Returning to Middle Earth.

April 30, 2008

Having hit 70 in WoW, and with Kara raiding being a once a week event currently, some gaming time has opened up for the gf and I. Since we had to stop playing LoTRO due to a technical issue and not anything gameplay related, we figured it was as good a time as any to return to Middle Earth.

Much has changed since we left with all the big ‘book’ updates. It’s amazing how much content and improvements Turbine has cranked out since the release of LoTRO. We started new characters (Man Captain and Elf Minstrel) and are currently only level 11, but already a few things jump out. Some are minor, like the ability to toggle the visibility of your gear on/off right from your character window rather than an options menu like in WoW. Having a one-click method allows for much quicker and easier character customization in terms of what you choose to display. Another rather noticeable change is the pace of combat, which is a bit slower than WoW. Some view this as a negative, but for me it’s a nice change, as WoW (especially in PvP) ends up being a mad clickfest of skills rather than a tactical situation. The slower pace also helps those with slower fingers keep up and remain effective, while not reducing the need to pay attention and select skills wisely.

Going directly from WoW also reminded me of just how gorgeous LoTRO is, especially at high settings with DirectX10 enabled (thanks Alienware). From the smooth animations to the amazing detail in the textures, the overall look of LoTRO really adds to the experience, doing a great job of visualizing an entire world and not just randomly placed zones. Also in direct contrast to WoW, LoTRO has a more traditional fantasy look and feel to it, which is something I appreciate, especially after looking at Power Rangers for the past few months.

Since the best content in LoTRO (imo of course) is the book and group stuff, we decided to seek out a large, casual Kinship to join right away, both to answer our newbie questions and to have a quality pool of people to call upon when it was time to get something a bit difficult done. We found “Easy Company” on the Windfola server, and so far so good. We have yet to group with kin members (no need yet), but kin chat has been both active and helpful.

Hopefully I’ll remember to take and post a few screen shots later tonight, but so far, our return to LoTRO has been very satisfying, and we are looking forward to the coming adventures.

Wearing your sunday dress on mondays.

April 29, 2008

As my head is still spinning in full PvP mode, I realized most games, and perhaps most MMO gamers, ignore a potentially very interesting gameplay mechanic, which I will refer to (very likely unoriginally) as the ‘Sunday dress’ mechanic.

In too many games, and this is not just limited to MMOs, you always use your best gear at all times. The only time you switch gear is when you find an upgrade, or in the rare situational encounter, like a resist based fight. This is why in many games there exist a ‘best’ item, be it weapon or armor, and you almost always have a clear upgrade path. Encounters are therefore balanced on the assumption that players have X amount of said gear, aka the gear check.

I don’t understand why more MMOs don’t shy away from this mechanic, as it seems to limit the game far more than it adds to it. For starters, always using the very best gear removes an element of tactics. In both UO and EVE (both games that do not use the ‘Sunday dress’ mechanic) a fight is often decided by what you bring to the fight, and not what you COULD bring. In UO most players held their best gear in a bank/house, only bringing it out for special use. In EVE players are taught only to fly what they can afford to lose, and generally save their fully kitted ships for safer activities like mission running. The major advantage to such a system is that while more powerful gear is added, it’s kept in check by the player community. Just because someone has an ultra powerful sword does not mean he will use it at all times, so their power increase from that sword dropping is not a permanent upgrade, but at the same time does give them more options and potential power.

The need to replace gear, and also to have multiple copies, greatly stimulates both the economy and the demand for crafting. It makes common items relevant, instead of being vendor trash, and ensures that a crafting pattern stays useful long after an upgrade exists. A craftable item is now judged on its difficulty to craft vs how powerful it is, rather than simply on its total power compared to raiding or pvp items.

The variable flux in power also helps new players get into the game quicker. Instead of having to ‘gear up’ to join older players, new players can use loaner gear until they are able to provide for themselves, as well as stick to safer situations so as not to risk that ‘better than you should be using’ gear. Encounters could also be balanced around this risk/reward structure. Say the game uses a limited durability system, where each death takes a few points of durability off your gear, and the points are permanent, once you hit zero, item gone. Now let’s say we have a boss fight that, on average, results in 2-3 deaths due to somewhat random factors, but also drops fairly powerful loot. If a group goes in fully kitted in top gear, they might ‘lose’ more in durability than they gain in new items, or they might not take a single death and come out with a huge win. But that group also has the option to go in with more standard gear, and while the fight will be harder, the risk is a bit lower, while the potential rewards stay high. This method also keeps all encounters relevant. Even if you already have the sword that drops of boss X, in this system having another copy is beneficial, so in theory good gear will never be sold to a vendor or sharded.

There are more positive aspects beyond the few listed above, but their must also be negatives. For one, I can somewhat understand why people would not want to lose gear due to durability hits on death (or some other method of gear loss), but if gear was more common in general, I would imagine it would not be that drastic of a loss. What do you all think, am I missing some major factor here? And why don’t we see more MMOs with such systems?

Understanding what makes PvP tick.

April 28, 2008

Watching people react to all the new info about AoC’s PvP model has been rather entertaining, while also frustrating and somewhat surprising. PvP seems to be an idea that most people ‘think’ they love in an MMO, but when you provided them with the details, it turns out they don’t want to play along.

One common issue seems to be gear, and how the ‘casual’ crowd favors games without an over-emphasis on gear. (funny considering the casual king, WoW, is 100% gear based) The problem however is that in order to limit the influence of gear, one of two systems must be in place. Either you are at risk of losing your gear, or your gear wears down and eventually must be replaced. Only by forcing the replacement of gear can you encourage players not to play with their top gear at all times, and only in that type of system can gear truly be balanced. Even the sword of instadeath has to be used with caution, since if you used it on every lowbie you see, it would eventually break. The other solution is to simply give everyone equal gear (hi WoW), but that just destroys a major facet of general MMO gameplay, power progression and character growth. The two MMOs with good PvP and generally no item issues, UO and EVE, both used the above method, although in drastically different ways, with good results.

Item risk also plays into another important factor of PvP, loss. The ‘everyone wins’ system works versus NPCs because NPCs don’t mind getting their heads kicked in daily; they will happily respawn and ask for more. In order to have PvP with any kind of resolution or winner, one side has to lose, and since we are talking PvP, that means a character controlled by a player, not an NPC. The key to the equation is that the smaller the loss, the smaller the victory. In WoW, you get basically nothing for killing a player in a BG, since at most you cost them 30 seconds of being a ghost before coming back in at 100%. In the arena, the cost of death goes up slightly, as a death might cost your team a win, setting you back a bit in rank. Even then, the cost is rather small, and as such, a win is not very memorable. No one really recalls the epic battles they waged versus memorable opponents in the battlegrounds, do they? Lets contrast that to a well set ambush in UO (pre UOR), or a Titan kill in EVE, events that players fondly remember and still talk about. The major thrill of being part of a titan kill comes from the fact that you are killing something of major value, something that your enemy worked hard to produce. With that kill, you make major progress in your war, boosting your Corps moral while killing your opponents. The kill would be near-meaningless if that Titan respawned after a short trip to a virtual graveyard, not to mention you would see Titans being flown around without a care.

Another common pre-launch idea in a PvP MMO is mercenaries. Since ‘casual’ players don’t want to join a huge guild and commit to something they can’t keep up with, they instead plan to play with a smaller group of friends with the idea of being hired out by the big guilds as mercenaries. The idea is that as a mercenary, you will still get to experience all the big time PvP stuff like siege warfare without having to deal with big guild politics. In how many MMOs has the concept of mercenaries worked? Has anyone ever hired a guild in WoW to go and corpse camp an enemy? Of course not, and the reason why is fairly clear. First off, the mercenaries can’t actually hard the enemy in any real meaningful way, as corpse camping is a minor annoyance at best, and easily countered. Second, there is no tangible loss, so what exactly do you pay for if you hire the mercs? And finally, what evidence would you have that the mercs completed their job? The idea of mercs only works in games where players stand to lose something, and in games where that loss can be quantified. Mercs are very common in EVE for exactly the reasons above. If you are in an industrial Corp, odds are you have a good amount of cash, but very low combat ability. Mercs provide the perfect tool as protection from rival Corps, enabling industrial Corps to remain viable in such a PvP focused environment. You are not likely to see a guild of crafters hire another guild to taking down the top arena team in WoW, now are you?

My overall point is that in order for PvP to actually work on the MMO scale (as opposed to how it works in Counter Strike or any other game with a quick in/out setup) you must have reason to fight, and more importantly, you must have reason to win. You don’t win anything if at the end of the day the winner and loser are left standing in the same spot. The greater the distance between winner and loser, the more ‘impact’ your PvP has. When your guild is cornered and facing extinction (hi BoB), that is when you truly see epic displays of resolve, when guild pride really kicks in. Those situations create the type of memories and stories PvP fans rave about, and outsiders read and get encouraged by. Just remember that for every epic victory, someone was on the other end, suffering a crushing defeat, because without that defeat, there would be no victory.

PS: My personally definition of casual is anyone who plays less than I do, and hardcore means anyone who plays more. No further debate about that definition today, please.

PPS: Keep in mind that just because you suffer a huge defeat, does not mean it ruins your day. It’s all too common to see a defeated Corp in EVE state they had a great time in whatever war they were involved in. It is a game at the end of the day, and we play to have fun. As long as the combat was exciting and interesting, everyone wins. If you simply plow over your opponent because of gear and not skill, even the winner is left feeling cheated in that system.

Nerd rage at it’s best/worst?

April 25, 2008

Nerd on nerd crime

It’s funny in a sad way I guess… But do we really need one nerd faction calling another nerd faction out? Can’t we just keep it to console vs comp, or casual vs hardcore? Do we really need to debate whether WoW is better/cool than D&D?

Camping for a beta spot… no thanks.

April 25, 2008

Open beta does not mean what it use to in the MMO world. Back in the day, open beta for an MMO was not a big deal, and for the most part was quite similar to the most recent closed beta period. Generally all the die-hard followers of a game were already in beta, and going to open beta did not generate a flood of new players. Most importantly, open beta was still recognized as a beta, so things like bugs and missing functions were the norm. To be honest, back in the day the first few months of release were also a beta period, with bugs and crashes being common, but yea… Open beta was not looked as a marketing tool, but rather as a final stress test before going live.

Today open beta is much different, and this is mainly due to the growth of the MMO space and the amount of interest any major MMO builds before its release. Games like AoC and WAR have massive followings long before release, with hundreds of thousands of players following the progress of each game, all dying for a chance to play.

Closed beta today looks far more like the open betas of old, with more players just playing rather than actually testing, and with beta leaks become big business. The developers no long just put up one server with the whole world open and ask people to run around and test it, today they ‘focus test’ in stages, herding the beta testers from one area to another in order to gather the data they need. It’s a very defined and orderly process, watched closely by all parties involved.

But by far the biggest change to the entire process is the period of open beta itself. No longer any kind of test, open beta today is a marketing scheme to drum up interest and get hype to a boiling point right before boxes hit the shelves. Since the market has changed, so have the rules. The ‘beta’ part of open beta no longer applies, as most players today will judge what they see in open beta as if it were the actual game. If a game is broken or has key features missing, which at the open beta stage should be viewed as a huge issue anyway, players will react and respond, spreading negative word-of-mouth about the game, beta tag or not.

Developers need to be aware that they no longer cater to a niche market of the hardcore; gamers who accept bugs, server crashes, and imbalance as a part of MMO life. Today in order to reach the numbers some studios target, they must cater to the general public; the five minute attention span, one bug and I’m out gamer who has four other MMOs to fall back on should your game not deliver immediately and completely.

This brings me to the most recent ‘open beta’ with AoC. While AoC has done a decent enough job generating buzz, most view it as a ‘maybe’ product, especially given its M rating, it’s setting, and the rumored ‘twitch’ combat with a PvP basis. AoC is exactly the type of game that would greatly benefit from a flawless open beta, something that turns all those maybe feelings into buyers, and something that generates enough positive buzz to reach those that have looked past it. Unfortunately that’s just not the case.

For starters, my own personal feelings about AoC are very meh. The screen shots don’t impress me, nothing that I have read has really jumped out as a game breaker, and most of my ‘upcoming MMO’ attention has been focused on WAR, a game with a much stronger setting and developer pedigree. But since I already had a FilePlanet account, I figured I would give AoC a shot and try out the open beta, thinking maybe something about AoC will warrant dropping $50 on a box; only to find out that the open beta is not exactly ‘open’, even to those that have already paid for the FilePlanet account. FilePlanet has instead opted to release beta keys in waves on a first come first server basis. If the current wave is out, you have to wait until the next one opens, which happens at random during the day. AoC is basically asking us to ‘camp’ a website in order to ‘loot’ a beta key, an OPEN beta key. Now as much fun as camping a mob for hours/days is, I think we are well beyond that stage in MMO history, not to mention the fact that we are being asked to jump through these hoops for a game most already consider passing on. I’m guessing I’m not alone in the ‘one and done’ category here.

In addition to my brief but disappointing first experience related to AoC, we have the great reporting done by Keen and Graev. After reading their experience with AoC, it sounds like FilePlanet did me a favor and saved me however long it would take to download the 13gig beta. While they found some aspects of the game impressive, the general feeling I got from their site (which overall tends to have a glass half full take on most things) is that AoC has some serious issues, both in terms of bugs/balance and also with general design. When people comment that the PvP is broken during a PvP weekend, you have some issues.

It will be interesting to see what lessons are learned from the AoC beta experience. Tabula Rasa was crippled at release thanks in part to a poor showing in open beta, and is still trying to recover despite being a much better game now than it was back then. Pirate of the Burning Sea got a nice boost from positive open beta feedback, but then saw a crash a month or so after release when the shine wore off and the broken underbelly was exposed. The most famous open beta of course was the one for WoW, which played almost exactly like WoW did at release, and really generated a ton of positive buzz for the game (which already had a lot going for it, but open beta took that to a new level). It will be interesting to see how WAR handles open beta, considering the massive amount of interest for the game already. While a bad open beta might not cripple the game, an open beta on the polish level of WoW might catapult WAR and give it a fighting chance to hit the multi-million player level Mythic and EA are hoping for.

Age of Conan, not-so-open beta.

April 25, 2008

FilePlanet has the AoC beta, sorta… They seem to run out of keys within seconds of posting a batch, which is a sweet way of jacking up their page refresh rate. Good job…

I’ll have a nice rant up about the whole idea of ‘open beta’ as it exists these days tomorrow, little bit busy today.

I’ll leave today with this; for a game with a huge amount of ‘meh’ feelings about it already, making people jump through hoops to get into a beta is not a smart move. Sure the diehards will take the day off and refresh a website every ten minutes in hopes of getting a key, but for the vast majority, they will give a product one chance before moving on. That whole ‘5 minute first impression’ deal. Anyway, more about it tomorrow…

PvP theorycraft, and the lessons MMOs need to learn.

April 22, 2008

Playing as much DoTA as I have lately, it’s got me thinking about the general idea of PvP, and why most MMOs can’t seem to get it right. We have seen what happens when you make it too extreme in games like Ultima Online, with full corpse looting and setting the loser back hours if not days. We also know what the opposite of that looks like in WoW, where everyone wins, and hence many people play either half-assed, or totally afk, ruining any chance at getting a decent match going.

The first point is rather obvious; in DoTA you play a hero for about an hour, while in an MMO you play your character for months. If you have a horrible game in DoTA, you will likely be gimped for that game, but the next game everyone starts at level 1 all over again. This is just not the case in an MMO, where character growth is one of the key features that keeps players playing. An MMO simply can’t be as gear-dominated as WoW is and expect to have balanced PvP. However that topic is entirely game depended, so for now lets assuming we have good power balance, and that most players have a fighting chance against others.

The key balance issues that make DoTA work is it’s death penalty, and how it relates to the item/level balance. The death penalty is not as harsh as UO in that you don’t lose items but you do lose gold and time, which ultimately means each death delays you in getting more powerful items. In WoW, you do lose time when you die in a BG, but since that time is not as valuable (since you don’t level or collect gold for items), death has little meaning.

So the balance seems to lie someplace between UO (too extreme) and WoW (too light), but can’t be exactly what it is in DoTA, since it must be applied to an MMO. The factors of the penalty in DoTA can however be broken down and applied.

First the winner of a fight needs to be rewarded. The reward must be significant enough to make combat attractive, and also significant enough to offset the risk of defeat. If we are talking about team PvP, winning must have both a personal and team impact. In DoTA, the personal impact is the fact that you yourself get a gold bonus. The team impact is that whoever you killed is now a bit weaker, making your teammates stronger in comparison. This is an important factor, as you need to both motivate the individual to play, but also need to encourage and reward team play.

Next is the penalty for defeat. It must be severe enough that players actively avoid it, but not so harsh that it overwhelms the chance of a reward from victory. It also must impact your team in a negative way, but not in such a way that a few unlucky deaths ruin the entire experience.

Applied to WoW, it would work something like this. First off, the rate of death in a BG would need to decrease dramatically, as currently players die and rez at a silly rate, due mostly to the fact that death in a BG has zero meaning. This can be accomplished in two ways; first increase the spirit healers rez timer, both in total length and in its mechanic. The current method is a 30sec timing that runs continuously, meaning if you die at the right time, you might actually rez in 1-2 seconds. An easy fix would be to make everyone rez on an individual timer, and then to increase that timer to 1 minute (or whatever would work best for balance). Graveyards would need to be moved, or protected, to prevent camping, but again that would be a simple fix, perhaps raising the GY to a one way drop platform. This increase in rez timing would not only mean a player must wait longer to return to the action, but also mean that a player killed is not going to spring right back up and return to the fight seconds later. Picking off a character at midfield would now be a useful tactic, rather than a waste of time.

The second fix needed would be a change to how honor points (I’m assuming you keep the overall honor point system) are earned in a BG. Currently you get honor from each kill you are near, along with a bonus at the end. Neither the individual honor nor the bonus is impacted much by your performance. Someone going 20-0 and someone going 0-20 won’t see a major difference in honor gain, especially in relation to the bonus. To fix this, players should gain an increased amount of honor as they do battle in a BG per kill, but each death should cost them honor points. Kills must be worth more than deaths, but only by a slight margin. Each kill should also be split between individual honor and team honor. The players who contributed most to the kill would see a noticeable honor increase, but all other players would also get some amount of honor added to their total. Players reported afk would not only stop gaining honor, but also lose a certain amount of honor from their total.

The important factor in any good PvP game is player accountability. Players in DoTA don’t run around dying randomly because they know that not only will they gimp themselves, they are also likely throwing the game for their team. In WoW, players often run around at random, and while they might cost their team the game, they currently don’t see any noticeable impact on their personal honor gain. By combining both personal and team impact, you create a system and culture which encourages winning while not crushing the loser, which is exactly what a good PvP should do.


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