Atlantica Online quick thoughts.

December 29, 2008

Just a quick post for today, and this whole week might be a bit slow here. You have been warned.

I’ve been playing a bit of Atlantica Online (AO) lately, currently about 20 hours into it, as part of my “try free-to-play games again” initiative. I’ll probably do a more thorough post about the game itself later, but I wanted to make some quick points about it today. For starters, if AO was not free, I would not be happy about spending $30-50 on it. I would also not pay more than $5 a month for it, as comparing what it offers to something like WAR and it just does not add up. As a free product, so far, it’s been worthwhile however.

AO is basically a console JRPG online, including PS2-ish graphics and sub-par translation. Lots of pink/purple hair, oddball creatures, and talk of mystical happenings. You have a party, you talk to NPCs, and grind away happily on mobs you encounter on the overworld, fighting them in a personal combat space just like on consoles. If you hate JRPGs, you are going to hate AO. If you always though it would be cool to play a JRPG online with others, AO might work for you. It’s very MMO-lite, but that does give it a nice ‘relaxed’ feel. Currently for me, when I want to take a break from a more ‘serious’ MMO like WAR, I log in to AO. More to come.

Darkness Falls in Warhammer, full map inside!

December 23, 2008

The idea of adding a Darkness Falls(DF)-like dungeon to Warhammer Online has been floating around since beta, and has even been hinted at by Mythic themselves. DF was a HUGE success in Dark Age of Camelot, and combined PvE and PvP perfectly. You went in to PvE, but you knew that at any time, a PvP ambush might await you, and that added a great deal to its atmosphere, raising the risk/reward factor considerable.

A straight port of DF into WAR would not work for a number of reasons. For one, you only have two sides, so limiting access based on zone or keep control would be unfair to the less populated side. In DAoC, with three factions, even the underdog could gain access when the other two sides were busy beating each other up. Another tough sell would be the current chicken system. In DAoC, DF was a free-for-all, with the lower level content near the entrances, and the deeper you went, the higher the content and the closer you got to your enemies side. In WAR, with the chicken mechanic, much of the content would be unusable for higher level players, and you would either need to enable higher levels to be able to killing lower level players, or find another way to ‘clear out’ DF once control is lost.

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while now, and I think I’ve come up with a system that might work. Granted, it would require some rather significant changes to WAR, but nothing as crazy as adding a third faction or an entire new landmass.

For starters, WAR would need to do away with the chicken system, and instead implement down-ranking. Similar to the bolster effect but in reverse, down-ranking would drop any higher tiered player down one rank below the tiers bolster rank. So for tier 1, a down-ranked player would be rank 7 (bolster is 8), tier 2 it would be 17 (bolster is 18), and tier 3 would be 27 (bolster is 28). The down-ranked player keeps all his skills/morals/tactics, but those would also be down-ranked accordingly. So a 5 second stun in T4 would be a 1 second stun in T1, or something similar. Knockbacks would be shorter, heals weaker, and slows not as slow. This not only fits into the Darkness Falls design coming up, but also opens up previous RvR areas to all players, allowing the war to be… well everywhere, while still giving players at those tiers a fighting chance against their down-ranked opponents.

Assuming down-ranking is in the game as described above, access to WAR’s DF dungeon would only be available through a guild-controlled keep, or by paying a set price for access in the main city. The price of entry from the capital would be based on the player’s current rank, and should start fairly low but not trivial. This is so non-guilded players, or guilds without a keep, to have an option to enter, while not being as ‘optimal’ a choice as going through a keep. For players below rank 12 (tier 1), access is only available from the capital due to tier 1 not containing keeps. Access from a keep would be done through a portal near the vendors at the top, and the location of entry would be based on the tier the keep is inside, so a tier 2 keep places the player in the tier 2 area of the dungeon. Entrance from the capital city would function in a similar manner, but again base on rank. If you are rank 32, you would be placed in the tier 4 section of the dungeon. To prevent zerging, each guild could only send in a warband worth of players into the dungeon at one time (24 players), and the price of entry through the city would increase exponentially if the number of players on one side grows considerable higher than the other.

The layout of the dungeon itself would be very important. So important, I actually drew a picture. As you can see, I’m awesome at MS Paint, someone hire me.

WAR's DF map

WAR's DF map

Jokes aside, the basic idea is to have each side start on opposite ends, fight through some quick trash, and meet in the middle for a competitive PQ. Mythic can get fancy with the PQ design (war machines, traps, summoning help), but the basics of it would be something like first to kill 100 npcs wins phase 1, boss comes out, and you have to take him down while dealing with the other side as well. Death in the dungeon would place you back at your tiers portal, hence the importance of a bit of trash to prevent players from instantly rejoining the fight. Unlike most PQs, the winners would not get items, but rather everyone on the winning side would receive a token, and the top 3 finishers in the PQ would receive a bonus 1-2 tokens as well. The tokens can be traded in for gear at the token vendor, just like in DAoC’s DF. For more fun, add in an influence bar to each tier, and give out rewards for that as well. For the final boss area, only players with maxed influence and kill credit for each of the previous tier’s bosses would have entry, and the difficulty of the final boss would be close to a Fortress Lord, with both sides being able to fight it out. The side that deals the most damage and kills the boss gets the reward, although everything would reset if the boss wipes all players from the room.

Finally, the entire dungeon is linked by connecting passageways, so it would be possible for a guild to claim a tier 2 keep, send in rank 40 players, and have those players fight their way to the final boss. Those players would be down-ranked accordingly as they proceed through each tier area, but it would be possible. The dungeon would also bolster all players up to the appropriate tier, so rank 10 players could theoretically fight rank 40s in the tier 4 area, although they would only be bolstered to 36 and only have access to rank 10 abilities. The theory behind this is that no matter your rank, you can join your guilds warband, and the warband could travel together across the different tiers in the dungeon, completing PQs and fighting other players.

This addition would provide added incentive for guilds to go out and capture keeps, and also allow members of all ranks to benefit from said control. In addition, if the enemy comes to take control of your keep, you could already have some players ready to defend, as all they would need to do is pop out of the dungeon. This would motivate guilds without a keep to pick a specific target, and in turn motivate those guilds with a keep to go out and defend their property.

That’s the basics. I’m sure more concepts could be fleshed out and refined, but I figured I might as well post this now and see what people think.

Boosting XP gain, why?

December 22, 2008

Mythic recently increased the overall leveling rate in WAR, and most players/blogs have openly called this a much needed change. I’m somewhat neutral about it concerning WAR in particular, as on the one hand the pace never bothered me, but on the other I have some Annihilator set pieces sitting in my bags that I would love to put on asap. Overall however I wonder why we cheer and support the increase of leveling rates?

Almost all RMT (my definition) shops sell xp potions, and one has to conclude that they offer such items because there is a demand. With each expansion of WoW, the leveling rate also increases, to the ‘sneeze and your 60’ rate that it’s at now. WAR gets criticized for the leveling being too slow, despite it being basically what WoW was 1-60 pre-TBC. It’s not that the games get less content, they just push players through it faster, either with patches that reduce the amount of xp needed, or by potions/books that increase xp gain.

This is somewhat confusing to me, as one of the major complaints from MMO players is a lack of content, and WoW in 2004 was a great improvement because it offered multiple options in terms of what zone to level in. WAR takes this a step further and basically offers six different PvE paths of leveling, one per race. Yet we cheer an increase in leveling asap through all that…

Granted, I understand everyone likes to feel like they are progressing, and I’m not saying bring back hell levels or go the way of the free-to-play anime games and just make the grind endless. It just makes we wonder why we are so quick to jump on an increase to how we quickly we absorb content, and at the same time want MORE content. Sure saying ‘we want better content’ is easy, but lets face it, a developer only has so many resources, and constantly asking for more, at higher quality delivered yesterday is rather impossible. Don’t we also complain that all MMOs are basically beta? So which is it, less content that’s better tested, more content sooner, or more content that’s better tested… eventually?

Some Monday thoughts on WAR and Monolith RvR

December 22, 2008

So many thoughts are going through my head right now. Overall I had a really, really great weekend with WAR, but on Monday some issue are nagging me. This is likely to jump around a bit, so sorry in advance for that.

This weekend on Monolith saw our alliance (Bloodsworn) merge with Genocidal Tendencies (Lethargic and Order’s End guilds) The new alliance is now the biggest Destro alliance on Monolith, and we alone are able to field 3-5 full T4 warbands during weekend primetime. In addition to pure numbers, both Lethargic and Order’s End have some of the best players Destro side, both in terms of leadership and RR/gear. They end up being the spear head of the Destro zerg. In addition to the merger, T4 was also a madhouse of activity over the weekend, with Destro capturing the High Elf fortress multiple times, and opening Reikwald for siege as well. We came oh-so-close to capturing Reikwald as well, but Order put up a great fight and ultimately Aldorf was spared our wrath. With Saturday’s patch, fortresses no longer seem to crash, and while lag is still based on your settings and hardware (I was fine unless I looked directly at the 400+ zerg, which dropped me to 4-5 fps, others had more trouble), overall the fighting was great. Not perfect yet, but still great fun.

While on the micro scale everything was cool, the macro scale has some issues. First, Order badly needs help in T4 on Monolith. I’ll give them credit and say they put up some great fights, but overall the Destro zerg usually overwhelms them. I don’t have the numbers, but my feeling is Monolith is one of the more unbalanced servers when it comes to T4, and without some help, we might be in trouble. Mythic has been quick to address this issue in the past, and hopefully before the whole x-mas increase is over, Monolith will be tagged with an Order xp bonus or other incentives. Order has been holding its own in T1-T3, but in T4 they are simply outnumbered.

The other major problem is population spread. While in T1-T3 the major issue is funneling plays INTO one area, in T4 the exact opposite is needed. You simply can’t have the entire server fighting in Reikland, as almost all strategy goes out the window in the face of the all-powerful zerg. Clearly if we had three capitals to fight over rather than one it would help, but I think something can be done even before those are added back in. The locking mechanic needs to happen faster than it does in Reikland and Kadrin Valley (but slower than the bugged Eataine), so that the war is moving faster. Lock the zones, move to the next, and end it with a fortress battle. The fortress is a nice ‘ending’ to the campaign push, as it gives both sides a clear one hour window to capture/defend the fortress. Perhaps a similar timer can be put into place for the zones, and whichever side has more points after an hour or so, the zone locks and the battle moves on. Currently both Reik and KV end up being zerg grindfests, and that just does not feel right.

I’m wondering if the problems Monolith is facing are more due to population imbalance than anything else. On Saturday, when Order was out in full force, Reikland was a great place to fight due to how spread out everything was. One warband would be capturing an objective, usually fighting another warband, while other groups would be fighting over a keep or just out in the open. It was only when Order began to log out did the zone feel more ‘zergy’ and strategy stopped. We held everything in the zone, held Order inside their warcamp, and waiting for the zone to lock.

Overall I’m still very positive on WAR, both because Mythic has been improving the game by leaps and bounds since launch, and because the players themselves are still learning the details of RvR. I’m also just generally having a lot of fun each time I log in, part of that is because of CoW and our alliance, and also because WAR has so many different things available for my rank. Overall strategy is still in flux, and everyone is still trying to fine tune battle plans. From what I’ve seen of Bastion Stairs, and what I’ve heard about the other high end instances, PvE in WAR gets a bit more interesting at the higher levels (as is almost always the case in any MMO), and provides a nice break from RvR. I’m looking forward to rank 40, and becoming a more active part in future keep and fortress raids, assuming the population issue is addressed.

RMT, the great fail of MMOs

December 18, 2008

Before we get into the details of this post, I think it’s very important to keep one thing in mind; no matter the payment method, someone is going to end up paying more for option A than option B, and vice versa. The discussion here is what method would work best for not only the majority of players, but for the health of the company and future MMO development.

The pros of the current AAA model, a set monthly rate, are fairly obvious. If you are budgeting your gaming expenses, you know your favorite AAA MMO is going to cost you $15 or so a month regardless of how often you play. That breaks down to 9 cents an hour if you play 40 hours a week, 18.75 cents for 20 hours, or 37.5 cents for 10 hours. That monthly rate gives you access to everything currently in the game, and all future development short of a retail expansion. Most AAA developers add ‘free’ content fairly regularly, and continually fix up the product. In the purest form of cost/hour, the more you play, the less you pay, and regardless of what you actually do in-game, you are paying for the complete product. Chatting in town costs you just as much as high-end raiding or PvP.

The RMT model has a few forms. One would be a pay-per-minute method, which works similar to the subscription model above, but rather than a flat fee per month, you pay for only the time you actually play. The cost/hour ratio favors those who play less, and the total cost per month can vary greatly. If we assume a base rate of 25 cents an hour (the cost of someone playing 15 hours a week using the sub price of $15), someone playing 40 hours a week would be paying $40, someone at 20 hours pays $20, and someone at 10 hours pays $10.

Then you have the ‘free to play’ RMT model, where you pay nothing for a beginners slice of the game, and then pay to get access to further content, be it levels, items, quests, or instances. This model also frequently offers shortcuts, allowing you to speed up in-game progress by paying more.

I’ll be up front and say that I highly favor the subscription model, and the very notion of RMT is enough to drive me away from a product. Part of that reasoning is cost, I play ‘enough’ that a subscription is an extremely cheap deal in terms of cost/hour. Simply put, no other form of entertainment offers as much value to me as a subscription to an MMO.

However cost is not the only factor. In my opinion, the RMT model adds a lot of ‘features’ that I’m not looking for in an MMO. From the harmless (and imo useless) fluff, to game changing xp potions, to balance changing paid items, RMT changes how one approaches an MMO.

If we are charging per minute, my tolerance for waiting around for a PUG group drops to zero. I’m not going to pay to wait for some random person to arrive, or arrive and slow down progress by being a ‘weaker’ player. If I want to make raid progress, I surround myself with like-minded players in a subscription game. With RMT, if I want to make progress AND not spend more money, I HAVE to gather only the top players, and anyone below that level is strictly excluded, far more so than with a subscription model.

It also places added stress on guild activities. If a raid is planned for 8pm, and a few members arrive at 8:30pm, we have now paid for 30 minutes of waiting. This not only places more pressure to arrive on time, it also excludes those who can’t commit to a set schedule. If your kid is crying and you go afk, my patience for you will drop far faster when the pay-per-minute clock is running. Now that afk member is wasting both time AND money. MMOs have enough barriers as it is for group and social content, do we really need to throw money into the equation as well? What happens to flight paths that are not instant when we are paying per minute, or character downtime? If a priest kills mobs slower than a rogue, now not only do you need to spend more time, you are also spending more money to reach the level cap, or catch up to guild mates. XP potions are a nice option, but again you are spending more to reach the same spot.

Paying for content also has its pitfalls. If I buy access to an instance, I have to hope all my buddies did too; else someone is going to be left out. If I join a new raiding guild, it’s time to buy whatever current raid they are on, and forget whatever raids I already bought for my old guild. Players hate broken content already, what if in addition to wasting your time, you just paid for a broken quest, or a broken instance? At that point the old “slap in the face” forum post might actually be justified. If we are paying for gear, it creates more problems. If all your buddies bought tier 2 armor, and you are using the free tier 1 stuff, good luck getting a raid or instance spot. Who wants to bring the freeloader with ‘noob’ gear? Not to mention, if we remove the item carrot from an MMO, what exactly are we grinding towards? MMO gamers love to grind, we just like it cleverly disguised by things like XP, reputation, renown, gear tiers, keys, or any number of things. If I can pay to remove the grind, what exactly do I have left going for me, other than mailbox pimping? Sure things like ‘exploring’ and ‘seeing content’ sound nice, but single player games are notoriously better for those activities, and if we remove the grind of an MMO, the content goes by very quickly. It won’t take players long to figure out that dropping a ton of money for a character with limited options is not that great an idea.

The item/content RMT model works fine for single player games, as the only one impacted is the person making the purchase decision. As soon as you throw other players in the mix, you have just added another barrier of entry. Raiders now need 3-6 nights a week of time, and an extra X amount of money to raid. Groups of friends must decide on content together, and agree what to purchase. If the purchase is subpar, have fun playing the blame game. Players with the best gear are now either no-life loser, or spoiled rich kids, etc etc.

I’m sure fans of RMT have their reasons, and I would love to hear and discuss them, but keep one more thing in mind. The only reason a company would switch from a subscription model to RMT is if RMT earned them more money. Unless RMT guarantees you more customers, that added money comes from your current base. If I’m hardcore Bill, and I have two similar MMO games, one with RMT and one with a sub, which one am I going to play? If I’m Joe Casual, which one works best for me? Now which customer does the RMT company prefer, and which one does the subscription model company prefer? See the problem?

Bastion Stairs, take one.

December 17, 2008

Taking a break from T4 RvR, CoW and the Bloodsworn Alliance took a trip into Bastion Stairs (BS), the rank 30+ instanced dungeon. The basic setup is very similar to Mount Gunbad; three wings, three PQs with a final 6-man boss at the end of each wing, and a final-final 6-man boss accessible to players with full influence for the area. Unlike the night goblin theme in Mt. Gunbad, BS theme is based around the chaos blood god Khorne and his minions. Basically lots of skulls (for the skull throne) and blood (for the blood god). Its cool stuff and a nice change of scenery from the caves and mushrooms of Gunbad.

As with RvR, the rank requirement for BS is fairly relaxed. Anyone rank 30+ can join up and contribute, up to and including rank 40 players. The difficulty is a step up from Gunbad, as even the early PQ bosses go a step or two above tank/spank, using some spot AoE, enrage, or calling in adds. Depending on your group/warband, and how many other groups are currently inside really determines how fast you go. We had 10-12 players in our warband, many in the lower 30s, and a few rank 40s. With just our warband fighting a boss, we had good success with the first PQ and sub-bosses, while wiping once on the second boss (nasty AoE lighting that, depending on the spot, can lead to an insta-wipe). By the time everyone arrived and we had worked our way down to the third PQ, an all 40 group showed up, and along with that group we were able to take down the PQ boss (a Lord mob that apparently hits like a truck). Time was running out, and after a bit of confusion, we unfortunately did not get to attempt the 6-man boss at the end of the wing.

Overall it was a fun two hour trip, with some nice loot dropping (I get dumb lucky with PQ rolls, sorry guys), including rank 36 set items from the gold bags. Boss drops for the left wing are rank 33 blues, while the first influence rewards are rank 30 blues (somewhat odd considering the mobs are 33). Not sure about the final 6-man boss, since we did not get a chance to try him, although if the Gunbad comparison continues, I’m guessing he drops 34+ loot.

We are planning another run for Thursday, which will hopefully result in a full clear of the left side and we can turn our focus to the right wing (rank 35 mobs). If I can stay away from RvR for a bit, I should be able to get my DoK high enough to really help out in the right wing (currently close to rank 33, with some nice gear waiting for me in my bags), rather than just feeling like a loot vacuum. Maybe I’ll just filter out Alliance chat so I don’t hear the constant ‘attack here, defend here’ from our members. Keep defense now being worth a truckload of renown and influence won’t make that easy though…

MMO patching

December 16, 2008

Warhammer Online has been patched a great deal since launch, above and beyond the typical patching of a new MMO, with everything from small ‘hot fixes’ to major content patches like 1.1a. It’s rare that a week goes by without some changes, and something is always coming down the pipe. It’s exciting stuff usually, and gives players the chance to really watch an MMO establish itself and find its groove.

Each patch is also a two steps forward, one step back type of deal, or two back one forward if things go awry. Sometimes the step back is minor randomness like the travel mounts flying off axis, and sometimes its serious stuff like a massive increase in CTDs. Sometimes the fix does not actually fix anything, like ghost mounts, which have been ‘fixed’ in each of the last few patches. For all the great balance changes 1.06 brought, it also introduced a slew of new class bugs or oddities, stuff most players don’t know about unless they read the forums. It’s unlikely a regular player is going to notice his +5% crit chance tactic is not working if he equips it while mounted, right?

On the other side of the coin you have Blizzard and their patching schedule. Almost all of their patches actually fix what they claim to fix, and rarely introduce game-breaking side effects. That said, those patches are at best once a month, and players can be left waiting 8 months or more for a content patch to add a new instance or set of quests. Deadlines, when given, are more often then not pushed back, be it server downtime or content additions. “When it’s done” is the company line, and it’s used liberally.

Putting my obvious Bliz-hate aside (or trying to anyway), it makes me wonder which style of updating works best for players. I would imagine more active players, those that not only play but also read forums and dev posts, don’t mind the Mythic approach as much as the more casual player. As long as you keep up with the bugs, and Mythic addresses them shortly after they creep up, they are not that terribly bothersome. (CTD and other game-break stuff aside of course). My mount flying like it has a broken wing really changes nothing for me in RvR, and as long as I’m still dealing the same damage, I’m not going to spend a long time worrying about the fact that my Black Guard is holding is sword in the wrong hand, no matter how stupid it looks.

On the other hand, if I’m Joe Casual, and I only have a very limited amount of time each week to log on and play, running into something like a broken PQ or zone crash might be a deal breaker for me, especially if it happens repeatedly. That said, Joe Casual is unlikely to notice the tactics bug, so while the hardcore will be spamming the forums with “slap in the face” posts, Joe Casual will be happily questing/RvRing away, likely unaware that his dps has decreased by 1-2% due to a bug.

With the Blizzard approach, it comes down to your current status in WoW. If you happen to be a class affected by some serious-for-you bug, it can be a very frustrating experience waiting months for a fix. If you have run out of content, be it PvP, raiding, or even questing, waiting 6+ months for Blizzard to add more can also be frustrating, or just make the decision to unsubscribe easier. That said, if your class ‘works’, and you have enough content to last you, Blizzards approach works very well for you. You know that even if a hotfix is released, it’s very unlikely to break something that was working for you, and your gameplay remains unaffected. Your mount won’t start flying with a stutter, or your character won’t suddenly hold their sword and shield in the same hand, or get stuck laying down constantly.

Part of all this is from the fact that WoW is 4+ years old, while WAR has 2+ months of live release under it’s belt, but part is also (imo) just a difference in philosophy. Blizzard double and triple checks each change at the expense of deadlines and timeliness, while Mythic pushes out content and changes in rapid succession, and then later goes back to fine tune everything, with minor bugs not being cause to delay an update.

In a perfect world, we would get rapid content patches that work flawlessly, but that’s just never going to be the case, especially in MMO land. Putting the actual differences in the games aside, which approach works best for you, and why?


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