Thursday, May 29, 2008

Can you trust early MMO reviews?

It's hard to review a MMO. It’s a simple statement, but so true for those who have ever tried to put their opinions about a game into text. The problem is that unlike normal video games, a MMO is filled with gameplay that is essentially endless. There really is no way to finish a MMO and that makes it very hard to give one a decent review. Most professional review sites have adopted the practice of just focusing on the first ten levels but that often gives a skewed impression of the game. Developers aren't idiots and they know that a well polished newbie zone not only gets them good reviews but also convinces players to stay past the free month.

In every MMO I've played since World of Warcraft the newbie content seems overly polished at a detriment to the rest of the game. What's worse is that I've seen games that assume a good newbie zone combined with long and grindy "mid game" content would allow them to patch an "end game" in at a later date. Both Lord of the Rings and Tabula Rasa were guilty of using this technique, though they have improved in recent updates. The problem is that when a MMO pulls a stunt like that, they make most professional reviews useless. I think that's why game blogs have become so popular in recent years.

Blogs allow a normal player to experience a game for a decent amount of time while recording their experiences. If a blog is still talking about a game three months after release and singing its praises, then you can assume the game is good. There really is no quick method for finding out if a MMO is decent without giving someone a lot of time with it. Some people try to find blogs of players who were in the beta for the game, but that doesn't always work out. One only has to look at Age of Conan and their "miracle patch" which made a lot of the beta complaints about the game moot.

In general if you are looking for a new MMO that you want to play long term, you need to wait a month or two after its release. By that time at least some bloggers will have hit max level and started messing around with the end game content. Also it's a safe bet that the patches during the first month will add in some changes and fix any major bugs or exploits that slipped pass quality assurance. It's always embarrassing to be shouting loudly about some unfair exploit during the first week of release and then have it fixed the very next day. Thankfully, the internet has a short term memory and it quickly forgets prophets of doom.

I even had my own experience with a doomsayer back in November 2004 when I was on the fence between World of Warcraft and EverQuest 2. I had read some initial bad posts on World of Warcraft which said leveling was too quick and people were going to rush through content. EverQuest 2 on the other hand was supposedly safer but having some problems that were sure to be fixed in upcoming patches. I waited until near the end of the holidays and found that most of the negative critiques of WoW had disappeared but EverQuest 2 was still getting major changes every patch. I've learned from that experience and while both games are now viable options, at the time World of Warcraft was the better choice.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Is Age of Conan's horrible UI related to its console release?

If you've been playing Age of Conan then you know that despite some very kick ass combat mechanics it does have its flaws. It's nothing that prevents you from enjoying the game but it seems like it shipped with a couple of bad design choices which should have been obvious to the developers. The user interface it probably the first thing anyone notices when they start playing Age of Conan. It’s sparse on the surface so as not to distract you from the beautiful graphics and that’s a good decision. However, this hides the fact that underneath its minimalist front is a clunky and unintuitive monstrosity. It has some very weird slash commands and often doing anything not related to combat requires three or four steps.

It's like the game took everything that was boring about World of Warcraft combat and made it better but decided doing it for any other part of the game would be going too far. As a friend of mine remarked they couldn't have made a worse user interface if they had purposely designed it that way. This got me thinking. What if the user interface problems were really done on purpose? Not to frustrate the players, which would simply be a bad business decision, but to make it easier for its eventual port to the Xbox. A lot of tediousness that PC gamers are experiencing with the game seems to be caused by the user interface not being optimized for keyboard and mouse use.

If you look at the menu system for the game this becomes obvious. You can hold down "ctrl" or "alt" to display only the right or left side of any menu window but this only seems to work if you press the actual menu button at the top of the screen. It doesn't seem to work when you hit any of the shortcut keys on the keyboard. Holding "alt" and pressing "I" will still bring up both the inventory and equipment screen. Another good example are the merchants which require you to scroll through a list of all the items in your inventory to select one to sell. This seems like console rpg menu design compared to modern MMOs where you simply click on an item in your inventory to sell it.

I'm sure a lot of these little annoyances will be fixed very quickly in patches. The user interface isn't exactly hard to modify for most games especially if they use a formatting language like XML. I wonder if the initial design team thought they could make a user interface that would be acceptable to both console and PC gamers. There haven't exactly been a lot of MMOs that have worked on both platforms so Funcom was treading new-ish ground here. If I remember correctly FFXI released on the PC first then simplified its menu system for a console release. Funcom probably thought to avoid redesigning the UI by starting out with one that would work on both.

In the end I'll still play the game even if they don't change anything but I beg Funcom not to make me type "/cc addbuddy #name" to update my friends list anymore.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Concentrating the Newbie Experience into one Area

Those of you who hadn't read my last couple of posts might be surprised to find out I actually changed my primary focus from World of Warcraft to Age of Conan. I've been experimenting with other MMOs since last summer and it was only a matter of time until I found one that would also appeal to my friends. It's not like I'm not going to avoid talking about World of Warcraft since I still consider it to be the sweet spot of MMO development. In fact I'll probably continue to use it as a primary example in my writings until someone makes a better game though I doubt that will happen this decade.

One of the things about World of Warcraft that made it so attractive was that right away it started impressing players with well designed starting zones. Quests were simple and they provided you with a linear progression path to move through the area while picking up your initial abilities. The environments were even varied enough that you ended up with a slightly different experience for each race. Blizzard was able to fine tune this process in the Burning Crusade and made the new player experience even better by including easy reputation rewards and group quests.

One has to wonder if the Ghostlands and Azuremyst Islands are better starting areas because Blizzard has gained experience since classic WoW or if it's just easier creating good content for a smaller amount of zones. Age of Conan seems to think it's the latter since they've concentrated on just one starting area for players. It would normally be a horrible idea but since they are overly dependent on instancing they can actually pull it off without crashing and lag. In general Tortage has been one of the least crowded starting areas I've ever come across. I know that there are probably 200 different versions running on my server but I almost never see more then 20-40 people. The load balancing of players is very good.

There are a lot of distinct advantages that Age of Conan gained by going with a single starting area for all players. One is that it greatly increased the amount of time and focus their developers got to spend on the newbie experience. Almost right away you get to see impressive jungles, ancient ruins, volcanoes, and a sprawling pirate town. It definitely beats the pants off any other game in the quality of graphics. In fact it makes my recent forays into the Gloomingdeep Mines in Everquest look like a Commodore 64 game. I've always stressed game play over graphics but Age of Conan proves that sometimes you can have both.

Tortage does have one big weakness and that happens to be its replay value. I'm ashamed to admit that I really only listened to all that expensive voice work on my first character. The very next time through I interrupted everyone, except for Sancha of course, and just grabbed the quest. I still found myself enjoying the area on my third character but I've been hearing from alt-a-holics that after the sixth time running through Tortage you really just want to escape as fast as possible. Also it obvious that the quality of content dips a bit after Tortage since the voice acting dries up and the quests become less unique. It’s not as bad as the 30+ content that Lord of the Rings released with but it's definitely a step down.

Luckily from what I'm hearing the initial end game is supposedly fleshed out with some interesting raids along with the PvP in the borderlands. Also we can't forget the PvP mini games which some people have been enjoying even at the low levels. I'm still too busy trying to master the combat system at the moment to join in but it should provide a similar experience as the World of Warcraft battlegrounds. In general it seems that the decision to concentrate on one starting area is working out great for Funcom. Tortage is convincing people to stay in the game and the replay quality seems to be okay for at least a couple of alts. The real test will be as the game starts to age and players find themselves going through Tortage for the eighth or tenth time.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Ten Hints for Taking on Tortage

Not my normal type of post but I thought I would share some things I thought were useful to know in the newbie zone for Age of Conan. There are a couple of loot hints that I would like to thank Steve for finding.

Skills - Press "P" to assign the skill points you earn each level

1) Endurance and Sprinting
Sprinting is done by holding down the shift key which makes you run very fast at the cost of stamina. It actually eats through your stamina fairly fast but if you max out your Endurance skill you'll notice it does so at a slower rate. Age of Conan keeps all of its mobs on an aggro leash so it’s very easy to survive a bad encounter by Sprinting away.

2) Run speed
Run speed is your normal run pace and it's useful to max out since Tortage takes great delight in making you travel back and forth between the same locations. Having Endurance and Run speed maxed out should make some of the traveling less painful. You could just ignore the quests and grind your levels but like most other MMOs the quests provide much better experience.

3) Save about 50 points for climbing
There are a couple quests in the day world and the night world which require a minimum amount of points for climbing. I believe skill points can be reassigned without a penalty cost but I not sure if there is any limitations on the number of times you can do this.

Loot - Just like WoW: green - blue - purple

4) Visit the Acheronian ruins
It’s one of the few instances not flagged for PvP and you can get quest here in peace while learning your abilities. The big advantage is that because Age of Conan has such small inventory space that a lot of people just leave loot lying around that they don't have room to carry. A lot of treasure chests drop here and you can pick up a full set of level 10-20 greens by just switching between the different instances and playing garbage collector.

5) Visit the Merchant on the Docks at Night
During your Destiny quest line a merchant appears on the dock and will show up on the map. He sells a lot of good quality green items including a blue chest piece that you aren't supposed to get until later in your Destiny quest line. The items are wearable at level 10 and will help you out a lot in the early levels. I'm not sure if this is something left in by accident so it might be fixed in an upcoming patch.

6) Bosses and Treasure Chests
Better quality loot is usually found in treasure chests that drop from mobs while normal loot is usually found in bags. While leveling through Tortage you'll find a lot of harder enemies marked as bosses but they don't always drop treasure chests. In general if a mob is marked as a boss but doesn't have any guards it doesn't drop a treasure chest. This is especially true for the large number of animal bosses which usually don't drop anything. Mobs marked as bosses in your destiny quests tend to always drop a treasure chest.

Quests - Too many to Count

7) Don't try to grind through on just the Destiny Quest
The Destiny quest line has some level gaps between the different portions of it. You're really are supposed to switch between it and the day time version to quickly level. However, If you level to 17-18 in the day world then you could probably start the Destiny quest and complete it straight through to leave the island.

8) Picking up Quests
Tortage has more quests then you need to reach level 20 and leave the island. Every time you level check your map and look for exclamation marks which represent quest givers. Be warned that some NPCs will make you run back and forth between the same locations for each new quest they give. I recommend hitting the acheronian ruins and doing quests you have there while hording the quests for the Underhalls and White Sands. Both White Sands and the Underhalls are flagged for PvP if you are on a PvP server so being a higher level before going there will help prevent ganking.

Combos - Press "B" to bring up your combos/abilities

9) Usefulness
Combos do a lot more damage than a normal attack but use up stamina and require you to hit a number of keys to activate them. Below level 15 you'll mostly have combos that only require you to hit one key and are executed fairly quickly. In general combos are very useful since they tend to make the mob focus all of its shields on a single side thus leaving him much more vulnerable to follow up attacks.

10) Multiple-key combos and Stamina
As you get more advanced combos they'll require you to hit more keys to activate them. In general they will hit much harder and take up more stamina. I unfortunately made the mistake of trying out my first 2-key combos on a group of mobs and didn't have any left stamina left over for the adds I got at the end of the fight. In general the stamina mechanic works a lot like a mana bar and thus melee classes should watch it closely during fights.

Assorted Commands/Hints that you might find Useful
/cc addbuddy #Name - add a friend to your friends list
click on the white arrow next to the mini-map to select what instance version you want
the esc key actually brings up your game options instead of exiting you from the game, weird
ctrl + alt + f will display your frame rate on your main screen

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Age of Conan players not happy with primetime maintenance

It’s a condition very similar to the growing pains that Blizzard first experienced when demand for their game outstripped their servers. Age of Conan had a very successful early access weekend except that whenever they brought their servers down the forums exploded. While the downtime on Sunday wasn't too bad since it happened in the middle of the day that was not the case on Monday. In a decision that must have been made by some European marketing major, Funcom decided to prepare for going live by taking the servers down from 5pm-12am yesterday. That's right, they thought it was more important that the servers be ready for a midnight release date then being live for primetime.

The forums for the game were already getting a reputation for being unruly and things only got worse as people came home from work. I was among those who got home just in time for the servers to go down for the rest of the day. After cursing my luck I hopped onto the forums only to see that about 50,000 other people had the same idea. In the general discussion forum there were 177 threads with about 70 of them related to the decision to patch during primetime. I finally got tired of reading the same complaints over and over again and tried looking at some of the other threads for information on instances and combat. After getting rick rolled twice I determined that the forums were probably useless until things settled down.

In all honesty I can see how being ready for a midnight release date is a big deal to the company that released Anarchy Online. Funcom really wanted to show the market that they can launch a finished product with no major issues despite their history. I do see problems forming though if they make a habit of bringing down the U.S. servers during primetime. Age of Conan is a mature rated game which means it probably has a larger population of players with day jobs. This means that more than any previous MMO it’s very important that the game is stable during the evening hours. I'm sure that Funcom got the hint from the reaction on the forums yesterday.

Still I have to wonder if this is a danger of playing a game not developed by a North American studio. While Blizzard is centric to west coast time it usually doesn't interfere with my ability to play that much since it’s only a three hours difference with the east coast. With a European studio I have to wonder if their work schedule will mesh properly with the time I have available to play. It's funny but the only reason people care that much is that the game is obviously good. If it had only a lukewarm welcoming from players then I'm sure patching during primetime wouldn't have garnered such a negative response. Still has it stands now players aren't sure if this was a onetime occurrence or if the maintenance cycle for the game might always occur during the evening hours.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Goodbye to WoW, at least for now

I've been playing World of Warcraft ever since it came out and I've had ups and downs with the game though I've always kept my subscription. I did a lot of old world raiding but my guild was unfortunately one of those who didn't survive the Karazhan/Gruul hump. Still in general I was very happy with the single group content in the Burning Crusade and was estatic at the PvP content. In fact during the last 6 months I've been doing mostly arenas and battlegrounds with a scattering of heroics. World of Warcraft is still one of the best designed MMOs I've ever played but its pretty much ran out of content for me.

While Magister's Terrance and the daily quests were nice additions they are just not enough to make me stay until the expansion. Sometimes the high standards of Blizzard and their devotion to polish creates a weakness in actually creating content quickly. I mean what happen to the one expansion per year estimate that was repeated in several magazine interviews? I think Blizzard might have been juggling too many projects at the same time and underestimated the number of developers it would take to get Wrath of the Lich King out of the door. They also have Starcraft 2 coming out along with their new generation MMO which is still very mysterious.

Whatever the reasons for the expansion delay, my friends were also starting to get the MMO wanderlust. I've had it ever since the summer and its why I went through trying out LOTR, Rise of Kunark, and Tabula Rasa last year. However, none of those games appeal to my friends and the time just didn't seem right. Now with Age of Conan coming out and still no release date from Blizzard it became time to leave World of Warcraft. Still we wanted to go out with a bang so we gathered up who we could and decided to visit some of our old haunts.

The first stop was Zul'Gurub which was one of our favorite raid instances and really made the impression on us that smaller raids could be more fun. I was never really happy with the class balance and coordination required by Karazhan which made it seem a lot harder then old world raiding. I have better hopes that the 10 man raid progression in WotLK will be much more friendly. In the meantime here's some shots of us getting revenge on some old bosses.

After Zul'Grub there wasn't a lot of time left since I was unsure if I would be booted from the server at midnight as my account expired. Thus in relative quickness we made our way to where we had some of our worst raid wipes back in the day, Onyxia's Lair. We had some close calls and actually had problems keeping aggro on the tank. Luckily we managed the kill her and had a lot of fun remembering how it used to take most our guild to take her down.

Later on we tried to figure out where we should log off and finally decided to go back to old world raid central, Blackrock Mountain. Between Molten Core and Blackwing Lair we spent more time in this place then anywhere else in the game. Thus it was a fitting place for us to log off until we return.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Age of Conan Feats

I've talked before on the differences between skill and level based games and how a mix of the two systems seems to be the best for most MMOs. Pure skill based character progression is often overly complex and unfriendly to new players. Plus players tend to choose common skill builds anyways which basically represent a "class". Level based character progression on the other hand is very linear, allows no differentiation of abilities, and tends to get boring. World of Warcraft uses it's very popular talent system to introduce some of the benefits of a skill system into the game. Its not the first time its been done before but the popularity of WoW has made it more common.

Some like Lord of the Rings allow skills to be randomly unlocked and equipped by completing objectives while others like Everquest 2 decided to follow a tree format. Age of Conan also seems to be following the tree format but is much closer to the talent system used by World of Warcraft. Some might find this copying to be distasteful but I think most players will like the familiarity between the skill systems. Just a general browsing through the different Feats trees make it apparent that they allow players the same type of specialization available in World of Warcraft.

The trick will be if Feats comes with the same penalties as the talent system in World of Warcraft. Complaints about the high cost of changing talents are always present and often force certain classes to pay large amounts of gold to play different parts of the game. In fact some people think the way the game is balanced forces players to use the talent trees to overspecialize. Recent rumblings at Blizzard have hinted at some changes to this problem like making protection warriors able to do more damage. Still you have to wonder if Funcom blindly copied they problems with the talent system along with the benefits. Anyways we won't know for sure until players start hitting the max level and are able to use all the points in the Feat system.

Age of Conan Feat Calculator Tool

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

PvP organization and Age of Conan

When developers decide to make a good size portion of their game devoted to PvP there are a couple of key decisions that control the direction it takes. The first decision is about the scope of PvP in the game. Some games that mostly want to focus on raiding have almost no PvP except for small areas that allow players who enter to attack one another. Very boring but sometimes that's all you need, like in the case of classic Everquest. Other games like EvE Online go the opposite route and have large portions of their world available for PvP combat. Still others restrict player combat to instances designed to enforce rule sets on players. Both World of Warcraft and City of Heroes favor systems like this which are often considered the most fair if not the most exciting.

But while the scope decides the type of audience a game will attract the major decision that makes or breaks a game is how the PvP is organized. Developers in the past have chosen to ally players by either guilds, factions, or just to have a free for all rule set. All three are viable and can be fun under certain circumstances. The problems come about when they don't mix well with the scope of PvP in the game. Just to give one example imagine a MMO where the only PvP took place in a few open areas with no rules or rewards. It doesn't really make sense to place faction or guild requirements on players in this game and doing so would just hamstring what little PvP existed. There are other match ups between scope and organization that make even worse sense.

Probably one of the worst things a game can do is to drop players into a MMO with massive open world PvP and no means to ally themselves with anyone. Luckily, Funcom isn't stupid and they made it so players can align with guilds or even play on a carebear server. The problem I see is that a lot of people coming from World of Warcraft are going to think they know what it's like to play on a PvP server. However, open world PvP is very different in a faction based game compared to a free for All one. And while technically Age of Conan is going to be organized around guilds I don't this will really come into effect until the later levels.

I think initially we are going to have a lot of players trying out the PvP servers and then discovering how much having factions softened the blow in World of Warcraft. We'll probably start off with something that looks a lot like Ultima Online back when it only had the PvP shard. Eventually as guilds establish themselves I expect the greifing to become less common place and the game to resemble EvE Online in some ways. However, I think Age of Conan is always going to have some problems that are unique to itself. The biggest one is going to be chat spam I bet since the game has avatar based combat and no factions to restriction communication. Even the regular servers are going to have border kingdoms and capture the flag mini games which will be sure to spawn some trash talking.

I've had cases before in World of Warcraft where I had players from the opposing faction make an alt so they could throw insults at me after a battleground. It was annoying but I could easily use a command and ignore them. In Age of Conan I wonder if the ignore list will be large enough. I expect every gank to be accompanied by a tell insulting my skill and questioning my sexual orientation. I'm sure over time these types of people will be ostracized but they are going to do a lot of damage to player morale in the beginning. The non PvP servers should be less affected but are still going to have the same basic problem.

So why play on a PvP server in Age of Conan if it’s going to be that insulting and ganktastic? Well for some people the opportunities to be a griefer are going to draw them to those servers. Others like myself are probably used to the sense of excitement and the way small scale battles randomly pop up on PvP servers. It's not for everyone and that's why Funcom included normal servers so they didn't alienate everyone. I just want to make it clear that the choice of whether to play on a PvP or Normal server is going to have much more of an impact in Age of Conan then other games.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Will Raiding in WotLK end Guild Hopping?

Well Blizzard had been hearing about some of the early hype for Age of Conan and thought this might be a good time to remind people that they also have a new game coming out soon. This was the flood of information that we were waiting on. Very few details had been given about the expansion before this point and I had theorized in an earlier post that Blizzard was probably saving a couple of big selling points. I was expecting these revelations during a press event like Blizzcon or the Paris Invitational but obviously Blizzard feels that even the unproven Age of Conan might be able to steal some customers before the expansion is ready. This unfortunately hints that it might be awhile before Wraith of the Lich King releases but at least we now know a bit more about the game.

The overall news is very exciting and contained information about death knights, zones, and instances in Wrath of the Lich King. If you want to know all the details then I suggest looking at which went through a frenzy of posts last Friday (May 9th). I was mostly interested in the information related to Blizzard opening up raid instances to more casual players. It hints that maybe they have actually been listening to us when we talk about how much we dislike not being able to see all the raid content. One of the constant problems I have with World of Warcraft was that the end game was really ruined for casual guilds because of guild hopping. There are feeder guilds which do Karazhan and Gruul and they almost never progress to the next tier because they are constantly losing players to the higher end guilds.

It seems every guild I've been in during the Burning Crusade has either been forced to merge or break up because of guild hopping. Most guilds that progressed through the Karazhan/Gruul hump were those that required raid attendance and were less "fair" on their loot distribution. This usually meant main tanks and people with perfect attendance had priority over other players despite any sort of DKP system. I consider this a fair description of a hardcore guild and I had enough of that kind of shenanigans back in the days of Everquest. When guilds go hardcore they tend to leave the people with less time behind and start recruiting other players who want to progress and have time to spare. This is what is responsible for guild hopping and it really prevents World of Warcraft from having a casual PvE end game.

That's why the changes to raiding in Wrath of the Lich King are going to have such an impact. I'll go ahead and list the ones I'm talking about just in case this is the first you've heard about them.

1) Raid Dungeons will have a 10-man and 25-man setting with different lockout timers
2) The 10-man loot tables will be a tier below the 25-man loot tables
3) A new token system like Badges of Justice will also be used

The first thing to notice is the that the different timers between the 10-man and 25-man versions should allow guilds to more easily help new members gear themselves up. Plus players will be able to gain valuable experience in the 10-man version which will help when the entire guild tries out the larger version. There still might be problems with different 10-man "teams" in a guild having different success rates. In Karazhan this was a major source of guild hopping since there was often a single A team which could clear the zone with no problems while the guild as a whole was unable to defeat Gruul. This new system should make it easier for a guild to break the 25-man barrier since the 10-man version can basically be used as training.

The loot tables also seem fair with the 10-man version being a tier below the 25-man ones. This should also help in situations where a guild has moved onto a new dungeon but you are still missing an item you really wanted. You can simply do the 10-man version of the new raid dungeon to complete your set. I'm not sure if the loot tables for the 10-man versions are exact copies of the previous 25-man instance but it would make sense. I'm sure the progression will look something like this.

Probably Loot Progression

Raid Instance1(10-man): Loot Table 1 (5-man Heroic Epics)
Raid Instance1(25-man): Loot Table 2 (Tier 1)
Raid Instance2(10-man): Loot Table 2 (Tier 1)
Raid Instance2(25-man): Loot Table 3 (Tier 2)

It’s also nice to see the returning of the token system since Badges of Justice have really kept the instances alive in the Burning Crusade. Without Heroics and Badges of Justice I'm sure almost no one would be running the single group instances anymore. It will be interesting to see how they decide to award tokens in Wrath of the Lich King. It’s almost guaranteed that the 10-man versions will award less than the 25-man versions. I would expect a single token from bosses in a 10-man instance versus two tokens from bosses in the corresponding 25-man version. Still what will Blizzard do about the higher end raid instances? Will the 10-man version of the highest tier raid instance drop less tokens then the beginner 25-man raid instance? It may be a minor point but small guilds might depend on token gear to fill out gear gaps before they jump to the next 10 man instance.

Despite minor details like how tokens are awarded the majority of these raid changes are going to make it much easier for guilds to progress through content without having to impose "job like" restrictions on their members. If Blizzard does a very good job of balancing the content it should even be possible for small guilds of 15-20 to progress through all of the raid content just by doing the 10-man raid instances. Some have reservations about this and think it might affect the number of people who run the 25-man versions but in general I think it's just going to enable casual guilds to actually see all of the content in the game. It's often been said that most people guild hop just to see new content and only mildly care about gear upgrades. If this is true then these changes should do a good job of eliminating guild instability in World of Warcraft.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Can Age of Conan survive is Open Beta?

Age of Conan really dropped the ball on its open beta through Fileplanet. While there had been rumors about the game's performance being spotty on some computers, it wasn't really confirmed until last weekend. It's a shame since the game has some interesting game design behind combat and skill training. None of that is going to produce any positive buzz though if 10% of the testers are crashing every hour. Just by the nature of the internet the portion of players who did have problems are going to get their experience posted about the most.

Now Funcom has admitted they pushed some patches right before the beta which made the client unstable and caused some poor performance. They have assured gamers that the problem will be better by launch but of course this sounds like the same crap every developer has said when pushing out an unfinished product. Everyone says that World of Warcraft has set new standards for launching a MMO but in my experience most games still release unfinished. I mean can you really call it an industry standard if no one follows it?

It's not that Age of Conan is the next Vanguard which some gamers are starting to say on a lot of forums. I beta tested Vanguard before release and in general it was much less of a finished product then Age of Conan. Also I don't think Funcom is being forced to release early because of monetary concerns. The more likely scenario is that they are releasing early to take advantage of Warhammer pushing back their release date. It’s not like Sigil where they are desperate to raise funds by releasing with a ton of bugs.

Age of Conan is going to be worked on and patched by its development team at a decent rate even after launch. I don't expect mass firings if they don't sell 400k boxes or to end up in the SOE all-access pass graveyard. I do expect them to get about 300,000 initial players which will slowly increase as more time without Wraith of the Lich King and Warhammer passes. I thought that Season 4 being timed around Age of Conan's launch might help prevent some players from switching games. But I think Blizzard has made some recent changes to Season 4 which is going to make PvP less popular in the game.

I really think that Age of Conan has been handed a very opportune time to release. Most of its competition only has old content at the moment and Warhammer/WoW seem content to duke it out later in the year. While their game play is unfamiliar I don't think it’s enough to alienate players unless it's accompanied by bad game performance. The intensive button hitting to execute combos is going to appeal to most casual players I think. Its might cause some problems with raiders and other players who stay on for long periods of time but you can expect macros to be created to help alleviate the problem.

As long as Age of Conan can keep their servers up on launch day then I fully expect them to pull off a successful MMO. I pre-ordered it myself and I'll probably be playing as soon as I can login despite some so-so reviews about the open beta. The one thing about Vanguard was that a lot of people broke the NDA to scream "stay away". I mean people were breaking the NDA so often that it made the Warhammer beta look airtight. This stands out from Age of Conan where most of the so-so reviews for it have been based on the open beta/pvp weekend. This probably means that the people in closed beta still care about not getting banned for breaking the NDA. This seems like a good sign to me and I'm keeping the pre-order. If I'm wrong then I'm sure we'll hear about it from around 5 billion blogs on May 17th.

Summary: Yes

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Updated Arena Rating System

Back in 2006 I wrote a post on the Arena Rating System which still gets linked to all over the place. It's been driving me crazy that people might be reading a 2 year old post to get current information about the constantly changing arenas. I finally found the time and sat down and rewrote the post using the most current information I could find. I promise not to make a habit fo reposting.

Team Rating
The initial arena system was based on the ELO chess system where teams had a rating that changed depending on the toughness of their opponents. I'll leave the basic explanation of team ratings the same since they haven't changed that much. Team ratings are still primarly how arenas points are rewarded and how team's are matched up against each other. Players who have used holes in the arena system or switched between a lot of different teams will find that their personal rating is used instead of their team rating.

Lets have team A and team B who meet in the arenas. Team B has a moderately higher score then Team A which means their odds of winning are calculated as being higher for the match. This means that Team B's rating will decrease more if they lose and increase less if they win. Team A's rating on the other hand will do the opposite. There is also an arbitrary number in the formula which decides the maximize number of points lost or won for the match. I'm using the number 30 but honestly this number probably changes based on the rating difference between teams.

Team A's Current Score: 1500pt
Team A's Chance of Winning: 1500 / (1500 + 1580) = .48701

Team B's Current Score: 1580pt
Team B's Chance of Winning: 1580 / (1500 + 1580) = .51298

Now Lets say Team A won the battle then
Team A's New Score: 1500 + (30*(1-.48701)) = 1500 + 15.39 = 1516
Team B's New Score: 1580 + (30*(0-.51298)) = 1580 + -15.39 = 1566

Now Lets say Team B won the battle then
Team A's New Score: 1500 + (30*(0-.48701)) = 1500 + -14.61 = 1485
Team B's New Score: 1580 + (30*(1-.51298)) = 1580 + 14.61 = 1595

Personal Rating
Personal Rating works just like a seperate version of the Team Rating for each player who actually participated in the match. Blizzard put Personal Rating requirements on certain rewards because highly rated arena teams were selling spots to people who wanted to quickly gain points. Each player actually has a Personal Rating for each of the arena brackets in the game. Thus a person could have a very high 2v2 personal rating and an average one in the 3v3 and 5v5 brackets. If a player switches teams then their personal rating for that bracket is set back to 1500.

New rules for Season 4 (May 2008) actually use the personal rating for matching and point rewards over the team rating.

- If a character’s personal rating is more than 150 points below the team rating, they will earn points based on their personal rating instead of the team rating.
- If the average personal rating of the players queuing for a game is more than 150 points below the team’s rating, the team will be queued against an opponent matching or similar to the average personal rating.

Awarding Points
Blizzard has an arena calculator on their website which can be used to tell how many points your team will earn with your current rating. Only teams that have played more then ten games that week will be awarded points. Also only players on that team that have participated in at least 30% of the matches will get points.

Exploits being Addressed in Season 4

Smurfing is the practice of creating smurf teams by taking a well equiped arena player and putting them on a team with a low rating. These players then artificially inflate the rating of the team and then switch back to their main team. They then use certain methods to make sure they play their smurf team which throws the match. The method works especially well in the 3v3 bracket which is easier to control the matching then the 2v2 bracket and doesn't require as many players as the 5v5 bracket. The new changes for awarding points based on personal rating will of course penalize teams that have players that frequently change teams.

Arena Scouting
Also Blizzard is making a change to arena scouting which is commonly used to make sure their opponents are a smurf team instead of a serious challenger. This method is also used in Win Trading where teams make aggreements to lose a match against a certain opponents. In general Arena Scouting is used at low population times when very few teams are in the queue. This allows arena teams to be fairly certain if both their queues pop at the same time that they are going to be matched together. If one team's queue pops before another then they re-queue.

- "If a team does not enter an arena match that is starting they will lose points equal to the amount that would have been deducted if they had played and lost."

Monday, May 05, 2008

Combat Pacing and Raiding

I've recently been suffering from a bout of ennui with World of Warcraft brought on by the direction the game has taken recently. I will probably organize my thoughts into a post eventually but at the moment I'm just going to say I've been playing other games more often. One of the games I picked back up on a temporary basis was the original Everquest which was always fun in that "OMG, I don't want to die kind of way". It’s changed a bit though and been made very solo friendly at the early levels since it’s pretty difficult to find a group. Another new feature is the addition of newbie armors quests which help jump starting your gear progression. In fact about the only thing which hasn't changed in the game is the combat pacing which is still much slower compared to modern MMOs.

While leveling in the early teens I could often pull a mob to me and turn my auto attack on and walk away from my keyboard. I usually had time to get a drink from the kitchen, use the restroom, and do my taxes before my target died. I exaggerate a bit but it’s still clear that Everquest was made during a time when time sinks were common and the term "casual player" had yet to be coined. There's a certain bit of charm in playing an old fashion game like this and it reminds me a lot of my experience replaying NES classics like Zelda, Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy. While the graphics in these games are poor they tend to highlight the evolution of the game design now used in most MMOs.

In the case of Everquest it has made me look at where we might be going with combat pacing in the future. World of Warcraft has always been a much faster game then Everquest and this becomes especially apparent in raids. An experienced raid team knows exactly how to maximize damage/healing and is lightning fast on the instant abilities. In fact I think the global cool down is the only limiting factor for some raiding guilds. This has always made it hard to balance raid content for World of Warcraft. Back in the 40-player raids it became apparent that most encounters were doable as long as at least 25-30 people knew what they were doing. The rest could be inexperience players or even paying customers who bought their raid spot.

I believe Blizzard realized that this was a common occurrence and that it allowed hardcore raiders who could field 40 well experienced players to burn through new raid content. Most guilds though have to worry about fielding new players and teaching them the basics of how their class works in groups. In Everquest not only was the pacing slower so less split second decisions were needed but players learned group mechanics early on. Blizzard tried balancing the last couple of raid zones before the expansion towards having 40 experienced raiders. It was a disaster. Most guilds couldn't even beat the first boss and the number of players who saw the content was minimal.

I think this hints that bad things might be awaiting games that are even faster pace than World of Warcraft. Trying to balance encounters for large raids is going to be impossible when reactions times become more and more important. One of the things I'm looking forward to is being able to run new dungeons in Age of Conan. However, I wonder about the button mashing the game requires for most melee classes. If they follow the same trend as most MMOs then are they going to require their raids to clear through trash before fighting bosses. What happens when your main tank has pressed right, front, and left 12,000 times before even the first boss fight?

Exploring Tabula Rasa and looking through the beta material for Age of Conan has really made me doubt that old raid formulas can work for these faster paced games. I think PvE material can be introduced but it’s going to have to be structured completely differently then what we seen before. I expect ideas and features commonly used in PvP areas like battlegrounds, arenas, and realm combat to start showing up in raid content. People with different skill levels want different levels of challenge and static raid content just doesn't work. It forces developers to focus on the most skilled raiders to balance content and that is going to alienate the mostly casual player base that exists in MMOs nowadays.

In the future I wouldn't be surprised to see games that allowed players to set the difficultly level of a raid zone. This could be something as simple as a "Heroic" setting or even a system that automatically increased mob difficulty based on a guild rating. I'm also sure that new ideas will arise which better match fast combat to large scale PvE content. I don't really see the market moving backwards to slower combat since it seems to go hand and hand with increased downtime. While MMO players almost never agree on a subject, there's a common belief that we're better off without downtime or time sinks.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Color and Art in MMOs

I've said before that I'm not really a big fan of games that try to portray realistic avatars instead of sticking with a more stylized look. In general I think there's less imagination in trying to make fantasy look as "real" as possible. Plus all of this hyper realism tends to knock up the minimum requirements for a game. This won't stop me trying from trying Age of Conan and I've played other games with similar art styles. In Lord of the Rings I never really played attention to my avatar and kind of just thought he looked like an average looking guy. Instead what I really remember about the game were some of the fantastic landscapes especially the hobbit homes in the Shire.

The reason I bring this topic back up again was that I recently stumbled across Samurai Jack playing on late night television. I had forgotten how stylistic and quite frankly beautiful some of the artwork in that series was. It’s funny but if you check the Amazon reviews for Samurai Jack DVDs most of the one star reviews come from people complaining about the simple artwork and characters. I remember very similar complaints about World of Warcraft when it first came out around the same time as Everquest 2.

It seems like a lot of the new MMOs have stuck with copying the UI and features of World of Warcraft but really ignored the style of artwork as a reason for its success. I'm not saying everything should try and look like Warhammer/World of Warcraft. But there are a lot of examples of imaginative and simple artwork like that used in Samurai Jack which could easily be translated into 3D models. Here's a picture of a city entrance in one episode of the show I found online.

Notice how everything is laid out simple but with enough detail to make it look interesting. It kind of reminds of the entrance to Stormwind.

Anyways I just hope this current generation of MMOs realize that not everything has to look realistic. I know we're in a PvP trend and games want to show a war like atmosphere but that doesn't mean everything has to be dull green and brown. I thought Lord of the Rings was a little too in love with earthen tones and it's seemed to spread to the other games this year. In World of Warcraft they had some bombastic use of color like purple in Ashenvale or red in Azshara but it gave the zones some personality. I guess I'm hoping that at least one of the games will stand out with its art so that it’s easily identified by just a screenshot.