Real ID Revisited

So, last year, you know, 2010, Blizzard announced their new Real ID plan. To which I had this to say:

None of the “good” parts of Real ID, the cross server chat, cross game chat, seeing people’s alts, and so on, required the use of real names

Blizzard did back off a little bit. And now they unveil the new BattleTag!

Short version: It’s Real ID without using your real identity.

Now if they can just allow for a character exemption or “invisible” mode so I can choose to play but not be seen by my BattleTag buddies, they’ll have covered just about everything I care about.

A Tale of Two Cataclysms

The wife and I finally decided to return to Azeroth.  Seeing as how I’d heard such wonderful things about the new starting areas of each of the new races, we rolled up both goblin and worgen pairs and set about experiencing the new world…

Are you from Jersey?

Whadda you lookin' at?
Whadda you lookin' at?

The latest affront, at least to me, is the new goblin race.  Back in the original game and into the Burning Crusade (after which I stopped playing), goblins were portrayed as sort of the used car salesmen of Azeroth.  If they were set in the Star Trek universe they’d be the Ferengi.  With the new starter zone, it appears the goblins originate from the shore — The Jersey Shore.  Perhaps I missed it in the various updates since I left, but at some point the goblins of Azeroth have turned into guidos.  And while the actual meat of the story of the volcano on their home island and the escape isn’t bad, the whole thing is laden with bling and silliness to the point of distraction.

To top it off, they committed, what is to me, the ultimate sin in MMOs and that is imposing story on my character.  One of the strongest elements of an MMO is how I pick a race and a class and I get the bare bones of a back story to tell me something of the home town I’ve chosen and how someone of my class becomes a member of my class and from there I can do anything I want with it.  But in Kezan, Blizzard tells me who my friends are and my girlfriend (if you are male you get a girlfriend, if you are female you get a boyfriend, so basically they also give the finger to anyone of anything other than heterosexual leanings) and numerous other details.  Sure, I can choose to ignore it and pretend it never happened, but I suspect that there will be times in the game where I do quests that will call back to my time in the starter zones.

As an added bonus, don’t bother trying to actually play with any other people during your life in Kezan or the escape.  Being grouped with even just one other person makes the whole thing play bizarrely as you take turns phasing in and out on each other, interacting with NPCs the other can’t see, driving around in your individual cars because you can’t ride together… it really is designed to be a single player experience.  The only way to enjoy it is to not fight it and accept the fact that Blizzard is telling you, “Welcome to our MMO! We have millions of people playing! Now… please play by yourself for the next few hours.”

A Cat in a Hat, sure… A Dog in a Hat?

Shropshire Slasher.
Shropshire Slasher.

After both of us being thoroughly annoyed at the lame comedy of the goblins and the incredibly poor multiplayer experience (yeah, we did the whole goblin bit as a duo, which was just stupid) we decided to make some werewolves next, and to go it alone.

The worgen area is not without its puns, but thankfully they are back to the more subtle variety and aren’t beating you with a club screaming “I’m funny! I’m funny! Laugh, dammit! Laugh!!”  It takes a far more serious and somber tone.  It’s a more gripping story, and proof that when Blizzard tries they can write really good stuff… it’s just a shame they don’t try very often and the result of a good solid story like this is that it will stand in stark contrast to the bulk of the game.

Playing alone clearly is how this was designed and it worked very well, even though we were playing the same thing simultaneously the simple act of not being grouped solved all the technical weirdness we experienced on our goblins.  It isn’t without it’s problems, though.  One of the two hiccups we experienced was when the game allowed the wife to phase into the same phase I was in during the town attack, after the attack had started.  She missed most of the action, running through mostly empty streets with no indication of where to go except by me saying things like “I think we turned left there”, only catching up to us as we fought Sylvanas.  The other hiccup was shortly after when a dozen people started the next quest where we were supposed to follow a worgen to the cathedral, but a number of us couldn’t see him and had to abandon and restart the quest to fix it.

The worgen vehicle missions were also a lot easier to do, especially since they didn’t involve you driving cars on elevated roads using horribly jerky controls.  Overall, it just flowed more smoothly, and most importantly to me they didn’t impose anything on my character that didn’t derive directly from the story.  When I transitioned from starter area to the night elf city, I did so with a nice solid history of how my race came to be where it is with no baggage at all, free to continue my character’s story any way I like. I suppose it also helps that the setting is much more appealing to my sensibilities.  There is a very Jekyll & Hyde, old London feel to the story that suits the whole werewolf bit like a glove.  I rather think I would enjoy playing an entire game in that setting.  But I digress.

Is this the end?

Now, having played through both of the new race starter single player campaigns, I’m fairly certain that I’ll never do it again.  The advantage to this design is that it is a newbie area that doesn’t diminish as it ages.  Old design starter areas eventually suffered when players couldn’t complete certain quests due to a lack of people to fight elite mobs.  The disadvantage here is going to be sameness.

Personally, when I play single player games, I play them once.  Then, if there are achievements or something to unlock, I might play through a second time, or replace certain segments.  After that, I’m done, and the game collects dust.  When I play MMOs and create new characters, I always delighted in fighting quests I hadn’t done before.  WoW actually helped with that for a while when they sped up leveling but still had eleventy billion little quests, thus causing you to outlevel an area and be forced to abandon quests to take up new, level appropriate ones.  But now, if I were to make another goblin or worgen, I’m faced with the knowledge that the first few hours of the game will be identical to my previous experience.  There is only one story for each race, and you have to play it.  There are no divergent paths, no quests you didn’t see last time, no event you didn’t experience.  People keep telling me that by making a new player area that doesn’t need other people the game is more “alt friendly”, however from someone who usually makes dozens of alts this new design actually makes me never want to create alts.  I mean, what’s the point?  It’s going to be exactly the same.

On the other hand, by creating a single player experience, I suppose Blizzard has made it so that I can memorize the fastest possible path through the starter zones to get to the real game.  Or perhaps in a future patch they’ll just allow me to skip it and create a level 12 character from the start.

Unfortunately, with the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic‘s reported focus on story, I suspect this sort of shared single player experience is on the upswing.  I’d much have preferred for Warhammer Online to have done better and set the new standard, where people were grouping (open groups) and PvPing fresh out of character creation.  Perhaps Rift and its polish level can turn the tide a little toward open socialization and away from solo play.

Real Issues with Real ID 2

Continuing from here and in light of Blizzard’s decision to tie real names to forums posts…

It is frightfully easy to find information on people.  You can only control so much of the data.  Sure, you limit your Facebook and what you put out there, but the government, the phone company and so many other places have public records that you are not invisible (unless your name is so horrendously common that you can’t throw a rock without hitting someone with the same name).  Go to Spokeo or Zabasearch, put in your name and see how long it takes to find you.

But… we are talking about an MMO.  A fantasy world where you get to be someone else.  Of course, we’re also talking about World of Warcraft, which has gone to great lengths to tell us their game is about levels and loot, and the world it happens in is just window dressing.  Want proof?  Just look at the sheer number of real world jokes crammed into the game.  WoW is a playground, not a virtual world.  And still, people go there and play characters that aren’t them.  Women play men, men play women, the meek play strong, the social get alone time, shut ins make friends, all possible without the “limitations” of their real lives.

Sure, we all want to reduce the number of asshats that make the forums a cesspool, but much like the other features of Real ID, this could be achieved without your real name.  The real problem with the WoW forums is that you post as one of your characters, which you select, so you get people who create a level 1 character on a server they don’t really play on as their posting persona, and they troll.  It’s the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.  Instead of real names, make them pick a forum name, which they can’t change, and when they post provide a link to a list of all their characters.  Or make the forums smart and under the forum name put the name of their highest level & longest played character.  If you have a 3 year old level 10 and a 3 month old level 80, the level 80 is posted, if you have two level 80s, the oldest one is used.  Posting in a class forum?  The name of your highest level of that class is posted, or if you don’t have one it will say “I don’t have any characters of this class”.  Or, you know, hire more moderators.

There are many many solutions that would work equally as well for removing trolls.  But… there is a greater thing at work here.  See, Blizzard has all your information anyway (most likely).  Your name, your address and billing info, email, and so on.  They can’t do anything with it though because it is privileged information, it’s private.  However, once Real ID makes certain items public, it becomes sellable data.  Facebook, much to the ire of it’s CEO, lets you keep a number of items private.  However, one thing they absolutely do not allow you to hide are your “likes”.  The reason is that what you like is the most marketable item about you.  At the heart of this whole Real ID situation is a partnership between Blizzard and Facebook.  In the end, Real ID isn’t about cleaning up the forums or even making it easier to communicate with your friends and find them in game.  Real ID is about money.

I quit playing World of Warcraft a while ago because I was bored with it and wasn’t finding what I wanted (strong community) within the game anymore.  I was actually looking forward to Starcraft II.  I participate fairly heavily in a number of smaller, tight knit communities.  I don’t need another bland “everyone is connected to everyone” social network, so I’m going to opt out in the only way Blizzard allows – not to play at all.

Real Issues with Real ID

Lots of people are in a huff over Blizzard’s new Real ID.

I won’t go into it very much, but let me just drop this on you… None of the “good” parts of Real ID, the cross server chat, cross game chat, seeing people’s alts, and so on, required the use of real names and an “all or nothing” design.  Why aren’t some of these features part of World of Warcraft’s existing friend list design?  Why does it have to be ALL of my characters on ALL of my servers?  Do I have to get a second account now if I want some “alone time”?

I hope things continue to change, because right now all I am seeing is a feature I’d never use for more than maybe one or two people in the whole world.

Not All Slopes Are Slippery

Taking another angle on yesterday’s post, now I want to look at the major protest against the sparkle pony: the slippery slope.

As with any time a change is proposed, the alarmists immediately paint it as a step toward complete and total destruction.  No change can be in a vacuum, but not every change needs to be the tipping point for Armageddon either.  So the argument goes like this:

  1. Pets for sale.
  2. Mounts for sale.
  3. Epic raid gear for sale.
  4. The only way to “win” is to have the most money and “buy” victory.
  5. The planet explodes.

Yes, I’m exaggerating.  But only for step 5.  Here’s the thing… you don’t need pets.  There are pets available in game, and they’ve given away exclusive pets at Blizzcon and other events as well as sold them as part of pre-order packages and collector’s editions.  But as far as I know, the pets for sale don’t actually do anything to affect game play.  If I’m wrong, please correct me.  (A quick run through some wikis tells me that there are no bonuses but some will detrimentally affect play by ruining stealth or debuffing the owner.)  They dance, they talk, they are silly and fun, but having a pet doesn’t make your character any stronger than someone of the same class, same level, same gear but without the pet.  The pet is a toy.  And so is the mount. (Wiki link.)  The mount gains you no extra in-game advantage.  None.  It just looks pretty.

So, why the jump in step 3?  Why go from two consistent levels of selling items with no affect on game play to suddenly selling gear that does?  This is where the argument falls apart, and it is clear to see why they go there.

The pets, the mounts… the coolest pets and mounts in the game comes from raiding or hard quests.  Regular players get pets and mounts, but they are, in comparison, bland.  Blizzard has giveaways and collector’s editions and pre-orders, but again, those are somehow considered special, just like the stuff you get from playing the game at it’s highest level.  The fact is, most of the people complaining wouldn’t have an issue with Blizzard selling a $25 plain brown horse that worked that same as the Celestial Steed.  The issue is that Blizzard is selling the (arguably) coolest looking mount in the game for cash and not reserving it for their hardest working players to earn with blood, sweat and tears.

Even if Blizzard followed the advice I laid out in yesterday’s post and introduced appearance only items (items with no stats at all), it would not be an escalation.  They might end up selling the coolest looking appearance items in the game for cash, but it would not be selling raid level gear.  The thing is, to define a slippery slope, you need at least two related items that show a clear escalation which you can extrapolate to further escalations leading to destruction.  No such thing exists here.  People might not like Blizzard selling game stuff in the store, but there is no slippery slope here.

The minute Blizzard starts selling raid gear, though, you’ll find me in line throwing rotten tomatoes at them.  Until then… nothing here to get worked up about.

Appearance Items

I don’t really want to write about the celestial steed that Blizzard added to its item shop last week, when so much has already been said about it.  Instead, I want to focus on one element of it: the speed.

Buying one of these mounts does not gain you any advantage.  The speed of this mount will be equal to the speed of the fastest mount you own.  So if you only have the slowest mount in the game, your celestial flying mount will be the slowest in the game.  It might be based on your riding skill too, but it clearly states that in order to have your celestial steed move at 310% speed you have to own another 310% speed mount.  I suspect the only real attribute this mount has beyond its looks is that it is a flying mount, and so if you have no other flying mount, this could be your first flying mount.  But the key here is that the mount itself has no speed, and instead takes its speed from another source.

People are okay with this because it means that you can’t buy an advantage from the store, just a toy that is no better in game that what you already own.

One thing Blizzard hasn’t added to their game yet that several other games have are appearance slots.  In some games if you want the stats of the Unobtainium Breastplate but prefer the look of the Ghostly Robes, you can slap the breastplate into your “real” armor slot and put the robes into the “appearance” slot.  That way, everyone sees the Ghostly Robes, but you have the protection of the Unobtainium Breastplate.  Now is the time for Blizzard to look at this.  I think they’d be fools not to go down this road.

They should first add in the ability to wear appearance only items, that second paper doll, and start putting in craft-able and drop-able and vendor purchasable appearance only items.  Then once it has been out there for a bit, start throwing the truly awesome looking stuff into the store.  How many people would shell out $5, $10, or some other amount for a Celestial Breastplate or Hellfire Helm or other armor pieces with awesome unique (until a million people buy them) looks and animations?  Especially if its like the pets where one purchase makes the item available to all the characters on the account?

The answer: lots.  So, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see it coming soon.  I don’t think Blizzard is ever going to sell “real” gear in their store, no buying top tier raid gear, but I can easily see them milking appearance items for all it’s worth.  They’ve already proven people will buy pets and now mounts, plus it would give them another avenue for exclusive giveaways for Blizz-con and other events.

Changing Sides

The Internet exploded this week as Blizzard announced that they are working on a way to let people change factions in World of Warcraft.  If you are unaware, WoW has always been a 2-sided dynamic, built in part on PvP play between the two factions of Horde and Alliance.  On PvE servers, players have always been able to create characters on both factions, but on the PvP realms, once you created a character on one side you were locked out of the other.  (I want to say all realms were like that at launch, but if they were it has since changed.)  Of course, like their server transfer, this faction change will be done for a fee.  In the announcement, two key pieces of information are missing.  First, how much will it cost?  Second, how will it work?

Personally, I don’t care about the first question.  No matter how much it costs, I’ll never use it, just like I will never use their server transfer.  But the second question interests me greatly, especially as it relates to a couple of posts I made previously on the idea of limiting a player to a single character per account.  (I sometimes feel bad about not continuing that series, but no one agreed with me and I even got a couple of emails to the effect that I should never be allowed to design a game or even work in the game industry.)

So, let’s take a look at what I consider to be the only two logical solutions for changing factions in WoW.

The first option would be to leave the game as it is and simply let the user change their race.  Since they introduced the Draenei and the Blood Elves in The Burning Crusade, every class is represented on both sides by at least one race, so it is possible as there are no gaps.  However, that means that any Alliance Paladin, Human, Dwarf or Draenei, would have to switch to be a Blood Elf in order to go Horde.  The main issue that I have here is for people like myself who actually choose race before class.  I tend to always play human in any game, mostly because playing as a fantasy race just doesn’t appeal to me much.  I want to be “me” in another world, not to be someone else.  If this is the method they choose to use, I would never use it because my choice of race is actually more important to me than my class.  While I might jump at the option to make my level 60 priest a level 60 paladin, making my level 60 human a level 60 undead, troll or blood elf is unappealing.  Of course, I am probably in the minority, so for many players a race switch would be just fine as long as there are options they won’t hate.

The second option is the more complicated one, and that is to let the player keep their race and to just change the side they belong to.  Now, if Blizzard is lucky, this could be extremely easy and every character has a single bit flag that says “0 = Alliance, 1 = Horde” and all game interactions build off of that.  The chat channels, the side you play on in Battlegrounds, who you can attack, which NPCs will talk to you, etc.  That would be awesome.  However, given that the game was likely built with the idea that faction was the ultimate dividing point, I doubt that bit exists.  So, either Blizzard will spend the next few months implementing that bit so they can flip it, or they’ll have to come up with a more complicated and convoluted solution.  Being able to keep my race would appeal to me, seeing as how I identify more closely with my race than my class in these games, but I think it could also cause more damage to the game.  Right now, in PvP, if you are on the Alliance side and you see two people fighting, you can tell which person to help by their race.  I’m human, I see a tauren and a gnome engaged in combat.  I heal the gnome or fight the tauren.  Simple.  Now imagine that same scenario after a race keeping faction switch.  Now I’ll need some other cue to tell me who to fight and who to heal, because that could be Horde gnome fighting an Alliance tauren.  Letting races switch factions muddies distance visual identification for PvP.  So even if they had the “faction bit” that made switching factions easy, they’ll still need to do a considerable amount of work to ensure that playing the game doesn’t become confusing, at least for PvP.

Overall, since the game was not designed from the ground up with this in mind, introducing it now is, in my opinion, not a good move from a gameplay perspective.  From a business perspective, it is an excellent idea, they’ll make money off it and make a number of people very happy.  I do think that if anyone can solve the problems of the second option, Blizzard can.  So now we just have to wait and see which path they take.

The Census

Over on his blog, Tobold has provided a nice little analysis of hardcore players’ complaints on casual players. In the midst of that, he made the following comment:

If Blizzard wanted to know what their players want, they would have to put up some sort of survey *in game* with in-game prizes for everybody who answers, so that even the casual players would want to participate.

The funny thing about this, is that Blizzard has crafted a game world with enough tongue planted firmly in cheek that this could easily work.

First off, they’ve already introduced a game mechanic, the daily quests, that has taught the players to return to the same NPCs on a regular basis for new content. Using that, restricting it to “per account” instead of “per character”, and co-opting the sense of humor that already pervades their world, they could insert NPCs representing the Azeroth Census Bureau. These agents, standing in cities and towns with their clipboards, could ask monthly, or even weekly, questions in the form of quest text and reward choices. Participants in the surveys would be paid for their time, perhaps in money or maybe in faction for the location of the census representative. The agents could even have localized questions, asking about nearby raid instances or other features, if localized data collection would be of benefit.

With an in game mechanic like this, they’d be more likely to collect better sample data than that of any out of game forums. Well, except that hardcore players might not participate if the rewards aren’t great enough, but surely adding more avenues of capturing the voice of the players couldn’t hurt.

The Unfortunate Truth of Success

Last week, Blizzard announced that they are working on another expansion for World of Warcraft… Wrath of the Lich King.

Needless to say, many people were underwhelmed.

I am too. The new expansion looks like its going to be The Burning Crusade part II. Ten new levels, more raid zones, and another couple of tiers of gear. Sure, there is something about hero classes, but from first glance they are either going to be pointless or they are going to be game breaking. In other words, very few people will bother, or the hero classes will be a requirement to proceed in raiding or participate in PvP.

As many in the blogosphere have pointed out, Blizzard has never really been known for innovation. Blizzard doesn’t invent wheels… or for a better analogy, Blizzard doesn’t design new cars, they take existing cars and trick them out in Fast and the Furious fashion.

And why should they bother to reinvent the wheel when they’ve already got 9 million people paying for the old wheels. If only half of their subscribers buy the expansion, that’s more box sales than some of the most successful games in history. This is the Unfortunate Truth of Success… once you have a stranglehold on the lead, trying to further outdistance your competition is a waste of money compared to coasting, enjoying a downhill ride that will net you more money than other people dream of at their peak.

I doubt I’ll be journeying to Northrend or fighting the Lich King. I canceled my WoW account over a month ago because it was clear to me that they are supporting only two types of play: Raiding and Solo casual. Want to PvP? Sorry, you have to raid (or farm gold, or buy farmed gold) to get the gear needed to compete. 5 man groups? Only if you want to grind cash, pots, faction of ramp up to raiding.

WoW lost me as a player, and they aren’t likely to win me back while they continue down this same worn path.