Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sith Inquistor Done!

The following contains significant spoilers for the Sith Inquistor storyline in The Old Republic.

I finished my third class storyline in The Old Republic: the Sith Inquisitor. By and large it was a very good story. However, it did have two major flaws.

The first flaw was the motivation behind the villain for Chapters 2 and 3, Darth Thanaton. He is presented as a arch-traditionalist who takes you in dislike for violating traditions (I think). However, I could never really understand exactly why he felt this way.

Your master, Lord Zash, uses you to kill her master, Darth Skotia, in Chapter 1. I think this is supposed to be the non-traditional move that Thanaton opposes. But Sith killing Sith is a normal state of affairs. The primary rule seems to be "don't get caught". Zash arranges things such that she has an ironclad alibi for Skotia's murder.

As far as I can tell, this is pretty much standard for Sith. I don't see what the tradition that got violated was. So I don't really know why Thanaton became the enemy. I think that Bioware did a poor job explaining the motivations of the main villain, and as a result, my attitude to him was more confused or bemused than anything else.

The second flaw is that there were two major strands in the Inquistor story, and they were not in balance. One strand was all about Force ghosts and ancient mystic secrets. The second strand was about building a power base. The force ghost strand becomes too dominant for much of the game, with the power base coming in second. Then at the very end there is a abrupt and jarring shift in focus to the power and political game.

I think either the Force ghost story should have been the sole focus of the Inquisitor story, or its importance should have been reduced slightly, and the power base story been expanded in scope.

Ignoring those two flaws, the story was very enjoyable. If you just accepted that Thanaton was the villain, or that the Force ghosts were not involved in the last bit, the story went very nicely. I actually was neutral in alignment, some light and some dark, and I think it worked out quite well. I started Light Side, but then some NPCs became annoying, and the [Shock] option became too tempting.

Mechanically, the Sorceror was a fun class. I played as a healer for the last 25 levels or so, and it was quite viable. I would run with a tank, Khem Val, let him gather everything up, and then DoT things up, or Force Storm for AoE, and keep healing Khem.

I did try using a DPS companion a few times. I found that though the DPS companion did more damage, I kept getting aggro from the other mobs in the group, and I had heal both myself and my companion. I found that to be more annoying than just keeping Khem healed up.

Now what story next? I am thinking Trooper, to get the last buff and to balance Imperial/Republic. I was thinking of going Dark Side, but I'm having a real hard time being the bad guy.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Why LFR?

Here's a really interesting thread from the MMO-Champion forums: Why Do You Choose LFR Over Raid Guilds? There's a lot of chatter about LFR, and how negative the experience is, etc. So one person decided to ask about the other side of the coin, and the responses are extremely enlightening.

The main reason given, naturally, is time and scheduling concerns. This was predictable, and indeed is a strength of LFR.

However, the other major trend is that a lot of people hated the raid guild atmosphere. The drama, the way people were treated, etc.

If LFR is widely considered to be a negative experience in terms of the people involved, it should be of major concern that many people see the raid guilds as worse. That LFR actually provides them with a more pleasurable experience, in addition to being more convenient.

I really like proper, extended raiding with a solid raid team. I am lucky enough to be in one in The Old Republic.  But if a majority, or even a significant minority, find LFR to be a better experience than raid guilds, then there's no way raid guilds will survive.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Gambling and Lockboxes

After the discussion on F2P last week, the conversation turned to lock-boxes. These are items which you purchase with real money, where the contents of the box is unknown. Lock-boxes are becoming more and more common in F2P games.

I think a lot of how you feel about lock-boxes depends on how you feel about gambling.

Gambling

I am ambivalent about gambling. Making a small bet on a sporting event, or buying lottery tickets every so often doesn't seem that bad to me.  But playing hand after hand of blackjack--losing some hands, winning some hands, the losing more hands--feels wrong.

In some ways it's the difference between luck and probability. On a small scale, Lady Luck dominates. But as the number of repetitions increases, the Law of Large Numbers kicks in, and the outcome approaches the expected value. And in all gambling games, the expected value is negative so that the house or bookie makes  money.

Maybe it's an idiosyncratic view, but I'm okay with betting on the outcome of a football game. But I wouldn't be okay with betting on the outcome of each play within that game. The odds offered will favor the house, and enough repetition means the house's edge becomes mathematically real.

I also don't approve of casinos. I once went to a local casino. In my mind, I had an image of a casino, mostly formed by movies and television. Some place where the people are slightly dressed up, with cards and dice, and all the traditional trappings.

The reality of the casino was rows and rows of slot machines. Something like 80% of the floor was dedicated to slots. People didn't even use coins! They had a plastic card inserted into the machine, keeping track of the money won or lost. The card was attached to their belt by a plastic cord. It almost looked vampiric, as if the slot machine was draining their life through the cord.

I don't think I am usually fanciful, but that casino had an almost palpable aura of despair.

I left in a hurry, and actually ended up having an excellent crème brûlée at a nearby restaurant. All in all, I counted the dessert as a much better experience than the casino would have been.

Maybe Vegas would be different, more like the idealized version. But if I am ever in a position to vote against or block a casino, I will do so.

Lock-boxes

Back from the digression, I think my view on gambling greatly influences my view on lock-boxes.

There are two types of lock-boxes. The first type is the basic box that contains one item. The item might be rare, or the item might be common. Most of the time, you'll be disappointed. I think the boxes in Guild Wars 2 and most eastern MMOs are like this.

The second type of lock-box are collectible packs, based on collectible card games. The pack contains multiple items, with a fixed rarity. For example, a pack might contain 1 rare item, 2 uncommon items, and 4 common items. You may not get the specific rare you want, but you are guaranteed a rare. Most of the time, these items are tradeable with others. This is the system that The Old Republic uses.

In my opinion, the first type of lock-box is too much like excessive gambling. It displays the lose, win, lose pattern, along with much repetition that characterizes "bad" gambling for me.

In contrast, the collectible packs seem fair to me. The payout is consistent from pack to pack. You always get a rare. You can trade the items with other collectors. Most of the time the items are all cosmetic, so the value of each item is in the eye of the beholder. (Unlike CCGs, where the power level of the card within the game often determines the monetary value.)

So given a choice, I would prefer a F2P game to sell collectible packs rather than single-item lock-boxes. It seems fairer and not as exploitative.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Eternal Flame in 5.4

I've talked about Holy Paladins and Eternal Flame Blanketing before. It's the practice of putting 1-point EFs on many members of the raid, and relying on the fact that EF extends our mastery shield to absorb a fair bit of damage. At the time I didn't think it would be viable in raids, but it turns out that it is very viable. The majority of max healing parses for Holy Paladins feature this trick.

This isn't the way Holy Paladins were meant to be played. It's more like a Druid playstyle. Instead of being optional, Holy paladins are in danger of having this playstyle be mandatory. So Blizzard is taking aim at this practice. The last PTR version featured several major nerfs:

  • Initial heal of EF decreased by 30%
  • The HoT part of EF no longer gives mastery shields
Now, Blizzard has walked back these changes, but it is pretty clear that some sort of change will come to Eternal Flame.

After the mastery nerf in 5.3, Holy Paladins are not overpowered in PvE. It's more that EF was becoming mandatory, and that Holy Paladins were being pushed to heal in non-traditional (at least for paladins) style. The second part is why EF will not become a baseline spell, and instead will be nerfed.

Here's my suggestion for an Eternal Flame nerf:
  • Make Word of Glory and Eternal flame cost exactly 3 Holy Power.
Right now, WoG and EF can be cast for 1, 2, or 3 Holy Power for a scaling effect. If you can only cast 3pt EFs, you can keep them up on about 2 people at a time. You can do more sporadically with Divine Purpose, and go nuts with Holy Avenger on cd, but those can't really be counted on (and note that both can't be used together). Instead you'll effectively maintain EF on a tank and one other, maybe yourself or the other tank. If EF is on a tank, mastery shields will get chewed up pretty quickly, so having EF extend mastery is not an issue.

It would also match the other Holy Power finishers. Templar's Verdict, Divine Storm, and Shield of the Righteous all require exactly 3 Holy Power.

Now, this might not be a strong enough nerf to make EF optional. At that point, Blizzard would have to look at stronger actions, or strengthening the other talents in that tier. However, a fixed Holy Power cost is the smallest change that attacks the playstyle directly, and is more in-line with how Eternal Flame was original designed to be used.

Monday, June 17, 2013

A Disconnect on F2P

First off, check out this article by Klepsacovic. Money quote:

Sell a man a fish and you feed him for a day; offer a man a free fish and an inexpensive fishing class and he'll get really pissed off and starve to death instead.  Because he's stupid.
Brilliantly encapsulates a lot of the forum chatter about F2P.

I often think there is a disconnect between how players think F2P works, and how companies think F2P works. You can tell what a company thinks about F2P not by what they say, but by what they offer for sale.

Let's say that we have a subscription game. The earnings might look like:
  • 100 subs * $15/sub = $1500
Now, let's take a F2P game. Judging by the forum rhetoric, players believe that the revenue works like:
  • 300 players * $5/player = $1500
But if you look at what most game companies actually sell, it's pretty clear that they believe their revenue looks like:
  • 25 paying players * $60/player = $1500
They sell some small items, but most of the store is targeted to people who are willing to spend a lot of money.

This is the real advantage of F2P. Rather than trying to scrounge up more subscribers, they remove the limit on how much the former subscribers can pay them. It's easier to chase a few whales than thousands of small fish.

For example, F2P in The Old Republic has roughly doubled revenues. However, I would wager that the majority of the increase in revenue comes from existing subscribers, and not the new players. That is why TOR focuses on Cartel Packs, because subscribers are willing to buy them.

But a lot of F2P players have not come to terms with this, and the forums often break into complaints that item X is too expensive. But the truth is that even if it was cheaper, most players wouldn't buy it.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Exclusivity

I've seen a lot of discussion lately about making content more exclusive, especially in light of Raid Finder and Flexible Raids. It occurs to me that everyone arguing for more exclusive content just so happens to be in a position to do that content.

Perhaps Blizzard should make more exclusive content. I suggest they start with a long, lore-filled questline with amazing rewards. However, you can only access this questline if your account, on any character, has never killed a raid boss in normal or heroic.  And if you do kill a normal or heroic boss afterwards, the rewards become unusable.

Let's see how long the calls for more exclusive content last after that.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Flexible Raiding

I'm really glad I got in that post on Variable Group Size instead of sitting on it for a while like I normally do.

So Blizzard is introducing Flexible Raids, which can have 10 to 25 players and scale in difficulty. This will be interesting to see. I think it will be a success, but I also think it will end up cannibalizing Normal mode raiding. Removing modes is never very popular, but I can see the next expac having Raid Finder, Flexible Raids (with a slight difficulty increase at the top end) and Heroic Raiding (with a slight difficulty decrease at the bottom end.

I think the administrative advantages of Flexible Raids will prove to be too tempting for Normal Mode guilds. After all, a Normal Mode guild has all the headaches of Heroic Raid roster management, but lesser gear and lesser prestige than Heroics. Another small step down is not much compared to not having to worry about rosters.

Flexible Raids will use the Raid Finder loot system. I think that's pretty good, because it scales. To be honest, I think if Blizzard announced loot being won to everyone in the group, people would be happier with the loot system. There would be tangible evidence that someone is getting loot whenever a boss dies, and it's not just you getting gold all the time. Plus you could congratulate others when they get lucky, and they could congratulate you.  Bosses would feel more rewarding because you would see that someone in your group won something and the group became stronger.

I also see a lot of chatter that everyone will be "forced" to do Flexible Raids. Since it has its own gear level, I don't think much of this concern. If people insist on killing themselves for lower quality gear, maybe it's time to just let them go their own way. I do think that a lot of this concern would be mitigated if Blizzard overlapped some of the item levels between tiers (the way The Old Republic does). That way people would already have upgrades from the previous tiers.

All in all, Flexible Raids a big step forward for PvE MMOs. Blizzard continues to raise the bar. It will be interesting to see how other upcoming MMOs (*cough* Wildstar *cough*) respond.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Eve Online, Women, and Avatars

You've probably seen the news that Eve Online is only 4% female. Naturally the blogosphere is brimming with reasons why this is so. In my mind, there's probably no one reason that contributes to the lack. There's probably several reasons, each chipping away at the potential audience.

For example, if the ceiling for female participation in an MMO is 40%, maybe Eve loses 5% because it's hard scifi instead of fantasy, 5% because it emphasizes PvP, 10% because of the horrible reputation of its players, 5% because it's boring, and so on.  (All numbers made up, just illustrating that a series of filters can reduce the audience greatly, even though no one reason is fully to blame.)

Another possible reason is the different cultures that play Eve. For example, a large number of Russians play Eve. Maybe much fewer Russian women play video games as compared to North American women. This imbalance might knock another few percent off.

However, I would like to discuss one potential reason that I haven't seen anywhere else:

Eve Online is the only major MMO without a humanoid avatar.

At least, an avatar that actually makes a difference in gameplay. All you really have is a portrait and an avatar that you can walk around with in the station. In Eve, your "real" avatar is your current ship. Even Star Trek Online has your captain as an avatar, and using your captain makes up a good half of the game.

There are a number of research indications that, in normal MMOs, women identify more with their avatars than men do. For example, less than 10% of women will play with a male avatar. In comparison, 30-40% of men play with female avatars.  It's possible that one of main reasons that women avoid Eve is that there is no avatar for them to identify with, just a ship. Maybe many women would rather play a character, rather than play a spaceship.

If you accept this idea as possible or true, it leads to an interesting perspective on the Incarna debacle of 2011. In Incarna, Eve introduced 3D avatars, as well as micro-transactions to outfit those avatars. The playerbase, lead by the CSM, revolted, mostly because they saw the avatars as a waste of time in their spaceship game, and because they thought Eve was getting greedy with $100 monocles or whatever. I think Eve ended up dropping the microtransactions, and didn't really do anything with the avatars, though they were left in.

But perhaps one of the reasons for Incarna was a subtle attempt to raise the proportion of women in Eve by providing an avatar that could be identified with. An attempt that wouldn't really affect the rest of Eve proper, the way attacking any of the other filters would have. Of course, the micro-transaction side of Incarna put an end to continuing this experiment in any meaningful way.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Defiance First Impressions

On the weekend I picked up Trion's third-person shooter MMO, Defiance. I gather it's tied into a television show, but I don't watch that show. I assume all the named NPCs are characters on the show. It's a Buy-To-Play game so far, but I'm not entirely sure what else is sold. Maybe some boosts, cosmetic items and new episodic missions.

Defiance is an excellent game, but with one significant flaw.

Mechanically, it's very sound. The game feels like a shooter, like you are in control of your actions, and it's more skill than stats. Now I don't play a lot of shooters, so keep that in mind. The weapons all feel very different. Latency is not an issue, and the game performs very well.

The graphics are pretty good. There's a fair number of facial sliders in character creation, though sadly I had my usual trouble making a good looking character. Though I ended up with a pretty decent one. There are no classes in the game, but you do choose a background which determines your starting weapon. You can use any weapon you find however.

The setting is a quasi-post-apocalyptic setting. Some alien refugees came to Earth, there was a war, and some areas got devastated, including the area the game is set in. The story is okay, nothing amazing, but decent enough.

In a lot of ways, the quest structure is similar to Rift. You have main story missions and side missions. You also run across "situations" very often. These might be things like "Rescue some hostages" or "Eliminate a raider camp", etc. They're the equivalent of small Rifts. Anyone can join in and help, and when the situation is resolved, everyone gets the xp reward.

Then there are "Arkfalls" which are the Zone Invasions from Rift. These are much larger events that attract a lot more players. There's usually one active on the map at any given time.  There are also special mission types like Time Trials and Rampages, which keep a leaderboard of the best times.

For missions, anyone can jump in and help. If two people are on the same mission in the same area, they both help out. Essentially, mission objectives are tied to the area, and not the people.  As well, if your health goes to zero, you are incapacitated and another player can revive you. It's the same system I loved in Guild Wars 2, and works excellently here.

For skills, there's a large EGO grid. There are 4 main powers: an invisibility cloak, a damage buff, a speed boost, and a decoy creation power. You pick a main power and then you can pick talents near it which unlock more of the grid. You can then equip X talents. It's a pretty nice system leading to some interesting builds that you can match to your playstyle. On the whole, the power curve feels fairly flat so far.

You also get a vehicle, an ATV, fairly early. The ATV handles more like vehicles in a racing game than mounts in a traditional MMO. Vehicles are actually a great deal of fun.

Actually, the entire game is amazingly fun. You do short bits of content while slowly improving your character, both through the weapons you find (a bit like Diablo) and as you unlock new talents. As you go from mission to mission, I find it fun to just clear all the situations I come across as I go.  It's also excellent if you find a small group of 2 or 3 others and you work together to clear things.

However, that leads to most significant flaw. Defiance is an exceedingly lonely game. No one talks in chat, no one talks to other people. Because grouping is implied and automatic, you just kill things silently with other people.

Honestly, if I played MMOs with one or two real-life friends, I would say that Defiance is the best MMO for that small group playstyle. And assuming that we all liked shooters, I would push to make it the regular game of choice. You can feel that it would be an amazing experience with two or three on voice-chat.

But I don't play with real-life friends. I'm a solo player. And even though I'm enjoying Defiance hugely at this point, I think the loneliness and quiet will get to me. I like grouping and watching people chat about silly stuff in general chat, and that lack makes the game feel very empty at times.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Fixing Dailies

By most accounts, dailies are the number one issue in Mists of Pandaria. Personally, I didn't have an issue with the dailies in Pandaria, mostly because I didn't really care about them and did them desultorily. I'm still not exalted with the Klaxxi, the Serpent Riders, or the Anglers.

I think the issue with dailies was not so much the actual dailies, or even the fact that you had to do dailies to earn reputation. I think the main problem was that Blizzard chose to make reputation the mechanism to deliver alternate raid gear.

I think that link between reputation and raid gear coupled dailies and raiding too tightly together. It would have been better if that link was not as strong. Previous expansions had epics, but it was usually only a single piece per faction.

If I was redoing reputation, here's what I would have done for the expansion launch reputations:

1. i450 blue gear at Honored. i463 blue gear at Revered. Cosmetic items at Exalted.

This moves dailies and reputation down in the chain. Instead of being on par with raiding or high end PvE, reputation is on par with dungeons and scenarios.

2. Items cost gold instead of Valor.

Valor and reputation made for a double gate that was somewhat unnecessary. Simplify things by going back to just gold. Valor could be saved for separate raid gear vendors, upgrading, or simply dropped all together.

3. At Exalted, sell a Bind-On-Account Tabard that allows you gain Rep from dungeons, scenarios, and raids.

This is to help alts out. Your first character has to earn reputation the hard way, but subsequent characters have more options in how they earn reputation, and can earn rep simultaneously with dungeon gearing.

4. When patch 5.2 came out, add i489 epic gear to Exalted on old Reputations.

This keeps the rewards coming for the older reputations, adding additional catchup mechanisms, and adding rewards for the pure solo player.

Essentially, I think that putting reputations on the same level as raiding was a mistake. Reputations would have functioned better one level down, on par with 5-man dungeons and scenarios.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Alliance vs Horde Storyline Favoritism

One of the current issues in WoW is the perceived imbalance between the Alliance and Horde storylines. The Horde story, the rebellion against Garrosh, is a more interesting and central experience. The Alliance storyline feels like more of an afterthought. On the various fan sites, many fans ascribe this fact to Blizzard favoring the Horde at the expense of the Alliance.

However, in my view, this story "imbalance" was an inevitable consequence of the Cataclysm decision to heat up the war between the Horde and the Alliance.

In 2009 I wrote a post on The Nature of War, where I said that the modern view of war is "the only moral war, the only just war, is a defensive war." Thus it would not be possible to start a war without one side being considered evil.

Now in Pandaria, we see the end result of that. One side had to go evil to make the war "fit" with modern sensibilities. Thus one of Garrosh or Varian had to go bad, and Garrosh was the one chosen.

That sets up two stories: a civil war within the Horde, and the Alliance attempts to finish Garrosh. Of those two stories, the civil war is always going to be the more interesting story.

It could have gone the other way. Varian could have been the one to go bad, and the Alliance be torn apart by civil war. Possibly with Anduin leading the forces against his father. (To be honest, this might have been a better story than the Horde civil war.)  But in this alternate future, the Alliance storyline would have been the more interesting one, and the Horde the ones left behind.

Ultimately though, the storyline would still be imbalanced. The modern view of war demands this outcome. Parity between Alliance and Horde stories can only come when the two factions are not directly focused on each other.