (e.g., you'll be 30% behind instead of 50%).  Further, these grinds can very easily be bypassed by spending large sums of money.  For past lives there is an item in the DDO store called Otto's Box that costs about $40 or $50.  That and a $20 heart gets you one free past life.  Getting all possible past lives that way, or even just the first 40 or so that you need for a character that's really strong in one role (e.g., tank or DPS),  would run into thousands of dollars.  

The gear grind is no better.  The odds of getting a high end item that is good for your build on any given quest run is astronomically low.  On the difficulties that a first life character in found gear can handle (Normal or Hard in epics),  the odds are 3% or less on any given run of a quest that has an item you need.   However, if a chest doesn't have the piece of loot you want you can also reroll the chest using shards.  You will get a few shards just by playing, but the only realistic way to get enough to roll your way to complete item sets is to buy them in the DDO store.   All of this combines to make DDO feel like "whales the MMO" if you have any intention of playing it at higher difficulties.  It's one reason why I generally only play heroic level (1-20) content (the other being my compulsive urge to roll alts). 

Further, given that the only real financial strength that DDO has compared to the other Daybreak games is the high monthly revenue per-paying-player, SSG probably can't really afford to back off of this somewhat whale centric design.  DDO will likely remain a game that is uniquely challenging for new players to get going in, both because of the power gap between vets and new players and a steep learning curve.

The Future of LoTRO

On the LoTRO front things are looking a lot better.  I would say the future of the game is looking  brighter than it has for a long time.  EG7 says that they are planning to invest in improvements such as graphical enhancements and console ports to capitalize on the Amazon Prime Lord of the Rings series that is filming now.  Amazon also has their own Lord of the Rings MMO in development, but all indications are that it's still years off yet.  Even if the Amazon game were coming out tomorrow,  it would likely really pale before LoTRO in some ways.  LoTRO has more content than practically any MMO out (EQ excepted of course).  Every single area described in any detail in the Lord of the Rings books, and many more that were only hinted at, are now present in the game.  As a faithful virtual manifestation of a fictional setting, it's absolutely unparalleled.  Walking around inside the game is one nerdgasm after another for any kind of a fan of the books.  Courses on Tolkien are even taught inside the game.   

However LoTRO is also badly showing its age.  There are tons of cludgy outdated systems like legendary items, mounted combat and epic battles that you run into as you level through the game.  The environments are still holding up surprisingly well for such an old game, but the character models aren't that great  . .  .  even after the recent revamp.  Perhaps worst of all is that the game barely runs on Windows 10 systems.  Just google "Lotro windows 10" to see what I mean.  You get tons of hits for players struggling with the game.   Hell just look at this trouble shooting guide some player put together.  Having to go through a checklist like that to *maybe* get the game to run is simply absurd.  My most recent run in LoTRO ended when the game wigged out and refused to open for the third time in less than two months on a Windows 10 laptop.  I couldn't bring myself to spend yet another evening googling and trouble shooting my installation.  Despite having fun there when I was able to get it to run, I finally gave up and uninstalled it.  

I think LoTRO has great potential, and I hope that EG7 will help it get there.  LoTRO has a great IP that is going to get a lot of attention soon, and to my tastes is an amazingly well realized version of Tolkien's world.  If EG7 can polish off some of the rough edges, or even get the game to run reliably on Windows 10, I think they could have a real success story on their hands.