Thursday, June 28, 2007

What's in Wow's immediate future?

We've had a decent amount of patches and updates in World of Warcraft over the last month or two but nothing really ground breaking for new content. The quests that were supposed to provide new solo and group content have turned out to be simple grinds requiring hours killing the same type of mobs or gathering quest items. In fact the only real impact of these new quests and factions has been the free gold offered by the daily bombing run quests. Not a total loss for most players since spending 20 minutes on a flying mount for 25gp is not that bad of a deal.

Still I'm sure most long time fans of WoW would like something a bit more impressive and fun to be added to the PvE side of the game. The infusion of new rewards into battlegrounds and arenas has revitalize the PvP side of the game and greatly decreased the time of the average queue. However, with the current population imbalance one faction is going to quickly earn all the rewards then quit playing. Plus its still the PvE side of WoW that is the most popular and the one that most players are eagerly awaiting new content.

So based on rumor, hints, and late nights on the forums here's what I think we'll see in the next four months.

1) Zul'aman:
Probably the first new content that will be added to World of Warcraft will be the new 10 man dungeon that was advertised to ship with the Burning Crusade. General consensus is that the dungeon will offer a raid experience similar to Zul'gurub which provided a stepping stone into the Molten Core for smaller guilds. However, most disagree whether this means Zul'aman will be harder or easier then Karazhan or require the same kind of strict raid balance. Also interesting are the rumors that Zul'aman will be the place to go for offspec raid gear. Moonkin Druids, Ret Paladins, and Fury/MS warriors are eager for that piece of gossip to prove true.

2) A New Five Man Dungeon - Ulum perhaps
Blizzard simply cannot wait until the next expansion to put a dungeon into the game for casual players. True I said the same thing after Naxx was released but this time Blizzard is not gaining subscriptions but losing them. The more new content released the better and lucky for Blizzard there is already a method to make a 5 man dungeon friendly to raiders and casuals. They can simply make the normal version of the dungeon tuned for blue wearing level 70 players while keeping the heroic version for the most geared out of raiders. If they increase the difficulty more then they did for the other heroics then they should be able to allow each boss to have a chance to drop epics. And nothing attracts players to a dungeon better then a chance at epics.

3) Better Guild Management Tools
Its been a long time coming but Blizzard is starting to realize how difficult it is to manage a guild especially with the tougher raiding requirements in the Burning Crusade. I expect several different guild tools to be released before the end of year with probably the guild bank being the most likely. Other tools probably in the works are a guild calender to plan events and the functionality to track raid ids so you can see which members are locked into which instances. Another much desired tool that has long been the realm of 3rd party web sites is the ability to set up a DKP system to better handle loot. A CM on the better moderated European forums let the plans slip about the guild tools with other sources having confirmed they are in the works. No timeline has been hinted at which Blizzard might be saving them so they can billed as a feature in the expansion.

4) New Battleground Changes
While Eye of the Storm was just added with the Burning Crusade expansion, the battleground system tends to only get any use right after new rewards are put into the game. True some of the rewards are impressive for non-raiders but the smaller faction always earns them quicker then stops playing. This make the queue time shoot up for the other faction which can only earn rewards at a much slower pace with longer queue times.

Blizzard knows the only way to fix this situation is to spice the battlegrounds up by adding some kind of reward not dependent on arena seasons. Plus the rewards can't be better then the arena rewards which honestly are much more fairly handed out. Based on all the suggestions in the forums Blizzard has a lot of options to improve the battlegrounds and I wouldn't be surprised to see some changes down the pipeline. Probably no siege engines though.

-allow factions to fight each other to avoid population imbalances from causing huge queue times
-allow factions to start at either position on a map to add variety to matches
-allow battleground tokens to be turned in for gold or potions that can be used anywhere
-put more titles into the game that can be earned through battlegrounds

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Why were Attunements there in the first place?

It's the talk of the town at the moment and I can't resist adding my two cents into the discussion. Of course I'm talking about the decision of the World of Warcraft developers to cut attunements from their raiding game. Now at the moment only the Serpentshrine Caverns and the Eye attunements have been lifted but I suspect that from now on new raid zones will lack any attunement requirements. We'll know for sure in a couple months when Blizzard releases the much anticipated raid dungeon, Zul'aman.

The original decision to put attunements into the Burning Crusade raids zones most likely had a lot to do with the small power difference between raid and dungeon gear. The old world raid zones were linear since the difficulty of each zone got progressively higher and required gear from the previous raid zone. Since raiding was the only method for getting better gear the raid system became almost a straight line from Molten Core to Naxx.

However, in the expansion the developers realized that they would quickly break their promises to casual players if they greatly increased the quality of gear in each progressive raid zone. Plus rewards from the different PvP activities were now sufficient to allow players to jump into most of the raid zones. With a lot of the higher end raids filled with bugs and not well tested the developers definitely wanted to encourage guilds into a linear progression starting at Karazhan.

With the amount of developers originally from Everquest now employed by Blizzard I'm sure it was only a matter of time before someone raised the idea of an attunement system. It worked beautifully and kept all but the most fanatical guilds from doing anything after Serpentshrine Caverns. However, what Blizzard failed to calculate was that the MMO playerbase is much different from what it was during Everquest's Planes of Power.

A lot of guilds simply fell apart from knocking their heads against attunements and creating multiple teams for Karazhan. The MMO market is simply bigger then it was 4 years ago and many non hardcore raiders simply said "screw this" and left for another game. Good timing by Turbine placed Lord of the Rings Online in a position to pick up a lot of these ex-WoW players. I'm sure their initial good numbers were in part due to the short lifetime of the Burning Crusade and its horrid raid game.

Now with Blizzard taking a step backwards and scrapping parts of the attunement system they might be able to salvage some of their end game. The problem is that the majority of their subscription losses over the last couple of months probably game from disgusted raiders. The faction grind quests for Ogri'la, Skyguard, and Etherium was a kick in a face to most casual group oriented players who actually desired more 5-man dungeons. If Blizzard is seen as doing more development on raid content for a much smaller player sub-population then they are going to tank further in the subscription numbers.

I think the only real hope Blizzard has is to make sure Zul'aman is very friendly to casual players. This means making it so pick up groups can complete the entire dungeon. A 10 man raid shouldn't have to have a very delicate balance of classes be able to proceed to the last boss. As long as the raid has a decent tank, healers and dps classes they should be fine. No more bosses that penalize a raid for not having a specific class ability like blessing of sacrifice or shackle. Blizzard needs to introduce Zul'aman as easier then Karazhan if they want to create new raiders.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Should the PvP trinkets be made more powerful?

In the upcoming patch planed for June 20th one of the major items will be the upgrade of the PvP trinkets. Currently the trinkets provide a means to escape a limited amount of crowd control effects for each class. For some classes the trinket dispels effects like polymorph while for others they can use it to get out of fear. However, with the next mini patch Blizzard is planning on changing the mechanics of the PvP trinket so that all crowd control effects can be dispelled by each class.

As World of Warcraft has progressed over the years more short term crowd control effects have been given to each class in an attempt to balance the PvP side of the game. This became necessary as the amount of players participating in PvP combat increased due to reforms in the honor system and the introduction of arenas. The developers most likely feel there are too many crowd control effects now in the game to limit what the trinket can dispel, thus the upcoming change.

Like most game changes there are those on the forums who oppose them. This is especially true for those who have crowd control effects which are particularly hard to dispel. Abilities like sap and cyclone which often can decide games will become a lot less powerful with an universal dispel available to every class on a short timer. Druids in particular are mad that cyclone, which is resistant to paladin shielding, will soon be dispelable by every class.

Cyclone is one of the few crowd control abilities available to a druid besides the very mediocre root ability. While root is practical in PvE situations it tends to suck in combat against other players where spells with a cast time are of limited use. Since healers in PvP are primary targets they often have trouble casting any non instant spells which means crowd control effects like root almost never get a chance to land on opponents.

Even if you don't focus on the impact to any one class the introduction of a universal dispel mechanic is a big change for the game. In the past World of Warcraft's system of PvP has always depended on a rock, paper, scissors approach. Basically the developers looked at single player combat and balanced abilities so that every class had another one they were weak against. Abilities like flare, mass dispel, and mana burn were designed to specifically give advantages over a certain class.

With the changes to the PvP trinket it seems as if the developers are trying to back away from their previous approach and perhaps offer classes a more even chance against one another. Still some posters complain that a universal dispel trinket ruins the chances of classes dependent on crowd control. Yet no one agrees on the definition of a crowd control dependent class. In my opinion the fact that most crowd control effects are instant cast are more then enough reason to increase the power of the PvP trinket. Whether it benefits one class over another we'll just have to wait and see in Arena Season 2.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Could a MMO be made for the Wii?

Sometime during the summer the popular Dance Dance Revolution will be released for the Wii and will probably be a smash hit with most of the console owners. DDR makes use of a dance pad which bears remarkable resemblance to the track and field mat first pioneered on the classic Nintendo. Unlike the overpriced gimmick of the 80s though this game has actually skyrocketed in popularity among all age groups. And this appeal is only expected to increase on the Wii since hand motions will be added to the game to correspond with the tricky foot maneuvers.

What's exciting is that if DDR does become popular enough on the Wii then other studios will probably start including the dance pad in their game design. Picture a fighting game where your footsteps actually control how your character dodges and attacks. From there its not a far step to have your footsteps replace the standard W, A, S, D keys used for movement in most MMORPGs. Such a MMO would have to be slightly different to avoid exhausting its players but could present a very unique feel especially in a first person perspective.

The newest version of Zelda released on the Wii already proved that basic adventure/rpg actions can be done with the Wii remote. The most common mechanic in modern MMOs is the hot bar which could easily be manipulated by the nunchuk controller. The main remote controller could then be used for sword swinging or targeting a player's spells. The major block would be communication but this could be bypassed by including voice chat in the game. With World of Warcraft eventually planning to add voice chat capabilities you can expect it to quickly become standard in MMOs.

The first MMO released for the Wii might be a bit basic but could still be quite fun since players would interact more realistically with the virtual world using hand and foot controls. This limited control method might discourage some but then again games like Guild Wars and Diablo 2 have allowed rich gameplay without the complexity of a million UI buttons. Still for such a game to be published there has to be demand for a more "virtual reality" experience inside a MMO. The popularity of the .Hack series might convince publishers that there is such market but it might take awhile for one of them to take the first step.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Why the Yellow Journalism against MMOs?

It seems like video games have been a favorite target of politicians and mass media since the early nineties when the fighting genre started to get a little too realistic. The outrage over Mortal Kombat fatalities was quickly forgotten though with the introduction of Doom and other first person shooters. Most "family values" groups switched targets and started protesting the FPS genre much like they had earlier quit their protests about the Simpsons once Bevis and Butthead came out. You think about it now and it seems insane but a lot of people were upset with Bart Simpson fifteen years ago and wanted the show canceled.

In the case of both cartoons and video games, older generations didn't understand that the audience age was increasing for the medium. Unlike previous generations where games and cartoons were enjoyed during childhood then put aside, these new youngsters wanted to keep toons and games in their lives. Corporations picked up on this and slowly started introducing content that was more appealing to teen consumers. True, this content was mostly fart jokes and violence but it was nothing worse then what was found in movies at the time. However, since these mediums had traditionally been the domain of childhood for so long there was some outrage at the more mature content.

Unfortunately, the maturation of video games has became a magnet for yellow journalism which specifically targets older generations with misinformation. News media in general has become excellent at exaggerating the content and mechanics of video games to provoke an extreme reaction from those unfamliar with them. Just look at the recent article in the Washington Post which described World of Warcraft as lawless and filled with roving gangs who mug players for their virtual items. If you're as confused as me then you realize that this reporter has only a limited idea of how the game works. Still by lying and claiming ignorance on the specifics the journalist can get away portraying a game in whatever manner gathers more attention.

The behavior of journalists towards video games is increasingly becoming symbiotic with politicians wishing to garner votes from older and ultra conservative constituents. Often an article will set off a round of legislation or public denouncements as politicians seek free political capitol that elicits little corporate backlash. Mass media makes the suggestions and then the politicians feed off the fears of the uninformed. Over the years this scenario has played out in response to novels, comic books, dungeons and dragons, rock music, and rap. Video games are only the most recent target in the chain. However, they are being more aggressively attacked then previous scapegoats perhaps in response to their effect on television viewing habits.

Just recently a lawsuit was filed by watchgroup Families in France against Linden Labs and ten ISPs for allowing access to Second Life. Second Life is the Las Vegas of the MMO universe and currently allows its users a lot of freedom in what they wish to do in the game. The watchgroup says that since Linden Labs does not provide well enough protection to prevent underage users from entering the game they are liable to litigation. This is despite the fact that age verification checks are used to control access to the adult grid. Still the portrayal of the seedier sides of Second Life are often used to implicate all MMOs as cesspools of immorality. Before online businesses became so popular a very similar accusation was often made against the Internet.