Thursday, June 30, 2011

Age of Conan Goes F2P

Age of Conan goes Free-2-Play today or tomorrow.

It's odd, because the truth is that I ragged a lot on this game when it came out, but AoC has somehow become my favorite non-WoW MMO. I'm not 100% sure why, but here's a list of reasons that you should try out AoC.

1. Sensibility

It has a very different feel than a lot of other MMOs. The setting feels older and rawer. A lot of MMOs feel quasi-Medieval-Renaissance, but AoC is Bronze or Iron Age.

2. Similar, yet different.

AoC is similar enough to WoW that it's easy to adjust to. But it's also significantly different, and at a deeper level than you'd expect. For example, AoC is a tank-healer-dps trinity game. But the default group is 2 tanks, 2 healers, and 2 dps, and that makes the actual experience very unique.

It often seems to me that AoC tries new things at a deeper level than the other game companies. Sometimes they fail, but I give credit for the attempt.

3. Music

The music in Cimmeria is amazing.

Conclusions

Give Age of Conan a shot. You might be pleasantly surprised.

One piece of advice, you really need a good set of keybinds in this game. It makes a huge difference. I use the numpad on my keyboard, and have 4,5,6 bound to the direction attacks and 1-3 and 7-9 bound to specials.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Fandral Staghelm

I have always liked Fandral Staghelm.

To me, Fandral was the only character who treated your new character the way she should have been treated. All other friendly NPCs fawn over your character, giving them praise that they haven't really earned yet. Fandral, on the other hand, was all "Why is this level 10 noob bothering me? Here, go take a message to Darkshore."

The thing is that Fandral (as originally presented) wasn't a nice character, but he was a good character. That distinction is not often made. Far too often, nice is synonymous with good. Bad characters are mean to you, good characters are nice to you.

I also like that he wasn't a passive character, like Tyrande. He tried to fix things, even if the solutions were not perfect. He didn't get help from the Dragon Aspects (the majority of which had disappeared or gone rogue), but he kept on going anyways. He was arrogant and ambitious, but seemed genuinely concerned with his people.

In the Ahn'Quiraj patch, I really enjoyed the way Blizzard fleshed out Fandral's back story. The loss of his son at the moment of victory made him sympathetic, and understandable.

But with Cataclysm, Blizzard has made Fandral into a villain. Apparently the simplistic case is correct. If an NPC is mean, he is a bad guy.

Even the Morrowgrain storyline backs this up. Some no-name druid tells you Fandral is using Morrowgrain for evil purposes, and instead of telling you to stop collecting Morrowgrain, tells you to bring it to him instead. Yeah, that's not the least bit suspicious. But since Quentis Jonespyre was nice to you, and Fandral was mean, clearly Quentis is the good guy.

And all the challenges Fandral struggled with? Mary-Sue-Furion comes back, and then everyone else (like the Dragon Aspects) fall over themselves to help him resolve all the problems easily.

Fandral was intriguing friendly NPC. In my view, having him "go evil" was a waste of a unique character, and merely reinforces a cartoonish "mean equals bad" way of looking at the world.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Blocked Player Advancement

Let's say that a player with a max-level character cannot raid for whatever reason. How then should she advance her character as the game progresses?

Options

There are three options.

1. She can't advance.

Also known as Vanilla WoW. The players only option is to quit or reroll a new character. This is a potentially viable solution, but the viability depends on how many people end up quitting. This option also probably has the highest "conversion rate" of raiders. If the only way the player can advance is raiding, than a lot of people will give raiding a try.

In all honesty, I think that this option might actually work better now than it did in Vanilla. Because of the 10/25 split, and the normal/hard mode split, it might actually be a lot easier to get into raid groups, or convert smaller guilds into raid guilds.

2. Advance through new content at her level

Blizzard makes new 5-man content. But new content costs resources to create, and there is a finite amount. As well, each "tier" of 5-man content fragments the player pool further, and makes it harder to assemble groups.

3. Advance by repeating existing content

Essentially running the current instances and either upgrading the gear that drops, or giving points to purchase better and better gear.

Analysis

Obviously, Blizzard has chosen a mix of options 2 and 3. New 5-mans are released every so often, and as the raid tiers are added, you can get better gear from Valor Points.

There is one further point to consider. Does advancing her character mean that the player must earn the best gear, or is it enough that the player only earns better gear than what she currently has?

Consider the idea that Valor Points don't exist. A non-raider would have gone up to i346 gear with some i359s from reputation. When the troll 5-man instances came out, she would upgrade all her i346s to i353s. When Firelands comes out, she upgrades those i353s to i359s, which are now available for Justice Points (which reset when the new raid comes out).

Would that be enough advancement to satisfy the non-raider?

Personally, I think it's good enough. And it has the side effect of removing Valor Points from the game. Let raid loot drop from raid bosses. If you want the best loot in the game, you get to deal with the random dungeon generator, as in Vanilla. I would change the Tier tokens to a single token for each armor type, and that would be enough. When Firelands comes out, those tokens can go on the Justice Point vendor.

This would be cleaner and simpler, and remove the need for over-geared people to run heroics. Heroics would remain the province of those people who needed to run them. People wouldn't expect everything to be AoE'd down. It would also have the side-effect of encouraging more people to try to step up to raiding, rather than just grinding heroics. But heroics also offer loot one step below the current raid tier, keeping a heroic geared character a viable recruit for all but the very edge guilds.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Root Problem

Before you read this post, go read Shintar's excellent An Annotated History of the Badge System. As you read over the history, it becomes quite obvious that the current Valor Point system we have evolved over time, and now serves several different purposes than it used to.

So let's take a step back. What is the root problem that Blizzard is trying to solve?

In my view, the original design of PvE went something like this: First, a player would do quests mostly solo. After a while, she would transition into small 5-man group content. After that, she would move onto larger group content, or raiding. Each step up would be more difficult, and would reward better gear.

The problem, though, was that not everyone was able to transition from stage to stage. In particular, the transition from small group content to large group content was particularly harsh in Vanilla. Players effectively became "blocked" from moving up.

So then the problem becomes two linked--but subtly different--questions: What does a blocked player do with her time? and How does a blocked player improve her character?

That's the primary function of Valor Points. They allow a player who is in the second stage to still advance her character, by engaging in second stage activities.

Valor/Justice Points also have a secondary function. They mitigate the randomness of loot drops. Enough points guarantee you loot.1

Finally, Valor/Justice Points serve a third function. They give players a small reward even if the player doesn't need loot off a specific boss.

But is the current design of Valor Points the best way to accomplish these functions? Are some of these functions even necessary? When looking at randomness, consider that the amount of loot per player has greatly increased since Vanilla. Combine that with a more generic token system for tier pieces, and smoothing out of loot distribution is pretty much unnecessary in Cataclysm.

And the small reward is also unnecessary. Indeed, the current daily heroic cuts against this idea. Since only the end boss of a heroic gives VP, there is great incentive to skip other bosses, even though they give JP.

That really only leaves the first and greatest purpose of VP, giving a path of character advancement for non-raiders. I will look at that issue in a future post.

1. Unlike, say, Cho'gall and paladin bracers.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Remove the Daily Heroic

Kleps had a post a while back on segregating the playbase. Basically, the idea is that groups are happiest when all the group members share the same goals and are roughly the same skill level.

I think there is some sense to that when you look at LFD groups. Levelling instances are pretty much on the same page, as are normal 85 instances. It's really only Heroics where a lot of the negativity and conflicts come into play.

This is because there are three separate groups running Heroics: people gearing up; non-raiders collecting Valor; and raiders supplementing the Valor gained from raiding. Yet the goals, methods, and standards of these three groups often conflict. People start complaining when the tank is new, or refuse to use CC, or skip bosses trying to get to the end as fast as possible.

But suppose that Heroic 5-mans never gave out Valor? That the only way you could get Valor is from raiding. What would happen?

Well, immediately, Heroics would become the province of those people who needed Justice points and Heroic blue gear. People who had "outgrown" heroics would not run them. Heroic groups would share the same purpose. People would not skip bosses. Tanks learning the ropes, or being less-geared, would be more understandable. CC would still be used, as it would be less likely that everyone would out-gear the instance.

A lot of other people have said that having Heroics give badges (the old equivalent of Valor), was the worst mistake made in the endgame. There is some truth to that. But it was done for a reason. It was done because people who did not raid 25-mans had no way of advancing their character. But in the current game, there are 10-man raids, 25-man raids, as well as normal and heroic versions. Pick-up groups are a lot more common.

Additionally, even with just Justice points a non-raider would still be able to advance her character. When new tier of raid gear comes out, the old tier rolls over to Justice points. Admittedly, the non-raider is behind the raider, but she can still advance and make her character more powerful as time passes. It isn't like Vanilla, where if you couldn't raid, that was it for you.

There are advantages for the raiders as well. They are freed of the necessity to run instances long after they have outgrown them.

The big question is if this will increase queue times. After all, forcing raiders into the Heroic LFD pool makes the pool larger, and more likely that groups will form. Now increased queue times are certainly possible. But consider that leveling groups and normal 85 groups still form with reasonable queue times. Those pools are not artificially inflated, and yet you can still get groups for those dungeons.

Badges of Justice dropping in Heroics was a necessary solution back in TBC. But in Cataclysm the options for endgame, and for advancing your character, are much wider. Valor points in Heroics are no longer necessary. The Heroic experience will be much better without them, when all participants are on the same page and share the same goals.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Holy Paladins in 4.2

Patch 4.2 appears to coming out pretty soon, and there actually a decent number of changes for PvE Holy Paladins. Here's the list of pertinent changes:

  • All healing critical strikes now heal for 2 times a normal heal (+100%), up from 1.5 times a normal heal (+50%).
  • Divine Light mana cost has been increased to 35% of base mana, up from 30%.
  • Flash of Light mana cost has been increased to 31% of base mana, up from 27%.
  • Holy Light mana cost has been increased to 12% of base mana, up from 10%.
  • Beacon of Light can no longer be dispelled. In addition, it now transfers 100% of the heal from Holy Light, but still 50% of the heal from other spells.
  • Holy Shock mana cost has been decreased to 7% of base mana, down from 8%.
  • Illuminated Healing (Mastery) has been adjusted slightly so that if a paladin refreshes an existing copy of his or her own Illuminated Healing on a target, the new absorption amount will be added into the old absorption amount and the duration will be reset. The total absorption created can never exceed 1/3 of the casting paladin's health.
  • Speed of Light now increases movement speed when Holy Radiance or Divine Protection are cast. In addition, this talent now reduces the cooldown of Holy Radiance by 13/26/40 seconds, up from 10/20/30.
  • Walk in the Light now improves Word of Glory healing by 30%, in addition to its current effects.

None of the changes are particularly drastic. Cumulatively, a Holy paladin should cast Divine Light less, and Holy Light more. Mastery smooths out, and critical strike rating becomes more valuable. You can use Holy Radiance more often, or have it available faster if you make a mistake with it. Word of Glory becomes much more powerful once again.

I'm actually planning to go back to the Word of Glory talents in 4.2.

For stat weights, mastery and critical strike rating both get a boost. The two stats also work well with each other. I'm not sure if either is better than haste, though.

One thing I'm considering is treating mastery, haste and crit as more or less equal, and only reforging to spirit. I'm not sure if this is a good idea, though. Haste is pretty hard to math out.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Holy Mastery Update

This may not go live, but on the 4.2 PTR, Holy Paladin Mastery shields are now stacking up to a maximum of 1/3 of the Holy Paladin's maximum health.

This is a pretty good change, in my view, and will probably be enough to bring Mastery up to a viable level.

Of course, there are still some concerns, specifically with Beacon of Light. BoL heals don't create shields, so your BoL target does not benefit from your mastery. It's perfectly fine for 2-tank situations, but Mastery does become a little weaker in 1-tank situations or if you prefer to heal your Beacon target for Tower of Radiance power gains.

And of course, it does encourage paladins to heal a tank who is already at full health, to build the shield higher. But on the whole, this should be a good change.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Healer UI

I was reading a thread on the WoW forums about what to look for in a healer app. The thread devolved into arguments about what is acceptable in a healer's User Interface.

Personally, I think that as long as you are comfortable with your UI and are effective with it, then all is good. I personally use Grid and the default UI. Mostly because I find that too many add-ons cause performance issues and unforseen bugs, and make patch days miserable.

However, here are my three criteria for evaluating healer UIs:

1. Can the healer see the health bars of the entire raid?

It seems pretty obvious, but back in the day there were a fair number of healers who only healed their group. Less common now that there is a decent default raid UI.

2. Can the healer see all relevant buffs and debuffs?

You must be able to see all the important buffs and debuffs in a fight. Ideally, your UI would allow you to filter the debuffs, so that you don't see the unimportant debuffs.

This is one of the major reasons I like Grid, because I really like its debuff filtering capabilities. Being able to get identify at a glance the people with Chimeron's Low Health debuff or Explosive Cinders on Heroic Nef makes healing those fights a lot easier.

3. Can the healer see the fight?

It's really easy as a healer to "tunnel vision" on your health bars. Sometimes your UI makes it even easier, and makes it harder to view the fight. But you have to be able to keep an eye on what's going around. A good healer UI, somewhat paradoxically, needs to emphasize the fight rather than the health bars.

The nature of healing drives the healer to focus on the health bars, and in some ways the UI should pull them in the other direction.

So those are my three criteria for judging healer UIs. But again, comfort and effectiveness are key.

However, I believe that all healers should be able to use the default UI if necessary. Your favorite addon could break, or stop being maintained, or cause you to crash on a specific fight. You should be able to at least be somewhat effective if you had to heal without third-party addons.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Basic Ability Conventions

I was running random Stockades on a low-level warrior, when I encountered a mage who was pretty obviously a new player. He wasn't a "bad" player, at least he did not pull mobs and roll need on everything. But his DPS was abysmal for that level.

Obviously, he had no heirlooms, so that made a difference. But more important was his spell mix.

He had Pyroblast, so he was a Fire mage. Except he never cast Fireball! He cast every single other spell in his repertoire instead. Frostbolts, Fireblasts, Frost Novas, Arcane Explosions, etc.

Clearly, this was the wrong thing to do. But when you think about it, there is a certain logic to his actions. First, he obviously saw Pyroblast as a "upgraded" Fireball. After all, why have two spells which hurl giant balls of fire at your enemies? And to be fair, there are specialization abilities which work like this. For example, Mangle replaces Claw for Feral druids.

As for the other spells, why have all these spells if you're not expect to use them? If you think about it, it does seem odd to drop half or more spells from your spellbook.

He is wrong, but he's not stupid. His reasoning makes some sense. And in the absence of easy to understand feedback, it's hard to tell that he's gone wrong.

Whenever people say that the levelling game is too easy, I think of players like this. We experienced players are used to the conventions of the genre, which extends to the abilities used. Ideas like "your best spell should be spammed" are a bit alien at first.

Even if you don't have the best reflexes, understanding those basic conventions can put you head and shoulders above new players who don't understand how abilities in the genre are supposed to work. We've internalized the math and advice that tells us to refresh DoTs when they expire and not before, to spam Fireball, to save instant spells for movement, to divide damage by cast time when evaluating effectiveness.

When you think about it, it is amazing how much knowledge we MMO players consider basic.