I should get hacked more often

March 31, 2011

Remember this little encounter?

It seems Trion thinks that ‘delayed’ response is worth 30 days of game time AND all of the weapon boost tokens you could receive from various pre-order deals.

Just another day in a clone themepark. Basically.

Copy/Paste of the email text below:

Greetings Ascended,

Our goal here at Trion is to deliver the highest quality games and a superior customer experience.

Recently, you had to wait through an exceptional delay during the processing of your request for support — a delay that did not and will not meet our high bar for responsiveness. For that, you have our sincere apologies.

This is not the experience that you should expect from Trion Worlds. To help make up for the delay, we have:

  • Credited your account 30 days of play time.
  • Bestowed via in-game mail, to all your current and future characters, a full set of the special RIFT pre-order bonus weapon enchant runes that you may not have had previously.

No action is required on your end. These items and days of play time have already been added to your Trion Worlds account.

We know this does not entirely make up for the frustration you have encountered, but this is our way of thanking you for your patience.

Please know that Trion Customer Service will continue working tirelessly through our support requests. Between recently expanded Customer Support staffing and improvements in our own tools, we are on track to resolve matters more quickly in the future.

I want to personally thank you for your continued support of Trion Worlds, and I hope you continue to enjoy RIFT.

Best regards,

Craig P.
Director of Customer Service & QA
Trion Worlds

Rift: World event quick hit

March 31, 2011

The first Rift live event kicked off yesterday (along with the 1.1 patch), and for day-one of a major patch things were very smooth. Patching was quick, the servers stayed up, and no major bugs were introduced.

The event itself, as of right now, consists of a few new quests in the capital city and random death rifts opening up across all zones. I also saw one new invasion in Stillmoor, and I’m guessing other zones also have new event-based invasions. The death rifts themselves are also new in terms of content, and feature what I’m assuming are guest appearances by the soon-to-be-added bosses from the new 20 man raid zone. The mobs look very impressive.

As with most things in Rift, it’s not one thing that stands out and screams “I’m awesome, look at me”, but rather all the little things that come together to make this addition just that much better than what came before.

First off is the integration of the event into the UI; all players now see a new listing in their quest tracker, and if you click on it, you get a nice-looking event overview window with some flavor text and the schedule for the event. That this is already built-in shows some good planning by Trion, and hints at what else they might already have planned. Is it too much to ask for Asheron’s Call-style monthly storyline updates?

As mentioned, the death rifts are slightly different from pre-event death rifts, and toss in a new mechanic or two along with a more story-driven presentation. It’s a good change of pace, especially this early in the games life, and again points to what could be done later on. I’m fairly confident that Trion is saving up the more complex rift mechanics for later (or for raid rifts, I’ve yet to see one of those), allowing the majority to get comfortable with what is there now, similar to how the first zone’s invasions are simplified versions of the system. One-off rifts for quests already have more complex mechanics, so the tech is there.

On a personal note my warrior is at 49.5 right now, and some of our members have already hit 50, meaning we will be running tier one dungeons shortly, which I’m really looking forward to. We have also picked up a few new members, and assuming everyone makes it to 50, we should have the numbers to do 10-man raid rifts. We will have to add some people if/when we aim for 20 man raiding, but that’s something we can address when we get closer to that possibility.

The apples taste like oranges

March 30, 2011

I was in Stillmoor finishing up some quests when a raid-level quest opened up. About 30 minutes or so later, someone was advertising in zone-chat that they are putting together a raid for the quest. I sign up, and in about 5 minutes we have a nearly full raid.

We gather up at the hub, and all progress towards the location of the raid mob. Along the way we kill any mobs that agro, as not everyone in the raid was 50 yet (I’m still 48) and the lower levels have a wider agro range. When we reach the raid mob, one member of the raid quickly goes over the mob (kill adds, don’t stand in the fire, standard stuff really), a ready check (built into the UI) goes out, everyone hits ready, and the fight starts.

We have some issue with tank agro, along with not enough people picking up adds, and at about 70% we wipe. A few people soul walk, rez the rest of the raid, and we have a quick talk about what to do better. We buff up, engage the boss again, and after a good fight with some nice tank swaps and in-combat rezzing, we down the raid boss.

The raid then proceeds to make its way back out towards town (the area is full of elite mobs), once again killing anything that is in our way. As we reach the end of the elite mobs, a few people in the raid ask if anyone still needs to complete some of the quests in this area (I did), and separate groups form to knock those out.

Now, on the surface this is nothing ground-breaking or “zomg I’ve never seen that happen!” stuff, yet lets just list out the possible issues that could have arisen if we were in some other MMO.

For starters, the raid was gather in that zone rather than through some cross-server anonymous insta-group tool. This then allowed everyone to gather up quickly without being instantly zipped directly to the boss. As everyone was from the same server, any black-listed names could have been excluded easily.

Next, everyone did actually gather in a timely manner, and stuck together as the group moved forward. We did not have people running left and right to chase a shiny or collect far-off resource nodes. We did not leave behind those who drew agro. No one was racing to get the first tag on a mob, or raging over a world drop (we had two).

Everyone clicked the ready check (which as a former raid leader, actually does blow my mind), and when we wiped no one immediately left or started raging that the tanks/healers suck. Everyone was rezzed quickly, no one accidently agroed the boss early, or agroed other mobs in the area, and the second attempt got under way in minimal time (which, again, as a former raid leader is impressive, especially for a PUG raid).

When the boss fell no one left the raid immediately. No one started porting home. People did not scatter and run as quickly as they could to turn the quest in and collect their shiny (a pretty sweet epic might I add). The raid stuck together and got everyone out, and additional groups were formed directly after (something that’s impossible if everyone insta-ported over using an auto-matching tool).

But hey, open groups and an insta-match cross-server ‘stand in town and queue’ thing are basically the same thing that produce basically the same type of server environment and in-game culture.


The PvE Sandbox

March 29, 2011

Whenever a Darkfall update is features on Massively, odds are good someone is going to comment on how they would love to play in such a world, just without the FFA PvP. Now it should be pretty obvious to anyone that if you removed FFA PvP from Darkfall, the game would be pretty boring and more or less not work, but that does not mean the concept of a PvE sandbox is impossible, or relegated to something like A Tale in the Desert (no combat).

One key to any good sandbox is motivators, because unlike a themepark, everyone’s path is not pre-set and often you are tasked with setting your own goals. While freedom is very important, total freedom leads to many not having ‘stuff to do’ and leaving. PvP solves this problem because even if you are not doing something, someone might come along and ‘create’ something for you to do. This act-react cycle can continue indefinitely if pre-set correctly.

The idea for a PvE sandbox would be to replace the actions of aggressive PvPers with mobs, but ‘fixing’ the errors with human behavior. Mobs would not drop server-up sieges, they would not camp your corpse, and would not complain about an uneven fight or seek to grossly zerg you because they can. They would still bring action to your doorstep, and would still have a real impact. If you fail to defend your city, it becomes a mob city until you or someone else takes it back. Mobs would no longer have set spawn points, but rather shifting base camps that send out parties in various directions with no ‘leash’ limit. The mob warband would attack who they spot, die or kill others, and continue on. If players over-hunt mobs in a certain area, they leave, and that part of the world becomes more/less ideal depending on what you want to do (good for farmers, bad for monster hunters). Again, the idea is to mimic common player behavior while taking advantage of the fact that mobs can’t ragequit or use creative gameplay to get ahead.

The biggest hurdle or challenge with such a design, aside from the usual stuff like a good combat system and an interesting world (clone DF…) would be the AI for the mobs; they would need to do a little more than charge at you when you get into agro range and exchange until someone drops. Or at least, some of them would, as it would be both realistic and entertaining to see lots of lesser mobs charge mindlessly, mimicking newbie/bad players perfectly. But beyond having the actual confrontations with the mobs be interesting, the ‘why’ behind the mobs would have to be deeper and more dynamic than just “the script said so”.

You would need to say, day one: “Our mobs have a set number of needs and wants, and will seek to accomplish them. This may or may not lead to your entire city being burned. It’s also possible that after burning one city, the mobs continue and burn ten more. We make no promises that every fight is winnable, or that mobs won’t overrun large sections of the world. Actually, we don’t really know WHAT the mobs will do exactly, as a large part of their actions will be reactions to what the players do. Good luck, we can always restart if we need to”.

And because the world has no direct PvP (stuff like market competition and other indirect forms of PvP always exist), the setup is a case of us vs them for all players, which would hopefully lead to a more unified community. Some players would still attempt to grief as best as they can, but if the world truly relies on player cooperation (decent gear being only craftable in established player cities that, in turn, lead to more and stronger mob attacks/attention), the outcasts would soon be black-listed and find life even more challenging. Villains should exist, but their existence should be more difficult than those who ‘play along’.

The somewhat recent launch of the EQ1 progression server, along with things like SWGemu, UO shards, and interest in PvE-DF, has shown that, at least among a subset of the market, there is a group of players who still enjoy playing as part of a community, of being a member of a world rather than a copy of an ‘epic’ tale, and of working with others rather than always against them. What was impossible tech wise in 97/99 (mainly complex AI and the world to contain it) is now very much a possibility in 2011. We just need the right dev team to go out and do it.

Guild Wars 2 just cured cancer, world peace is next

March 29, 2011

Dear world,

Guild Wars 2 won’t solve your every issue with MMOs. It just won’t. It will, at the end of the day, be a PvE-based MMO with some PvP end-game, that’s overall pretty damn similar to what you see today in the themepark realm, with (perhaps) more short-term dynamic content instead of just normal quests or single-player phasing. You will be mashing 1-2-2-3, mobs will die, you will hit the cap and raid/PvP/alt/ragequit.

Hype is bad enough on its own, but the amount of wishful thinking swirling around GW2 is crazy. Hope for a better version of WoW and enjoy it when/if it arrives. If you currently hate all things themepark MMO, prepare to give AreneNet $50 for a one month trial.

Rift: On the doorstep to 50

March 28, 2011

Things are progressing nicely in Rift. I’m currently halfway through level 47, while others are just a few bars away from 50. We also have a nice ‘second core’ of people around the 20s and 30s. A few more members would not hurt however, as with our current roster filling out a 20 man raid would still be dicey most nights, so if you are playing and looking for a guild, let me know. Guardians, Sunrest server is where we are playing.

Last night a few of us ran Abyssal Precipice, one of the two level 48-50 instances. While we were ultimately successful, we did wipe a good number of times on various bosses, which made for a solid, challenging run. The setting, a series of ice caves and snow-covered mountains, is interesting and looks great, and the boss design was a good mix of mechanics. Nothing mind-blowing or super-gimmicky, but solid.

Due to our current guild quest (20 wins in the Codex and Black Garden warfronts) we have been grouping and running warfronts more often as well. While they are not a complete game themselves, as a break from PvE they do their job well IMO. They are short enough that if your team is terrible, you don’t suffer long, and if you are steamrolling people you can chain a few wins together in rapid succession. On the other hand, a close match does extend a bit longer, and those are always the most fun and encourage the best tactics. In that regard they balance very well.

One thing we have noticed is that it’s difficult to pick out enemies by their class/role, making focusing healers tougher than normal. Priests were chain and often looks similar to Warriors (especially when they run in to melee, which some souls do), and you have no way of knowing if a mage/rogue is more focused on healing or DPS. I’m sure some of the confusion will drop once we get more familiar with the game and how various classes look, but I doubt the issue will completely disappear. Currently the best method is to have someone call out a healer by name and having the rest of the group focus them (target of target is a huge help here).

On the PvE questing front, I’m currently in Stillmoor, which is an excellent zone in both pacing and story. The zone itself is the current-day version of the tutorial/starting zone, which gives you a nice “back in the day” feel and shows you just what happened after your actions. The various quests also reference those actions, which is pretty cool. The overall setting reminds me a little of a traditional Warhammer fantasy town/area, with some of the older towns overrun or under siege, and with your faction setting up small outposts to try and fight back.

One nice use of existing tech is a story arch that ends in you closing a major death rift in the middle of the zone. The rift plays itself out like a normal rift, but the setup around it includes special storyline aspects. This is done in other zones as well, but in Stillmoor it’s especially pivotal.

I’m looking forward to hitting level 48 in order to continue the story in Stillmoor (the quests stopped at a certain point when I was 47 due to being under-leveled), especially because the live event that starts March 30th and stretches across various zones also opens up a new raid area in Stillmore itself.

One final note: I’ve enjoyed questing in all of the zones I’ve been reading the text in (Silverwood, Gloamwood, Scarlet Gorge, Scarwood Reach, Stillmoor), while when I was just questing to level in Droughtlands or Shimmersand, the “quest grind” was setting in. Part of this is of course just approach; I’m in there just to get XP asap, ‘grinding’ is the best way to do it. The other part however is that even simply kill/collect X quests have a bit more meaning behind them if you know the why of the task, especially because after one of those simple quests, more often than not the next one in the chain is something with more story or meat to it. When you follow the storyline, the pacing is (not surprisingly) much better and the quest mix becomes more entertaining. I’m looking forward to taking my alt through the zones I have not really explored or quested in, and even without a single addition, there is enough content to allow for a second unique pass after Scarlet Gorge.

Amateur hour

March 25, 2011

The kids, they grow up so fast.

Shadow’s post before the one linked above was his original (even weaker) attempt, and while it’s pretty fail at a FBW starter, it does (slightly) manage to raise one question: if you’re a carebear solo-hero WoWbie, and you are burned out on themeparks, do you leave the MMO genre or do you actually move on to something with a bit more meat to it like EVE or Darkfall?

I would suspect that most take a break and go play My Little Pony or whatever WoWbies were playing before WoW, but maybe some do grow up and learn to play a real MMO? And if so, has Blizzard finally done something to actually help the MMO genre by releasing Cata and speed-burning so many on themeparks?

Because even if just 10% of WoWbie burnouts stay within the genre and try something better, that’s a crapload of people. And sure, most of them will die once, lose some gear, ragequit on the forums, and go back to playing Candyland with their little sister, but again, if just some of them man up and stay, that’s a win for everyone who supports good MMOs.

Or maybe not, because WoWbies being WoWbies, they will likely hit the forums and demand safezones, BoE gear, and 1-to-cap progression to be measured in hours rather than months. So on second though, no, don’t switch. Go play with your kid sister or Hello Kitty (one glance at the Rift forums and you can clearly see this already happening, with requests for gearscores, recount, cross server everything, etc. Hats off to Trion for actually REMOVING the contribution indicator for rifts; huge step in the right (not WoW) direction).

One hit wonder blogging

March 24, 2011

As readers here might remember from my yearly blog review posts, the busiest day for this blog was way back on September 6th, 2007, thanks to the BBC’s tech site link-quoting one of my posts. As with most of these random occurrences, the post quoted was not anything I would consider outstanding or particularly special, and most if not all of that traffic was one-and-done style, rather than actually attracting readers who stuck around.

My joke Rift review, currently the #2 search result in Google for “Rift review”, and one that was #1 for some time, has generated a lot of traffic. To put things in perspective, the second most common search term for the blog all time is the blog’s title, Hardcore Casual, at just over 9000. Rift review, after just a few weeks, sits at 38,000 and counting. Overall site traffic since the Google ranking has also close to doubled, and had tripled around the week of Rift’s release.

Unlike the BBC event years back, I think the Rift post has increased overall readership and participation, though this goes hand and hand with my more recent Rift-related posts. That’s a nice plus, as comments often spark ideas which lead to more content. On the other hand, getting swarmed by people looking to “link share” or pay a tiny amount to place a link is rather annoying. The extra comment spam, although handled well by WordPress for the most part, is also a negative I could do without.

Also interesting is that those who have come here via Google searching for a Rift review click the Darkfall community publishing link a good amount, yet don’t purchase often. Normally, when I post more about Darkfall, the click-to-buy rate is decently high, and when I don’t post, both stats (click and buy) drop. Seems those looking for a Rift review are also open to other MMOs, just not Darkfall. No huge surprise there.

All of this shows how little correlation exists between total traffic and blog community size (as defined by the total number of repeat readers who also occasionally comment). The “one hit wonder” posts make for some cute spikes in your stat page, but really they do little for the things I really enjoy; interacting and sharing amongst like-minded gamers. To achieve that, you truly have to be consistent with your writing quality, its frequency, and how often you bash WoWbies.

Oh, and a good blog war never hurt either.

Bring back the server queue

March 23, 2011

Last Sunday night I logged into Rift and waited in a three or four minute queue. In vent I joked about how this is totally unacceptable, but in a way it validated the fact that I was on a populated server with a ton of player activity. That activity level is critical to some of the better aspects of the game (rifts, invasions, world PvP), and without it the very same content would simply be less enjoyable.

MMOs have a tough challenge in keeping servers this busy. Between the tourist flood at release and the sometimes back-and-worth jumping of other users, things can change quickly, ultimately to the detriment of the most important players; those actively playing now. Even when a game is successful and growing, you still end up with sub-optimal servers in terms of player levels, and it’s surprising that more is not done to combat this problem.

Server mergers are a known sign of a game struggling, but in some cases this is more of a perception issue than a fact. WoW could (should?) have merged some low-pop servers back in 2006, even though it was still growing overall back then. Those who played on servers with a low pop simply had a lesser experience than those on high-pop servers (unless you like playing an MMO hermit I guess). While the exact method would be best determined by each company (one to one full merger, giving players a choice of destinations off a low-pop server, etc), creating a better gaming environment for your current players can only lead to longer retention and more positive buzz.

A related issue, and one that might affect Rift more than say WoW, is keeping all aspects of the game active. Currently many are still leveling to 50, but at some point soon the greatest concentration of players will be at 50, and while that means lots of similar players for 50s to interact with, it means low population in earlier zones. That’s just an inherent flaw with any level-based game, and while some deep design changes could be done to fix it, better server management would also do the trick.

Pick the lowest population server for each game type (PvE, PvP, RP-PvP) and designate them as new player servers. Anyone who is new to the game will initially only see those three servers, with a not-so-obvious way to exit out and pick whatever server you want for those looking to play with friends or an established guild. Switch which servers are tagged as new player servers whenever population levels are deemed expectable. While this won’t recreate the full experience of playing at launch, it will at least get more new players together and create mini-waves of player population moving through the content.

Take things one step further and combine the two methods. Take two mid-pop servers with high veteran concentrations and merge them to create one high-pop server of basically all 50s. Give non-50s the option to transfer to a new player server (ultimately shutting down the original server), or keep them there and wait for fresh players to come in thanks to the new player tag. Done aggressively enough and you should be able to create very active servers with players either mostly all at 50, or mostly all on their way to 50.

PR issue aside (which could be countered by either releasing actual subscriber data, or at least some trending metrics to show that things are going well overall), server community and related issues would need to be handled well. Issues like everyone keeping their character and guild name (give transfers a prefix or something), making the actual process itself painless, and communicating the changes well in advance would all fall on the company’s community team.

At the end of the day however, if you manage the process well you provide all of your players with optimal playing conditions, which is a win/win for players and the devs alike, and makes joining late less of an issue while keeping lower level group content usable in its intended state (rather than nerfing it down to solo stuff 6 months in and losing it’s real value).

Souls > Trinity

March 22, 2011

If everyone can be a tank/healer/dps, do you still have a holy trinity?

Games with skill systems, rather than class systems, don’t have the holy trinity problem. You don’t stop a fleet action in EVE because your tank is afk, and you don’t call off a siege in Darkfall because your main healer is offline. In UO you never went looking for more DPS to fill out a dungeon group.

That is an advantage to a skill based system, yet players do enjoy playing a set role. There is something familiar and enjoyable about playing a tank if that’s what you like, and you simply can’t do that in most skill-based systems. I can play a bit more ‘tanky’ in Darkfall, but it’s not nearly the same thing.

Rift’s soul system presents the best of both worlds. I still get a character that plays and feels genuinely tanky, yet if a group already has a tank I’m not excluded. If all three of our top healers are online, rather than running a sub-optimal group, one or more of them can quickly switch over and we are good to go with one tank, one healer, three dps (if that’s what’s needed).

The advantages go much deeper than that however.

If you design a raid encounter to require 15 DPS and 5 healers (or even 20 straight DPS. Say a boss that deals no damage until a certain time, at which point he insta-gibs everyone), in a traditional class-based game that encounter will be flagged as a guild-breaker. Your tanks (usually the key players) sit on the sideline, your guild composition gets all out of whack, and the fight itself is tagged more as a gimmick than an interesting challenge. In Rift that encounter can easily exist (and hopefully will if it does not already), because every tank can also be a DPS, and DPS can switch to a healer role.

On a smaller but equally important scale, the soul system makes putting together a 5-man PUG much easier, as almost anyone can play any role (warriors can’t heal, mages can’t tank, otherwise everyone can do everything). If you are a priest (normally healer) and see a group needing one more DPS, it’s up to you if you want to switch over to a DPS soul spec and join in. In a traditional themepark, no matter how badly that priest wanted to run that instance, he simply could not fill in the DPS role. There is also something to be said about players adapting to the needs of the group, and what kind of community something like that tends to foster. Rift is free of the ‘huntard’ stuff that plagues other games, simply because if that kind of spec is an issue, it can quickly and easily be switched out.

Another major issue in older class-based systems is what to do with hybrids. If you make a hybrid just as good at all roles as those classes who can only do one, you gimp the focused-role class. If you make the hybrid slightly weaker, the optimal setup is to leave all the hybrids at home. If the hybrid is stronger in one of their roles, they are forced into just that one role, ruining the whole point of the hybrid in the first place. Not only that, but each balance change might ‘force’ a role change for the hybrid, so someone who enjoyed healing and was doing just fine might now find themselves forced to either dps/tank or sit on the sideline. MMO history is packed with guild drama stemming from such issues.

In Rift, since everyone is a hybrid, you don’t need to worry about the specialized class. If a warrior’s DPS is just as good as a rogues/mages, that’s fine. If a rogue can tank at a warriors level, again, no issue. A priest won’t get bumped from a raid in Rift because a mage can healer. Of course individual souls still require balance, but the tough act of ensuring hybrids do something without doing everything is off the table, and this not only makes for an inherently more balanced game, but one that can allow different souls to perform certain specific tasks better, so long as other classes either have something similar or complimentary.

It’s because of these meta-reasons that I believe Rift’s soul system is the game-changing feature, even more so than the rift system. Rifts add a great deal in terms of content and zone activity, but the soul system not only solves some very core MMO issues, it makes playing the game itself far more enjoyable. Instead of constantly rerolling alts and re-grinding to experience all facets of the game, Rift allows me to switch things up on the fly, and while a warrior does play differently than a priest, I’m not excluded from experiencing group play as a tank, melee dps, ranged dps, or support just because I picked a character who wears plate armor.

Hell, if I want to stop tanking halfway through an instance and just DPS, I can do that, and our group won’t need to reform or put out the call for another tank. The content-design possibilities are mind-blowing when you consider that, and Trion can (should) get very, very creative going forward.

One can hope that, with the trinity solved, perhaps we can progress beyond “don’t stand in the fire” and Dance Dance Revolution raid design. I’m looking forward to it, and hopefully Trion is as well.


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