Thursday, August 28, 2008

The MMO Housing Market

I'm currently in the middle of searching for my first home and having fun navigating the imploding housing market. With all the stress that comes with learning about origination points and PMI its no wonder that I have housing on my mind. Still as I sit down to write this I can't help but think it's weird that player housing didn't make an appearance in either Age of Conan or Warhammer. I guess I can see how Age of Conan sort of has it with player made cities, but those require insane amounts of resource gathering to complete. I mean after Star Wars Galaxies and EverQuest 2 wasn't player housing supposed to be one of those features that would became standard on every MMO?

Player housing has to be one of the few MMO features which doesn't really run the risk of alienating anyone. No one has ever filled out a survey and marked "player housing" as the reason for leaving a game. It's the type of feature that players might not use if it was crap, but it wouldn't really detract from the overall gameplay. Plus it gives the marketing department another line item to mention in the magazine interviews. Heck, even Blizzard has long "considered" putting player housing into World of Warcraft though they have never really moved on the idea. That's probably the real reason why the idea of player housing has kind of died out. If World of Warcraft hasn't seen the need to provide customizable homesteads for their 11 million players then a lot of other developers have to wonder if the feature is worthwhile.

It's a sarcastic line of thought, but there might some truth behind it. The last game which eventually added player housing was Lord of the Rings Online. Turbine used a instanced approach to player housing which was very similar to the one that EverQuest 2 and Final Fantasy XI pioneered. Most players seemed happy with this implementation and a lot of buzz around furniture and fish trophies spread across the LOTR community. Unfortunately, player housing didn't prove to be a feature which drew back a lot players who had already left the game. This has to make some people wonder if the developers would have been better off working on additional quests or dungeons rather then what some people considered fluff.

The problem is that MMO's have become overly specialized as their audience has grown. In the early days of MMO or MUD development there wasn't such a large wedge between fans of virtual worlds and game worlds. Without the need for advanced graphics and physics programming it was easy to let players experiment with the world around them. This ended though as the rising popularity of video games seemed to suggest that more money could be made with pure game worlds. This obviously lead to some animosity between those who wanted virtual worlds on par with Cyberpunk novels and those that wanted a kick ass game they could play with their friends. As a result it now seems very hard to implement any virtual world kind of features in a game based MMO.

Thankfully, we still get some virtual world features in games since virtual items provide such an effective way to take money out of a game's economy. It seems like the only way developers can sneak virtual world features into a game is to convince the suits that its necessary for a balancing the game economy. Micro-transaction based games have even taken the practice further and monetize virtual item sales so that they can support the game. It's not an acceptable payment method for every player, but it works for some games. Of course none of these games offer the flexibility and creativeness of a true virtual world like Second Life, but it's closer then most subscription based MMORPGs.

Player housing is often used just like an expensive flying mount or any other virtual item that removes currency from a game's economy. A MMORPG that is based on pure item progression might not feel comfortable selling these items for real world money, but they have no problem using them to control inflation. So how come World of Warcraft hasn't used the same system? Well in all honesty they haven't really had a need to introduce additional money sinks into their game. The enormous, but necessary costs of epic flying mounts has done a great job of keeping inflation down. It really wasn't until after the introduction of daily quests that most players were even able to save up enough money for this benchmark item.

I hate to focus just on World of Warcraft, but I think it's important to highlight why they have avoided player housing since so many MMO publishers use them as a template. With Wrath of the Lich King coming out you can see Blizzard actually exploring some new money sink ideas like the barbershop. This hints that perhaps the daily quests have served their initial purpose and now are creating inflation. Blizzard can't really remove the daily quests so I wouldn't be surprised to see more money sinks like player housing eventually added I actually expect some form of housing before the third expansion. And once World of Warcraft starts using player housing I think the bubble will pop and we'll mysteriously see more game adopt the feature. It's a good thing too since I would much rather display my crap in a house then just have it sitting in a bank vault.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Can Guild Wars 2 appeal to veteran MMO players without alienating its fans?

I'm continually surprised by the low number of MMO players who have never thought about trying out Guild Wars. I admit that I don't have room to criticize others since my experience with the game mostly involves standing over a friend's shoulder while asking stupid questions. Still the gameplay seemed smooth and I noticed very low barriers of entry for participating in the PvP matches. The series does do a few things different though and I guess that's enough of a reason for some people to avoid the game. It doesn't look like its hurt the game very much since the sales charts show the Guild Wars expansions doing well for themselves.

Despite Guild War's earlier success though, the game does look to be declining over time. Each expansion has received a lower review score then the previous one and I believe the sales charts shows the same trend. The problem is that while a lot of people go from playing Guild Wars to World of Warcraft the opposite doesn't seem to be true. What has been happening is that Guild Wars has found itself in the position of being a stepping stone into traditional MMO gameplay. ArenaNet may have taken out a lot of the grinding and gear collection found in traditional MMORPGs, but they left in the basic game mechanics.

I've talked to a lot of people who could never justify spending a monthly fee on a MMO and decided to try out Guild Wars instead. Almost all of them ended up eventually moving onto a subscription based game after a period of time. The reverse almost never happens since in comparison the classic Guild Wars game usually doesn't appeal to someone who has played a more complex game. That's not to say Guild Wars is simple, but it does limit itself in certain areas so it doesn't overwhelm new MMO gamers. This sometimes leads to people unfairly comparing it to a dumb downed version of a MMO.

Guild Wars 2 looks to put a stop to these unfair comparisons and settle once and for all that the series belongs in the MMO genre. ArenaNet seems to be addressing several long held complaints about the series in the sequel. This includes introducing a persistent over-world and including more PvE content for those who like missions and dungeons. Of course Guilds Wars 2 can't be too different from its predecessor or it will lose some of the fans who enjoy its different qualities. That's why they are looking at features which allow players to skip leveling or grinding if they aren't interested in that part of the game.

The key is that Guild Wars 2 needs to change itself to be appealing to both veterans and newcomers to the MMO genre. ArenaNet has confirmed that they will be using a powerful side-kicking system and PvP zones will equalize every one's level. This should allow players to instantly jump into PvP without having to grind first. A common complaint by a lot of gamers is that MMOs often lock all the best parts of the game behind a massive amount of level grinding. Hopefully, the announced feature list by ArenaNet should reassure fans that this won't happen with Guild Wars 2.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Warhammer Preview goes well, highlights a few issues

Everyone is writing about their Warhammer Preview weekend experiences and I thought I would join the crowd and talk about a couple of the small things I noticed. The first was that the character design definitely seem a step backwards after playing Age of Conan. There is a much lower level of detail which becomes obvious from the moment you get to the character creation screen. It is a step above World of Warcraft, but just barely in my opinion. The landscapes are also similar to World of Warcraft with maybe a bit more attention given to animating certain background features. For example the Chaos starting area has sickly looking trees whose branches look like moving tentacles. Very cool looking.

Decent graphic quality is an important feature for any MMO, but most people consider it secondary to well designed gameplay. Thankfully, Warhammer has several well designed features which more then make up for any graphic shortcomings it may have. The public quests were just like how everyone described them. Very fun and usually surrounded by open groups which you can join. It was pretty hard to win a loot roll on the more popular public quests, but I quickly earned enough influence to get some upgrades. I was also surprised to learn that Warhammer has a dual targeting system so you can have an offensive and healing target at the same time. This should be of big help for the caster/healer classes like the goblin shaman.

The tome of knowledge was interesting, but I didn't have enough time to fully explore all of its features. It looks to be pretty good at organizing your titles, achievements, and any quest/mob information you might have discovered while in game. I was sadden to find out it wasn't account wide and has to be unlocked for each one of your characters. On the positive side, the tome did tie into a quest tracker which highlighted areas of the map that had quest objectives. I didn't like this method in Age of Conan at first, but it grew on me over time. I guess as long as they don't mark the exact location for every quest there's still some exploration left in the game.

Overall the preview weekend was a very good experience and definitely made me decide to keep my pre-order. There were however a couple problems that became clear while playing the game. One is that the mob pathing is absolutely horrible as Tobold pointed on his blog. I ran into the problem while playing my Squigherder which half time was fighting without his pet. The squigs were constantly running off in weird directions, getting caught on objects and sometimes would just decide not to move for awhile. It reminded me of my experience playing a beastlord in EverQuest 1, but I think it was even worse. I'm not sure what the problem is with their pathing algorithm, but I saw enough range classes taking advantage of it that I think it can be classified as game breaking.

The other problem had to do with some balance issues me and my friends saw while testing out the scenarios. One server I tried out had queue times that were over 10 minutes for my goblin squigherder. Order players on the same server had instant queues and were quickly gaining renown at an accelerated rate. I certainly hope Mythic has a viable way of balancing the factions across the servers or they are going to have problems. I haven't seen any signs of cross server queues, so I'm guessing the wait times will go through the roof once a server's population becomes unbalanced. Earlier I had heard about factional queue times to sign into each server, but this doesn't seem like a very popular idea.

Another trend I noticed was that a lot of people liked the Empire classes. The Bright Wizard and Warrior-Priest seem to be well design towards kicking ass in the beginning of the game and had a lot of fans. I also saw a lot of Witch-Hunters though they didn't seem as overpowered. I'm guessing the Van Helsing appearance of the class attracts those concerned about looking badass. I saw a better distribution of classes on the Chaos side with a slight favoring of the Greenskins. I only mention this because I can already see what classes are going to be the bread and butter of each faction and which ones are going to be like the WoW Shaman. I'm hoping Warhammer does some more tinkering with the class balance before release or at least makes sure things balance out in the later levels.

Highlighted Issues:
Graphics might turn some people off the game
Mob and Pet Pathing could be game breaking
Mechanism for balancing faction populations unclear
Couple classes are very powerful at the starting levels

Thursday, August 21, 2008

How much of WoW is Steampunk?

I've seen a couple blogs today talking about the addition of the Gnomish motorcycle aka "The Hog" to the growing stable of mounts available in the Wrath of the Lich King. Some see it as a sign that World of Warcraft is starting to go overboard on pop culture references in an attempt to retain players. Others just think it looks cool and point to the long history of mechanical devices in World of Warcraft. Indeed if you've followed the series through the RTS games then you know that helicopters, dirigibles, and explosives are as much a part of Warcraft as magic. I've long held a suspicion that part of World of Warcraft's charm was that it incorporated a little bit of everything into its mixture.

Still there's a large amount of anachronistic technology in the game that makes me wonder if it can still be classified as fantasy. There's a magic in the game and it tends to follow all the laws of high fantasy as established by Tolkien's work but sprinkles some stuff which seems straight out of the movie Steamboy. You can find weird trains and dirigibles being used as transportation between cities in the game and Ironforge even has an airfield hidden on top of it. Lets also not forget (though most people want to) the entire dungeon of Gnomeregan is filled with mechanical and clockwork creations. If fighting a gnome in a steam powered tank with machine guns doesn't break the fantasy immersion then I think WoW can survive a WWII style motorcycle.

I guess since steampunk is a sub-genre of fantasy then WoW feels free to treat it as a sub-genre of lore in its game. You usually only ever find mechanical inventions around the short races like gnomes, dwarves, and goblins. The rest of Azeroth seems to mostly depend on magic like civilized people. Still it would be interesting to see a MMO that used steampunk throughout the majority of its lore and keep magic in the background. I always thought the world of Final Fantasy 6 (also titled 3 in America) would be a good background for a steampunk MMO, but that could just be because it was the first time I ran into magic and machinery side by side.

Still as I've said before the MMO genre is not know for quickly reinventing itself and it seems unlikely that any studio would choose such a small sub-genre of fantasy. Still I can't help, but think there's a lot of other people who would appreciate a change of setting in the MMO world. Who knows maybe we'll get lucky and either Blizzard's next MMO or the secret "Copernicus" project will go that direction.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Despite NDA drop, Naysayers still clam Warhammer is a WoW clone

Surprisingly enough the dropping of Warhammer's NDA has not put an end to the WoW clone debate. I haven't yet to see anyone come right out and claim that Warhammer is a bad game, but some people seem to think it isn't innovative enough to interest them. It's funny since Public Quests and the Tome of Knowledge are being widely touted as great features that will probably be incorporated into a lot of future games. Yet somehow this isn't enough to distinguish Warhammer from Ever Quest, World of Warcraft, or any other DIKU based MMO. I'm not exactly a fan of Warhammer since I haven't played it yet, but it seems like some people are expecting the MMO genre to widely reinvent itself with every new game.

First Person Shooters have changed since the days of Doom, but you can still easily recognize any game in that genre. They all share common similarities which allow anyone who has played a FPS to quickly figure out the basic gameplay. If I buy a copy of Halo 4 in the future I'm not going to get a game where I spend a majority of my time building futuristic cities from a top-down perspective. Sure it would introduce a degree of innovation to the series, but I'm pretty sure fans of the earlier games wouldn't like it. The other video game genres tend to be the same way, from real time strategy games to adventure platformers. So why do some people expect MMOs to radically morph themselves every game?

I think the main problem is that some people play MMOs long after they stopped having fun in them. Whether this is because of friendships in the game or addiction is a matter best left up to experts. Whatever the reason you eventually get some pretty resentful players as they break out of love-hate relationships with MMOs. At the moment DIKU based MMOs are the most popular and it's only logical that they are the main target of this resentment. This why most of the people who claim all MMOs are like WoW are usually older and have a lot of experience with MMOs. They have probably found themselves tied to games they have found un-fun multiple times over the years. God have mercy on their souls if they raided and played a tank or a healer.

In all honesty this could probably be fixed if it was easier for players to try out different MMOs without being charged an arm and a leg. This way players could still be in the game all their friends are playing and also try out something new every once and awhile. Some people see micro-transactions as a way to make this happen and that's why so many people are excited about Free Realms, though I also don't discount SOE mind control. However, there are a lot of problems with micro-transactions, which I won't go into at the moment. Suffice to say a lot of players are never going to be comfortable with that payment model and suspect it might lead to bad game design.

Instead I see the payment model used by games like Runescape and Dofus becoming more popular. These games operate by having a portion of their game free2play, but charge a subscription if you want all the content. SOE has tried a similar approach with their "Play the Fae" offer, but they limited it to only one zone and it came with a time limit. Most games which use a tiered subscription model make sure to put a lot more content in the free2play part of the game then any big name studio is comfortable with. It smart business though since the free2play playerbase actually helps keep the critical mass of the game high so that more people are interested about the game.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Pros and Cons of merging stats in WoW

I've been out of the World of Warcraft loop for a couple months as I went and tried out Age of Conan so I don't always have the most up to date information. I know some of the new talents for each class, but mostly just the ones that have been widely talked about like Titan's Grasp. So it came as a great surprise when I started hearing about Blizzard trying to make gear less class specific by experimenting with item stats. I had known before that paladin talents and itemization were being updated again so that they could share armor with death knights, but I thought that was extent of it.

Instead, I find out that Blizzard announced a couple months ago they were changing a lot of the itemization in Wrath of the Lich King so that multiple classes could use the same gear. The combining of +spell damage and +spell healing into a single stat called +spell power seems to be the most widely discussed. It's probably because it has a lot of cloth casters in the game up in arms. The major concern seems to be that priests, warlocks, and mages will be competing on the same gear when running dungeons and raids. However, it should be offset by the drop rates being more friendly since all cloth casters can use the same gear.

Another concern was that healers need larger amounts of +spell healing compared to the amount of +spell damage that offensive casters require. Thus some healers think that if they are limited to having the same amount of +spell power as offensive casters they won't be able to heal effectively. I'm guessing that Blizzard is already on this problem though and will probably rework the coefficients on +spell power so that it works differently on healing and damage spells. The recent changes to spell down-ranking suggest this is the case since the technique favored healers. Blizzard probably found it hard to balance the universal +spell power with down-ranking and thus decided to switch to a mana cost percentage.

In my opinion, the new universal critical strike rating is much more interesting then the +spell damage and +spell healing combination. This itemization change goes a long way to merging the mail selection for shamans and hunters since +critical strike would apply to both melee and spell attacks. There's some of the same concerns about having to compete for the same items, but again it would improve drop rates. It also opens up some interesting possibilities for new classes. Cloth items that had stamina, spirit, and +critical strike could also theoretically be used for some type of new melee class. It seems obvious that that the itemization changes are all about opening items to as many classes as possible.

I've talked about how much I hate random loot tables before and the very class specific itemization in World of Warcraft has made it a problem. Blizzard can't simply make all dungeon drops bind-on-equipped or else they would flood the market. Instead they've been forced to come up with other alternatives like the token system. Tokens are a fine way to allow players to make steady progress to a reward, but some players want the traditional loot table. In that case the item stats changes makes a lot of sense on Blizzard's part. It allows players to stay with the loot distribution system they are more familiar with and it reduces the number of times a item drop and no one can use it. The only other option would be a complicated system that checks every one's class and talents before assigning loot.

Competing with more classes for gear
Reworking the theorycraft behind optimal stats for each class
Less variation in what people are wearing

More items on loot tables for each class
Less items rotting/sold for gp
Simplify the overall min/max process
Makes it easier to introduce new classes (pirate/ninja pls)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Defining Critical Mass in MMOs

I've used the term "critical mass" before in posts, but I don't know if I've ever given a full explanation of what it is or how I arrived at a specific number for it. The term is based on the trend of MMO players wanting to see and be around other people when in game. Players might not always want to group, but there seems to be a general appreciation for the background noise made by people. As much as we hate hearing the latest Chuck Norris joke, its better then listening to NPCs continual running through the same dialogue. There also appears to be some component to human psychology that makes things seem more interesting if a lot of other people are watching or playing it.

In MMO's there seems to be a point in subscription numbers where there simply aren't enough people on at the same time to maintain this critical mass. Players start to feel like they are in the game by themselves and start to question spending money on a monthly fee. Games that have just started to fall below the critical mass level can slow the fallout by quickly merging some of their servers. However, this is only a stop-gap measure and it won't help bring more people into the game. It seems that critical mass also applies to advertising and word of mouth. Thus a game under critical mass just doesn't have enough players recommending the game to friends to make up for those leaving it.

I didn't originally put much stock in the idea of "critical mass" when I first heard about it. But then I started looking at MMO subscription numbers and I noticed that EVE Online didn't look like most other games. Instead of of sharp increases and drops in subscription numbers it has a much more stable growth rate over its lifetime. EVE Online is one of the few games not to split their players across multiple servers and I think that directly correlates to their steady growth. I would be willing to bet that EVE Online maintains a much higher critical mass then similarly sized games by keeping everyone on the same server. This has to boost the number of people that get to play the game with friends since no one has to worry about getting everyone on the same server.

I arrived at a number for critical mass by watching what MMOs were shut down and which ones were able to stay afloat. There are some factors which interfere, but in general if a MMO falls below 50k players then it never grows back. There simply aren't enough people playing the game and talking about it, to drum up interest. Depending on the publisher they may decide to close the game down right away or wait for it to not be worth the server costs. SOE has made a habit of collecting failing games and sticking them on their all access pass. This seems to provide a sort of dispersed critical mass for the all-access pass and it keeps the games up and running. A game on the all-access pass is never going to have enough money to get an expansion made, but it does produce enough for some new content.

If you're interested in knowing what the actual number is for critical mass then I suggest looking at the charts provided by In my opinion critical mass is around 50,000 players for a subscription based game. MMO's that fall below this number are almost always closed or picked up by SOE. About the only instance where this is not true is when a company just released its first game and has no problems running it as long as it turns a profit. If you want to see the phenomena in action just keep an eye on Tabula Rasa. NCSoft is a very experienced studio and doesn't keep dead weight around. I would be willing to bet that unless Tabula Rasa can get above 50k in subscribers they will be cut by the end of the year.

Games that went under 50k
Auto Assault - closed
Vanguard - all access pass
Asheron's Call 2 - closed
Sims Online - closed
Matrix Online - all access pass
Planetside - all access pass

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Will Cryptic make a good Star Trek MMO?

Cryptic is a young studio having only released one MMO, but they seemed to have gained a lot of experience from it. Even though the game design for City of Heroes/Villains was grindy they did try out a lot of new ideas. Not all of them worked out they way they intended, but it doesn't mean they were a waste of time. For example, Cryptic used procedural generated content for missions and accidentally created very repetitive and boring instances. However, the idea of procedural generated content definitely has applications for randomizing PvP areas like arenas or battlegrounds. It's because of Cryptic willingness to be different that I try to keep track of whatever they are working on.

Champions Online looks to be interesting, but I have a feeling it's basically a remake of City of Heroes without NCSoft's interference. While secret identities and customizable power effects are nice features, it doesn't really have me excited. I will try out the game since I'm a fan of the cell shaded artwork, but it will probably be a 2-3 month fling rather then a long term relationship. Star Trek Online on the other hand might actually be worthy of long term involvement. I've made posts on other blogs that it's going to be very tricky making this game. There are a lot of different versions of Star Trek and a player's expectations are going to be heavily influenced by what series they watched. However, it seems Cryptic realized this and has made several design decisions to nip the problem in the bud.

Based on the FAQ sheet they just recently put up on their website it seems they are going to place their game in a future timeline after all the television series. Hopefully, this will keep most of the lore lawyers from screaming bloody murder whenever Cryptic tries to do anything innovated with the game design. I've already read some fanatic complaining about Klingons and the Federation fighting after the big peace treaty in the television show. Game designers need to ignore these people who quite frankly share a lot in common with the comic book guy from the Simpsons. I've written before how I thought the Lord of the Rings Online lost a lot of appeal because Turbine was too afraid to give any class abilities that might seem too "magical".

Another thing I noticed on their FAQ sheet that had me smiling was that their PvP ruleset seems similar to the security system that EVE Online uses. The rules are basically; no PvP inside a faction's territory, consensual PvP in the neutral zone, and open PvP in the unexplored regions of space. It's not as hardcore as EVE Online's system, but it seems to follow the basic tenet of space being more dangerous the further you get from civilization. This ruleset leads me to suspect that the majority of combat in the game will be space based. I'm sure there will still be a decent amount of avatar combat, but I think Cryptic knows the big appeal of Sci-Fi games is spaceships. I'm just hoping that they'll allow us to customize and earn upgrades for our ships.

I'm feeling good that Cryptic might be able to pull off a decent Star Trek MMO at this point. Things are still early, but I haven't seen any warning flags yet. There are a couple common concerns that are being thrown around by bloggers at the moment. The biggest one seems to be the mission structure which some people are afraid will follow the classic "Kill Ten Rats" structure. I'm hoping that Cryptic avoids this issue by using the thousands of Star Trek episodes to come up with missions/assignment ideas. The other concern seems to be having the two waring factions be Klingons and the Federation. Quite frankly all I can say is that Klingons have the most appeal out of all the Star Trek races. It might have made more sense to use a different alien race, but hell people actually speak Klingon.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Blizzard uses random loot tables to sell Blizzcon tickets

This is a rant. Just thought I would get that out of the way in case anyone tries to make a logical argument in the comment thread. I have the misfortune of being one of those idiots who have been trying to buy Blizzcon tickets for the past two days. This was the first year where I had the available vacation time and money to fly out to Anaheim so I was unaware that Blizzard had a reputation for making it impossible to get tickets. Most people who did manage to buy them this year made sure to post in the forums how long they had been in front of their computers hitting refresh. We are talking about people spending 15-17 hours in front of their computer waiting for the store to come back online.

You see while Blizzcon tickets were supposed to go on sale Monday, that was a baldfaced lie. The site was constantly down and even when it was up wouldn't allow most people navigate it because of heavy traffic. I spent about four hours just trying to make an account before they brought the site down for the rest of the day. It then became a waiting game for when Blizzard would bring the site up again. They're were no announcement and only people who were constantly hitting refresh were eventually able to buy tickets. When tickets finally did go on sale at 3:50pm EST there were enough refreshers that they sold out within minutes. I just love the time frame too, which makes sure to screw over anyone whose workplace blocks Blizzard's site.

Anyways they saved a small number of tickets to sell at 11:00pm EST which was the first time they actually announced a time frame. I didn't have much hope for getting them and I was actually surprised when I was able to put 3 into my shopping cart and make it almost to the last purchase page. Unfortunately, the site was getting hammered enough that it kept not taking my 3 digit CCV code. Eventually after hitting the continue button for the sixth time I was bounced to the main page and told the availability of the items in my shopping cart had changed and were now sold out. This was probably a worst case scenario, but it really was the most frustrating online experience I've had in recent memory. I came up with a nice string of offensive post titles the nicest of which was "Blizzard can suck my ...", anyways nerd rage is never pretty.

I was wondering why bloggers weren't talking about Blizzcon and now I know. It's impossible to get tickets so why bother talking about it. Only scalpers and people without jobs seem to be able to navigate Blizzard's horrible ticket distribution system which is run on an old Pentium 1. As some people posted in the forums it was the same for Blizzcon 2007 and they weren't surprised nothing changed. Oh, and I know that you have to show the credit card you bought the tickets with to pick up your badge. However, this doesn't seem to have stopped tickets from showing up on stubhub and ebay already. I'm pretty sure the scalpers have a work around or simply just meet people at the convention. One of my friends suggested that Miley Cyrus and Blizzard have a lot in common since about 95% of their event tickets are scalped.

The interesting thing to note is that Stubhub was mentioned in a couple articles as being under investigation for illegal scalping. The site has tickets listed for Blizzcon 2008 at 1500$. If not illegal its at the least criminal.,,20137827,00.html

Also while searching the customer service forums I found this youtube video that perfectly matched my experience with the Blizzcon ticket buying process. The voice acting is horrible but it's so true.

I'm sure I could score a single ticket if I wanted to but the idea was to go with some people I actually play the game with. I'm starting to suspect that Blizzard is just too big and slow to have good customer service anymore. I just hope that most of the tickets sold were to actual fans and not scalpers like I suspect. Anyways while I partially blame the web team at Blizzard I also realize that with such a high demand not everyone can get a ticket. It's still really turned me off Blizzard though and I don't think I can discuss anything related to them for awhile without putting a negative slant on it. So if my next posts have titles like "Blizzard employees sacrifice kittens" take it with a grain of salt.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Theory of Raiding and Retaining the Hardcore

I can't help but think the showdown between World of Warcraft and Warhammer is going to finally prove or disprove some long held theories about MMO design. In particular, developers have long justified spending a disproportionate amount of time on raid content to hold onto hardcore players. The theory goes that hardcore players have a huge influence on other players and are directly responsible for keeping a large playerbase in the game. Thus it makes sense from a design point of view to spend more time on raid content. Even though this may be true it also seems to cause a schism to form between players who have the time to play with an organized guild and those who can only play in small blocks of time.

Based on the design changes to Wrath of the Lich King it seems obvious that Blizzard doesn't believe in this theory as strongly as it did in the past. This could be related to the large number of raiders that disappeared when arenas and battlegrounds started giving rewards equal to raid encounters. Whatever the reason, it looks like Blizzard has decided to make raiding more accessible by creating smaller 10-man versions of every raid zone. It's been proven that larger raids take more time to organize so Blizzard is hoping that smaller versions will increase the number of players that can access raid content. The larger raids will still have the better rewards and hopefully this will be enough to hold onto the hardcore raiders.

Mythic on the other hand decided to entirely skip the concept of large scale raids. Warhammer instead has large scale activities revolving around RvR objectives, but these are not exclusive instances like most raid content. Smaller groups and solo players will be fighting right beside the large guilds for the most part. Players who spend large amounts of time in game every day will have an advantage, but it won't be as insurmountable as the one found in raid centric games. The only problem I see is that the theory about hardcore raiders maintaining a large playerbase might be true. Both EverQuest and then later on World of Warcraft maintained very large player populations and heavily focused on raid progression.

So while the initial success of Warhammer is probably assured, the long term success depends on the theory of (more raid content = more hardcore players = more overall players) being untrue. If Warhammer can grow its subscription base after Wrath of the Lich releases then it pretty much means the theory is disproved. Since the two games are similar in quality, graphics, and playstyle it really will be the focus on either RvR or PvE raiding that will be the deciding factor. A growing playerbase for Warhammer means either hardcore players find RvR just as much fun as raiding or that most players are not influenced by the hardcore leaving a game. Either way it would probably mean that future MMO development would focus more on PvP content then we've seen in the past.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Warhammer's Dungeon Design

The first day back from a vacation is always busy and this is certainly holding true for me today. I haven't really had time to read any MMO news in depth, but a cursory glance at my blogroll has revealed a lot of new Warhammer information. The release date has been confirmed and the fans who pre-ordered are jumping at the chance to download the open beta client. I'm just excited that I'm starting to get more details on the PvE content in Warhammer. In some of the MMOs I played over the last year I was very disappointed in what they offered for traditional small group content. While I'm sure the RvR will be the big selling point for Warhammer, I know that dungeon running holds a special place in any nerd's heart.

That's why I was glad to find information on at least three of Warhammer's dungeons in an article done by Gamesradar. I had just assumed that Mythic would instance everything, but it looks like they are going to include a couple open world dungeons to spice things up. Mythic even spent some time modifying the old open world dungeon design by incorporating factions into it. Some open world dungeons will only be accessible to Destruction and others to Order. Some players might complain about faction specific content, but I think most people will just level up characters on a different server. It's a unique idea and avoids some of the problems Funcom had with public dungeons on its PvP servers. The only problem I see is that Mythic may be forced to patch new open world dungeons in pairs or risk alienating one faction.

It seems like all of the dungeons in Warhammer will be multi-wing in the same style as the Scarlet Monastery. Blizzard went the same route for the Burning Crusade and most players seemed to prefer that over the long sprawling dungeons like the Wailing Caverns or Blackrock Depths. That's not to say there isn't a place for sprawling dungeons as Karazhan was very popular with players, though poorly positioned for raid progression. On the other hand the multi-wing dungeons in Warhammer seem more friendly to casual players. The level range is smaller then the Burning Crusade dungeons, which often had a level 70 wing. Also the final boss for each dungeon is defeatable by a single group instead of requiring a raid.

Even though Mythic isn't doing anything revolutionary, they still managed to tweak some of the things that most bugged me about Blizzard's dungeon design. I never got to fight the final boss of Hellfire Citadel since it required a guild and mine always avoided him since he was an unnecessary and difficult encounter. It's also nice to see open-world dungeons brought back in limited form. I always thought Blizzard should experiment with a public or open-world dungeon since they had such a horrible LFG tool. Maybe if people could just roam around in dungeons it would be easier to grab a replacement when someone had to drop. At least trains shouldn't be a problem since modern mobs tend to have a limited chase range.

The only problem I have with Warhammer's dungeon design is that the article mentioned that the level 23 dungeon was the first one in the game. It seems weird not to introduce a dungeon until players are more then half way through the game and I hope it was misinformation. World of Warcraft had five dungeons before it's half way point at level 30. I know this is primarily a PvP game so it makes sense that it has less dungeons then World of Warcraft. However, this isn't going to stop people from making a lot of direct comparisons between the two games. I just hope the lower level range is well polished to make up for the lack of dungeons. The NDA should be dropped this week with the start of open beta and we'll have more information then.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Back From Vacation Monday

I've been out on vacation this past week and only had time to schedule a single post while enjoying the Florida sunshine. Should be back to my regular posting habits next week.

My friends have mostly left Age of Conan and managed to drag me back to World of Warcraft right before I left. I'm begining to suspect that people may be right about there being no escape from that game. At the very least we're switching sides to our Horde chracters again. The last time I did any PvP as Horde there was still a honor ranking system. It should be entertaining to see how difficult it is to start doing arenas and battlegrounds as a new level 70 now that we're in Season 4. The long term plan is still to switch to Warhammer in September, but it will be nice to have the option of playing Horde or Alliance when Wrath of the Lich King comes out.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Stargate Worlds = Tabula Rasa?

I've been seeing more information across the blogsphere about Stargate Worlds as their developers start finishing off the last couple of design phases before production. The game still needs a lot of polish as evidenced by recent gameplay videos, but it looks like a lot of the content has already been completed. Cheyenne Mountain has done a great job in lifting some of the environments straight out of the television series and transferring it to a game format. In particular a lot of the cultural elements from the Egyptian areas look well done. As I mentioned earlier the developers think the game could release this year, but they don't want to get lost in the WoW vs War conflict.

It's a smart decision and gives the team a time to polish a couple things. In particular I'm worried about how similar their gameplay design looks to Tabula Rasa. Both games use a sort of auto-targeting FPS combat style which heavily factors "cover" into damage taken. It's a style of combat that confuses FPS fans who are used to being able to instant kill targets with headshots. Standard RPG fans are a little more forgiving, but can be put off by the itemization for this type of combat. Indeed one of the problems I had with Tabula Rasa was that items were basically disposable and constantly replaced. During a single level my character might change every available armor slot more then three times as I got upgrades.

Luckily, I think Stargate Worlds will be better with its itemization since it's source material was so heavily oriented on real world weaponry. I think that's partially why the show was so successful in an underground kind of way. Every episode of the show had military weapons and equipment used in semi-realistic situations. It was almost encouraging to see humans outsmarting evil aliens by using things like unmanned aerial vehicles and liberal amounts of C4. The writers would always come up with advanced alien weaponry that was more powerful then our stuff, but it was always badly designed. Thus you could have a staff that shot energy bolts, but it was inaccurate as hell.

Some of the squad mechanics in Stargate Worlds look interesting and could eventually do what Tabula Rasa was never able to accomplish, introduce a reason for players to actually group. I can't help but think that NCSoft's insistence on over instancing might have been a major problem for the game establishing a community. Most missions could be done solo/duo and base defense was usually just short term convenience grouping. There really wasn't anything like a real MMO dungeon or arena that gave players a reward for working together. Without a reason for grouping most players simply followed the path of least resistance and played the game like a solo shooter. This made it much harder for a community to form around the game. After all who wants to pay a monthly fee for a single player FPS game?

If Stargate Worlds wants to avoid the fate of Tabula Rasa they need to do a few things.

1. Better Itemization that appeals more to RPG fans
2. Areas that encourage grouping: dungeons/arenas
3. Use the Stargate IP to its full potential.(scenarios from tv episodes)
4. Better group mechanics (sum is greater then its parts)

Friday, August 01, 2008

Blizzard plans cross game achievement system

There's a story coming from Kotaku about Blizzard announcing a cross game achievement system for it's upcoming titles. I usually don't get a lot of MMO news from that site, but they seemed to have found a gem this time. If Blizzard really is trying to follow in the footsteps of Xbox Live then we can see why there was a recent push to add achievements to World of Warcraft. It's been a breadwinner for Microsoft and has often been credited with encouraging players to try different games for the Xbox. Of course as the writer of the article mentions, some of these games sucked and only sold well because of easy achievement points.

I don't think we need to worry about Blizzard ever making a crappy game and trying to use achievements to boost it's sales. Instead I see this as an opportunity for the company to encourage fans to try different game genres. I've played MMO and RTS games for quite some time, but I have little experience with click to play titles like Diablo. I'm sure there's even some gamers out there who are only familiar with one of the games from Blizzard's repertoire. The formation of a large community for all of Blizzard's fans should definitely increase cross pollination between their different game offerings.

I'm surprised I didn't see this coming from a mile away especially with the planned upgrade of in the works. It makes sense that if Blizzard is adding voice over IP functionality to the system then they might want to add a couple other tricks. I'm not sure how integrated everything will be, but I bet there will be some cross game chat/vent functionality. I mean if SOE can accomplish it then I'm sure Blizzard won't have any problems with the technology. I also see something similar to the WoW armory being used to look up other player's achievements. It'll be interesting to see if the top arena teams are the same people who stomp me in the 3v3 maps in Starcraft.

The real potential of this idea is that it could evolve into a common portal for any future MMOs that Blizzard is working on. I really want a company to be able to compete with SOE's all-access pass and this could be the first step. Blizzard may not have the library of MMOs that other publishing studios have, but they do have high quality. If they just had two popular MMOs then they could easily raise enough interest for an all access-pass. Having their non-MMO titles like Starcraft and Diablo share achievements is just added icing on the cake.

The real goal though would be for the idea of an all-access pass and to gain acceptance in the MMO market. Hopefully, once Blizzard implemented one then other companies would copy them. I'm looking at you Turbine and NCSoft!! You guys have no reason why you shouldn't have one already. After all if the subscription model wants to stay competitive with all the new micro-transaction games coming out then it needs to do something.