Friday, December 11, 2009

Icecrown Citadel part 1

One of the reasons I haven't been writing as much was that I joined a decent raiding guild that runs some of the top end content in World of Warcraft. Thus I was lucky enough this week to be able to jump right into Icecrown Citadel when the patch went live. So far it's been a welcome change from the Trial of the Crusader which had become ridiculously boring. The scenery of the large arena quickly became stale after the first couple of weeks of the Argent Tournament. I'm very glad that Icecrown includes a large environment for the raid to move through even if it means clearing trash once again. In addition, Blizzard has better scaled the encounter difficulty so that the first boss in the instance is not one of the hardest. The Beasts of Northend encounter had been a major chokepoint in the Trial of the Crusader.

I'm tempted to write a long post since its been awhile but I just want to highlight my basic experience with the raid instance and what gave my guild trouble. There are very good strategies all over the internet if you want the details.

There are some fairly large trash pulls in the begining of Ice Crown though luckily they are vulnerable to crowd control. Thus you can make the pulls a bit easier if you have classes that can stun/root undead mobs. I think this was the first time I've seen a priest use shackle undead since Karazhan. They're a few specific trash mobs that can be dangerous and you'll want to watch out for them.

Skeletal Casters:
Use a spell which causes a line of frost spikes to travel along the ground in a straight line.

Giant Skeletons:
They are entombed in the walls and will come to life when someone gets within range. Huge amount of hitpoints and you don't want them adding in the middle of a pull.

Nerubians before Lady Deathwhisper:
They cast a debuff on someone that will cause that person to keep the Nerubian alive and mostly kill the target if they don't run out of the raid. We just kept everyone stacked on the target and had the debuffed person run out. Just watch out if your tank gets the debuff since the off-tank will need to taunt.

Lord Marrowgar (1st Boss)
Very easy fight and we only wiped a couple of times since we didn't really go over the strategy ahead of time. He's basically a skeletal abomination who has a lot of bone themed abilities and looks cool as hell. His main attack hits multiple targets depending on threat level so it's required to have more then one tank on him. His other common ability is a ground based attack that travels in a straight line. This forces everyone in the raid to constantly adjust their position. Our melee dps quickly figured out he has a pretty large hitbox and it's easy to avoid the attack if you stand back a bit.

The most important part of the fight though is to free players that have been impaled on bone spikes. The bone spikes root a single target and deal 10% damage each second, but can easily be targeted and killed. Other then that you just have to watch out for when Lord Marrowgar falls to pieces and forms a whirlwind of flying bones. In "Whirlwind of Death" mode he randomly picks a target and then chases them around while continuing his ground based line attack. This is the part where everyone gets to run around like a chicken with their head cut off until he reforms. It's a very fun fight and Blizzard really did a good job with this encounter.

Lady Deathwhisper (2nd Boss)
This was the chokepoint for my guild on the 25 man version. She looks like a female version of Kel'Thuzad and starts off with a mana sheild that you have to destroy to get her into the 2nd phase. Throughout the 1st phase she summons cultists from three sides of the room at timed intervals. Some of these cultists are immune to physical damage while others are immune to magic damage. This wouldn't be so bad except that she randomly empowers the adds which turns them into undead and increases their hitpoints and damage. To make matters worse the adds can also mutate which snares them, but makes them hit insanely hard. At this point range classes have to kite the mutated add since they can't be tanked. To further complicate the fight the cultists can randomly cast a suicide spell which explodes them for massive AOE damage.

Luckily, the main boss herself is kind of a wimp and during the 1st phase will only cast random mind controls and a large area death and decay. During the 2nd phase after her mana has been depleted she will summon suicide ghosts which will target a single person and explode for AOE damage when they get within melee range. The only dangerous spell she herself has is a frostbolt spell that hits really, really, really hard and needs to be interrupted. She has a ten minute enrage timer and you will probably win if you can get her into phase 2 within 7 minutes.

As much as Lord Marrowgar was a fun fight this fight sucked. The problem is that dps and crowd control need to be tightly coordinated across three seperate groups which are all doing different things. If too much dps is taken up by killing the cultists the mana shield doesn't go down before the enrage timer. The more common problem for my guild was that adds would slowly overwhelm us as we would lose dps to mutated cultists and suicide explosions. Eventually, we figured out all the little tricks and our dps stayed alive. I would not want to do this fight with a pick-up-group since it requires every dps class to have good situational awareness and not just rely on gear.

The last two fights were much more fun and I'll write about them next.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

NCSoft's worry over server consolidations hamstrings Aion

I had been looking forward to Aion for awhile now since I heard a lot of good reviews from people who participated in the beta tests. The combat looked similar to World of Warcraft with a couple of additions like "combo chains" to make things a bit more interesting. Also the mobs and artwork looked unique and different from the standard fantasy fare I've gotten used to seeing. Playing through one of the starting zones I saw a couple monsters that resembled nothing like I've seen in a MMO before. There was this one mob that looked like it was produced by a kangaroo and a giant guinea pig getting it on. Aion may only bring a few new features to the MMO world, but the art assets alone make it worthwhile to try out. They have a race of hamster men for god's sake.

That's why it’s such a shame that I'm having a difficult time logging into the Aion servers. After finally getting everything patched I was surprised to see such a small number of servers available. Only about twelve servers were online and they were evenly split between west and east coast. That wouldn't be so bad except all the servers in my region had queue times over an hour. I realize that new MMOs are never issue free, but putting an hour wait in front of someone who just bought a game is a bad idea. The specter of Tabula Rasa may be influencing NCSoft in this matter since that game suffered from severe server consolidation quite early on in its lifetime.

Tabula Rasa seems to have left a lasting bad taste in NCSoft's mouth even though it wasn't that bad of a game. I had fun playing my chain-gun wielding space marine even though parts of the game were poorly designed for an MMO. This became particularly obvious at the end game and a lot of people left after reaching max level. Judging by the amount of servers Tabula Rasa went from around 80k players during its first month to about 15-25k players soon after. Still there was a large niche of players who really like the mix of FPS and RPG elements and probably could have supported the game financially. Unfortunately, NCSoft is not a fan of niche games and there was also the matter of legal disputes with the game's creator.

The experience with Tabula Rasa seems to be making NCSoft overly cautious about adding servers to Aion during its first week of release. Kotaku has an interview up with some of the Aion managers who remark that this strategy is for the long term health of the game. Everyone remembers how bad the server populations crashed with Warhammer and Age of Conan last year and NCSoft would like to avoid the same fate with Aion. Their logic seems to be that news of server consolidations creates a very bad image and causes players to avoid a game. Thus, NCSoft would rather deal with pissed off customers who want to play then players avoiding Aion because of server consolidations.

I admit throwing numerous new servers into a game is usually a bad idea and can cause server consolidations further down the line. However, using this as an excuse to justify multi-hour queues is just a bad idea. Even hinting that you might be worried about server consolidations implies a lack of trust in your MMO to keep people entertained at the end game. Both Warhammer and Age of Conan had problems with their end games though for different reasons. One was poorly thought out and the other suffered from horrible bugs. Aion however has been out in Korea for quite awhile and shouldn't suffer from any of these problems. The code should be well tested and the end game should be fully developed.

The fact that NCSoft is moving so slowly with server rollouts makes me realize they just don't understand the reasons for the massive server consolidations that plague several MMOs last year. Worse is that they might be under the mistaken impression that it's just World of Warcraft's dominance in the West that causes this initial surge of interest in new MMOs. While WoW's long standing kickassery in the subscriber department has played a role in the matter, it doesn't dictate that every MMO will lose massive numbers after the first month. Thinking that this trend is unavoidable and being stingy with initial servers is just going to backfire and cause customer resentment. I'm crossing my fingers that this nonsense ends soon. I'm starting to get tired of logging onto west coast servers when I get home just because every east coast server has an hour long queue.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Cataclysm Revamp part2 - Path of the Titans

One of the most surprising features announced for the Cataclysm expansion was that it was only going to extend the end game by five levels. This goes against the trend set by the previous two expansions, but seems reasonable since Cataclysm is going to be focused on reworking the 1-60 content. However, trying to sell an expansion that didn't add any levels to the end game might have been hard to market. Blizzard obviously wants players to feel like they are getting their money's worth when they buy the new expansion. Thus the decision was probably made to add at least some new levels to the end game. This shorter leveling stretch though is going to make Cataclysm feel a bit different from previous expansions.

We'll be getting five new leveling zones in Cataclysm even though the level cap was only raised to 85. This gives us a much higher zone ratio then Northend, which only had eight leveling zones (not counting Crystalsong or Wintergrasp). Hopefully, this means that there are multiple questing paths to reach max level just like in Wrath of the Lich King. On a negative note this could also mean that Blizzard artificially stretched out the levels in Cataclysm by increasing the experience requirements. This doesn't really fit their style though and I don't think Blizzard would copy a design decision which has proven to be a bad idea in other MMOs.

Instead, I think a portion of the questing in Cataclysm will be devoted to the new Path of the Titans system. This system expands on the basic idea behind inscriptions and offers players another way to advance their characters besides gear and levels. Players basically align themselves with one particular Titan and then will be able to earn additional glyph slots and abilities to place in them. The system bears a remarkable resemblance to picking a deity for your character and I'm sure that's how the idea got started. Unfortunately, Blizzard was a little tight lipped on how you characters actually progress through this new system.

I suspect we can look forward to some sort of reputation or token system for progressing along the Path of the Titans. I'm leaning towards a token system since Blizzard made heavy use of tokens for the Argent Tournament. I wouldn't be surprised to see Tol Barad serve as the daily quest hub for this purpose. If my memory serves me correctly then the devs have already announced that Tol Barad would be a quest hub similar to the Isle of Quel'Danas. However, they didn't say if the daily quests would grant gold, pvp tokens, or be involved with Path of the Titans advancement. It's quite possible that Tol Barad will just be for PvP quests and Uldum is the hub for Path of the Titans stuff.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Cataclysm Revamp part1 - Unbalanced Combat

Blizzard shocked and delighted its fan base when they announced that their next expansion would be a revamp of the old world content. The lands of Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms sit mostly empty nowadays with only a few low level characters moving through them. Such a large amount of underutilized space is a waste of resources and makes the game less accessible to new players. People new to the game often have to depend on "recruit a friend" bonuses to get caught up with the rest of us. The game really isn't that fun if your only contact with other players is when they gank you.

This could even become a major issue when Cataclysm is released. The re-worked zones are sure to attract explorers from every level and not just newly made goblins/worgen. On the PvP servers you should expect a lot of interference from higher level players as you are trying out the new quests. This expansion will probably revitalize open world PvP in some areas of Azeroth, though it's sure to be a nuisance to anyone making a new character. This sort of makes me suspect that Blizzard might have something up its sleeve to deal with the problem.

One of the numerous minor changes to the game announced at Blizzcon was the reworking of how players upgrade their spells and abilities. Instead of constantly visiting your class trainer to get more powerful versions, your spells and abilities automatically upgrade themselves as you level. This suggests that Blizzard might also have the functionality to decrease the power of spells and abilities based on level. This is pure conjecture, but we could see a downgrading of damage when players fight characters that are grossly below their level. This would also have to take into account basic melee damage, but it's not entirely impossible.

The idea would be to make it so players leveling new characters couldn't easily be one shotted by maxed level players. In the previous two expansions not that many people were playing new characters so this was never a major issue. However, after the Cataclysm the number of players leveling once again should be through the roof. That's going to be a pretty tempting target for players who are going to be 20 to 60 levels higher. Some classes will be able to use AOE abilities and massacre entire low level quest hubs in a few seconds. There was no motivation to do this when these quest hubs were mostly empty (no bragging rights), but that changes in the expansion.

Even if Blizzard doesn't have some way of dealing with unbalanced combat we'll probably at least see some changes to limit ganking. At the very least I expect low level quest hubs to have their guards upgraded to level 85. There also might be some attempts to encourage players to protect low level quest hubs with their maxed level characters. Unfortunately, the problem is that the level difference is so great that most gankers will be able to wipe out a bunch of low level characters quickly and escape any consequences. That's why I really hope Blizzard is aware of the issue. Otherwise I might just be leveling my goblin and worgen in dungeons only.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Most Annoying Mobs in MMOs

I've been playing World of Warcraft more often since the last patch and I must say I'm enjoying the revamped badge system. It's worthwhile once again to do the heroic daily quest and I'm finding myself back in dungeons I hadn't seen in awhile. It's a shame that some dungeons just aren't popular and would probably never see any use if not for the heroic daily quest. Mostly it's just a matter of annoying boss fights like in the Halls of Stone or the Occulus. But I've noticed a couple I dislike because they have certain mob types I find annoying. Everyone has that certain monster or class they hate fighting. I known I've accumulated a list of them over the years though its probably different from person to person.

5) Spiders
Spiders are probably one of the most common mob types after good old fashion rats and bats. Players can expect to see them at almost every level in a game since most game developers simply justify stronger spiders as being larger. Their overuse isn't the primary reason I find them annoying though. Instead it's because developers have taken the web spinning ability of the common spider and translated it into root and snare effects in most games. Throw a couple bosses who can encase you in web cocoons and the annoyance factor goes through the roof. Plus there's just something creepy about a human being caught in a web, probably goes back to that old sci-fi movie: help me, help me, help me.

4) Giants
I list giants not because of their ability to "grind your bones to make their bread" but because of the way large objects are rendered in online worlds. Giants should stick out like a sore thumb because of their size. However, every MMO giant seemed to have attended Ninja School with Bang (obscure NES reference) and learned how to become invisible to players until 10m away. To make matters worse giants are never static spawns and instead seem to enjoy taking power walks across entire zones. Sometimes the developers feel sorry for us and toss us a bone like a sound effect when a giant is nearby. However, more often then nought a player trying to eat/drink will fall victim to these deadly and mysteriously silent predators.

3) Vampires
The problem with vampires is that they're just too damn popular for their own good. Try to make a list of every ability that is attributed to vampires in popular fiction. I gave up after seven. This large talent pool basically gives the developers free reign to create super mobs. Luckily, most games save vampires for boss fights and thus players don't have to fight through armies of mind controlling, flying, invisible, wizard, re-generators, who command undead and shapeshift. When you do see a vampire boss though you can expect the most powerful abilities to be present though. Usually this involves at least one kind of life or mana drain just for the fun of it.

2) Goblins
Goblins always seem to be described as cunning and cowardly in fiction. The cowardly part is certainly true since goblins have been some of the best "runner mobs" in almost every MMO I've played. They also tend to congregate in large groups and tame/hire/make really big pets. Run into a goblin whose not afraid of you and chances are he's got a large ogre or some kind of mechanical monstrosity in the next room. Oh and the cunning part usually translates into goblins being able to choose from several magic using classes. That way they can root or snare you before they run away to find their 3,000 friends.

1) Humans
Humans are practically their own hybrid class in most MMOs. Developers tend to treat them as a blank slate and allow them to be any class or learn any skill. Humans are never particularly tough, but they have this annoying ability to work well in groups. Clearing a dungeon filled with humans is never simple and often involves finding "that damn healer" before your party runs out of mana. Human mobs basically use the same tactics as players and it's only our taunt abilities that allow us to win against them. Plus the only mob type that can give goblins a run for their money in the cowardly department are humans. Keeping an eye out for runners is always a requirement when fighting them.

These are just my own personal dislikes and I'm sure everyone has that one type of mob they hate to fight in game. Feel free to put it in the comments since I'm interested to see if I left out any obvious contenders in the "most annoying mob" contest.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Micro Review of Micro-transactions

Bringing up micro-transactions in a blog post is a lot like trying to talk about global warming. Everyone has a different opinion on the matter and their own preferred way of addressing the issue. A lot players hate the idea of micro-transactions and like to pretend that it's not a viable business model. On the other hand you have people who fervently think it’s the wave of the future and ignore its lack of success in the western world. To further complicate matters there are several different ways of implementing micro-transactions in a MMO. Some games use them in conjunction with a subscription fee while others are entirely dependent on the sales of fluff items. For the most part games that micro-transactions based are often designed to cost hardcore players more than casual ones. You know the same audience that mostly blogs and posts the most about MMOS.

Types of Micro-transactions (DIKU based)

The basic micro-transaction plan which a lot of free2play games use. Players straight out buy items for their characters by paying a small fee. Most games make use of a virtual currency for these types of transactions so players are forced to buy (coins, doubloons, and tokens) in bundles. Games that use this model have to be very careful that they don't ruin the illusion of competition. As a result most items in this model are fluff items that just change the appearance of characters or the rate at which they gain experience/money. Unfortunately, a majority of players don't care about these types items and simply play the game for free. At the moment there seems to be two solutions to this problem. Either make the game play very grindy so players are greatly encourage to buy items or add a small subscription fee to stabilize revenue.

This micro-transaction model personally frustrates me, but several new games that use it have enjoyed moderate success in the market. In this model players don't actually buy items, but instead pay a small fee to rent them for a period of time. These items usually give the player special abilities and don't directly increase the stats/gear of their characters. The most common abilities include faster mounts, limited teleportation, increased storage space, and increased experience rates. Most subscription based games have these types of features built into their game design, while the micro-transaction model allows players to pick and choose them ala cart. Problems do occur though when a player tries to rent all the features they are used to having in a subscription based game and realize the micro-transaction one actually costs them more per month.

MMO's that follow the Ebay style of micro-transactions don't worry about maintaining a balance between items that can be bought with time or those that can be bought right away with cash. Items sold in their stores are often equal or more powerful then the best in the game. Free Realms is probably the poster child of this model and was designed to combine the mini-game aspect of websites like Neo-pets with "lite" MMO styled adventuring. This model only seems to work if the customer base doesn't care or is too young to understand that money greatly affects the game play. I suspect this model will always be limited to MMO's targeting children or poorly made Free2Play games that don't worry about balance issues.

My descriptions of the different types of micro-transactions probably reveal that I'm not a fan. However, I'm not going to deny they provide huge advantages to certain types of MMOs. In general, Free2Play MMOs work well with micro-transactions since it allows them to quickly build up a large community and achieve a critical mass of players. However, a lot of times the revenue brought in by micro-transactions aren't enough to support a high quality game. That's why games that use micro-transactions often rely on grindy gameplay to force the use of an item store or small subscription fees. The only micro-transaction model that seems to be able to stand on its own two feet is the one that rents out items. However, this model greatly mirrors the subscription model except that it allows players to pick and choose the features they want to pay for each month.

My preference in payment models is most likely a symptom of my laziness. I don't want to deal with keeping experience potions on my character or tracking when my individual item rentals are going to expire. That's why I'm probably going to stick with subscription based games in the future. However, if I was forced to choose some form of micro-transaction system I would prefer a tiered model where game time and items were bundled into differently priced packages. That way I could have the option of buying a smaller package when I knew I wouldn't have much time to play and I wouldn't have to keep track of everything.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

WoW's Cross Server Instances

At Blizzcon this year there was a definite sense of anger from the players towards the instance situation in World of Warcraft. At several panels people randomly shouted "Cannot create additional instances" during lulls in the discussion. When someone finally manage to bring up the topic during a Q&A session, the developers acted surprised. Their response was that the issue was already resolved and being implemented on the servers as they speak. Most people thought this meant Blizzard was finally selling off some of their money hats and buying more processing power.

However, it looks like Blizzard is approaching the problem from a different route and focusing on creating a giant server pool for the instances. This should allow individual servers to avoid the "cannot create additional instance" problem that occurs during peak hours. The theory goes that different servers are in different time zones and thus not every realm will put a large strain on the instance server pool at the same time. I'm not sure if this will fix the issue completely, since emblems of conquest have revitalized dungeon running. At the very least it should help during the weekdays when the prime time is for concurrent users is small (7-11pm). Plus, the change does allow Blizzard to introduce a new cross server LFG tool.

Cross Server LFG system
1. Groups have to be formed using the LFG tool.
2. The instance portal on each server then links to the same zone.
3. As a side bonus the system will reward people who use the tool to form PUGs.
4. Rewards are based on successfully completing a dungeon with a PUG.
5. Should allow players to experience low level dungeons again (worgen/goblins)
6. They expect it to be ready for the Icecrown patch (probably ~Feb 2010)

Blizzard was vague on what kind of rewards would be given out for successfully completing a dungeon using the new LFG system. I don't expect anything major or else you would have players trying to game the system. Most likely by having premade groups form up using the tool. Instead I think it will probably be something along the lines of an extra emblem or perhaps some honor. The system is a great idea and complements the new expansion well. New worgen and goblin players should be able to get groups and explore some of the interesting low level dungeons like Wailing Caverns and Black Fathom Depths.

The only problem at the moment is the actual process of moving each realm into the giant server pool is kind of complex. It seems Blizzard has had to cap the number of instances for realms which haven't been moved yet as servers are being juggled around. Thus for some realms the "cannot create additional instance" problem has gotten worse during the last couple of weeks. Apparently, moving all the realms at the same time wasn't an option so they've been doing it piecemeal. If you're interested there's even a list of which realms have already been optimized. Unfortunately, my realm still isn't on the list so most of my weekend was filled with daily quests and not dungeons. By the rate Blizzard is working on the issue though it looks like September 2009 should mark the end of the dreaded instance shortage.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Cataclysm’s Rated Battlegrounds

One of the more interesting system revamps announced for Cataclysm was the introduction of rated battlegrounds. This should be a welcome change since its promises to balance out the PvP systems in World of Warcraft. At the moment the arena system dominates the PvP landscape and often gives an advantage to players in Wintergrasp and Battlegrounds. This is mostly because the arena system is the only way for melee classes to achieve decent PvP weapons. After the Burning Crusade the developers made a decision to tightly control epic weapons since so many people stopped raiding. This is why arena weapons during the Wrath of the Lich King have never been made available for honor.

It wasn’t necessarily a bad idea to reign in the free epic weapons, but it’s gone too far in the opposite spectrum. Arenas may be almost exploit free and have better matchmaking system nowadays, but its still a poor decision to make it the main gateway for PvP gear. The very nature of combat in World of Warcraft makes small squad based fights very dependent on gear and luck. Battlegrounds and to a lesser degree Wintergrasp depend a bit more on coordination and strategy. In arenas things are simple and you just have to kill your enemies, while in battlegrounds you are more concerned with objectives and defeating them. Both are viable forms for PvP so it does seem a bit weird to reward one over the other.

Main Problems with Arenas being the main PvP Gear Gateway
1) WoW combat is still rock-paper-scissors to a certain degree
-certain team combinations will always have an advantage over others because of class
2) Arenas are more heavily influenced by class nerfs and buffs then battlegrounds
3) Arenas tend to emphasize reflexes and gear over the strategy aspect of PvP
4) Allows highly ranked to arena players to faceroll their way through battlegrounds

How the Rated Battleground Systems Works

-Each player has a personal battleground rating
-Winning matches increases the rating while losing has no effect
-The same matchmaking system used in arenas will decide rating changes

-Each week one battleground will be playable for rated matches
-Rated battlegrounds required a full pre-made raid to queue
-No special battleground team has to be made
-Blizzard said to expect three new battlegrounds

-Battleground Ratings will allow access to arena weapons/armor
-Rated Battlegrounds will reward arena points after each victory
-Arenas will also be changed so they give arena points after each victory
-Your previous week’s rating limits how many points you can earn that week
-The old Battleground titles will once again be available as rewards
-Top Performers in Arenas and Battlegrounds will also get epic mounts

As you can see there are some pretty big changes to both the battleground system and arena system in the upcoming expansion. It looks like Blizzard is serious about making both systems viable ways of gaining PvP gear. Also since rated battlegrounds require pre-made teams you can expect players to police the system and kick out any bots or slackers after a single match. Most likely the only reason Blizzard has been so hesitant to reward battleground play in the past has been because of the honor farming problem.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Blizzcon 2009 Dance Contest

Well once again none of my pictures of the costume contest came out too well, but my little video camera was able to film the viewscreen for the world of warcraft dance contest. The winners seemed a little random this year. Though the first place winner definitely showed some impressive footwork.

1st Place Winner - Dwarven Female Dance

2nd Place Winner - Human Female Dance

3rd Place Winner - Dwarven Male Dance

Some other contestants who I thought were good and got passed over.

The Blood Elf Ninja Dance

The Inflatable Tauren Dance

Bloodelf Female Dance

Blizzcon 2009 Takeaways

I was lucky this year since I had a friend who managed to charm tickets from the Blizzcon website. There were three of us refreshing the website constantly, but somehow he managed to get in as number 20 in the queue while I was number 8,000. Blizzard has to come up with a better system for selling Blizzcon tickets one day. Even one of the VPs admitted that in the future they might just have to move the convention out of Anaheim and get a bigger venue. This year there were about 26,000 people attending and things were definitely more crowded even with the added hall.

Still being stuffed into a convention hall with 26,000 nerds was a small payment for getting a lot of first hand experience with the next generation of Blizzard games. Just like last year they had demos for Starcraft 2, Diablo 3 and World of Warcraft. Starcraft 2 had the Terran singleplayer campaign up and running though I spent all my time trying to kill my friends in multiplayer. The Diablo 3 demo had the new monk class and allowed the exploration of a desert zone with multiple cave-like dungeons. It always had the longest line, but was proably the most enjoyable demo. The World of Warcraft demo had the goblin and worgen starting areas, but overcrowding made it hard to complete any of the quest objectives.

Instead of spending all my time in the Cataclysm demo, I focused my attention more on the World of Warcraft panels. There were some pretty big announcements and not all of them related to the new expansion. I’ll try to order everything in a time frame in case you want to browse

Revamped Onyxia Encounter (Nov 2009)
10-25 man raid with upgraded gear (showed a 2-hander with 700-1000dmg)
T2 helms from Ony keep the same look

3.3 Icecrown Citadel Patch (around late 2009, early 2010)
Will include three 5-man dungeons (wrathgate type elements)
Cross-server LFG tool for dungeons
Guide system that will reward people who forms groups in LFG and complete dungeons
Icecrown Citadel (12 bosses including Sindragosa and Arthas)
-awesome fight involving a horde/alliance airship battle

Cataclysm Expansion (probably 2010)
-All the leaked features like goblin and worgen (worgen have cool hats)
-Hunters and Warlocks get major revamps (no mana, soul shards changed)
-All of Kalimdor and E. Kingdoms revamped and made flyable
-Heroic Deadmines and Shadowfang Keep
-Rated Battlegrounds which give arena points (requires pre-made team)
-New advancement system called Path of the Titans
-Elimination of Spellpower, Mp5, Defense, Armor Penetration (stats simplified)
-Guild Leveling System and Talent Tree (raidwide Rez, Summon, Etc)

7 New Zones (2 newbie 1-15 zones)

4 New Raids (all apparently done at release, so say devs)
The Firelands (Ragnaros no longer "too soon"), Skywall, Blackwing Descent, Grim Batol

10 New Dungeon Instances
Grim Batol, Uldum (2), Deepholme, Skywall, Abyssal Maw (2), Blackrock Caverns, Heroic Deadmines, Heroic Shadowfang Keep

I’ll have some pictures and videos of the contests to put up as soon as I have everything organized. I'm very glad that Blizzard is going with a revamp of the old world instead of just focusing on end game content. However, the sparse amount of video and details make me think that this expansion is still pretty far away. Most likely its more then a year away. Luckily, Blizzard seemed pretty sure about SC2 being ready for a 1st quarter release since only the BattleNet revamp is holding it back.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Building a Better Battleground System

The battlegrounds are going through a lot of fine tuning in the upcoming patch. It's not surprising since the developers have admitted that PvP in World of Warcraft is a little too focused on arenas right now. I seems like Blizzard might slowly be moving towards another revamp of the honor system in the future. However, before they upset the balance of power between arena and honor points they probably want to look at sprucing up the individual battlegrounds. At the moment a couple of battlegrounds are vulnerable to stalemates and honor farming expeditions and players can often find themselves trapped. Warsong Gulch is the poster child of the never ending death-match and a twenty minute time limit is a welcome addition.

The resource gathering battlegrounds are not quite as broken as Warsong Gulch, but Blizzard still has a couple of good modifications in the works. Both Arathi Baisin and Eye of the Storm are having their victory conditions changed so that only 1600 resources are required to win a game. Also it looks like Blizzard is finally rewarding players who defend flags by giving flags an aura which increase honor gains by 50%. Another corresponding change is that flags now only take eight seconds to capture instead of ten. This should encourage teams to have players on guard duty or else be very vulnerable to ninjas.

Strands of the Ancients is also getting a slight update, which I think is good idea. The Wrath of the Lich King battleground has surprisingly become a favorite for alliance players and their faction does seem to win it more often. I attribute this to the alliance always starting on offense first which seems to give them a slight mental edge when they manage to take the relic chamber. A sizable percentage of players don't like putting any effort into a game which at best can only become a tie. Thus, the horde suffers from more AFKs mid-game then the alliance. Randomizing the starting position should fix the issue though I'm sure it will make earning honor harder for alliance characters.

Beyond the small tweaks to battlegrounds in Patch 3.2, we can probably expect some major changes further down the line. I have a feeling that we'll be looking at something that allows epic weapons and armor to be earned without a high arena rating within the year. That's not to say that Blizzard will just hand out gear upgrades to anyone with a working battleground bot. Instead, I think we might be looking at some sort of battleground rating system. In the past Blizzard experimented with a match making system for battlegrounds that used the ilevel of a player's gear. It was quickly taken out though, since it caused the queue times to dramatically increase.

However, the current matchmaking system for the arenas is very efficient and I think it could be adapted to the battlegrounds. This might just be the perfect solution to the bots and afk players which have consistently plagued battlegrounds. The current system simply rewards players for being in a battleground and the reporting system really only works in the longer Alterac Valley. If a personal battleground rating was used on some higher level PvP gear it could solve a lot of balance problems in PvP. Currently, the smaller arena brackets suffer from better geared "Ringers" who run friends through late at night. This often results in players who attempt to bring their arena rating up fairly getting pounded. Battlegrounds are much more resilient to this type of manipulation since the games are opposing factions only.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Pimp My Gear

I was a little mad when Champions Online and Jumpgate Evolution were delayed, but before I could even fume about it I actually got an invite into the Champions beta. I'm not going to go into any details, but I'm glad to see that Cryptic is keeping true to their history of awesome creation tools. I was always impressed by the character creation process in City of Heroes even if I found the actual gameplay quite boring. In fact a lot of my friends also thought that creating a costumed crime fighter was more fun than playing the game. In college I would often come back from class to find that my roommates had filled all my character slots with cyborg pirates. It's a shame that no other MMO developer has allowed players the same level of customization.

I guess the major reason is because most MMOs work off the diku model, which means that character progression is all about equipment upgrades. If equipment visuals were set at the beginning of the game then most players would probably start off with the most awesome looking weapons and armor they could imagine. Half the reason players like climbing the gear progression ladder is because the higher level stuff tends to look better. Thus, just putting a costume generator from City of Heroes/Champions into a WoW clone is probably a bad idea. Still this doesn't mean that a such a system couldn't be adapted for an equipment based game.

I think one good idea would be to meld the City of Heroes character creation system into crafting. It would require some fine tuning, but such a system would probably create a strong game economy as some players made their own gear. Developers could even use item rarity to limit the "awesomeness" of weapons and armor. A plain looking pattern or design could require crafting materials from low level mobs while the more spectacular ones could require items from dungeon bosses. While not everyone would want to design their own gear, I think a lot of players would appreciate more variation in equipment. This is especially true at the end game of MMOs like World of Warcraft where tier sets tend to make everyone look the same.

It's a very boring system and I don't know any valid reasons why everyone should look the same. I've heard the argument that it's good for PvP so that you can visually recognize weaker and stronger targets. That may have been true in the past, but the user interfaces for these types of games have improved over the years. Most now allow opponents to see hitpoints and mana, which are pretty good indicators of a player's equipment status. I don't think there is any good reason for not opening up a complex crafting system which allows players to customize the visual look of items they make. I realize that a lot of developers are afraid of "the time to penis", but City of Heroes has managed to avoid the issue.

I really hope the MMOs that come out over the next couple years start adopting the same level of customization seen in City of Heroes. I'm getting awfully tired of everyone looking the same when I raid or PvP. It's especially painful when the graphic artists are rushed and you get some of the ugly armor sets seen in Wrath of the Lich King.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Please Play Our Game Less - Go Outside or Something

Most players are aware that the next patch for World of Warcraft will be changing Wintergrasp into a somewhat bastardized mix of open world pvp and battelground instances. I almost used the term "hybrid" to describe this change, but I think that implies beneficial traits being mixed together. Nothing can be further from the truth in this situation since the changes are designed to make Lake Wintergrasp less popular with players. This trend was noted by a lot of different bloggers earlier in the year when Blizzard switched the Wintergrasp quests from a daily format to a weekly one. There's a definite sense of irony in trying to make parts of your game less popular so you can avoid latency issues.

It's not like changing the quests to a weekly format had any real effect in making Lake Wintergrasp less popular either. Both factions still desire loot from the Vault of Archavon and tokens for winning games are still useful for freshly minted level 80 players. That's probably why Blizzard has decided to take the limiting factor of battleground queues and mix it with the reset timer of world PvP objectives. Thus the servers only have to deal with about a hundred players being squeezed into a small area once every three hours. Of course I'm pretty sure more then a hundred people want to participate in Lake Wintergrasp, but hey it's their fault for playing such a popular game in the first place.

I might be overdoing the sarcasm here, but Blizzard seems to have this new attitude of ignoring any problems brought on by limited server resources. They may have broken all sorts of sales records with Wrath of the Lich King, but they sure aren't in a hurry to use that money on additional processing power for servers. I can't entirely blame them for not rushing to upgrade since the number of concurrent users has been dropping over the last few months. No reason to rush and spend money in a tough economy when the demand might not be there in the future. Hell, I can even run instances during the weekdays now without constantly running into the dreaded "Server cannot create additional instances" message.

However, Blizzard is walking a fine line by avoiding architecture upgrades by implementing bad game design. The next patch may reduce the lag problems in Lake Wintergrasp, but it's sure to cause a lot of resentment when people keep missing the queue. Also I wonder about the proposed changes to emblems in the heroic dungeons. I think it's a great idea to let dungeon players catch up with raiders. However, it's sure to have large numbers of players flocking back to heroic dungeons just as the new raid zone goes live. On the weekend it can still take me 10-15 minutes to create an instance for my group and I'm expecting the problem to only get worse after the patch. Hopefully, Blizzard has some sort of solution and it doesn't involve re-working the daily dungeon quests into a weekly format. Otherwise I fear World of Warcraft might be starting to implode from the weight of its own success.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Death and Passing on your Virtual Assets

I don't really have that much experienced with real money transfers except in the form of spam advertisements. I know there's a pretty big market out there for selling gold to players and that this drives the theft and hacking of accounts. It's not all illegal though since I know some players routinely sell off their characters and virtual savings whenever they get tired of a game. While almost every game out there has a EULA that supposedly prevents players from cashing out, it's usually ignored. Theoretically, anyone whose played an online game for a couple months and earned some virtual cash could probably get a couple hundred dollars for their account. Some dedicated individuals who've raided or traded their way into a virtual fortune might be able to squeeze a couple thousand dollars from an auction site.

It's no wonder then that online services that protect virtual assets are also starting to mention game accounts. Usually, services like Asset Lock or Legacy Locker are for people that have a lot of money tied up in online sites like ebay or paypal. If you suddenly die then it can be quite hard for your immediate family to get access to any of your accounts. You could just write your account information down on a piece of paper and put it in a safety deposit box, but most of these services are cheaper. It's almost like a digital will without the lawyers. It's still not the most useful thing in the world and it seems kind of gimmicky at the moment. However, I'll admit that over the last ten years I've gone from maybe one or two online accounts to around twenty. Some of these accounts are just things like email, but a surprising number of them do have monetary value.

Like this CNN article says, we are spending more of our lives online and people are actually starting worry about this kind of stuff. This seems like an obvious sign that society is starting to associate more value to virtual property as they spend more time online. It's not actually that unbelievable. After all, the value of real world currencies have nothing to do with the ink and paper they are printed on. Virtual items tied up in accounts are the same way. They're worth what people will pay for them and in some instances that can be a lot. And since established institutions like banks are mostly absent in this market we are seeing companies pop up in their stead. It may be a little early for these companies to make a lot of money now, but in ten years who knows? I'm just thinking how much fun it will be ten years from now to track down this post and comment on how my bank finally started a similar service.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Blizzard Authenticator: Coming to a Credit Card near you

User accounts for virtual worlds are the preferred target of high tech thieves nowadays. Not only is it relatively easy to liquidate stolen digital property, but there's almost no risk of prosecution. Virtual property isn't really understood by most courts of laws around the world and a majority of legal systems would find it hard to define stealing such items as theft. However, just because it's difficult to establish real world value for virtual property doesn't mean it's worthless. In recent years, digital criminals have devoted more effort into setting up phishing scams and trojan installers for game accounts then credit cards. This shows that there is obvious real world value to these accounts.

As World of Warcraft has grown into the largest subscription based MMO its become the main target of scams and computer viruses seeking out account information. It's safe to say that as the criminal activity targeting the game increased so has the load on it's customer service system. Since each case requires a fair amount of time to investigate and fix, the costs associated with customer service have risen. Also since Blizzard has several high level competitors they can't simply ignore requests to restore hacked accounts. It's because of this situation that Blizzard eventually introduced the authenticator. This relatively simple device can be registered with a player account and then provides a different password every time the player wants to log in.

I'll admit that it's a small increase in effort to log in with an authenticator, but players who have been repeatably hacked feel like it's worth the trouble. The device seems to be working quite well in preventing compromised computers from gaining control of World of Warcraft accounts. In fact it seems to be working so well that Visa is exploring a similar system for it's credit cards. Currently being tested is the Emue card which has a screen on the back which generates an additional pin number for every transaction. This doesn't help much if the card is physically stolen, but more then half of all credit card fraud is committed online nowadays. Thus just like the Blizzard Authenticator, the Emue card protects it's account holders with a layer of protection that can't be broken online.

The relative similarity between the two systems makes me wonder if Visa and Blizzard are using the same security company. Since game accounts and credit card information are two of the top targets for online crime I guess it makes sense that they use the same security measures. Of course just like the Blizzard Authenticator, the Emue card will probably only be adopted by people who've had their information stolen before. Still since Visa is planning on making the system backwards compatible that means stores will be able to handle both types of cards. If the Emue card becomes widely available for free then I expect anyone who shops online will adopt it pretty quickly. And the fact that the Blizzard Authenticator system has been working so well makes me believe this is a pretty secure technology and not a simple gimmick.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Can Blizzard survive being the most bankable game studio?

Blizzard Entertainment was recently announced as the most successful game studio this year as calculated by Develop magazine. I'm not really sure what qualifies them to rank game studios, but their website says their calculations are based on sales data, critical success, and industry standing. Still it seems suspicious since the Develop 100 had Blizzard Entertainment ranked 46 spots lower last year. I know Wrath of the Lich King moved a lot of boxes, but World of Warcraft has been dominating the PC sales charts hand and hand with the Sims for the last four years. So why are trade publications only now starting to notice?

Well its no secret that Blizzard doesn't make bad games. The management for the company seems slightly different from other game studios and allows for long delays in production to fine tune a game. That's not to say they would allow a project to become vaporware or a 100 million dollar disaster like Tabula Rasa. Just look at Starcraft Ghost which Blizzard had no problems axing when it became apparent the quality wasn't there. Blizzard's dedication to quality isn't something that recently appeared and earned it a spot on the list. No the real reason is most likely that it's becoming more widely known just how much money World of Warcraft is earning from subscription fees alone.

I've long suspected that Blizzard has been making close to a 100 million dollars a month on subscriptions and it's recently been confirmed in several earnings report. Additionally, a subscription service whose only real cost is server maintenance and customer support has to have a great profit to revenue ratio. It's been theorized that a AAA MMO takes about 50 million dollars to develop and that number has been thrown around a couple of times for Warhammer Online. That means even if only half of the subscription revenue is profit then Blizzard still recoups its initial investment on World of Warcraft every month of the year.

Those kinds of investment returns just stand out like a sore thumb and it's probably why Blizzard was swallowed up by Activision. I just hope Blizzard can survive the future as the most bankable game studio while still producing high quality products. Last year there were some rumblings about the decision to split Starcraft 2 into three separate games. Some people thought it seemed a little too much like a naked money grab, something a mega studio like EA or Activision would do. While the giants of the game industry are very good about squeezing every last cent from a franchise they also make a lot of lackluster crap in the process.

With a good percentage of the profits earned by Activision this last quarter coming from World of Warcraft you have to wonder if Blizzard will be pushed to maintain this pace. It's fine if they are able to keep their revenue up by making the same high quality games we've come to expect from them. If all three Starcraft 2 games introduce a fair amount of quality content then I'm not one to complain. I think most gamers have come around to the idea simply because it gets the multi-player version into our hands faster. However, the next "innovative" idea might not have the same silver lining. It's makes me wonder if Blizzard can juggle quality, quantity and profits equally in the future or if short-term profits will start to become the priority.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Off the Beaten Path - New MMOs for the Summer

There's a couple of new MMO's coming out over the summer and I'm glad to see that they are quite different from the standard fantasy fare. Last year I tried out Age of Conan and Warhammer Online when I got tired of World of Warcraft. The year before I dabbled in Lord of the Rings and the Rise of Kunark expansion for Everquest 2. While all four games had very different game mechanics, they still used the same type of background setting. It's been awhile since a decent MMO came out that wasn't a fantasy hack and slash adventure. Not that I'm totally repulsed by the genre anymore, I'm just looking for a breath of fresh air.

Luckily, it looks like next month's Jumpgate Evolution will satisify my desire to try something different. It's being advertised as an EVE Online that's actually fun to play. While I don't have the best reaction times in the world, I'm still looking forward to trying out a MMO based around real time spaceship combat. The only previous experience I've had with a twitch based MMO could be considered Tabula Rasa. However, that game's equipment system seemed a little too disposable and FPS-like for me to enjoy. As long as Jumpgate Evolution has a decent equipment and talent system then I'll probably stick with it for a couple months.

Even if Jumpgate Evolution is a free-trial month only game, there's still Champions Online right around the corner in July. I've been following the development of this one for awhile now and I'm very impressed with the graphics. I'm a fan of the "stylistic" graphics approach and the cell shaded look fits my preferences quite well. I'm afraid that some of the same design flaws from City of Heroes might also make it into Champions Online though. I'm hoping that Cryptic Studios stayed away from procedural generated content this time around and that leveling through missions isn't so repetitive. I'm also hoping for a better equipment system, since I always felt like the original enhancement one was too trivial for a MMO.

After the summer there a couple MMO's that are floating around release days in the fall, but haven't set them in stone yet. The major one is probably AION: Tower of Eternity which is being released by NCSoft. NCsoft isn't exactly a favorite on my list of MMO publishers at the moment. They seem a little too eager to abandon low performing MMOs and they've cut back their presence in the West a bit. Still a game where angels and dragons get to fight aerial battles does sound very cool. The reviews from Korea and China also seem favorable for the game though popularity doesn't always translate across the pacific. If the game is actually entertaining and avoids a lot of the pointless grinding associated with the Lineage brand then it might nice to try out.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Ulduar and encounters with multiple difficulty levels

While I'm primarily playing World of Warcraft at the moment, I've been unimpressed by the length of time its taken Blizzard to add content onto the end game. It's not that the current raid content is too easy, just that there wasn't enough initially in the expansion to support raiding guilds. It's a situation very similar to when World of Warcraft first launched and Molten Core/Onyxia was the only raid content available. Blizzard has taken steps to fix the issue by filling the new dungeon, Ulduar, with encounters that have multiple difficulty settings. The theory goes that as guilds gear up and get used to clearing Ulduar they will start doing the encounters on a higher difficulty, which will stretch out the life of the new content. It makes sense on paper and worked very nicely with the Sartharion fight. However, I wonder if it will have the same effect when used in a full length raid dungeon.

The problem I see is that a raid dungeon is structured differently from a single boss encounter and may not get the same mileage from having multiple settings. Guilds would usually save Sartharion until the end of a raid night then try a few attempts at a harder difficulty level. If the guild leaders didn't think they were going to win, they could always make the encounter easier by killing off a drake. The encounter was only as long as the guild wanted it to be. This is a bit different from a raid dungeon where after failing on a harder difficulty setting a couple times, a guild still has to complete the rest of the dungeon. This basically stretches out the length of time a guild spends in Ulduar compared to the early dungeons.

I do hear that the boss encounters in Ulduar are better designed then Naxxramas and are very unique. A friend of mine was recently giving me the rundown of a fight done on motorcycles, where you set fire to oil slicks. Still, no matter how entertaining the vehicle mechanics are in a encounter, its a bad idea to artificially keep players in the same dungeon. Players will get bored of the same fights in the same dungeon even if the difficulty can be changed. It makes more sense to put varying difficulty encounters outside the main dungeon so guilds can challenge themselves while visiting a different location. Of course none of this would be a problem if more then one raid dungeon per tier was available to guilds. However, I'm guessing the Blizzard staff is stretched pretty thin between all the new games in development. Plus, they most likely haven't yet streamlined the process of making 10 and 25 man versions of each raid dungeon.

In the future, I am hoping the next full length raid dungeon is accompanied by more single boss encounters. There's still a lot of room for additional dragons in the Wyrmrest Temple and other single boss locations could be added. Anything that encourages a raiding guild to move between raid instances is a positive in my mind. As it stands now I'm thinking that players will burn out quicker on Ulduar then they did on Naxxramas.

Monday, April 27, 2009

It Burns, it burns: Paladins and the changes to Mana Regen

I was a little fearful when I first heard that Blizzard was reworking mana regeneration to make boss fights more challenging. I agree that most guilds effectively had unlimited mana with all the improved talents in Wrath of the Lich King. Still I couldn't help but feel that this was a perfect opportunity for an unintended consequence to sneak into the game. My fears weren't exactly put to rest when I first logged in after the patch and saw that I had lost around 150 mana regen on my paladin. This was especially troubling since my retribution gear isn't exactly loaded down with intelligence or mana regeneration. Luckily, I'm used to hitting divine plea whenever it pops and it seems to keep my mana bar going along with occasional replenishment.

Still one thing I've noticed is that this seems to have made paladins even more vulnerable to mana drain and mana burn. Paladins have always been particularly powerless against these two spells, but now it seems you only need to be hit by it once or twice to be rendered useless in a fight. Shamans and Hunters also have to go through the same issue, but generally have larger mana pools. Blizzard's constant experimentation with paladin itemization has created a class with a very small mana pool and a large dependency on it's mana regeneration abilities. As a result I'm seriously thinking of changing out a couple gem sockets to get a slightly bigger mana pool for my retribution paladin.

I'm not quite sure if Blizzard wanted to improve the importance of mana management in PvP situations also. The recent changes to replenishment in PvP makes me suspect that it might have been done on purpose. I know feral druids in particular were famous for switching forms and using healing spells before jumping back into high dps mode. I'm guessing now with mana drains/burns being so effective that this is no longer a good idea. In general, the changes to mana regeneration are going to greatly shorten the times for arena matches. Since they were already pretty short I'm not sure if this was the best decision for Blizzard to make.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Stuck between a rock and a cannot launch additional instances message

Lately, I've been helping some friends out by running non-heroic instances with their alts. It's fairly easy to mix and match our characters so that we can complete a dungeon quickly and still have a good mix of classes that use different armor types. Most of my friends have two talent builds and one of them is usually a damage build. Thus when we do an alt run we avoid using any tanks and just have all the mains switch over to their dps build. This allows us to speed through the non-heroic instances at the cost of a rare death or two on a large pull. It's a good system especially if we get two paladins using divine storm and seal of light. However, we been having problems recently with creating instances and keep getting the dreaded "Cannot Create Additional Instances at this Time" message. Last night it took 15 minutes of knocking our head against an instance portal before we finally got one created for our group.

Most of the issues are being caused by the high number of people returning to World of Warcraft for the Ulduar patch. I understand that the concurrent users for the game are highly cyclical and peak around patch releases. However, it seems as if Blizzard is using this as an excuse to ignore the problem or simply roll out additional resources at a slower pace. There's also the possibility their key network people are involved in milestones for other projects at the moment. Whatever the root cause the problem has grown much worse this week and seems especially noticeable if you try to do anything, but a heroic Northend dungeon. I'm guessing that Blizzard has some sort of resource queue on the instance servers which gives priority to certain instances. This is a real pain at the moment since it seems to me that lower level characters doing non heroics are more vulnerable to being stuck outside an instance. Plus, if a non 80 is stuck outside an instance for more then three seconds it seems to send a whisper to everyone on the opposing faction.

I don't really mind a makeshift battle royales when there is a fighting chance of winning, but its almost always a massacre when running a non 80 group. The entrance for normal and heroic instances are shared and that means you often have mid level seventies in blues fighting against players in Naxx gear. It's not pretty, especially since the "Cannot Create Additional Instances" message means the victors will definitely be corpse camping the losers. I used to think if you had some patience this wasn't too bad an issue. You just wait until the higher level group finally gets into an instance then you rez. However, a couple of times I ran into situations where after rezzing my group still couldn't create an instance and then a new group of eighties appeared. It can be very frustrating and if you have any PUG players in your group they tend to leave. Also I've seen evidence of high level players creating an instance and leaving one person inside it so they farm honor from people who are stuck outside.

It's an ugly situation right now and there's a few things that could be done in the future to prevent the issue.

1) Create additional instance servers for the love of god.
How expensive could they be? I have a feeling its not a matter of cost, but simply that all of Blizzard's network engineers are involved in getting the new Battle.Net ready for Starcraft 2, Diablo 3, and the new MMO.

2) Design new dungeons with separate entrances for heroics and normals
It's doesn't require much additional effort and even a little distance between the two would prevent slaughters.

3) Improve the resource handling of instance servers
I'm not sure what sort of system is currently used by Blizzard. I hope they at least take into account how many people are in a the group that is trying to create an instance. A single level 80 trying to make money in a old world instance shouldn't have priority over a group of 70's trying to do a non-heroic nexus run.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Exorcism and the Pally Burst Damage Problem

I haven't been playing MMO's as much recently with work being pretty busy and forcing me to cut down on the days I could raid. For the last couple months it pretty much came down to being able to play games or write about them. However, with the release of the Ulduar patch in World of Warcraft I thought it would be a good idea to go ronin for a bit and leave my guild. This gives me some actual free time to try out some of the non raid content in the patch and experiment with the new dual spec system. I'm still playing a paladin as my main and as a hybrid class he probably benefits the most from being able to keep two different specs. That's not to say other classes don't benefit greatly from the dual spec system. Even pure dps classes like rogues and hunters can tailor their talent choices for PvE or PvP damage.

Since I wasn't going to be raiding much I decided to try out having two damage builds for my paladin. My primary build was a classic retribution build which goes slightly into the protection tree for some increased survivability. However, for my secondary build I wanted to do something a little more off the wall. Since I have a decent collection of healing gear in the bank I decided to try a shockadin build by going just deep enough in the holy tree to grab holy shock. It wasn't that bad of a PvP build since holy shock, exorcism, and judgement dealt a nice amount of burst damage. Plus, the build had enough holy talents where it was possible to heal team members in arenas. I didn't get a chance to test it, but I figured that a paladin could quickly unload all three instant cast spells and still keep two team members alive.

Of course the problem with exorcism is that it's a class-wide spell and pure retribution paladins also got a decent boost to their burst damage from it. Blizzard obviously noticed this at the last minute and decided to change exorcism so it doesn't work on other players. It's a shame to lose a interesting build, but I can see why Blizzard felt they had to nerf the ability. Paladins have long had a problem with all their abilities being dependent on cooldowns instead of a system like rage or combo points. This allows very nice burst damage, but also makes their sustained damage much weaker then other classes. Blizzard was pretty much forced to make exorcism usable on living mobs since Ulduar doesn't have undead mobs. However, adding another ability dependent on a cooldown just further aggravated the burst damage problem.

Blizzard really does seem stumped on what to do here and moderators on the forums have actually asked players to share ideas. Rohan's idea of using stacks of vengeance as a resource which are consumed by special abilities is pretty good. I also like how Warhammer Online had a lot of hybrid classes that had abilities that were dependent on players healing and dealing damage. This isn't exactly doable for World of Warcraft at the moment, since the targeting system in the game makes it hard to switch back and forth. However, paladins do have a number of self healing abilities. Thus if new damage abilities were conditional on paladin's having a full health bar then you could successfully prevent overwhelming burst damage in PvP situations. It's an idea somewhat similar to the current incarnation of Seal of the Martyr.

Using Full Health to limit burst damage:

1) Change some current paladin abilities to work like seal of the martyr
Example: Make Crusader Strike hit harder, but also deal damage to the paladin.

2) Add an ability which can only be used at full health
Example: Righteous Scorn = Exorcism that can only be used at full health, but deals damage to the paladin. The cooldown could be rather short so that during a raid the paladin could use it more often if they are being healed.

3) Adjust healing effects on abilities like Divine Storm
Example: Ideally a paladin would have to use multiple Divine Storms to recover from the damage dealt by Righteous Scorn.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Which MMOs could be shut down in the near Future?

SOE recently announced that the last full developer for the Matrix Online was leaving the company this month. The sci-fi MMO had been picked up from Warner Brothers after a disappointing launch in 2005 and been on life support since then. Luckily, the all-access pass has generated enough interest in the game that SOE felt justified keeping a small development team on the project. By all accounts this small dev team has mostly consisted of just Ben "Rarebit" Chamberlain over the last few months. The quality and amount of updates are expected to go down as a result.

The news about the Matrix Online got me thinking about some of the 2009 predictions I made. One of which was that SOE would have to take a couple of MMOs off their all-access pass to make room for new games. While it probably costs very little to keep an already established MMO running there are other reasons why companies shut them down. Some publishers like NCSoft simply see under performing MMOs as an embarrassment which negatively effects their brand name. Still others like SOE have been keeping several games running which barely break even on subscription fees and take resources away from more populated virtual worlds.

In particular, SOE has two games on their all-access pass which are barely played by subscribers. If my understanding of the pass is correct then each game receives a percentage of the subscription revenue based on how popular they are. Planetside and the Matrix Online both have niche fan bases and I wonder if they can continue to support themselves. The recent announcement by SOE makes me suspect that future development for the Matrix Online will be sparse and that it could be shut down in the near future.

NCSoft is the other company that will be probably be shutting down more then one game in the near future. Tabula Rasa is scheduled to go offline at the end of this month even though subscription numbers were projected to be good enough to keep the game's servers running. Still as I said before NCSoft isn't interested in maintaining hobby sized MMO worlds that barely turn a profit. This policy is what has me worried about City of Heroes. Champions Online will launch this year and DC Universe won't be far behind it. While City of Heroes/Villains is currently staying above the 100k subscription mark I wonder if it can maintain those numbers in the face of so much competition.

Funcom is almost not worth mentioning since all of their games seem to be on shaky ground at the moment. Both Anarchy Online and Age of Conan were released with horrendous bugs and needed further development time. I get the feeling that Funcom is incapable of moving into the post-WoW era of MMO development and might not be around for much longer. If their next game, The Secret World, isn't a decent hit then I suspect the company might be sold off. At least Age of Conan is a good enough game that I could see another publisher keeping it running.

Turbine is probably the only development studio I'm not worried about. Even though the original Asheron's Call can't have more then 50k subscribers, I think it's enough to keep the game afloat. After all Dungeons and Dragons is only projected at having around 70k subscribers and Turbine is still producing updates at a decent rate. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if Turbine eventually started their own all-access pass since they are gathering a sizable library of quality MMOs. Of course they would probably need to announced their next project to get a lot of interest in their all-access pass. Here's hoping that the rumors of Turbine acquiring the Harry Potter license has some truth to it.

Keep in mind this is just based on my opinion, but I suspect the following games of being shut down within the next year or two for a variety of reasons.

Guaranteed Closing in 2009
Tabula Rasa

Suspected Closing in 2009
Matrix Online (Crowded All-Access Pass)
Planetside (Replaced by newer FPS MMO The Agency)

Suspected Closing in 2010
City of Heroes/Villains (Competition from CO and DCU)
Anarchy Online (If Funcom bankrupts)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Jeff Kaplan officially moves on to the new Blizzard MMO

Everyone has their own two cents on what Jeff Kaplan leaving World of Warcraft means for the game. Most agree that the decision to move onto Blizzard's new MMO is related to the raid changes that Wrath of the Lich King brought to the game. One theory is that upper management demanded a reduction in raid difficulty and that caused a irrevocable difference of opinion with the lead developer. It's not a far fetched theory since Tigole has been know for being outspoken in his design ideas and achiever like mentality. After all as the developer who coined the phrase "welfare epics" he's sort of become a symbolic representation of everything casual gamers hate about raiding. Still if I remember correctly, during last year's Blizzcon he was already saying that a majority of his time was devoted to the new MMO.

This probably means that he's been working on the project for quite some time and hasn't been that involved with Wrath of the Lich King from the start. That not only explains why the raid content in the new expansion is easier, but also why there is so little of it. It must have somewhat slowed the development team down to lose their expert raid designer. While I'm not a fan of Jeff' Kaplan's high level design ideas, I'll admit that he does quality work. Under his lead the raiding in World of Warcraft had excellent art direction and some very interesting boss encounters. Of course most of us never got to see this content so I'm not that sad to see him moving on. In fact, one of the first posts on this site was about his focus on raid content and the problems it was causing. I only hope that Blizzard's new MMO benefits from his expertise without running into the same problems.

I also have to say I'm very interested to see what Blizzard's new MMO is all about. I've been holding out for one set in the Starcraft universe, but I just don't see that fitting in with Jeff's design style. In fact I'm starting to think more and more that Blizzard is working on a new fantasy IP for their next game. Jeff seems like a fantasy guy and I just don't seem him designing raid encounters for spaceships and marine squads. Then again I could be wrong, maybe after six and half years he's tired of elves and orcs.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Visiting the Old School

Just a few days ago I actually ran through all of Blackwing Lair for the first time ever. It was a big moment for me since my original raiding guild had just started doing that instance before we took a break from raiding. Before that we had ignored a lot of the higher end raids and primarily focused on Molten Core, Onxyia, and Zul'Gurub. It was slow going to get loot from old world instances especially for a casual guild that only raided three nights a week. I remember sometimes going three weeks without any upgrades and I know some people who played more popular classes having even worse dry spells. That's probably why my guild sort of went on hiatus when the new honor system came out. All of sudden it became possible to see your progression towards earning a upgrade and everyone sort of forgot about seeing BWL, AQ, or Naxx.

Wrath of the Lich King changed all of that of course. It wasn't just that Blizzard reused Naxxramas for raid content either. The achievement system revitalized the idea of going back and playing tourist in old raid zones. Not only could players get a chance to see content they missed, but they could make some money at the same time. Daily quests may be a faster way to make money, but they get boring real quick. Also I don't know about you, but the old world armor sets seem to have more pizazz then what we have now in Wrath of the Lich King. Tier 7 makes me want to gouge my eyes out, especially when compared to the glorious Tier 2 from Blackwing Lair. I'm convinced half the interest in old world raid zones come from people who regret deleting their earlier armor sets. I'll have to admit I'm one of them.

It's funny that while I'm having a lot of fun in Naxxramas, I'm equally enjoying the other old raid zones that didn't get upgraded loot tables. It's all new content to me and I guess part of it is the challenge of figuring out how to do old raid content with a single group. None of us know these fights from previous experience so we are learning by trial and error. We could easily look it up on wowhead, but that would defeat the purpose. Encounters like Chromaggus and Ebonroc have tricks to them and it's actually fun to figure them out yourselves when a single misstep doesn't kill everyone. I think that's the idea that Blizzard is chasing with the move to more casual raiding. They may have started out by making the raids in Wrath of the Lich King a little too easy, but they are on to something. Now if they could just get the artists back from their other projects so we could get decent looking gear again.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Should developers design raids around Latency?

Over the last couple weeks I've been having fun learning the raid encounters in Wrath of the Lich King. I've mostly been absent from the raid scene since the Karazhan hump broke up a couple of my guilds. However, I was tempted back after I kept hearing how casual the new raids were in the expansion. So far it seems true and I've found both the 10-man and 25- man versions a lot of fun. The fights I especially like are the ones that are more involved and require coordinated movements. I think my favorite is the DDR like strategy required for Heigan, but Thaddeus and Grobulus are also fun. However, I've noticed that these fights can be inherently harder on the 25-man versions because of random latency issues.

The effort of coordinating twenty-five players is always going to be harder then coordinating ten players, but that's not the only reason that the heroic raids are more difficult. Increasing a raid to twenty-five players also makes a raid more vulnerable to one person with latency issues causing a wipe. This is especially true on Thaddues where one person with the wrong polarity at the wrong spot can kill everyone. Sometimes just a second delay on a player's screen is all it takes. If that weren't the case then the frogger slimes after Patchwerk wouldn't claim so many people. I shudder to think how Naxx must have been back when it required a raid of forty players all having good latency.

I guess this is why back in the day Naxx was for hardcore raiders only. Hardcore raiders not only had the free time to devote to these encounters, but they also had stable Internet connections. Guilds that got to Naxx back when it was forty man had to kick anyone who was slow on coordinated movement encounters. The worst part is that it's very tricky to tell if a player was being slow because of skill or if they simply had a small bit of lag on their connection. Designing around latency has always been an issue with MMOs and limited their design. The reason auto-attacks and hot buttons are used by everyone is because real time combat is vulnerable to lag. Just look at how useless combos were in Age of Conan's PvP combat.

The developers originally designed fights like Thaddeus because Naxx was supposed to be for the most hardcore raiders. This meant the developers could assume everyone had perfect Internet connections. Now though with raiding being more casual it's probably irresponsible to design encounters like it. Oh, I admit the idea of the polarity shift mechanic is genius especially on a Frankenstein like monster. However, it shouldn't kill everyone in the raid if someone has a connection that lags out every once and awhile. At most latency issues should kill the one person in the raid who had them. This means that a casual guild only has to make sure the main tank and his healer has ironclad connections. If Blizzard is serious about keeping raid encounters more casual then they might want to take into account that all cable modem connections are not created equal.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Did the bugged Arena Matching System include ilevel?

The aftermath of 3.0.8 continues to be felt as both Lake Wintergrasp and the Arenas were closed down soon after the patch went live. I was lucky enough to get a few games of Lake Wintergrasp in on Tuesday, but didn't have time to delve into any arena games. Apparently the entire rating system had become broken with matches resulting in weird and excessive rating changes. Sometimes a team's rating was changing by more then 50 points per match. The source of the problem was a new matching system that was snuck into the patch. Testing the arena point system is almost impossible on the PTR and apparently the issue snuck by internal testers. Hopefully, this isn't a sign that Blizzard had to lay off some of their QA staff like Warhammer.

Most of the items that were include in the patch were supposed to be bug fixes for items and classes. It doesn't really make sense to also include an update to the arena matching system. The previous system worked quite well at matching teams against one another based on their respective ratings. The addition of personal ratings prevented people from smurfing or buying spots on higher ranked teams. However, I've mentioned before that "ringers" or well equipped people joining lower ranked teams would still be a problem. This is because the matching system never looked at item ilevel when determining match-ups and thus ringers would pop up as players maxed out on current PvP gear.

I suspected that the new matching system might have used some sort of new value connected to a team's item ilevel. A similar system was introduced to battlegrounds a couple years ago, but had to be taken out because it caused queue times to become too long. Arena games are a different animal altogether and players most likely wouldn't experience the same increase in queue times. However, it looks like whatever change Blizzard made to the system adversely affected the rating changes. This is just conjecture, but I believe this new hidden value for match-ups was causing point changes to team ratings to be applied twice.

We'll know for sure when Blizzard reactivates the arena system though who knows if they will move forward with the new matching system or continue to use the old one. I personally dislike the practice of ringers and find a rating system that uses a combination of ilevel and current team rating the best for match-ups. However, I dislike that Blizzard felt the need to sneak this into a patch. I guess we all know how sensitive the issue of arena epics are to some players and Blizzard obviously wanted to avoid player outrage.

If the change in the matching system did add some sort of ilevel value to the formula then it would mean that lesser geared players could more easily increase their rank. Blizzard might have decided to not mention the change in hopes of avoiding trolls from bringing up the "welfare epics" issue. Then again this could have been a small change to the arena matching system formula which was mishandled. Though it does seems unusual for a small change to an old system to cause that many problems. Blizzard usually experiences unintended consequences on new content.