Thursday, April 17, 2014

Auction Houses and Mega-Servers

MMOs are moving towards a single-server model. But this brings up an interesting wrinkle with Auction Houses or markets.

Markets with a very large number of participants are hyper-efficient. As Diablo 3 and Guild Wars 2 proved, they are so efficient that they cease to be fun.  Margins get rapidly driven towards zero. While that's great for buyers, it's not so much fun for sellers or traders. And we're all sellers at some point, if only to sell a neat Bind-On-Equip item we found while leveling.

I think what the last few years in MMOs have shown is that markets need to be somewhat inefficient to be fun. They can't be too inefficient, as in the case of too small servers, because there needs to be enough supply, and somewhat predictable prices.

It is interesting to see how the current single-server MMOs are handling this issue. The grand-daddy of this model is Eve Online. Eve has many markets. Every solar system is a separate market. These markets are separated by distance and time. This setup is pretty good. Some systems (Jita, for example) get known as trade hubs. Moving goods between trade hubs provides for arbitrage and interesting gameplay for the goblins among us. It's also a system which feels very natural and realistic.

However, this setup requires that your universe be set up in a certain way, with significant travel time between each hub, and a population spread out across the universe. It is not really a model for themepark games where people tend to follow the same "flow" as they move from zone to zone.

The Elder Scrolls Online handles things slightly differently. Each guild has its own auction house. Each guild is capped at 500 members. But a player can belong to up to 5 guilds at the same time. So most players will end up joining two or three "trade" guilds, which are dedicated to trading. This does give a decent selection, and also allows for a bit of arbitrage between guilds.

The downsides here are that it does seem a little weird to have these continent-spanning guilds which cannot talk to each other. As well, most guilds will want their 500 players to be active. I'm not sure how someone who plays very casually, maybe logging in once or twice a week, would fit into these guilds. Too many of these types of players, and your guild market becomes dead.

All in all, this is an intriguing problem. As more and more MMOs move towards the single-server model, it will be interesting to see what new solutions are brought forward.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The End of Side Quests?

There was a surprising tidbit on MMO-Champion yesterday:

  • The Jade Forest quests had a very clear story, but it also had a lot of side quests that could bog you down.
  • In Warlords of Draenor, your map will show you where to go to continue the main storyline, along with the locations of bonus objectives.
  • The bonus objectives no longer have any story text that go with them, just a list of objectives. Now when there is quest text, you will know that it is really worth reading.
I am more surprised and dismayed by this than anything else I've seen about WoD.

I know a lot of people skip quest text, but aren't there a fair number of us who don't? Back when it was still an option, I used to turn scrolling quest text back on when leveling so I could focus on the story.

I am not really thrilled with this decision. In fact, I thought a major complaint about Cataclysm was the extreme linearity of the zones. A single main storyline sounds like it will be even more linear than Cataclysm was.

I also liked side-quest stories because they would often give different perspectives on the situation. Maybe the three quest givers would send you to the same place, but each had different priorities. Now there will always be one quest and one priority.


What I find is that this lacks context, lacks those small stories that weave together. For example, in Elwynn Forest in WoW, I really enjoy the Young Lovers questline. It's nothing amazing, you take a note from Maybell Maclure to Tommy Joe Stonefield, get Grandma Stonefield to direct you to her old suitor, the alchemist William Pestle, kill some mulocs for ingredients for an invisibility potion, and give the potion to Maybell so she can elope. Nothing amazing, just a short little story. But I guess I'm a romantic at heart, so I always enjoy doing that questline. 
The thing is that, so far, the hearts in GW2 really lack that. They're just a bar on the screen to be filled with repetitive tasks. And the tasks don't really build on each other to form a story, except in the vaguest, most general sense. (There are bandits attacking the farm. You kill the bandits. The farm is saved.) It's also very UI-driven. At least normal questing has a semblance of interacting with the people in the world. 
Now, in the end, maybe normal questing is just the same. That the stories of side quests are just an illusion, a fig leaf over reality, and it's all about filling up many smaller bars instead of one bigger bar. But it turns out that I like--and maybe even need--that illusion. 
GW2 Hearts are quests for people who think that skipping through instant quest text is too much work.

Now WoW decides to follow in those footsteps. Apparently quests in WoD are quests for people who think that skipping through instant quest text is too much work.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Long Wait For Warlords of Draenor

It's pretty apparent to everyone that the current drought of content in WoW is going to be the longest since the game began.

It's rather interesting in light of how the expansion began. The first few patches came really fast. Almost too fast, in my opinion. Blizzard could have easily added another month to each of 6.1, 6.2 and 6.3. That would have spread out the content better.

But they didn't. At that point in time, Blizzard obviously believed that they would hit the deadline for the faster schedule. So I wonder what changed.

My theory is that they had to scrap a lot of already designed work and restart at some point. Maybe it wasn't up to their standards, or just wasn't working out.

Another possibility is that they wanted to make significant technical changes (perhaps the change to the new file format), and that ended up taking significantly longer than expected. Though I am not really certain that significant technical changes would have held up all the content generation.

I don't think, however, that Blizzard is delaying the expansion because they can, or because the "suits" felt it was the path to maximum revenue. Rather, I think something happened after the start of Mists, probably after 6.3, that made delaying the expansion the lesser of two evils.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Azeroth Choppers

I often find the MMO community to be rather snobbish and close-minded.

Take Blizzard's latest advertising venture, Azeroth Choppers:


It's an interesting effort to cross over into a market that may not have yet played WoW. At this point, the gaming community is probably saturated, with everyone at least having tried WoW.

Plus the existing mechano-hog/chopper in game are very popular mounts, especially since they were the first ones to allow passengers with the sidecar.

I think Blizzard should do more of this style of marketing. Some of it will work, some of it won't. But I think it shows some degree of inventiveness.

Heh, I think Blizzard should make an effort to sneak a Warcraft novel into the romance section of the bookstore. A full-out bodice-ripper. They could hire a recognized author in the romance genre. The trick would be to downplay the Warcraft part enough so that the bookstores don't automatically class the novel as fantasy. It would be interesting to see if they could pull that off.

Actually, to me, the most interesting part of Azeroth Choppers is that Blizzard is comfortable with giving a reward to only one faction. Or put another way, giving the reward to all players, but only allowing characters of one faction to use it. Both those formulations are the same thing, but they sound very different.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Holy Paladin Talents in Warlords

Let's take a look at the upcoming level 100 Holy Paladin talents in Warlords of Draenor.

The first thing to note is that Blizzard is effectively making different talents for each spec. The three Holy talents are completely different than the Retribution and Protection talents. Retribution and Protection do share two talents, but have a different third talent.

Beacon of Faith - Mark a second target as a Beacon, mimicking the effects of Beacon of Light.

Pretty straightforward, but also very easy to use and understand. Great in raids where you can simply beacon both tanks. In 5-mans, it's probably weaker, but you can always beacon yourself and not have to worry about your own health.

Note that if AoE healing becomes significantly weaker, this might prove to be quite powerful, as you are now healing three people at the same time with your single-target spells.

Beacon of Insight - Places a beacon of insight on an ally, increasing their healing received from your next direct single-target heal within 1 min by 30%. When consumed, or when the target reaches full health, it moves to the most injured ally within 40 yards. Limit 1.

One of your injured allies will always have a buff giving a boost to your heal. However, it is a little unpredictable in practice, as it will bounce around the group. But as it always bounces to the the most-injured ally, that probably is the one you should heal.

Heh, in some respects, this reminds me of that old Vanilla mod which would arrange players by health, and the healer would just heal the top bar. You could probably do a semi-decent job just by chasing the beacon around.

One open question is how Blizzard defines "most injured". Is it most injured as percent of health, as absolute amount of health remaining, or absolute amount of health lost? Each of those scenarios results in slightly different patterns in the bouncing. For example, absolute amount of health lost means the beacon will usually jump to a tank. Absolute amount of health remaining means it will probably bounce around the dps.

Saved by the Light - When you or your Beacon of Light target drop below 30% health, you instantly grant the injured target a protective shield, absorbing up to 30% of their maximum health for 10 sec. You cannot shield the same person this way twice within 1 min.

I will assume that this means that if you drop below 30%, you get a shield. If the beacon target drops below 30%, she gets a shield.

This is excellent for single tank fights, giving your tank another emergency cooldown. I don't think the personal shield will see much use in PvE, but it's always helpful to have. I can see this being the talent of choice in PvP, though.

The thing about this talent is that if things go well, it will never be used. But it might also be the factor which prevents a wipe and results in a successful kill. It's very strong against unexpected spikes.

On the other hand, the other two talents will straight up increase your throughput. That increased throughput might prevent the tank from ever getting that low in the first place.

Conclusions

I think all three talents are pretty interesting. I would probably use Beacon of Faith for raids, and one of the other two for 5-mans. But I can see it depending a lot on the fight and what your assignment is.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

First Impressions of The Elder Scrolls Online

I am not yet sure if The Elder Scrolls Online is a good game. But if you have any interest in MMOs from an observational or theoretical point of view, you really should give this game a spin.

ESO does so many things differently from what has become the norm. It is worth seeing exactly how things change.

For example, there is no minimap. I found this to be a surprisingly huge change. Apparently I primarily navigate by minimap, rather than looking at the world. The loss of the minimap seems to force you into the world a bit more, make you navigate by recognizing landmarks.

It's also amusing that your character uses a map animation when you bring up the map. So a very common sight is seeing other adventurers standing around looking at their map. Everyone is slightly lost and trying to figure out where they are.

ESO is the first game in a while that feels like it is in a world once again, rather than a highly-choreographed play or façade.

Character Creation

Character creation is pretty extensive. There are 9 races (though most are variants of human and elf) that give you a base to work with. There's a billion sliders where you can change your face and body shape.

I'm beginning to hate these slider-based character creators. I'm terrible with them. I simply cannot make a decent-looking character. I'll get something that is not bad, but then I'll log in a day later and it just looks worse and worse.

Sadly, I'm beginning to look at extensive character creators as a negative. The game company artists are much better than me at this sort of stuff, and I would prefer to leverage their expertise.

Basics

The game can be played in first or third person. I switched to third person pretty quickly, mostly because it is what I am used to. The mouse is locked to the center of the screen, and pretty much everything is handled by targeting the element and pressing E.

The color scheme is more towards the realistic, rather than the cartoony. It seems fine to me.

There are tons of barrels and bags that you can ransack. Most of them have pretty useless stuff, but this seems traditional for an Elder Scrolls game.

Abilities

The ability system is pretty interesting. It's a cross between a point-based system and a use-based system.  Basically skills come from a lot of different areas. Some come from your class, some come from the type of weapon you use, some from armor, some from your race, etc. You can invest points in picking up skills, and put 5-6 skills on your bar. Those 5-6 skills level up as you do stuff.

The skill system is a bit wide open. You can take healing abilities as any class, or tanking abilities. Of course, the class skills emphasize the role, so I don't know how effective going against type will be.

Combat

Combat consists of your hotkeys, plus left-click to attack, hold left-click to do a big attack, right-click to block, right-click + left-click to interrupt.  It is certainly serviceable, and is "good enough".

However, my first thought after engaging in combat was "I wish the TERA team had done this combat." Combat is very similar to TERA combat, only TERA combat is far superior in performance and responsiveness.

Heh, in a lot of ways, ESO world-building and design, combined with TERA combat, would have been an amazing game.

Questing

Quests are interesting. There are relatively few of them, but they are long, multi-stage affairs. You can only track one quest at a time, which somewhat forces you to focus.

As well, there's lots of activities that aren't tied into the formal questing system. For example, I found a treasure map on a pirate I killed. It showed a sketch of a tower on a hill, with several large rocks in the foreground. As I was wandering around, I saw the tower. I found the correct perspective that matched the sketch, and dug where the map was marked. And I found treasure!

All that didn't involve the formal quest system at all.

Conclusions

I am not very far in yet. I cannot tell you whether The Elder Scrolls Online is a good game or a bad game. But I can say for certain that it is an interesting game. And sometimes, that's enough.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Draenor Perks

From the patch notes:

Draenor Perks is a new feature that adds rewards for leveling. Over levels 91 to 99, you will earn these 9 new Draenor Perk in a random order. Each class and specialization has a different set of 9 Draenor Perks.
The perks for Holy Paladins are:

  • Empowered Beacon of Light - Your single-target heals heal your Beacon of Light target for 10% more.
  • Improved Daybreak - Increases the healing from Daybreak by 100%.
  • Improved Holy Light - Increases the healing from Holy Light by 20%.
  • Improved Denounce - Increases the damage done by Denounce by 20%.
  • Empowered Holy Shock - Increases the damage done by Holy Shock by 20%.
  • Enhanced Holy Shock - Your Holy Light and Flash of Light have a 10% chance to cause your next Holy Shock to not trigger a cooldown.
  • Improved Flash of Light - Increases the healing Flash of Light by 20%.

As you can see, these are small passives that boost your abilities. Something to make up for missing talents while leveling. Something you gain at each level. Yet at max level, every character will have all the perks.

The only problem I have is with the fact that the perks will be given out randomly. I don't think this is a good idea. It will lead to more disappointment.

To see what I mean, imagine you are a masochist and leveling as Holy during the expac. You look at the perks at level 90, and you really hope that you get Improved Denounce or Empowered Holy Shock at 91, as those two will greatly help with questing.  However, you only have a 2/9 or 22% chance of getting what you want. 88% of the time, you will be disappointed.

Randomness is not a good idea for one-time rewards. Imagine that there is a quest which rewarded 1 of 3 different mounts. But the mount a player gets is randomly determined from those three. There would be great unhappiness, as 66% of the population would not get the mount they wanted.

Another example happened to me in Diablo 3 a couple days ago. The first time you kill the last boss in D3, you are guaranteed a Legendary. I got an amazing staff, with 50% more DPS than my current weapon, gobs of intellect, and two other much-desired stats. Unfortunately, I was playing a Crusader.

(At least my Enchantress follower is happy. On paper she now does twice as much damage as my Crusader.)

The same principle was involved. A one-time reward was determined randomly, and the potential for disappointment was higher because of it. Randomness really only works when content is repeatable.

Blizzard should either allow us to choose which perk we get as we level, or give out the perks in a set order. The perks are not an appropriate place for randomness. People will end up associating Draenor Perks with disappointment. It is very unlikely that they will be lucky enough to get the Perks they want when they want them.