Once more unto the Rift

Last beta I didn’t get much chance to play.  I messed around the character creator and read up on the base classes and logged in.  The game informed me that my graphics drivers were out of date and I spent what little time I was in game chugging along in a partial slide show.  This past weekend’s beta was much better.  I logged in my already created character, I ran through the introduction area, and I made it through the first few quest hubs.

Most of the game is fairly standard, and that’s not a bad thing.  The UI is familiar without cloning (it doesn’t look like the World of Warcraft interface even though it mostly functions like it), and the game play follows suit.  Others have praised the soul system, and I will too.  I really enjoy crafting my character from three parts and controlling how he forms as he advances.  To me, the simple genius of it is astounding: you climb up the tree adding passive traits (damage bonuses, spell modifiers, etc) and the number of points spent there determines which active abilities you unlock.  It is the best part of a class system melded with the best parts of a skill system.  Add in that you can build several specs on a single character and you come very close to what I’ve always wanted in a game: the ability to play a single character in multiple roles without having to resort to creating alts.  And even if you did decide to create alts, you really only need to make 4 characters – one of each base: warrior, cleric, mage, rogue.

The public group and rift mechanics are also fantastic.  While they can get repetitive if that’s all you do, mixed in with the traditional quest grind it makes the game feel fresh without feeling alien.  Last night on Shadefallen, Freemarch came under heavy attack from Death, with foot holds in every town and all the players banding together in groups to beat them back.  For soloing, I had been playing a Justicar/Shaman/Druid with a fairly balanced build to focus on making me a better fighter and increasing my 1-on-1 survivability.  But once the giant assault began, I bought a second role, used the same souls but spent more points on the Justicar to reduce my threat and utilize my area heals to assist the raid.  It worked out pretty well.  I spent the bulk of the evening switching between those roles, the solo build for the early waves of any rift and then to the raid build for the later waves.  From the builds to the rifts to the raids, it was much more exciting that any other MMO I’ve played.  Even my precious EverQuest.

I really enjoy the Justicar and Shaman aspects of what I’ve played so far, the fighting cleric appeals to me in so many ways.  If I so buy the game, I can easily see myself playing that for the long haul, though I may ditch the Druid in favor of a different third.  The fairy pet annoys me.

Now I just need to convince the wife and all my friends to switch to Rift.

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.

Removing Grouping – Part II

Last time I talked about communications, because to me that is the single most important aspect of an MMO.  The reason I play is the other people.  But I know the social aspects aren’t why many people play.  To many people the most important thing a group does is provide status updates.

One of the key elements in modern games and the focus on the trinity design (tank/heal/damage) is that joining a group puts the other players’ health and other stats on your User Interface where it is easy to keep track of.  In this way, grouping and raid groups become vital to the game.  Can you imagine playing a game where you couldn’t see the health of the other members of your party?  Imagine having to call out for every heal or assist.  Most games these days even include buffs on the UI so your priest can tell if that armor spell he casts has worn off or been dispelled.  Sure, these elements didn’t always exists, but with them being so predominant in games now, could we do without them?

Without the group structure, if you wanted to retain these UI status updates, you would need another way to get them.  So, instead of restricting this capability to groups we could unhook it and make it available always.  Target a player, click on an option button on the target element, select “Pin to UI” from the menu and they get added to your screen just as if they were in your group.  There might be some technical limitations to this, perhaps a maximum number of people you can pin to your UI, and it would be nice to know who has pinned you (so you can yell at a healer who doesn’t have you, the main tank, pinned), but I definitely think that a group of designers could sit around and hash out all the problems and find solutions to make this work.

This solution, of course, is more labor intensive than just joining a group or raid, so there might be resistance to such a change.  But I think the overall increase of utility would be worthwhile.

Possible but not Probable

Before I begin, let me say that I am not advocating that all MMOs implement what I’m about to describe, however, it would be nice if some more MMOs (the ones not published yet) were to implement models of design that weren’t yet another clone of the same model that the majority of games are putting out.

What I suggest is, in rough terms, a model that allows for everything to be possible from the moment your character enters the world, but not necessarily probable.  This all springs from a couple of posts and the comments over at Kill Ten Rats.  Post one is here, and post two is here.  Read those and make sure to read my comments, I’ll wait.

Okay, so to rephrase and refine what I said, what I’d like to see is where, from day one, any character has the possibility to fight and defeat any monster in the game (obviously not all solo, but even in a raid a new character should be able to contribute), what changes throughout the life of the character is their probability to do so.

At level 1, if you engage a level 50 monster, you are highly unlikely to win, but if you’ve been twinked out and know how to play your character well, there is a tiny chance that you’ll win.  And when you win, you’ll be rewarded, and rewarded well.  Obviously you wouldn’t earn “level 50” experience, but you’d earn a scaled amount that would indicate that you overcame a great challenge without being obscene.

Conversely, at level 50, if you engage a level 1 monster, you are highly likely to win, but if you are poorly equipped and screwing around, there is a tiny chance that you’ll lose.

If a game were to implement this sort of scaling, there are a few odd benefits that can come of it.  First, you can artificially tune a raid encounter by setting its level high.  If your max level is 50, you can make a raid mob level 60 to reduce the effectiveness of the level 50 players, but just like the rest of your game they’d still retain a probability to win.  Second, you can use underleveled mobs with “better” AI to create different types of encounters.  Mobs that appear to be easy, but are in effect “NPCs who know how to play their character well”.

Another element this brings to a game is that nothing ever really becomes trivial.  At no point would a single player be able to go into a low level zone with a high level character, tag all the mobs and AE farm them for loot (or grief).  In a PvP environment, it means that a level 50 player camping the newbie area could get his ass handed to him by a small group of level 1 players.

I think its definitely a mechanic worth exploring, and I would love to see someone take a stab at implementing it.

Is WAR the WoW killer?

Let’s be honest… asking if any game is the killer of any other game is stupid.  No game in MMO history has ever killed any other game, simply because very few of them are actually dead.  And of the ones that are, most of them killed themselves by not being very good.

However, that said, it is possible that a game could, by releasing and being similar to an existing game but different enough to warrant another game, steal enough of the population of the original game that the original game might be declared dead on a technicality.  And by that I mean that the numbers officially shrink to the “die hard fans of the game who will never ever leave until you wipe their hard drives with powerful magnets and rips their keyboards from their cold dead hands” population who will stay and new subscriptions will be few and far between, if any at all.

Warhammer Online, in that respect, is not, and will never be a World of Warcraft killer.  As similar as the play styles of the game may be, through interfaces and other measures, the bulk “goal” of the games are different.  In WoW, no matter how many arenas and battlegrounds they release, PvE raiding is the ultimate goal of the game.  Not hardcore raiding necessarily, but with Wrath of the Lich King’s supposed focus on 10 man scaled instances allowing raid groups to play through the same content as a 25 man raid but with lesser difficulty (tuned for 10 instead of 25) and reward, it is clear that WoW is primarily a PvE game.  WAR on the other hand, by all beta accounts, supports PvE fairly well, but the end game, the goal, is really the PvP/RvR aspects.  That change of focus in the late stage game, from WoW’s PvE raiding to WAR’s RvR conflicts, will appeal to entirely different groups of people.

If WAR is going to kill anything, its going to be Dark Age of Camelot that it steps on.  From all accounts, this game, WAR, is taking many of the best elements of WoW (UI ease of use, etc) and applying them to the best elements of DAoC (realm versus realm conflicts) and then throwing in a few new elements (Public Quests).  Looking at the features list of WAR, and perusing the screenshots and videos and information pooring out after the NDA lifted, unless you are a die-hard fan of DAoC’s lore or have a PC that can’t run better than DAoC, there seems to be no reason not to ditch DAoC for WAR.

So… is WAR the DAoC killer?

The Instance and The Bench

Reading this post over at Clockwork Gamer got me to thinking about why raiding in most recent MMOs never excited me.  Back in my days of EverQuest, when I would lead raids, I often would take anyone and everyone who showed up.  Some of my “raids” were silly, intended to train people for raiding.  I took five groups into the Mines of Nurga (before they revamped the zone) and made them form up groups, main tanks, pullers, heal team, etc.  Just like a huge raid, but everyone was around level 30.  Many of those same raiders would show up later when I started doing Epic raids, smaller hits for pieces to Epic Quests.  Places like The Hole, City of Mist, etc.  Of course, I also lead some dragon raids, and some Hate and Fear, Chardok, a few bits in Velious, and even some Planes of Power raids.  It was all great fun.

The only raid I never got off the ground was the Plane of Sky.  The reason for this is that the islands in Sky gave out random numbers of keys, and the zone had a very very long respawn time for most spawns.  In order to take a large raid to Sky, you needed to use complicated corpse summoning to get from island to island.  It was easier on a small raid, but small raids, due to the difficulty of the zone, needed to be very regimented, certain amounts of certain classes.  I’m sure its not so hard now.  Sky can probably be single grouped, or even done as a duo.  But “back in the day” it was much more difficult.

In EQ2 and WoW (and other games), raids are often (always) instances, with caps on how many people can go.  One thing I never like to do is bench people.  If a personal is capable of surviving the raid, I’ll take them… I mean, seriously, I did raids in EQ with 90 people.  Of course, in EQ2 and other more graphically intensive games, I couldn’t imagine 90 people being in the same place and having the game be even playable.  Even WoW can struggle.. just try going to the auction house in Ironforge. (I might be showing my age here… is the auction house in Ironforge still crowded?)

I seriously don’t like the idea of raid caps.  Having 25 people show up to fill 24 slots… I’d rather not.  Over in this thread at the Nerfbat forums, I put forth the following:

I’m all for removing hard caps on content. I realize that a developer may want to design his content to be optimally experienced by 5 people, or 25 people, but it really sucks as a player to keep running into the wall because I have 6, or 29, friends and we have to repeat content not just for the loot, but simply so people can experience it. Game devs should consider ways to remove hard caps and instead reward soft caps. Design the content for 5 people, but allow any number to go in, however have the reward scale upward as you approach the “optimal”. That way, people who want to min/max content for the best possible reward can do so, but also people who just want to play can experience it as well without having to jump through extra hoops just to play with their friends.

I’d love to see a game at least give that a shot.  And I wouldn’t even mind going back to the flagging model of EQ, where you could bring any number of people to the raid, but only X number would get the flag.  You’d still have to repeat the content, but at least you could repeat it with the entire raid group instead of playing musical chairs mix and matching your raiders in order to be able to do the raid with only X number of players.

Maybe.  Someday.  Perhaps.

Who Loves You And Who Do You Love?

I love that quote from The Running Man.  Its the tag line/catch phrase for the host of a game show where criminals are allowed to try to win their freedom by out foxing a gang of hunters who chase them, all while an audience wins cash and prizes.

“Who loves you and who do you love?”

When building, and then running, an MMO, this is probably the single most important question to ask, and ask often.  Its the mantra of watching the trends, both the short and the long, to see where the tide is going to flow and hope your game continues riding the crest of the wave and not washing out.

Ryan Shwayder and Grimwell both recently posted about if an aging demographic should affect a game in production and future game design, and there has been much recent discussion about change in WoW by Heartless, Foton and others.

As it comes to the age stuff, I think both Ryan and Grimwell are fairly dead on, if your game got successful on a certain demographic, you shouldn’t change based on them growing up unless you aren’t gaining new people at the entry level.  If your game once appealed to teens and young adults but is no longer attracting those people, then you have to choose either to change to try to attract them again, or change to continue appealing to the people already playing your game and maybe attract more people at that demographic.  And that leads into the other discussion…

When it comes to World of Warcraft, just as with many games before it that mix PvE and PvP styles of play, changes are sometimes made to favor either the PvE or PvP side of the game over the other, often to the detriment of the other.  A spell might be too powerful against other players so they need to reduce its power, thus affecting the power of the player in combat with NPCs as well.  It does indeed suck when changes are made to favor the side of the game you don’t favor.  However, of all the companies out there making MMOs, Blizzard is the only one I inherently trust to completely understand their entire player base and do what is best for the bottom line of the company.  They didn’t get their reputation for wildly successful polished fun games for nothing…

So, why is it that they seem to be favoring the PvP side of the game so much with changes to classes and abilities?

While WoW has always been a casually friendly game, is has also long been accepted that rolling into large scale PvE content (raiding) at the high end was where the “real game” was.  More recently, however, the Battlegrounds and Arenas seem to have taken more focus.  For one, it often takes less people to participate in, and a pick up Alterac Valley is more likely to succeed than a pick up Kazharan raid.  For another, their restructuring of the reward system of PvP has made the PvP gear much more accessible to the casual player than raid gear.  This denotes an understanding from Blizzard that BGs and Arenas are much more accessible to the majority of players than raids, and will net them the largest continuous player base.  I know if I were back playing WoW, I’d be over in the PvP elements of the game as often as possible, if for no other reason than a few rounds of Arathi Basin would be more productive, personally, than a night of raiding with a guild.

Another aspect to keep in mind with WoW, is that unlike many other MMOs out there, it is truly a global game.  And in the Asian countries, professional gaming is much more a reality than it is here in the United States.  I wish I could find it again, but there was a video a while back showing some (Korean, I think) professional gamer (national Starcraft champion or something) getting mobbed by girls in the street.  I’ve seen pictures of the audiences that will come to watch pro-gaming over there.  I doubt girls will scream or audiences will come watch a carefully orchestrated 3 hour long raid bound to net the guy with the worst items and/or the most points an item upgrade.  But for Arena matches… they will come.  So when you consider that more than half of WoW’s 10 million subscribers are in the Asian markets, markets where previous PvP Blizzard Games like Warcraft and Starcraft were monstrous successes, it really is no surprise that they might be giving WoW a little PvP nudge and luvin’.

In the end, it all comes back to the quote… Who loves you and who do you love?  Answer that, and keep answering that, and you can run a successful game.

Reusing Assets

Over at the Nerfbat Forums, a question was (poorly) asked about instances and zones. I say poorly asked because I think what the original poster meant to be the focus of the discussion is if people preferred the use of instances over shared zones, as well as zones versus a “seamless” world. EverQuest is probably the best most popular answer for zone based design, while World of Warcraft would be one people would recognize on the seamless world based design. In the grand scheme of things, both use instances, however for a more comprehensive instance based design you’d need to look at City of Heroes or Guild Wars.

I threw in my two bits on that thread, but the crux of my post, and that which relates to the title of this post, follows:

I’d love to see games mix it up… you put in a town, and outside that town is a zone, the zone is shared by everyone, maybe its huge, but inside the town you also put in a “raid” where your raid leader talks to an NPC and flags his raid for the “Defend the town” raid, and when the raid members leave town they don’t go into the shared zone, but instead go into an instance of that zone, or if the zone was huge just a section of that zone made as an instance to support the raid. Then, three expansions later you decide to implement an “Escort the king to Other Town” raid which uses the same outdoor zone, again as an instance, but this time the raid has to escort the king and his caravan to the other town at the far end of the zone, defending the king from waves of attackers.

I think games need to get more creative with their use of “space” and game/art assets. Designing a whole chunk of land to be used once in only one way just seems like a gigantic waste of effort.

That last paragraph really is what I want to ramble about. It surprises me how often games seem willing to spend so much time and effort building a zone or area in a game, and then don’t bother to reuse it. They’ll reuse item and NPC models left and right, just throwing tints on them to modify their colors, but they’ll spend a month designing a castle only to put one objective in it and never use it again.

The example I outlined above is something I’d absolutely love to see. Take a zone that is normally a shared hunting zone with animals and monster camps, the usual treadmilling trash mobs, strip it of the animals and camps and throw in an organized raid objective utilizing the same (and to the player, familiar) landscape but in new ways, or even take the original zone file and then build a fort in the middle of the forest that the players need to burn down.

I think the roadblock to this is the misconception that the player wants new stuff to be entirely new, but the truth is that for most players is just needs to be new “enough” and familiarity in some aspects can actually be comforting. Personally, while I do enjoy going into a new zone and learning new stuff, I think I’d also like going into an old zone with a new objective just about as much. I’d know the general lay of the land, that while we are currently approaching the enemy camp from the north, there is a path through the trees that will allow us to flank their position because its the path I used to use to approach the old goblin camp that used to be there.

That kind of reuse might also impact the desire of players to seek spoiler sites, not that the content itself would be immune to spoiling, but that familiarity with aspects of “new” content would actually foster a level of knowledge and confidence in the player that might keep them from feeling they need to look up information before continuing.

Anyway, it is something to think about.

A Cog in the Wheel

Over the years I have discussed with many people my likes and dislike as it regards the concept of “raiding” in MMOs. Back in the days of EverQuest, I was a raider. Not only did I follow other people into battle, but some times I lead them. And really, unless you done both, some of what follows may not make sense.

One thing I constantly say about the way raids are designed in many games is that I do not want to feel like a cog in someone else’s wheel. Finally though, I think I’ve come upon some examples that will really bring across how I feel…

Playing in a group, or small raid, is like a sports team. In basketball, five men take to the court at any one time, in baseball that number is nine, and I just don’t watch enough football to tell you how many are on the field, but I know its a relatively small number… not more than 20 for sure. Playing in a large raid is like being in a full orchestra. Now, let me explain…

We’ll take basketball first because it emulates a typical group size in most games. Five men, they practice together, there are rules and strategies, usually one of them is the captain or calling the ball… but ultimately, the man with the ball does what he does. If he wants to pass, he’ll pass, or if he wants to take the shot, he’ll take the shot. Any player who doesn’t have the ball is going to be trying to get open, or trying to appear that he’s trying to get open so as to distract the defending players. On the defensive side, each player will be covering a man or trying to block a shot. All this happens fairly independently for each man. Of course, as I said, they practice and have strategies, but those are prone to change on the fly in reaction to the situation, or be completely thrown out the window for improvisation when nothing seems to be working. This is like a group in a game… everyone has their role, their skills and abilities, and they do what they can, following the guidelines but ultimately their actions are their own and mutable from moment to moment.

Stepping upward, you put two to maybe four groups together for a small raid and like with larger team sports, the plays and strategies get more rigid, but still each person retains some control over their place in the game. Your healers still pick their own targets, people dealing damage do what they do to whoever they choose. Sometimes, full rigidity is called for on a boss fight, but every player, or at least every sub group of players, retains some autonomy.

Then we get to the big raids… I liken them to orchestras because really, if you are talking big raids like the old 72-man EQ days raids, individuality is really a hindrance. To get through the raid is almost a work of art. There are things that must be done in a certain order at certain timing by certain people… its like a symphony. Sure, you can drop one or your violins and add an extra cello, which will change the tone of the piece a bit, but in the end you play the same symphony. Large raids are run by one person, or a small subset of the people, conducted if you will, and if you aren’t one of those people then you are a piece in the orchestra. They need you to fill out the make up of their raid, and as long as you can do your part, things will be fine. But as gloriously demonstrated by the classic Leroy Jenkins clip, doing your own thing and breaking from formation can get everyone killed.

Some people don’t mind playing in the orchestra, letting someone else write the music and decide how its played and simply doing their own part to the best of their ability according to the plan at hand. Personally, I don’t like that. While I don’t mind giving up some control to the greater strategy, playing to the strengths of my team, I dislike giving up nearly all my control to focus on a single simple task… “Heal main tank”, “DPS”, “cure disease and spot heal”

Of course, by this point, with big raids having been so prevalent (and the fact that EQ often employed the “only one road to success” method of raid design) even as games like WoW’s Burning Crusade try to scale back raiding to smaller groups, many players continue to try to distill raids into single simple functions for their members to perform. Not to mention that the focus on item rewards and loot-centric design encourages frequent perfection causing them to desire getting the win as often and as simply as possible.

So, how can you tell if you are the cog in someone else’s wheel, if you are playing in someone else’s orchestra? Ask yourself about the last raid you went on… what did you do? how did it run? was it fun? If you weren’t the raid leader, and you are a cog, your answers will probably be whatever your class role dictates, smoothly and as for fun, well, that depends on if you enjoy the big raid life. All I know is, I don’t.

Raiding is stupid

It is. It really is. And if you are offended by that statement, its because you don’t really care about raiding, but you see it as a way to keep the really good loot out of the hands of people not willing to put forth the effort. You aren’t raiding because its a good story.

The main reason I say that raiding is stupid is that the way current MMOs are designed, raid encounters just do not make any sense at all. Seriously. If I were a sixty foot tall winged god surrounded by eighty people, you can bet your ass that I would not waste my time beating on the glowing regenerating turtle in a hard shell while the remainder of them killed me. I’d use my wings to sweep aside my attackers, I’d divide them and step on them. I’d kill the healers first and pick the rest off at my leisure…. because… I. Am. A. GOD.

The idea of mere mortals, even equipped with super uber weapons of doom, ganging up to kill gods is just… stupid. Especially when the gods just stand there and take it like the two dollar whore they are coded to be. I could actually buy it if it was just a group of six or even ten people, with a use of strategy and tactics… but have you ever seen people work together in large groups? Either most of them turn off their brains, follow orders, and many of them lose/die, or they are complete and utter chaos.

Raid content is insulting in the basicness of its design.

Frankly, I don’t play games to be archer number seven in a war someone else is leading. I don’t play to be a part of healing bank two, or even to be the “main tank”. When I play a game, I’m looking for narrative, and I’m looking to be the hero, not to be fire support for the hero. No one in the history of fantasy has ever said “My favorite character in Lord of the Rings is Glormindar, which is the name I gave to the guy who was standing about twenty feet away from Aragorn and was killed when the Nazgul arrived. He was fuckin’ sweet!” If you play games to be a cog in someone else’s wheel, well… I feel sorry for you. I really do.