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.