Friday, July 31, 2009

MMO Roundup: 7/31/09

Champions Online: I really want to be a part of this hype train, hopefully it starts up soon. As it stands, I can't really say much because of the NDA.

They've begun outlining the powersets on the Champions website. This is a great idea. The powers are one of the main attractions. I really can't wait until someone codes a web-based character planner (are you listening undoubtedly-overworked CO web team?) Then again, I'm exactly the kind of geek who can pass half an hour playing with a WoW talent calculator, though I wonder if I'm the target audience.

I had been wondering what the end game would be, and a recent interview with lead designer Bill Roper revealed that, at launch, the endgame will mainly consist of a randomized series of 5 daily team missions that can be completed to unlock a 6th, more epic mission. These missions will reward tokens that can be redeemed for rewards. So in the fashion of the Champions so far, they've taken an idea from WoW and rebuilt it from scratch to fit their game. And it's right up my alley: randomized, small group, alternative reward system . . . it's like they read my post about endgame grinding! Or at least part of it.

Beyond that, the Nemesis system sounds like good fodder for mid- and endgame content. At level 25, you can design your hero's own arch-enemy, and then get special missions where you face him and storyline seeds such as ambushes from his minions (whom you also designed). And these are all shareable with other players, so for instance you could be doing a 3- player mission and run into a supervillain who turns out to be your teammate's nemesis.

But this is all speculation, it remains to be seen how this will play out in reality. I'm looking forward to the beta becoming open next month, when I'll be able to talk a lot more about this game.

Cryptic recently announced their pre-order bonuses as well.
Puzzlingly, Amazon and Wal-Mart do not offer head-start access (log into the live game a few days early), while Gamestop and Best Buy do. So ordering from GS or BB seemed like a no-brainer. Since I'm not a fan of Gamestop, I wanted to pre-order from Best Buy. Unfortunately, Best Buy doesn't have any preorder bonus details up on their website, and in fact even has the wrong release date for the game. Rather than risk missing out on the open beta or early access or even the first week of the game due to BB's lack of interest, I ended up swallowing my distaste and pre-ordering from Gamestop. Hopefully Cryptic can get BB to get their shit together. Champions recently topped GS's sales list, and I'm betting that's because they were the only retailer to offer early access and detail the preorder bonuses on their website, so GS is probably receiving the bulk of the preorders.

Retailers, take heed. Paying attention to the MMO audience pays off.

Aion: Surprisingly slow simmer on this front. Voices were added to the game for this weekend's beta event, which is nice because the first version of Hatch ended up with a hilariously high-pitched voice when I was forced to choose without being able to preview them (and they were still using the Korean voice acting). Still on the radar, but I have to say that while this one looked solid to begin with, the more polish Cryptic applies the Champions, the more it looks like Aion won't be getting my full attention this September.

WoW: As we await Blizzcon, a few things of interest have popped up.

By now, you've all heard that Sam Raimi will be directing the WoW movie. This announcement makes me think 2 things:

1) Cataclysm might be the name of the movie, not the xpac. I hope it's the xpac, because nothing short of a world-changing revolution is going to keep me interested in WoW for another 2 years.

2) Sam Raimi is not to my taste, so I'm disappointed by the pick. His direction is serviceable for the most part, but I find a lot of his unconventional camera work to be more annoying and unprofessional-looking than creative (see the scene from Spider-man 2 where Doc Ock first wakes up and kills the medical team that was about to remove his tentacles for an example). It feels cheap. And though I enjoyed some of the humor in Army of Darkness, that's largely due to the writing and acting; I don't think the directing helped it along much. Though Spider-man is my favorite comic book character ever, I was disappointed with the films overall, and most of that can be attributed to the directing (and the casting and the acting, except for J. Jonah Jameson). This news is almost as bad as Shia LaDoof getting cast as Y the Last Man (sidebar: DEAR GOD WHYYYYY?!?!?!!?)

Other than that, the WoW zeitgiest is focusing on the patch. Evidence is mounting that the patch will be released this coming Tuesday rather than the post-Blizzcon release I predicted.

1) MMO-Champion pointed out that the current PTR patch is labeled "Retail", a sign that it's almost ready to ship.

2) Blizzard released a Q&A today about the two major new features in the patch: the pve instances and the pvp battleground. As we know, PR is done when a weakness needs to be covered. I think they are seeing a lot of confusion from players about how things will work, and the fact that they chose NOW to clear it up rather than later points strongly to an impending release.

As a player, I don't really care either way. As a blogger, I'd like to be proven right. :)

We'll see how it goes. Until then, have a great weekend!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

3.2 and the "B Team": Insulting the Playerbase

This guys is really pissed about 3.2. And I think he's mostly right. The only thing I object to is the strong personal attacks against Blizzard employees, whom I'm sure are decent people with families and stuff just doing their jobs. But I have to agree that they really phoned it in with 3.2, and it's pretty insulting.

I've been having a big problem with WoW lately, one that has been pushing me more and more towards canceling my subscriptions (thus all the time I've spent looking into other MMOs). They rake in millions upon millions of dollars every month. But nearly every cent of that goes toward Actiblizz shareholders (note to self: buy their stock), while what's left gets invested into other projects, rather than the one we are paying them for. Our WoW money is NOT being reinvested into WoW development at anywhere near the rate it should be.

That's right: the money you pay them for WoW is being used to create games that you will then pay full price for. You are paying for SC2 and D3 and "Hydra" right now and you'll have to pay for them again when they are released. You'll be buying them twice. GG you.

If anything, the development staff for WoW has SHRUNK as they've become more and more profitable, rather than growing as you would naturally assume it would. I swear they have exactly the same size team creating content for 10 million people as they would if only 500,000 played the game. All that extra subscription money? Just gravy that we never get to see any results from. They make more and more money while giving less and less value. That's not just insulting: it strikes me as morally wrong. We put trust in them, and invest in them, and in return they half-ass it while pocketing our collective millions. I understand why people personally attack them, because it is a struggle for me to remind myself that they are just regular decent joes, rather than top-hatted mustache-twirling cartoon villains.

I can't say this enough: we deserve more for the money we pump into their company. We deserve more than the B team. We deserve more than 6 new armor models and zero new NPC models in 6 months, accompanied by 5 boss fights in one room and appallingly slow balance corrections.

Ghostcrawler has done a great job creating the illusion that Blizzard as a company is really paying attention to the WoW playerbase, beginning with his appearance during the WotLK beta soon after Blizzard merged with Activision. But I work in communications. I have worked in PR. And you know when's the only time that a corporation will ever invest in increased PR? When they need it. The company putting the most effort into acting like they care is ALWAYS the one that cares the least. The one investing the most money in looking customer-friendly is always in the business of ignoring the customer. It is a hard and fast rule. The emergence of Ghostcrawler and the non-answers of the class Q&As and this whole attempt to step up public image with the community: it's all there specifically because they've abandoned us to be milked. It is NOT evidence that they care, it's actually the best evidence we have that they as a corporation, couldn't care less.

[clarification: I think the development team left on WoW, including GC, care very much about their jobs and doing well. I'm saying that Blizzard as a whole doesn't care. GC's team is the B team, and while they try their best, they can't compensate for the fact that the majority of the institutions weight is directed at other things, like presenting a profitable quarterly report to the shareholders at the next board meeting. GC has been posting alot lately about how players shouldn't be posting in the official forums about how "Blizz doesn't care about them". Either he doesn't realize that those feelings are the biggest danger to his game right now, or he's just a very smart marketer downplaying what he knows to be his product's greatest weakness.]

I've been a loyal Blizzard fanboy for a long time, even as I rejected other game companies. Before the merger, I really thought Blizzard cared about making great games for their fanbase. But the current treatment of WoW is quickly eroding my brand loyalty and trust. They are killing the goose that laid the golden egg. I hope this negligence destroys their profit margin. I hope that someday, they have a quarterly report that shows a loss, and that they actually have the smarts to trace the losses back to the complete slaughter of customer trust they perpetrated with WoW.

But is my outrage enough to get me to not buy Starcraft 2? Not a chance. So the insult continues, because they really do have us where they want us. We're going to buy their games even if they continue to treat us like crap. They used to be a good company that produced the best games and treated their customers like their buddies. They made great games because they loved games and wanted to share those with us. Now they will still produce the best games, and we'll all buy them, but all the while we will hate them like we hate EA and Microsoft for treating us like mugging victims/drug addicts/caged rats rather than friends. They'll keep making money, but can that money allow them to accept what they've become? How they've changed into something predatory and bad? ...probably. Money is very nice.

We went from being players to being [willing!] cash siphons for them to harvest. GG us. And I'm just as complicit as anyone else. GG me.

Update: I've been told that it's easy to misinterpret what I said here, and I think that's fair. I want to clarify that I understand how businesses work. I understand that they are going to act in their own self-interest. I understand they are going to pay shareholders and reinvest in future projects.

I am NOT trying to say that they shouldn't reinvest at all. I'm NOT trying to say that they shouldn't pay shareholders. And I'm really NOT trying to say that they should act against their own self-interest.

What I am saying is that too small a portion of the money we send them is actually coming back to us in the product we pay for. We should be getting more for the money, and I think eroding Blizzard's brand loyalty is against ActiBlizz's self-interest, and in the long-run this money grab will cost them. And it sucks that they have no true competitors in this market to drive improvement. I think they are going too far in taking advantage of the lack of competition, and I hate feeling complicit because I'm still paying them for the "only game in town".

I'd liken it to buying a gallon of detergent. When you do that normally, you pay $5, and you get a gallon of detergent. But if it were WoW brand detergent, you'd pay $5, the package would say it was a gallon, but when you opened it up you'd find about 2 fluid ounces in there, and a note saying "sorry, the other $4.50 goes toward a new kind of detergent to be released in 2012 that will cost you $6 a gallon". A business wouldn't be able to survive like that if there were any competition, but I believe it's what's happening to us right now.

I feel like I'm repeating myself here, but I realize that there are tons people out there who have no understanding of business and expect corporations to be charities. Given the numbers, internet people who know something about economics are usually safe to assume others are naive. Basically consider this a disclaimer where I explain that I don't have wide-eyed naive delusions about corporations being charities that will ever act outside of their self-interest. "Well corporations are supposed to make money, duh" is something that I'm well aware of and think is consistent with my criticisms. I had hoped I had communicated that adequately in the post itself, but I may have assumed too much while communicating too little about my frame of reference.

Monday, July 27, 2009

More Aion Impressions

Aion is the kind of game where you fight things like this:

Sadly, I failed to get a shot of the tog during the most recent beta event. A tog is what you would get if you crossed a wrinkly-faced bulldog with a pig, then hired a manga artist to draw it all cute-like. The effect of something that ugly trying to be cute makes vomit well up in the back of my throat.

For the uninitiated, Aion is an upcoming WoW-alike MMO imported from Asia and currently in beta. It has a Final-Fantasy-meets-softcore-porn aesthetic running beautifully in the Crytekimabob engine (or something impressive-sounding). It plays just like WoW: you hit action buttons to use abilities to slaughter an unending stream of NPCs to steal their armor and complete a string of quests for people with symbols over their heads. The “hook” is that your character has wings, making gliding, free-flight, and airborne combat a central part of the experience – in theory. So far, up to level 14, I have done almost zero flying, as all of the questing areas so far have been ground-bound.

I’m told the flying combat comes into play in the outer zones that border a giant rift between the two halves of the world. Each half is populated by a different faction: the angelic Elyos and the attractive-but-emo Asmodeans.

Having explored the first section of the Asmodean experience as a spear-swinging, plate-wearing Gladiator (Part 1 and Part 2), I spent some time in the most recent beta weekend visiting Elyos and trying a different class, the Scout.

Being another melee class, the Scout plays a lot like the Gladiator did at earlier levels, except the Scout is way squishier. I had to stop to bandage after almost every battle. In return, I got stealth and the ability to stun (via a counterattack). Until you pick a sub-class at level 10 – assassin or ranger – the Scout plays just like an early-level WoW rogue, only instead of combo points you have escalating Chain Techniques where move 2 only becomes available if used immediately after move 1. However, Chains are part of the game for all classes, hardly unique to the Scout. Again, as with the Gladiator, attacks seem only limited by their cooldowns. I didn’t appear to have any energy-like resource to keep track of. I did have a mana bar, but I never saw it move. So far, both melee classes echo the design philosophy of the Retribution Paladin: just hit whichever button lights up!

As you can see, Elyos is much sunnier than Asmodae:
Oooh, pretty! (and keep in mind my computer is crap and playing on low graphics settings)

And the capital city is almost blindingly so:

Yes, I managed to get a character named “Pimpn” in the shot. That’s a photojack.

The Elyos land uses a warm color palette, except for pure reds, which are reserved to keep Asmodae (I’m not going to look up how to spell that, thank you) from being too grey. The monsters I encountered in the first ten levels were mostly different from those in Asmodae, and the quests, while largely variations on the same kill or fetch designs, were at least set in a different storyline.

But sadly, the two worlds are disappointingly similar. The quests are nearly identical. The starting areas are both surrounded by camps of little kobold-type mobs that gather some type of food you have to steal from them. The skins are different colors, and maybe the models are slightly different, but in the end, one tiny fat mole-person is no different from the other 500 you brutally murdered, palette-swap or no palette-swap.

What I’m saying is: there’s not much replay value in the first 10 levels of the game. Nominally, there are only two starting areas. In reality, there’s about 1.5 of them. This isn’t anywhere near damning for the game, given that 1) I loved my first play-through, 2) Many other MMOs only have one or two, including my current favorite non-WoW game, Champions Online, 3) WoWs starting areas are pretty similar to each other when you get right down to it. The similarities are just better masked by the art in WoW. In WoW, you have to stop to think about it to realize how similar the starting zones really are. In Aion, you have to work to avoid noticing how close they are to being identical.

According to these NPCs and my mom, I am super-duper awesome.

Hopefully, this will change in the higher levels, and the endgame PvPvE (apparently raid monsters will attack you during your massive PvP fights?) will make up for the repetitive leveling experience.

There’s another beta weekend coming up, and I plan to try out a caster class and get my Gladiator a little bit higher to see how the game changes as you level. Also, I’ll try to get a picture of a tog so they can haunt your nightmares as they have mine.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

3.2 Playable Races: Definitely Worgen!

By now, you've all heard about the masks. The dataminers over at MMO Champion found 2 new sets of Halloween masks in the PTR build: Male and Female Goblins, and Male and Female Worgen.

Female Worgen don't exist in the game, and the the textures are way more detailed than most current in-game models.

I'm going to join Boubouille and go on the record as saying that this is definitive evidence of Worgen as a new playable race.

1) All previous Halloween masks have been for playable races only.

2) The female worgen out of nowhere.

3) This is the big one: look really carefully at the textures. Sure, they look more detailed, right? Now go look at the new models for bear/cat. Notice how old textures are blocky, with solid colors, while the new textures take advantage of higher resolutions to add detail and shading that make the model look even more 3-D than it actually is? Creating depth even with a low polygon count? Detailed fur, rolls, ridges, etc.?

Now look at the detailed folds of skin around the mask's eyes. And the detail put into the fur, a quality only seen before on the new druid models. These textures reek of having a ton of work already put into them. It's just too much for something throwaway, especially considering that there's already 2 different male Worgen textures in the game. It took them this long to update druid forms, do you really expect me to believe that the art department could be bothered to put this much work into a throwaway mask? Not a chance.

I guess there's a chance it's a hoax, but it's so elaborate and unnecessary that I seriously doubt it.

The next edition of the PTR added masks for all of the races that have been speculated in the past as possible future playable races: Murlocs, Vykrul, Naga, etc. Even a never-before-seen female Ogre!

Except the female ogre isn't even a model-mapped texture, it's just a copy/paste of a drawing from the WoW tabletop RPG!

I think it's pretty clear that these are just meant as a misdirection to cover up the leak. Fully expect the Worgen/Goblin announcement next month. I'll be looking forward to playing both.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Only Way to Fix WoW is to Kill Raiding as We Know It.

I have come to a conclusion recently: raiding needs to die.

Through my extremely scientific method known as "what do I recall reading about in the past few years", I've established that the major thing that turned many off from WoW was that the very nature of the game changed completely at max level. What started out as a fun romp which mixed the then-innovative solo questing with remarkably accessible small group dungeon crawls, suddenly and sickeningly shifted to become a heavily gated gear grind that required organizing 40 people. Barriers to entry slammed closed suddenly in the faces of the masses as they dinged 60, as player-gatekeepers sprang up in charge of their elite guilds and what had once been a social and constantly novel experience became both impersonal and repetitive overnight.

The Bait n Switch
The bottom line is, people loved the game they thought WoW was. Like so many crack addicts, they fell for the free samples of high-quality product, and were already invested by the time they discovered they were going to have to take 10 times as much of the shitty crack sold at a premium to the addicts to get the same high. We loved the game, so we'd take whatever content was given to us. Mindless 10-man grinds of 5 man dungeons? Not what I really like, but I'll do it. Become a faceless number in a clusterfuck of 40 people because that's where the rewards and "elite" social status lay? Um...OK, I guess, at least I still get to play WoW. Those who wouldn't raid either quit, or were treated like second-class citizens and subject to lower social status in a game they loved. They continued to play the game they had originally fallen for - solo questing and 5-man dungeons - but never got new content, having to watch their meager rewards rendered trivial as the 5% who had gotten past the gatekeepers and had time to burn were gifted huge raid instance after huge raid instance that almost no one got to see. And I say this as one of the people who got past the gatekeepers!

And that brings me to one of my favorite horse-shaped punching bags: 25-man raids. Ghostcrawler is often quoted as saying 25-man raids will die if they don't give rewards a tier higher than 10-man raids. Having fond memories myself of 40 and 25 man raids in the past, I used to think that losing them would be a shame. Now I say: to hell with them. Put Old Yeller down, already, instead of the current artificial life support.

Too Many People!
I've run a 25-man guild before. Yeah, it's harder to organize than a 10-man guild in some ways, but easier in others. Just take my word for it for now, I don't want to go off on this tangent and water down my main point. My main point is that people really like smaller groups. For the most part, the gravitation toward 10-man raiding isn't that it's easier to organize: only the leaders even have to worry about that. No, the real reason is that the majority of people prefer smaller groups. This is for a variety of reasons: they are more intimate and social, there is room for everyone to talk and feel like a part of the group, each member is important, and the group is small enough to largely avoid the factioning inherent in larger groups. I can't remember where I read this research, but I do recall that around 5-8 people is the default human social group. We are hardwired, regardless of culture, for this. Our brains are set up to store and process information about a close social group that size. In a 40 or 25 man guild, you'll always see factioning and cliques. In a 10-man group, this is a lot less pronounced. In 5 or 10 mans, you can be together because you are all friends. In a 25-man guild, you by definition cannot all be friends, and in fact are just a few disparate groups crudely taped together by the promise of loot and social status.

So instead of forcing something almost nobody wants down our throats because the main devs happened to have played too much EQ (EQ made this same "the endgame is giant groups all of the sudden" mistake, much to its detriment), why not make the game people want to play? The one we all fell in love with? Instead of the one that only a small percentage even get to see? When you have to twist the raiding game so brutally in order to make it "accessible", maybe that's a sign that the original concept is fucking broken.

Change the Game
The key to the solution is to renew focus on 5-mans. There's plenty of solo questing content, and the dailies give appropriate rewards through rep, tokens, and money (as I've said in the past, the best fix is to attach Crusade rewards to all non-daily quests you haven't done yet at max level, so I have a better reason to clear out Icecrown). But aside from a big dose from an x-pac every 2 years, there is almost never any new 5-man content. Everyone runs 5-mans, and almost everyone likes them. Remarkably fewer people raid, and only a small percentage of those prefer raiding to five mans (most only do it for the gear and social status). So instead of focusing all of the developmental energy on a giant epic new raid instance every patch, focus on a new 5-man (or 2 or 3) every patch. Mimic the tiered progression of raid gear, similar to the new Coliseum 5 man coming out, which drops Naxx-level epics on normal mode and Naxx 25 epics on heroic.

But I don't think the ability to raid should just be taken out of the game. As much as I love 5-mans, I also love 10-mans, and could enjoy a larger raid from time to time. People liked 10-15 manning UBRS. Take that original emergent gameplay and systemetize it. Make all of the new 5-mans scale to group size. To make it easier on yourself, just offer versions tuned for 5, 10, 20, and 40-person groups. Tuning should be easy enough: just pump up the damage and HP appropriately (and make it standard for bosses without adds to do a cleave that is distributed amongst everyone in front of it, requiring multiple tanks at higher group sizes). Make the raids drop the same rewards, just more numerous, with some extra vanity items and monetary rewards thrown in. For instance, maybe killing a boss on 5-man heroic gives you 1 Hero Badge, one Crusader Badge, 1 Epic, and a bit of money. 10-man gives you twice as much, plus a chance at a non-combat pet. 20-man gives you 5 epics, plus 3 of each badge, plus a bag of gems and a chance at the pet and a tabard. 40-man gives you 12 epics, plus 5 of each badge, plus a bag of gems and a better chance at a pet, tabard, and giant bag dropping. Just for instance. Suddenly, bigger groups don't give you better gear, but they do reward you more than smaller groups. So if you enjoy a bigger group, you have the option to run the instance that way, and you are rewarded appropriately for the added investment.

As an added bonus, every group size can go in on heroic and fight a pumped-up version of the bosses to get loot half a tier higher. Make this actually challenging, and it gives the hardcore types something to do. After the initial expansion tier, the average group should not immediately get new heroics, even 5-mans, on farm. You still have Ensidia getting world firsts, it's just that the community can define what group size they want to have "matter". Admittedly, this is the weakest part of my plan, and is more a bone thrown to good players that want to differentiate themselves from the "bads". But the bottom line is that good players will still have fun (as long as all instances have a "hard mode") and this system makes everyone happier and more included without us losing much of anything. If 90% of us are having a blast while Ensidia quits in disgust, then even though I like Ensidia and raiding, I call it a win.

Now you can also pump out patches more quickly, since you are designing fewer bosses per patch, and most of the development effort is in balancing and less of it is in time-consuming and costly artistic assets. If you release one raid dungeon every 6 months, then we're going to be pissed when the models of the bosses are recolors of current models (coughColiseumcough). If you release two 5-mans every 3 months, then I promise we won't complain when those bosses are mostly simple recolors.

Wouldn't the Loss of Raid Superiority Ruin the Game?

As we saw when TBC came out, and again with Wrath: the players drawn to do what it takes to be elite don't care what type of content they are doing. If you change things, then they will simply move to the new "elite" activity. The 40-man guilds bitched and moaned, but they've simply transitioned to 25-mans, and kept doing it even as they became more accessible and less gated (no more attunements!) and 10-mans kept getting more legitimized. As long as there is something to do that is considered "elite" (in my design, this is clearing cutting-edge heroics before others can farm up the gear to clear them and catch up before the next patch), they will keep playing your game and just focus on that new activity, even if it's supposedly "easier" or less exclusive than the old activity.

Rather than ruin the game, I think this change would make WoW what it really always should have been. Let the game we all fell in love with continue after we ding 80, instead of mutating into the raiding monster we see today.

Inspired by this article by Jeff Hollis on how WoW is committing suicide: Part 1 Part 2 Which btw is COMPLETELY wrong about raiding only taking time and not skill, so don't think for a second I endorse the entire article as correct. I just used his ideas as a jumping-off point.
Thanks to Syp at Bio Break for linking that article originally.

Champions Online Microtransactions

Champions Online will allow you to pay some real-life cash to buy some novelty stuff.

Anyone who is whining or complaining about this can feel free to click the following link:

At least Cryptic is willing to call a spade a spade and be honest about their microtransactions, instead of hiding them behind another product and marketing nonspeak gobbledygook.

I too am skeptical of microtransactions. Like many others, I look upon them with suspicion that the Big Evil Corporation is using them to "trick" me into giving them more of my money for less product. I feel my suspicions are well-founded. But I don't think the fact that a game will have some form of them is, on it's own, a reason to condemn the game or get all up in arms.

I generally am not a fan of micro-transactions, but if we're going to jump on anyone for them, it should be Blizzard first (cough$25tochangeavalueinaspreadsheetcough). They just didn't use the dreaded word "microtransactions" themselves.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Seanbaby teaches you to WoW

Next time someone in your group can't figure out how to step out of the fire, or follow any simple instruction, please direct them to this article.

Seanbaby has been one of the best things about the internet for a good decade now. If just the fact that this was written by Seanbaby isn't enough to get you to click it immediately, then please leave earth and return to your home planet.

Try a Ret Paladin Today!

So you know that reputation that ret paladins have as a faceroll class that's both super-easy to play and super-powerful?

Totally. Merited.

BIG DISCLAIMER: I'm not saying people who play ret paladins are stupid, facerollers, or can't handle a "real" class. In fact, I'm saying, with no irony or sarcasm, that they are the smartest of us all. They were smart enough to pick the easiest to play in the entire game, which is also super-desireable in groups (have you seen the list of buffs a ret pally brings to a raid?!*), can respec to any role, and can perform on par with any other class. If all classes perform roughly equally, but ret paladins are by far the easiest ones to play, then by definition those who choose ret paladins are the smartest. Props to you! I guarantee that many ret paladins are excellent players.

Just for reference: I have a level 80 DK, rogue, druid, and warrior. I have a mage and shaman in their 70's. I leveled my paladin on follow with a hunter while dual-boxing, so I didn't play her at all while leveling. But I did play the hunter and a warlock from 1-60 just before Wrath came out. So I have a pretty decent idea of how other classes play.

Ret paladins are by far the easiest thing I have ever played in this game. Picking one up at level 60 with this spec, I am having an absolute blast mowing down anything in my path.

Let me explain ret paladins to you. They have 5 attacks. They are all instant cast and do big chunks of instant direct damage (no wussy DoT spells here!). Three of these are ranged (no other melee class has more than 2 ranged attacks, most have 1 or zero). One is an aoe that heals them. One is a ranged execute that is nearly guaranteed to crit. The absolute only limiting factor on activating these attacks is their cooldowns (most around 10 seconds long). There is no setting up diseases or combo points or bleeds or even applying stormstrike while waiting for a maelstrom proc. It's just all super-satisfying instant-cast direct attacks, all the time. Walk up, mash buttons, mob dies. Rinse, repeat.

Ret paladins also don't have to worry about resources. One of their attacks actually gives them mana back while activating replenishment. Meanwhile, other classes have to worry about mana efficiency, or if they have enough rage/energy/RP/runes to do their next attack. Ret pallies might as well not have a blue bar. All you have to do is wait for cooldowns. Now, I understand that at the highest levels of play, managing these cooldowns in the most effective way can be challenging, and requires an element of skill, experience, and decisionmaking. But while leveling, it requires no thought. Hit whichever button is lit up, kthxbai.

And did you take a little bit of damage through your plate armor? No worries, just pop a cheap, instant-cast heal that shields you if it crits.

Usually, calling a class "faceroll" is figurative hyperbole. They actually wouldn't do too well if all you did was roll your face across the keyboard. But with a ret paladin, I mean it literally. You could just smack the five attack keys against against your forehead over and over, and perform roughly as well as someone who is actually paying attention.

And that brings us to the reason I've hated rets since the Great Battleground Holocaust of 2008: 1v1 PvP dominance. DKs are the only thing that even approaches them in single combat, and this has been the case since 3.0 came out and suddenly you could no longer enter a BG without a holy hammer being shoved so far up your ass it was coming out of your mouth. Granted, it's toned down a bit at 80, but they are still overwhelming 1v1. Yeah, I know Blizz doesn't care about 1v1, and doesn't balance around it, blah blah blah. But in a game where development of your own avatar is at its core, the players are certainly going to care about it, and always have.

You know how rogues are balanced around their stuns? They have relatively low survivability, but rely on CC instead? Stuns that require setup (either stealth or 5 combo points) as well as energy? Oh yeah, ret paladins have a stun that lasts as long as both rogue stuns put together, and can be cast without any setup whatsoever. Oh, and it's ranged. Paladins out-stun rogues, and their class isn't even based around stuns. Are all these italics getting the point across?

Unlike warriors, DKs, and rogues, Paladins have no limit on their ability to unload damage except cooldowns. So they can fire off all 5 of their attacks at once in rapid succession, in the space of the stun. They don't have to wait for resources. Unlike other mana-users, all of their attacks are instant-cast direct damage with zero setup requirements. In short, their burst damage is second-to none and mindlessly easy to execute compared to their closest competition.

Meanwhile, they have 2-3 full health bars you have to clear before you can kill them (bubble and lay on hands), aside from being able to instant-heal themselves indefinitely (did I mention the bubble if they crit?). Which might not be so bad if they weren't also wearing plate. And able to go completely immune to all snares. And dispel themselves of almost anything. And mimic DK's Icebound Fortitude (so powerful it's getting nerfed in the next patch) to be even harder to kill. Shall I continue? I can do this all day.

Did I mention the ranged stun that goes with the plate and the heals and the burst damage and ...


Here is a visual aid to demonstrate what you are doing to yourself if you choose a class that isn't ret paladin:

I never would have believed just how easy this class is to play until I tried it. I recommend you try one for yourself. I'll certainly continue leveling mine, because playing one is just so much fun, and so much more relaxing when I barely have to pay attention. The big instant attacks are very satisfying. Ret paladins are just so much better than other classes that I'd recommend them to any new player, and am considering devoting a lot more of my playtime to this character.

I have to give props to those who were smart enough to get on the EZ train before it left the station. I'm enjoying my ride.

*For the record:
3% crit
3% damage
3% haste
Judgement (either free mana or free health to the dps)
Divine Sacrifice
Instant heals
Threat control (Hand of Salv)
Hand of Freedom

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

WoW Patch Date Prediction.

UPDATE: So um yeah I was completely wrong on this one. On the bright side, we got the patch a month earlier, so: yay, fun!

3.2 will not be released until September.

How do I know this? Well, the true answer is that my real name is Jesus H. Nostradamus III, Esq. and I am in possession of both a crystal ball (witches don't keep a good eye out for shoplifters) and a time machine made out of a purple Dodge Omni. But the fake answer I give to the psychiatrist when I'm trying to trick him into releasing me from the mental hospital so I can protect my son from robots from the future: research, and a little bit of thought.

Here's the evidence:

Length of time 3.1 was on PTR: Feb 25 - April 14, 2009. 2 months.
3.1 had Ulduar, 3.2 has a smaller raid instance, but adds a 5-man and a Battleground.

3.2 hit the PTR on June 23rd. If it took the same amount of time as 3.1, it would go live around August 12.

So many are thinking, "3.2 will probably go live in mid-August, right?"

Au contraire. Let's add some more evidence.

Blizzcon 2009: Aug 21-22

Mark my words: there is no way Blizzard will release a patch with a new raid instance just one week before Blizzcon. For one thing, they know hardcore raiders make up a big chunk of Blizzard attendees, and there is no way they, especially those like Ensidia, are going to risk losing world firsts and rankings to attend Blizzcon. Or even server firsts, on a smaller scale. It would be a giant finger to the community. On top of that, they would be busy that week preparing for Blizzcon, and won't have time to deal with post-patch problems or, god forbid, prepare a minor patch to fix bugs. They won't have time to retune encounters on the fly every other day like they did with Ulduar.

Also, a lineup like that doesn't fit with the marketing department's schedule. Blizzcon is a giant marketing opportunity. A patch is a giant marketing opportunity. Any marketer employed by a company like Blizzard is going to know better than to let those two step on each other's toes. From their perspective, a patch would need at least 2 weeks room between it and Blizzcon. So it's either going to come out in early September, or early August. So why not early August?

Here's a reason: Ensidia v Method: July 31-Aug 2
Do you expect me to believe, for even a second, that these two guilds would agree to travel and do an Ulduar-based competition if they had any worry that the patch would come out that week? Not a chance. I would be shocked if these guilds do not have a direct inside contact at Blizzard who can give them confidential patch date estimates so they can free up their schedules. There's no way the patch comes out before August 7th, and since, as we've seen with Ulduar, guilds will be working on hard mode world firsts for months afterwards, there's no way it comes out only 2 weeks before Blizzcon. Need more evidence?

Blizzcon 2005: October 28-29
Surrounding patches:
1.8 Dragons of Nightmare (no new raid instance): October 10
1.7 Rise of the Blood God (ZG released): September 13

So there is a precedent for a patch release 2-3 weeks before a Blizzcon: a patch with no new raid instance. A patch that was so minor it came out less than a month after it's predecessor.

Blizzcon 2007: Aug 3-4
Surrounding patches:
Patch 2.1 The Black Temple: May 22
Patch 2.2 Voice Chat!: September 25 (yes, it took 4 months to do voice chat)

Here we see 2-month windows on either side of Blizzcon.

Blizzcon 2008: October 10-11
Surrounding patches:
Patch 2.4 Fury of the Sunwell: Mar 25
Wrath of the Lich King: November 13

And this one speaks for itself.

But maybe you are thinking to yourself that precedent hardly proves the future. You'd be right. So let's look at more evidence.

How about this official post regarding the removal of the 310% speed mount rewards from Ulduar:

"The rusted and ironbound proto-drake rewards for the normal and heroic Glory of the Ulduar Raider meta achievements will be removed at a future date. We currently do not have an exact date they will be taken out, but it is possible they will be removed when patch 3.2 comes out or at some point after that. When we do decide to remove these mounts we will provide about 1 month of warning so players will have time to make some final attempts."
They promised one month of warning. Warning hasn't been given yet. August 15 is one month from today. Furthermore, I'm betting when they give 1 month warning, they'll time it so they actually estimate we'll have more than that, just so they don't risk a backlash. Expect the warning in the first week of August.


In summary, the evidence points very strongly to an early September release date for patch 3.2.

Plus, I'm part of a psychic hive-mind from the Planet Zargon. HEED ME OR I SHALL DEVOUR YOU, PUNY HUMANS!!!

UPDATE: The two biggest MMO releases of this year, Champions and Aion, are both going on sale in mid-September. If you owned the MMO market, which of the following scenarios would you prefer?

1) New patch releases 2 months before the competitors. By the time the new MMOs hit, your players have done all of your new content and are looking for something new. Your next dose of content is at least two months away in the pipeline. That's long enough for all those people who try to new games to finish their month trial and pay for a subscription.

2) New patch releases 1-2 weeks before the competitors. Your addicted fanbase has to choose between your new content and the new games. Whispers of "sry cant play CO, gotta do my tournament dailies" ring out across the land.

I think the choice is pretty obvious here.

BTW, fun fact:

Warhammer Online release date: September 18, 2008
WoW patch 3.0 release date: October 14, 2008, juuust under 4 weeks later (the better to keep you from subscribing, my dear!). And it bears noting that Blizzard was trying to get this one out earlier, but it was so big that it was delayed.

UPDATE 2: I have to admit this doesn't bode well for my theory. I'm sticking to it until the patch is up, though.

Monday, July 13, 2009

General Laziness

Swamped at work. Here are some brief things I've been wanting to get down, but haven't put in a post yet:

Aion, overall: Best described as "satisfying" and "pretty". If you like to play WoW, and you look at pictures of this game and like the asthetic, then I recommend it. It plays well, is serviceable everywhere that isn't impressive, and actually works this early in the beta process (owing much to already being out in another country). I had fun with it.

Champions, Online: I'm worried about two things about the publicized powerset system:

1) Will it be too easy to "gimp" a character? I know they are keeping this in mind, but it still worries me. It would be very comforting to see some sort of recommendation stuff in place. Like, "it's highly recommended that you take a defensive power at level 5" or "block replacers may not look like much, but they are actually usually one of the most powerful and useful abilities you'll have" (I don't know if those are true, just making up fake examples). This goes hand-in-hand with:

2) It's dangerous to have each powerset have "hidden purposes". What I mean is: I recently read an interview with one of the CO designers about powersets, and he starts talking about how "such and such is actually a tanking set in disguise" and "this powerset won't do as much damage as this other one, even though they both look like basic blasting powers". This seems like a really dangerous route to go down. It's going to be all too common for someone to pick a powerset because it looks cool or goes with their character, then find that the higher in level they get, the more they fall behind because the powerset was designed for some other role without any indication before you select it. If you are going to design the powersets around roles, then you NEED to tell the player ahead of time what those roles are.

Hopefully these will be addressed before the game hits. If not, the open beta is going to be a clusterfuck as a massive number of people find that their character is nothing like they had every reason to expect it would be.

PuGs, being douches: I ended up the de facto raid leader for my guild because no one else felt like doing it. When I pug things like VoA, I purposely refuse to lead the group. PuGs are my time to be just another member of the raid. You know why?

Because leading the raid is more effort than just being a member.

Let's keep that in mind as we go forward, shall we? This is the reason why your entire faction can stand around the Wintergrasp portal spamming "/inv plz" when there is no raid group, and none of those 50 people will form a group themselves. It takes one person to finally give in and be the one to do the work of inviting people, just so that things will finally happen. These are the people whose impatience outwieghs their laziness. I would normally be this person, except I already lead raids for my guild for pretty much that reason.

So when someone else forms a pug, remember that they are volunteering to do an unpaid job that you aren't willing and/or able to do yourself. If you don't like the way they run the group, then that's fine. Constructively criticize, offer to help (and I do not mean "pass lead plz" after they've done all the work starting it up and you just want to invite your undergeared friends), or leave the group. But give the raid leader at least a tiny token of respect, or else they are going to feel like even more of a sucker for being the one to take on the extra work for your benefit. And pragmatically, that leads to there being fewer suckers on the server who will start a raid for you. Even if your impulse is to be a douche, or you really are just such a waste of a human that you can't be even halfway nice, at least try to stretch your tiny brain to think one step ahead to realize that the worse you treat pug leaders, the fewer of them there will be. And since you aren't willing to start a pug, that means less loot for you. Think about it, random childish pug douchebag who I'm sure doesn't read my blog. I'm sure I'm just preaching to the choir.

I say all of this because enough of my guildies and friends were all standing around WG together just after a victory, spamming "LFG VoA 10", and they started suggesting that I put one together. Which is the biggest curse of being the raid leader: people expect you to be the one who assembles pugs as well. You have members in your guild who will say "we should do ____ ", but they almost never actually put a group together themselves? They leave that up to the one sucker who got in the position of raid leader? Yeah, thought so.

So I finally got tired of waiting and just put together a pug myself. When I make a VoA 10 pug, I aim to get as close to one of each class in there as possible. Murphy's law dictates that if you don't bring a class, all of the loot dropped will be for that class. This way, everyone has a better chance of getting a drop. I was playing my resto druid alt. This becomes important later.

So I'm forming this group, and we need 2 more dps. So I say in chat, "LF2M DPS VoA 10", and am immediately inundated with tells. To be fair, the majority of them are perfectly nice. But most of them are classes we already have, so I decline, and keep advertising. One of the people who whispered me is a douchebag and someone I had recently had a fight with in a pug. I wasn't going to invite him, and it amazes me that he even bothered to try to get into a pug I was running, considering what I had said to him. I don't respond.

After a bit, he whispers me saying "Why didn't you invite me?"

"Don't you remember how a week ago I left your group because I didn't like you?"

His response was "Baby gonna cry?" which borders on nonsense. I promptly put him on ignore.

Then, I get a whisper from another druid. He says "why didn't you invite me?"

"Because I'm trying to get one of each class"

"Aha! You just don't want competition!"

"That's right. :)"

"Don't smile, that's fail!"

"Of course I don't want competition. I'm not going to apologize for it. It's not just for me, every person in my raid is happier because they don't have to compete. If you don't like it, make your own group. If you can't be bothered to do that, then you don't get to complain."

And it went on like that for a bit.


People were such entitled dicks to me that it made me never want to lead a pug again. And I'm pretty good at it. So good job, douches. The funniest part is that you don't even realize this is 100% your loss.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Aion Beta Impressions and Details: Part 2

The tradeskill system in Aion sucks.

OK, maybe that's not entirely fair. First of all, in the early levels it is at least as good as WoW's. Except WoW's also kinda sucks.

But maybe I'm taking it too personally. Let me explain. I'll have to start from the beginning.

Here's a shot from a "vision of my future" that I got to play out as part of the ascension questline. You see yourself as powerful flying warrior, and get to wtfpwn a few other Daevas before the cutscene ends.

So there Hatch was, having just completed a questline for an imprisoned Daeva in the starting area, and dinging level 10. He got teleported to the major Asmodean hub city, known as Pandaemonium. Teleporting gets you between the major zones, while the flight paths I talked about in my last post take you from hub to hub within each zone. It's possible there is no physical geographical link between zones; it's too early for me to tell.

Anyway, I show up in Panda, and the first thing I see is a city square that is positively mobbed with players. About half of them are seated on little stools with word bubbles permanently displayed above their heads, saying things like "Buy my stuff!" and "Manastones, cheap!" These are personal stores. Any player at any time can set one up, plop their character down in a highly-trafficked area, and go afk if they wish. Other players will be able to use them like a vendor, buying whatever specific items the player put up for sale. I ended up using some of these people to gather manastones and tradeskill materials later on. But first, I wanted my wings. A questgiver gave me a little cutscene showing off the zone (these are pretty common on the main "Campaign" questline, which has a separate slot in your quest log from "standard" quests that are just there to supplement the grind), then sent me on my way to the high priest or something.

There was a cute little ceremony, and I got my wings. At first I wasn't entirely sure it worked, because you can't fly in the city and there is absolutely no tutorial on how to use your wings. This should really be remedied before release.

After the ceremony, I got to pick which of the subclasses I would be. I chose Gladiator, because on some forum I heard them described as "devastating". So clearly that's the one for me! The trainer offered me some new skills, a very nice polearm well beyond anything I could buy at my level, and a limit break (by some other name). There was no explanation of the limit break that I noticed, either. As I kept playing, I wondered at first why the move never seemed to activate when I pressed it. Then I noticed it used a third bar that had appeared under my mana bar. This meter filled as I killed enemies without dying. It filled very slowly. I got to use the limit break a few times, and while visually impressive (I speared the foe on my polearm and slammed him into the ground around me a few times) it didn't seem to do very much damage. Disappointing, especially considering that you can't use it unless you manage not to die for about an hour of questing. Which, to be honest, I couldn't accomplish more than twice all weekend.

A few quests had sent me off to another area, and I was eager to try out my wings and new polearm, so I payed a fee to teleport there. Most quests reward you in large sums of cash, but everything you do costs a ton as well, so it evens out. At least this early in the game, the economy feels lively and getting even small sums of money is genuinely exciting and meaningful. Thoughtfully, the developers gave the teleporting NPC in the city a repeatable fedex quest that sends you to the bank and back and rewards some cash, just in case you accidentally spend all your money and find yourself unable to afford a teleport out of town.

I immediately tried flying, figuring the controls out as I went along purely from the keybinding list. During my first flight, I stayed in the air too long and fell to my death right in the middle of town. You can fly for about 30 seconds to start with, though I get the impression this extends as you level in some way. One thing I didn't know at first was that you could fly longer if you used the "glide" key. This would cause you to glide forward but stop consuming your flight meter. At first, I would continue pushing W to go forward, and gliding would cause me to lose altitude quickly. I thought that was all it did.

Then, I started questing in an area that forbade flying (all of the questing areas I've encountered so far are like this). From time to time, I'd see another player go by on their wings in these areas, much to my puzzlement. I figured out that you could at least get some air time in these areas with the glide button, but I'd almost immediately hit the ground again. Late in the weekend I was in a group, and mentioned that I couldn't figure out how other people were flying so much. Both of the people in my party, at the same time, said "don't hit forward". It turns out that glide works a lot like the flight hat in Mario 64: if you press nothing, you'll stay level and slowly lose altitude while maintaining speed. If you tilt forward, you will gain speed but lose altitude. If you pull back, you'll gain altitude but lose speed. You can stay in the air for quite a while by alternating forward and back and using the built-up speed from descending to create wind resistance and pull yourself back up. Eventually you'll land, but it's still very useful for travelling and escaping.

None of this was explained to you by the game itself anywhere I could find.

While questing, I came across ore nodes and plants that could be gathered using a skill I gained at level 10 called "gather essence". I liked that you just got the skill automatically, and the same gathering skill applied to anything you could gather. The only exception is "aether", a substance you can only gather from flying nodes high in the sky. That had it's own, separately-leveled skill. Leveling gathering worked just like WoW: every few gathers you'd get a skill up.

There is a chance to fail, represented by the fail bar, which fills in competition with the pass bar. I'd estimate I failed about 1/3 of the time.

So I did a few levels of standard questing, then made a trip back to Panda for ability books. While there, I explored a bit. There's a vendor district, a residential district, and a pvp arena. There's also a bank/auction house. The AH works, though I couldn't get the search function to operate. Your bank includes an "account warehouse" which is presumably accessible to all of your characters of that faction on the account. Nice.

Then there's the Alley of the Damned, also known as the tradeskill area. Here, hundreds of players while away their few beta hours endlessly cooking, brewing, and smacking a hammer noisily onto an anvil.

Tradeskills require no "play". Just like WoW, you click a button, and wait for a bar to fill. Except this time, the success bar is accompanied by a fail bar! Luckily, I only had a few failures in all my boring, grindy attempts.

There are a bunch of tradskills, and you aren't limited at all in how many you can try. However, you can only specialize in one and max it out to level 450. All of the others stop at around 375 or something. The ones I remember are Cooking, Alchemy, Accessory crafting, Armor crafting, Weapon crafting, and Paint Dehydration Observance. Well, OK, I made that last one up, but they are all about that exciting.

Having a hard-on for giant weaponry, I, of course, selected Weaponsmithing. After paying a fee to the trainer to start learning it, I checked out the patterns available on the vendor and noticed at 40 skill I could craft a sword that was an upgrade over my polearm. I checked the equip level against what the vendors were selling, and I saw an identical sword that couldn't be equipped for 4 levels later! "Cool!" I thought, "the benefit of weaponsmithing is you can make weapons a little bit better than what else you could equip at that level!"

It turned out I was only partly right.

Being a naive little Daeva, I went to work skilling up. One of the nice things about Aion's profession system (he says begrudgingly) is that you don't have to repeatedly make useless, unsellable items to skill up. The trainers actually offer a repeatable quest, represented in it's own tab in your quest log entitled "work orders", where they supply a quest item and you have to buy a few side mats (like sand or cooling water) from the vendor and transform the given items into something else. Then you give the trainer the new items, getting some skill-ups along the way, and receive in return a small reward of side mats. He gives a new, more expensive variation on the quest every 10 skill points. The bottom line is you spend a few hundred gold and about a minute of time, and you get one or two skill ups per quest, and a small fraction of that money back as random materials. I ended up spending about an hour and 10k gold grinding up to 40. It was not fun at all, and I could feel my minutes of beta time, in which I could have been impaling giant bear/wombat creatures on my spear, being sucked away. But thoughts of instead impaling them on a giant, more powerful sword kept me going.

Finally, I reached 40 skill, and bought the pattern for the sword. Then I realized that one of the materials I needed, some kind of weaponsmithing orb, was not available from the vendor. A quick internet search revealed that they only dropped off of random mobs, and I needed 6 of them! To the AH!

I had to check all of the personal shops and sell every extraneous item I had saved in my warehouse, but after another half hour or so I managed to scrounge together the 6 orbs while keeping juuust enough money for a teleport back out of town. By this point I was pretty tired of crafting, but looking at the sword in my inventory made it all worth it. Now to quest up those last few bars of XP so I could level to 13 and equip it!

During those 20 minutes of questing, a green-quality sword dropped that could be equipped at level 12. It was significantly superior to the one I had just spend nearly 2 hours crafting.

I hate tradeskills in Aion.

Said hatred notwithstanding, I had a great time in the beta last weekend, and I'm looking forward to the next beta event. Friday, I'll give a brief recap of the highlights and what I liked and disliked. My Aion preview: the brief and judgmental version!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Quote of the Day:

"As we've tried to balance the rewards system more, we're seeing a more natural distribution of players in terms of; they're doing activities that they want to do rather than doing activities they feel like the game is forcing them to do to get the best stuff."
-Tom Chilton, WoW's Game Director.

Blizzard, keep listening to this guy!!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Aion Beta Impressions and Details: Part 1

Meet Hatch.

Hatch is a warrior. His likes include swords and killing things with swords. His dislikes include the Elyos and togs, which are about the ugliest creatures ever created. Think of one of those ugly bulldogs with the squished-up, wrinkly faces that look like a stack of gross vaginas. Now mate that with the ugliest boar you can imagine. That merely begins to describe these fucking togs.

As an Asmodean, he lives in the inside of the bottom bowl of what was once a sphere, before some great battle felled the "Tower of Eternity", and the warring factions, consisting of humans, ferret people, and immortal "Daevas" (angels), were split amongst the two remaining bowls, with a chunk of earth extending between the two halves, creating a chaotic Abyss. While the Elyos are all shiny and pretty and would fit perfeclty into an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog shot in heaven itself, the Asmodeans have greyish-blue skin, talons, and a severe case of back hair.

Much ado has been made about the graphics in Aion, and for good reason. My computer is by no means up-to-date, but it can run most games reasonably smoothly, and I had to pump down the graphics settings to get it to run at a consistent framerate. That said, once I had the video settings squared away, this beta ran like a dream and was still quite beatiful, which is a testament to both the engine and the art direction. If you have a crap computer, you can still play the game, and it will still look good. It will look like a modern game. But if you have a state-of-the art system, it's going to look really, really good.

I pointed my camera straight up at the sky to get a shot of some beautiful art up there, and out of nowhere I caught an airship floating by.

My understanding is that Aion is already out in China, and is in the process of some serious Westernization. Though I ran across some localization errors, the rest of the game is mostly stable, given that even in this early beta I encountered no crashes or gamebreaking errors whatsoever. The only technical problem I encountered was that I would be unable to launch any programs on my computer after exiting the game, but that was easily remedied with a system restart.

The biggest technical problems are control limitations that the localization team claims to be working on. For one, you can't invert your camera controls. For someone like me, who has played FPS games for over a decade and WoW for 5 years with up being toward me and down being away from me, this makes the game nearly unplayable at first. But I really, really wanted to play it, so I just dealt with the annoyance and pushed on through, adjusting the camera as little as possible. The other is that certain actions can't be bound to certain keys. I'll get back to that later.

As I said, the art direction is top-notch. It's drawn in an eastern style, and shows many parrellels to the style of Final Fantasy, to the point that it was a bit uncanny. This is a good thing. If you like the Square/Enix asthetic at all, then you are going to like this game. The character animations sing. They just feel right and look great.

The polish level is top-tier. Like Tobold said, this game would have given WoW a run for it's money if released 4-5 years ago. I mean, even the flight paths are eye-popping, with a transparent ghostbird ferrying you from gorgeous vista to gorgeous vista:

But enough drooling. How does it play?

Gameplay is in the now-standard MMO questing idiom. After spending a lot of time in the character creator selecting hairstyles (all of them are extremely well done) and playing with various sliders that adjust everything from eyebrow height to hand thickness to neck length, you are dropped into a comfortable and pretty open field, a noobie area, with an NPC with a glowing blue diamond symbol over his head. So that's what exclamation points look like in Japan!

During this weekend's playtest, I focused on a single character, Hatch, a Gladiator that I leveled to 13. Next event, I'll make it a point to try out the other classes. At the start, you can pick from 4 basic classes, and then each of those specializes into one of two advanced classes at level 10. If, like me, you start as a warrior, you take some time to become familiar with all kinds of basic abilities, then you are given the choice between the tanking Templar and the plate/melee Gladiator. Scouts can eventually become Assassins (rogues) or Rangers (hunters). Mages grow into either Sorcerers (mages) or Spiritmasters (warlocks), while Priests go on to become Clerics (melee priests) or Chanters (paladins). As you can see, they've got everything but druids and shaman covered. Expect some kind of "Elementalist" xpac down the road.

And so Hatch and I began our journey through lower Asmodea. The quests are pretty standard "kill x gerbilmen" or "gather x fruit baskets". Quest items in the environment are easy to pick out because they shimmer, though at present the game lacks the type of map quest objective guides that are in Champions and are being added to WoW in the upcoming patch. At first, it appeared that I'd have to read through all of the quest text, but as it turns out important locations, NPCs, and mobs are highlighted in blue in the text, and clickable. Clicking them brings up a little window with basic information about them, including a rough location and other tidbits (including notes on NPCs like "She doesn't take kindly to strangers". A nice little touch.).

Here's a screenshot of the quest log:

So far the quest writing is surprisingly good. The NPCs get personalities, and there were a few points that were memorable. On top of that, the enemies and animals you fight are quite imaginative, though often based on a fusing of two real animals (fucking togs!) or screwing up the proportions of something familiar (giant spindly elephantosaurs!). I was surprised to find the lore of the game and its NPCs as fleshed-out as it was. I expected something fairly generic, and what I found, while quite standard, had enough personality and heart put into it to make it enjoyable.

Combat is, at it's base, standard MMO fare. As a melee character, you run up to the target and autoattack. And as though the game weren't already accessible enough, it will actually run up to your target for you. How courteous.

Once you reach the target, you use hotkeys to activate attacks, which are on cooldowns. My warrior didn't use the mana bar, or have any discernable resource that was actually consumed, so it appears their abilities are mediated solely by their cooldowns. This does force you to use all of your abilities, rather than spamming your one best ability over and over. On top of that, some abilities are part of escalating, branching chains. For instance, I use Ferocious Strike, and the key is replaced by a second chain ability that I can only activate after a FS. At level 13, I had reached the point where FS could chain up to 3 steps in total, and had two branches: one of them had a self-buffing "shout" at the 2nd step of the chain, and one of them was a combo of 3 increasingly spectacular melee attacks. The shout and the 3rd move were each on a cooldown twice the length of FS's cooldown, so it made sense to alternate them rather than just repeating whichever one turned out to be mathematically stronger. Because of this, combat is a lot more mentally involving than WoW. Granted, I was still low level, but I was using my full suite of abilities every single fight. And just to drive the point of "polish" home, whenever you use a chain ability, the game both: 1) flashes a border around the buttons of the next possible steps in the combo, practically shouting that they are available to you, and 2) shows the icons for those abilities right next to your character model, in much the same way a WoW addon like Powerauras or Satrina's buff frames would.

I also found myself more engaged by the combat because regular old mobs could actually kill you. It was possible to win consistently, but only if you were paying attention. And pulling two mobs at once usually meant that you either had to pop a potion, beat an undignified retreat, or get a one-way ticket to resurrection city (death sends you back to town and incurs a small xp penalty and 30-second sickness, but you can get the xp back for a small monetary payment to a Soul Healer at the graveyard). I like this tuning because soloing is very possible, but requires forethought, attention, and smart play. It also has the benefit of making grouping much more appealing than it is in WoW. Towards the end of my playtest, I grouped up for an unusually difficult quest to face down a named mob with 2 henchman (far beyond my abilities - by the way, group quests aren't labeled as such in Aion). The templar and I fared much better against the small groups of bandits, though we still couldn't be entirely reckless. He ended up inviting me to a small guild, called a Legion. The game automatically added to my outfit a black cloth displaying my Legion's crest, which was a nice touch.

The grouping, legion, and raid interfaces look and function exactly like WoW from what I could tell from my brief overview of them.

You gain new combat abilities as you level, roughly every 2-3 levels. You gain the skills from books purchased from a trainer, which is nice because you can buy the books ahead of time if you expect to ding while out in the field, and start using your new abilities immediately instead of having to take a trip back to the capitol. So far I haven't encountered anything like talent points or other character customization options (though I have yet to discover what the "Stigma" pane, which looks suspiciously like the WoW Inscription pane, does). The closest thing is gear, which works along the same lines as WoW, with each piece giving certain stat bonuses and certain armor classes favoring certain stats. You start out with only a basic sword, pants, and shirt, but over time you'll fill up about a dozen slots with different pieces of gear. Gemming is in the game from the start, with even the earlier peices of white gear sporting a "manastone socket". Manastones drop randomly from mobs, and grant minor stat bonuses.

Itemization so far runs on a very sensible tier system. You can buy white gear from a vendor that is minimally appropriate for your level. The next step up is to craft white gear that has slightly better stats at the same equip level. After that are greens and blues, which escalate predictably. I don't get the impression that anyone is decked out in even all greens in their teens, given their rarity. Here's a shot of my character pane, showing my equipment and inventory, and demonstrating how the system auto-compares my loot for me, with green text denoting where the new shield is superior to my current one.

The stat system is quite a bit simpler than current WoW. Casters can improve their magic power and MP. Fighters like Attack bonuses, physical crit, and accuracy. Survival can be augmented through dodge, parry, shield block, physical resistance (in place of armor value) and magic resistance. It's pretty straightforward.

So far, the game is beautifully polished, combat is engaging, and though the questing is cliched and derivative, it is executed well. It's shaping up to be a nice alternative to WoW. Though I can't imagine it being anything close to a WoW-killer, it has the potential to be a really fun and worthwhile game. I can't wait to see how it develops as its release approaches.

I've run out of steam for today, but check back on Wednesday for Part the Second , wherein I will discuss tradeskills, the hub city, economy, flying, and Ascension!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Friday Laziness: Day Early Holiday Weekend Edition

Quote of the day, courtesy of Gevlon:

"Blizzard could create a great game. It would have 1M subscribers. I would love it. Blizzard executives wouldn't."

That about sums it up.

Aside from RL 4th of July festivities, I'll be spending the weekend with the Aion US beta, and some time with Champions as well (though I can't talk about what I'm doing in that one). I'm really looking forward to it, even if it's going to take my gaming time away from Prototype, which I am really enjoying and highly recommend to everyone. It's available for PC and runs very well even if your system isn't state-of-the-art (but you may have to turn down the graphics settings a lot).

I've been quoting a certain song a lot, but people keep not getting it and I end up insulting people. I guess it just isn't as well known as "I'm on a boat". In an effort to spread the song around, I present "Fishin' Hole", by musical god Stephen Lynch. As always with Lynch, EXPLICIT CONTENT INCOMING:

Have a great 4th of July weekend! Even those of you in other countries, I hope you at least get a "bank holiday".

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Why all the grinding? 9 Alternatives.

Inspired by recent discussions and an old Ixo post that he recently linked to: One of the main reasons WoW is rich enough to pay off the cops after going on a Motley Crue-level drug-induced binge and crashing a Camaro full of hookers directly into the front entrance of the police station, while EQ still lives alone in its mom's basement, is that WoW cut out a lot of EQ's pointless waiting, grinding, and self-flagellation. Death penalties? Kabosh'd. Travel times? Reduce'd. Camping a rare spawn for 36 hours straight while poopsocking and barely noticing while your wife moves out? Redirect'd. It still happens, except instead of camping a spawn, you grind dailies and grind instances over and over. And instead of merely getting a small chance at a rare drop, you get 12 achievements, a hundred different tokens, and handful of grape candies. I mean epics. Sorry, I keep getting those two confused because they are both given out like ... candy.

WoW's solution to the problem of keeping players interested has always been: more grinding. Ixo may have imagined a humorously hyperbolic version of the Blizzard offices, but take a step back and look at the choices they've made and you start to suspect that maybe he's not that far off the mark. This is not news to most of you. WoW is full of grinds, and as each is conquered, a new one must take its place. There are reputation grinds, daily quest grinds, raid instance grinds, regular instance grinds (grind exactly the same content again a second time on heroic!), BG grinds, arena grinds (ever tried to go from 0 to 1500? It's a lot of games nowadays) and for the truly insane, obscure gathering grinds. All of the max-level content is designed to be repeated many, many times, all apparently in the name of keeping players in the game. Every new idea, from making two lockouts for each raid (10 and 25) to heroic instances, to the badge systems, to the daily quests and their evolution, to every single version of the honor system, to the added ability to stockpile vanity items, to the holidays, to even dual speccing (grind out for two specs instead of just one!), and especially to the achievement system: every new idea has been all about adding new grinds.

But grinds have always struck me as unnecessary. There has to be a better way to keep people playing the game for the extended periods of time it takes for subscription fees to accumulate into an awesome statue of an orc on a wolf in front of your corporate office. It would destroy my faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster if it turned out that grinds were the best possible solution to this problem.

So how else could you possibly keep people playing?

One key here is that any new solution also has to be somewhere in the same realm of cost-effectiveness that grinding is in. Grinds don't just keep the playerbase busy; they allow the devs to squeeze every last drop of paid playtime out of every piece of content they implement.

So how can we make the game less grindy without breaking the bank?

I'm not going to pretend that these are all my original ideas, as clever people all over the blogosphere have already proposed probably all of these. But I can't remember who to attribute them too, so let's just consider this a consolidation of what I've heard before along with my own new ideas and call it a day.

1) Randomization: this is the most obvious and used one. You make it less painful to repeat content by randomly changing elements of it on every playthrough.

City of Heroes tried to do this with a partilaly randomized mission system, but it suffered from a lack of content and assets behind it, making it actually more repetitive, rather than less. The same office building full of the same enemies isn't interesting even if the rooms are rearranged. Hellgate: London was based almost entirely on this concept, and did better with it despite ending up as a burning wreckage.

Blizzard has dipped their toes in this before, but they seem to really be embracing it now. Some of the dailies are already randomized, and Violet Hold is probably the most obvious example of a randomized instance. In the upcoming patch, which new dailies you get will be randomized. The new 5-man will include a boss who [SPOILER ALERT: highlight text to read] summons bosses from other parts of the game for your to fight, randomly selected from a pool of over 2 dozen, including Algalon and Hogger (!).

Randomization is a simple no-brainer of a way to cut down the grind a bit, but it's hardly a solution.

2) Reinvigorate "obsolete" content. This is one for games that are getting on in years. If the primary cost of new content is in things like art assets, then the cheapest way to get "new" content would be to make "old" content relevent again. Heroic versions of old world instances, and even level 80 versions of Outlands instances, is one of hte most-requested suggestions from the WoW community. I think one of the best things Blizz could do in the next expansion is use it as an opportunity to create an "alternate" Azeroth, through either a world-changing Maelstrom event or the Emerald Nightmare. Make it either a new levelling experience or a max-level area that takes a lot of your old assets and reuses them in fun and interesting ways.

The downside to this idea is that it has an aspect of adding more repetition. Not only are you running Sethekk Halls or clearing the Barrens while leveling, but then you have to grind them again at level 80. This idea is way better if you make changes to the original content as part of revitalizing it.

3) Focus on story. Talk is cheap (I should know). Hire me or any of my blogging compatriots for the equivalent of peanuts, and we'll write you some world-class quest text and stories to use. Stick them in the game. Cheap as balls.

The upcoming KoToR MMO is looking to be the real innovator in this area. Quests can have different endings, outcomes, and impacts depending on the choices you make. This effectively multiplies the content available and makes replays more interesting and less of a cheat to keep subscribers. There are obvious ways to apply this to WoW questlines, but you can take it even further and create instances with mutually exclusive alternate paths. Imbue the content with story, and the repetition of gameplay elements is easier to accept.

4) Encourage alting. Make each class sufficiently different that it's still fun to replay the same content while learning a new class. Obviously, this can only go so far, and works best if you can start from 55 as a Death Knight. The grind all the way from level 1 is just too long a curve for learning a new class to remain fun rather than a grind.

Also, make the content different for every class and race. This goes hand in hand with focusing on story. You can make pretty slight changes while reusing the same assets and give a very different feel to the same areas, while strengthening mental attachments to classes, races, and factions and incentivizing alting. A cheap way to keep giving people less repetitive things to do so they keep paying their subscription fee.

I've also been a big proponent of audio tutorials players can listen to while doing other things in game, like travelling or even questing. Blizzard explains the fundamentals of your class to you while you are doing the starting area. Hell, even have them narrated by famous characters of that class, such as Malfurion Stormrage for druids or Thrall for shaman. This would help players of a new class learn how to play that class well, further giving an incentive to roll a new class. I know a lot of players are so daunted by the amount of theorycrafting and outside knowledge needed that rolling a new class doesn't seem like an option.

5) User-generate content. Give the players ways to entertain each other. City of Heroes is testing this out with a mission editor (which still has some kinks), and APB thrives on this by essentially installing mini-games where you can design clothes, tatoos, cars, etc. to share with other players. A while back, Ixo had an idea for player-made quests which could be applied to WoW.

6) PvP. Yes, right now, PvP is a grind in WoW. It doesn't have to be. I still Q for AB because it's fun, not because ZOMG I NEEDZ ARMORZ LOL. It's essentially another form of user-generate content. Encourage world PvP along with BGs, because what happens out in the world can be more varied and engaging. The current implementation of Wintergrasp has some echoes of this. It's a lot more unpredictable than BGs, and most matches feel different from others. Of course, this will be heavily reduced by the WG player cap in the next patch.

APB is promising some interesting PvP by creating randomized in-world missions with a matchmaking system where you never know what kind of opposing force to expect, so each match should theoretically play out differently, making for interesting replayability.

7) Make repeated chores into minigames. Though this idea may seem inspired by efforts by bloggers such as Tobold and Ixo to make crafting more interesting, the thing that really made it come to my mind was playing Prototype last night. In Prototype, you play a super anti-hero in NYC, and you travel around using a sort of hyper-charge parkour augmented with the ability to run up walls and glide through the air. Travelling from place to place is a visceral, pleasurable game all it's own. Champions Online is emulating this to a lesser extent by making each of its myriad travel powers play and control completely differently, and as rudimentary mini-games. People run around in Prototype, or drive cars aimlessly in GTA, or play Peggle or Bejeweled over and over because they find it fun. Emulate those, and you make a lot of the repetition feel less ...repetitive.

8) Remove upgrades from the game and become a pure game of skill. This one is not likely, and and not one I advocate for most MMOs, since character advancement sits firmly at their core. But it's undeniable that shooters and RTS games where every player starts with exactly the same assets, and matches are (at least theoretically) decided by knowledge and skill, have the potential for a very long shelflife. People are still playing Starcraft professionally, for god's sake! So this is an option to create infinite replayability. I'm not particularly knowledgeable about WAR, but did that game do this a little bit by making most high-end gear relatively easy to obtain, making max-level keep battles more evenly balanced?

9) Stop incentivizing grinding so heavily. Instead, put the incentives on learning, success, and trying new content you haven't tried yet rather than re-running all the instances and quests you already know by heart. In the case of WoW, encourage alting more (perhaps even as a way to augment your main, through sort of reverse-heirlooms), and maybe add some kind of rest bonus to each activity: ie, you get more loot after taking two weeks off from Ulduar than you would by running it every day. Or maybe, for instance, give an honor bonus if you do BGs after doing a lot of raiding.

Instead of putting some of the most desireable stuff at the end of mindless instance re-grinds and pointlessly grindy holiday events, give it out for strong shows of ability and for trying out all of the content. I can tell you right now there are dozens of questlines I've never done because they didn't give rewards as good as dailies or grinding instances. Try leveraging the content you already have before you worry too much about making people rerun the handful of things that are already rewarding them.

I'm very confused about Blizzard's current motivation. First they make a grind-fest change to badges, then they also take steps to reduce the repetitiveness of other grinds through randomization and extending the raid lockout. And Wrath has been all about making grinds easier to complete while just piling on more of them. I hope that whatever new MMO Blizzard makes (and all the other upcoming competitors on the horizon) can come up with even better ideas than these to prevent repetitive grinding from killing the genre. I'm already feeling the fatigue.