WoW progress update.

February 29, 2008

After leveling at a moderate pace, my shaman finally hit 58 and is now ready to cross over to Outland, where I’ll get my first glimpse of TBC content. In my previous time with WoW (beta to a few weeks before TBC), I had experienced everything including Nax, and then promptly quit right before TBC was released. That character, an Orc Warrior, is still 60 and untouched today. Something about having 4 Onyxia bags full of 60 epics, all of which now have the value of a 62 green, is just too painful to continue with. He will happily remain retired in his current state, a sort of pre-TBC monument.

My elemental shaman, along with my gf’s frost mage, have been questing and running old world instances with many of my former raiding friends, all of us agreeing to come back to WoW (a few never left) and reroll fresh on a new server, playing Alliance. It’s been great fun so far, and I’m looking forward to hitting 70 and getting into arena combat and running heroics. Since we have more than 10 members in our guild, we will likely run Karazhan and Zul’Aman. It’s doubtful that we will run any of the 25 man stuff, unless we go out and recruit more members, something that has not really been discussed. While we are all former raiders, many of us have different time requirements now, and perhaps any serious raiding is beyond our availability. That plus many of us are somewhat burned out on raiding already, having done it so extensively before. I’m not sure we are really looking to get back into that whole grind, especially with all the easy epics WoW hands out now.

We do however have plans to run 2, 3, and 5 man Arena teams, and that should be interesting at least. While my time in WoW has taught me enough about WoW PvP to know it’s not exactly rocket science (aka EVE), it will hopefully be decent enough to hold us over until Warhammer is out. Plus running premades in the BGs, while again a simple task, is relaxing and fun with good friends.

Hopefully the Outlands instances and our PvP time will prove interesting enough to warrant a blog post or two. If nothing else, it’s new content, and that never hurts.

Stop playing World of Warcraft, go play Starcraft Worlds!

February 27, 2008

This might be a stretch and totally off base, but that’s part of the fun in writing a blog. You throw stuff out there, people to tell you that you are an idiot in your comments, and you enjoy the ride.

The recent (how recent depends on what class you play, but yea) design changes by Blizzard, moving away from PvE balance and making PvP-focused changes, are a bit puzzling at first. Why would you risk your cash cow, the recent centerpiece of a major business deal, and mess with a proven formula? You are taking a game built on a solid PvE model and basically doing a 180, catering to the super-minority of the ultra competitive PvP crowd at the expense of your PvE base. Unless the two are completely separated, they can’t both be balanced. One always suffers at the expense of the other. Since day one, it has always been PvP suffering at the expense of PvE. Now Blizzard is doing the opposite, changing things to balance them in PvP at the expense of breaking them in PvE.

Does Blizzard really think the future of mass market MMOs lies in arena-style PvP combat? Just a guess, but I say no. The future, just like the past, is still firmly rooted in casual, accessible PvE content, and Blizzard knows this. It also knows that WoW is starting to age, both in technical terms and in simple ‘been there done that’ ways. No matter how great a game is, at some point people move on just to move on, to try something else.

Is it such a stretch to say that Blizzard sees this as well, and is preparing for it?

  • Step one: maximize profits from your current base of players (RMT e-sports)
  • Step two: disrupt your competition as much as possible (Warhammer Online)
  • Step three: transition that player base to your next game (Starcraft Worlds)

What I’m suggesting is that WoW will be tuned to cater as much as possible to the PvP crowd, while the casual PvE crowd will be sold on Starcraft Worlds. It makes sense for a number of reasons. First, your biggest future competitor, Warhammer Online, is aiming at the PvP crowd. Why not turn your massive PvE game into a direct competitor with your biggest enemy (EA vs Activision for 3rd party videogame supremacy), while also changing to not compete with yourself for the PvE crowd? Design Starcraft Worlds as a highly refined, very accessible PvE game, morph WoW into a PvP game, and you have the market covered. Market Starcraft Worlds as the next WoW, but with even better questing and everything else people fell in love with their first time in WoW. Those players wishing for old WoW will have a place to go, and those looking for better PvP will also have a place to go. Blizzard collects money regardless of your choice.

This would also explain the massive lack of info about WotLK. It’s entirely possible WotLK was a PvE-heavy expansion originally, but is now being re-tooled to cater to the PvP crowd. The new ‘pvp only’ zone might only be the beginning. Perhaps Icecrown Glacier is not a raid instance, but instead some super exclusive arena? Instead of expending the PvE game, maybe the major selling point of WotLK will instead be spectator mode for PvP, like Blizzard has been hinting at? Maybe seasonal bracket tourneys like Warcraft 3 had are coming to WoW?

Sure this is likely all wrong, but at the very least, a few dots do seem to be lining up. With Starcraft 2 set to release sometime late 08/early09, why not release Starcraft Worlds in time for Christmas 09, building on the rush from SC2 and completing the transition from WoW to Starcraft?

It’s e-sports, not RMT… Trust us!

February 26, 2008

Blizzard has been against micro-transactions for a while now, sticking with the monthly sub model. Unfortunately that only generated 500 million last year, so like any struggling company they had to go to desperate measures and accept the RMT model. Being Blizzard they of course put their own ‘polish’ on it, and instead did away with that silly ‘micro’ part of the model. Why charge a few bucks for something when you can just wrap it all together and charge one price, right?

Blizzard also changed the name of RMT, it’s call e-sports. For only $20 (plus WoW, TBC and the normal monthly fee) Blizzard will power level a character for you, give you unlimited access to all the best epics, and free respecs so you can avoid the pointless grinding. They will also place you on a special RMT… err e-sport server along with the rest of the suckers… err e-sport fans. As a side bonus, you can enter the arena and officially get curb stomped by some E-sport pro group you yourself helped sponsor with your $20 RMT fee. Congrats!

Up next, Blizzard plans to open up a ‘god mode’ server. For only $25, you can get all the e-sport bonuses, plus god mode. Finally you can visit all those pesky ‘group only’ instances and raids and see all the content, without the need to talk or interact with anyone else. All that for only $25! Buy now, supplies are running out!

Learn to play in the sandbox correctly noob!

February 26, 2008

There are many differences between sandbox and theme park MMOs, but I think one that often gets overlooked, at least by fans, is the one I want to get into today: the ability to play a sandbox MMO ‘wrong’.

Wrong not in the optimal or min/max sense, but wrong in that you are not using the tools available to you to get the most fun out of the game. Theme park games don’t have this problem because they basically force you to play ‘correctly’. You can’t accidently stay in one place too long; the game moves you on. It gives you breadcrumb quests, it grays out the current quests/mobs, and it stops giving you xp/items, all in the effort to get you into the next zone/area it wants you in. That’s not always the case with a sandbox game, and that is one of the hurdles such games face when trying to keep new players.

Say you just started EVE, and you get into combat missions to make money and get new ships while your skills train up. The usual path in EVE for a mission runner is to go from level 1 missions and move up when possible, getting better money/drops as you increase the challenge. But unlike a theme park game, level 1 missions never go ‘gray’ for you, they never stop being available. At no point does the game force you to stop running level 1 missions and makes you run level 2 or 3, so it is entirely possible that a new player will continue to run level 1 missions long past the time he/she should have moved on. It’s also entirely possible they continue to run level 1’s until they get bored and quit, thinking that is all the game has to offer. If they never get into a good Corp or chat channel to learn the rope and move into the more interesting aspects of EVE, their one and only impression of the game will be the constant and easy grind of missions featuring only frigate enemies. They quit and leave with the impression of EVE being a silly and pointless grind. Apply that example to mining solo and it only gets worse. Throw in a bad accidental trip into low-sec and its downhill fast.

The above scenario is not likely to happen in a game like WoW. As soon as enemies and quests get too easy, they go gray and the game moves you into a harder area, on and up until you hit the cap. Death is just one short trip to a graveyard should you stumble off the pre-set path.

Of course the flip side is that WoW also FORCES you to stay in those low level areas. You can’t create a level 1 priest and go raiding Black Temple, or queue up with your buddies in the Arena. Both scenarios ARE possible in EVE, as a day 1 pilot can indeed join his Corp in level 4-5 missions, or jump into a donated frigate fitted to tackle and go on a PvP run. Not only is it possible, but that new pilot will also actually contribute something of value, especially the tackler in PvP.

But back on point, the problem still exists that players COULD play EVE or another sandbox game ‘wrong’. Aside from placing new pilots in rookie chat (a good start, but usually the channel moves too fast to really help) and having a short tutorial, what can be done to help new players out? Is it possible to have the freedom that sandbox players love, while still helping new players out enough to get them to the ‘good stuff’ in the sandbox?

Forgotten content in WoW.

February 25, 2008

Over the weekend my shaman hit 55 in WoW after finishing up some quests in the Plaguelands, and I noticed just how much of that content is now wasted. Due to the fact that level 58+ greens in Outland are better than 60+ blues in the old world, chasing after select items in the old world once TBC content is within reach seems silly and pointless. Stuff like gathering Argent Dawn tokens to turn in for items, or collection the blue 8 piece armor set from Strath/Scholo/BRS and then upgrading it.

Now granted I accept that as new content is released, it will slowly replace the old stuff, but the amount of detail and effort that went into creating all that content is now lost simply due to overpowered BoE Outland stuff. Why not rebalance the old world 60 instances as an alternative to being forced into Hellfire Peninsula? Instead of grinding quests to 70, why not allow people to grind all those instances and gear up that way, taking those items and having them be viable in Outlands instances. Now you have a full 55-70 path that can be fully completed, if the player wishes, in a group instance environment. The content is already there, you just have to up the stats on the drops and increase a level or two on the mobs, and hello usable viable content.

Places like BRS/Strath/Scholo/DM should be required content pre-outlands, just based on the quality and history of those places alone. Sadly history has little meaning in e-sports, right Bliz?

Running scared from the WoW monster. We need a hero!

February 22, 2008

The first bits of ‘news’ are coming out of GDC, and one very interesting bit I read today comes from a discussion called ‘Future of MMOs’ featuring Cryptic Studios’ Jack Emmert, NCsoft Matt Miller, BioWare’s Ray Muzyka, Nexon’s Min Kim, and finally Blizzard’s Rob Pardo.

While everything said was fairly interesting, the one thing that really struck me was the general fear of WoW. Multiple times someone stated that investors and developers do not want to go up against WoW, but rather find other markets to try and gather customers. Rob had the following to say:

I’m delighted as a business person that nobody wants to make an MMO because Blizzard set the bar too high. But as a game player, I’m disappointed. I wants to see more stuff out there. But you’re not just competing against WoW anymore, you’re competing with WoW + expansions. Direct contrast is hard, because you’re always playing catchup.

I’m sure the guys from EA Mythic would not have been as easily frightened as the rest of the crew up there, and I would have loved for Paul Barnett to be sitting up at the panel and hear his response. Sadly he was not there, so we will never know his reaction.

I also think the fact that WoW has ‘expansions’ (hi you only have one, and will delay the 2nd till xmas) is a plus, but is offset by the fact that you have an aging graphics engine and other general problems that develop with an MMO being up for a long time (mudflation and such)

What I do think is interesting is that this puts more pressure, in a way, on Warhammer Online being successful. If it is, it will show that you can indeed compete with WoW instead of running from it, and that while WoW may have nailed the solo PvE market perfectly, there are many other aspects of MMOs that can be focused on and used to sell a game. I think if WAR fails, and the reason for the failure is WoW more than anything else, it will indeed be a sad time for MMO gaming. Instead of getting more triple A quality games, we will see a slew of micro transaction mini-game crap in every color under the rainbow, each game just hoping to attract enough players to keep the servers up and a bit of money streaming in. In addition, we will continue to see more WoW-like MMOs, just with different shades of neon or pastel filling the screen.

So lets all hope that WAR is a success, the fate of the (mmo) world might depend on it!

Understanding the casual player

February 21, 2008

One of the longest running debates in the MMO world is the casual vs hardcore debate, and one aspect that has always confused me is the usual ‘solution’ you hear from the casual crowd to even the playing field. The most basic problem is that certain content, mainly raiding or high-end PvP, and all the loot/benefits from them, is not accessible by the majority of casual players. Wanting that access, casual players often wish raid-level instances could be 5 manned, or PuG’ed effectively without perfect class balance. You also hear stuff like restraining premade PvP groups to ONLY fight other premades, allowing the casual PuG groups to battle each other. And overall one of the most common things you hear is to make the overall time commitment lower, that grinding rep/consumables/gear takes too long to reach the upper levels of content.

What confuses me is if we assume we make the above changes, what would the actual repercussions be? For starters, the entire hardcore population would instantly burn through the content, because anything that’s PuG-able is going to be a cakewalk for a guild or pre-made. This means that a very vocal minority is now bitching about a lack of content, flooding forums and the like. It also means the overall progression is much faster, where even semi-casual players are reaching ‘maxed out’ status. You either rush development to throw out new content, or you suffer a much higher rate of burn-out.

WoW has shown us exactly what happens when you make anything give a reward regardless; people just stop caring. It’s bad enough when you see it in the BGs, but imagine queueing up for a PuG instance and half your group is afk-droning just to leech whatever little reward you give just for showing up, or are playing while watching TV, going afk constantly and basically playing halfassed. In a guild those players get kicked out and the problem is instantly solved, but in the forgiving world of PuG queueing, players would be stuck constantly dealing with such players. The requirement to field a competent group of 10/25, where people are carrying their weight, is what weeds out the afk players from top guilds, remove that and you remove any need to weed out, basically enabling an even large player base to stop caring.

Another thing that also confuses me is that while casuals ask for content to be less strict in class/time requirement, they still want it to be a challenge. To me this is an impossible task of balancing, because aside from a small group, whatever you do most people will find it either too hard or too easy. The reason ‘too hard’ works for the majority is players can always get better and eventually reach that level of difficulty. This also serves as great motivation to progress your character. The major problem with ‘too easy’ is that once content is conquered, it goes into farm status and ultimately the players move on and forget it. And going back to increase the difficulty would set of a firestorm among players, as you would be basically pushing a group of players backwards, which is never a good thing.

Finally, I often see casuals stating that time does not equal skill, and that if you removed the time barrier, casual and hardcore players could compete on an even playing field, since supposedly then actual ‘skill’ would matter. The flaw in this reasoning is that while certain aspects of raiding are indeed just pure time sinks (raid reset timers, gear check fights, consumable requirements) they go hand in hand with other aspects. Aside from having more time, generally hardcore players also pore over patch notes and class changes, always knowing the optimal skills/setups. In addition, they also huddle in smaller sub-groups in MMOs, generally guilds, and hence are surrounded by like-minded players with dedication, sharing in a wealth of knowledge. If there is a small advantage to be gained, the hardcore will always find it before the casual, and they will exploit that advantage to its fullest. While removing certain time constraints would indeed make things a bit easier for casuals, it would in fact make things MUCH easier for the hardcore crowd, leading to an even greater divide.

My most basic conclusion is that the vocal ‘casual’ players are actually a niche, stuck between the hardcore players that can and the true casuals that don’t care. They are just serious enough to want access to the top levels, but for whatever reason are unable to meet the requirements to access such content. But that’s just my opinion, and hopefully people will share theirs, as the mentality of the ‘vocal casual’ does truly interest me.


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