Monday, August 26, 2013

General Chat

I got into a bit of an argument on FFXIV yesterday. There were a couple of people having a random conversation in general chat (or shout, which is FFXIV's zone channel). Then a third person, Octavia, got upset with those two, and told them that general chat was for people to find groups and sell stuff. Octavia said that the other two were "making general chat like that of WoW".

I felt that was incorrect. I don't want to see general chat to be a list of "LFG, LFG, LFG, WTS". I like seeing random conversations.

But then again, random conversations often make LFG messages disappear if people are talking a lot. That can be frustrating to someone who is looking for a group. Also, conversations that touch on hot topics such as politics and religion are annoying. Seeing variations of "Trudeau/Harper is a meanie"[1] makes me want to turn off general chat.

That's not even to mention getting into barrens chat and the Chuck Norris or even less savory spam.

I don't know. Trying to restrict conversation, to move the conversational norms to just WTS and LFG seems excessive to me. At the same time, I see the attraction of it.

[1] In some alternate universe where Canadian politics is debated in MMO chat.

Friday, August 23, 2013

First Impressions: Path of Exile

It all starts with Diablo 2. Diablo 3 took one path, streamlining and simplifying systems. Path of Exile takes the opposite path, dialing complexity up to eleven.

Path of Exile is a Diablo-style action RPG. There are six classes: Warrior, Duelist, Ranger, Shadow, Witch, and Templar. Each class is locked to a specific gender and model. Like most action RPGs, you wander around the zone killing things for randomly dropped loot, upgrading your gear as you level. However, many of the systems are very different from the standard.

For starters, abilities do not belong to the class. Instead they are gems. All gear has sockets. Sockets are red, green, or blue. You match the ability gem to the socket. Let's say that you have a Templar and you find a Glacial Hammer blue gem. You put that gem in your weapon or armor piece with a blue socket and you can now use the ability. Any class can use any ability, only some classes are more suited to the ability than others. While you have the ability gem equipped, the gem accrues XP and levels up.

Then there is the talent tree. I urge you to go take a look at it. It is the ultimate talent tree, with hundreds of talents.  All six classes are embedded in the same tree, but talents closer to the class are more suitable. For example, if you wanted to make a necromancer, the major minion talents are close to the Witch's starting location. But you could still reach those talents from another class, it would just take longer.

I believe the development studio is from New Zealand. This gives the game a unique flavor. The accents are New Zealand or Australian. The native warrior is based on the Maori, I believe, rather than the typical Norse or African. It just feels very different from the norm.

There are other interesting touches. There doesn't seem to be any gold. Instead people trade using scraps of Scrolls of Wisdom, which allow you to identify magical items, and other bartered items. This is a very interesting idea, getting across the idea that this is an uncivilized land without even basic luxuries like coinage. Health and mana potions are gear items which can have stats. The potions refill as you kill monsters.

Path of Exile is also big into "leagues", which are modes of play where you start a new character. Each league often has specific rules. A simple example is the Hardcore league where you can only die once, and then your character transfers to the regular league. But leagues can get a lot more complicated. For example, there's a league which starts at a given time and lasts for 12 hours or so. Every few minutes, the lowest level character is kicked out of the league. The last character standing wins a prize.

There is really only one thing I dislike about Path of Exile, but unfortunately it is a major element. I do not like the graphics. It's all from the "realistic" palette, all dark greens, dark reds, greys and browns. I just find it unpleasant, and even hard to identify elements on the screen. I much prefer more "cartoony" graphics which "pop" on the screen. But this is very much personal preference. Other people may like this graphics style better.

Mechanically, Path of Exile is a very intriguing game. It's Free-2-Play, so it's easy to check out. It's complex, but if you feel that D3 went in the wrong direction, you'll probably enjoy the complexity.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Subscriptions Strike Back!

The latest news is three up-and-coming MMOs (Final Fantasy XIV, Wildstar, and The Elder Scrolls Online) are going to try for subscriptions rather than Free-2-Play.

Reactions seem to mostly mirror existing biases. The people who think F2P is the future, feel this is going to fail hard, or that it is just a money grab before the inevitable F2P conversion. The people who champion subscriptions want to believe that the tide has turned, and that super-aggressive monetization is falling out of fashion.

The only real conclusion I am drawing is that, given a choice, most developers would prefer subscriptions. The steady income without the need to constantly hawk the latest items in the store must seem a more enticing proposition to the devs.

I think the key is the target number of subscribers. If any of these games are targeting a million subs, I think they're going to fail and end up as F2P. But if they're targeting 100,000 steady subs, I think that's within reach for all three games. In between those two targets is a great deal of uncertainty.

Wildstar and C.R.E.D.D.

In addition to going subscription, Wildstar is copying the Eve Online PLEX model. CREDD is worth a months subscription and can be traded for in-game currency. It does cost a bit more than a month's subscription, though, which is odd.

I'm not really sure how successful this will be. Eve has a much stronger economic simulation. In Eve, the people who earn enough to purchase PLEX are heavily involved in producing and trading the goods that make Eve work.

Wildstar, on the other hand, looks to be more like a regular themepark game where the economy is secondary to boss drops.

Second, Eve does boost the trade in PLEX because they effectively only have one character per account. That means that many players have multiple accounts, increasing the income per player, and increasing the market for PLEX. Someone who is perfectly fine paying $15/month for one account might decide to purchase PLEX to fund a second or third account. That means the market for PLEX is larger and more liquid.

I don't really see that happening in Wildstar. But I don't know for sure. It is certainly an interesting experiment.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Do More Tanking Options Lead to More Tanks?

A couple of commenters mentioned on the previous post that having paladins be Alliance-only would mean that the Horde would have fewer tanks.

Has having more tank classes led to more tanks, though?

Vanilla only had 2 tank classes: warriors and bears.  Now we have five.  Yet it seems like the proportion of tanks out there is still the same. It's still very hard to find a tank, just as hard as it was in Vanilla. I am suspicious of the idea that death knights, monks, and the emergence of pally tanks has lead to more tanks overall.

Of course, it's also possible that there are more tanks now, but that Dungeon Finder and LFR introduced a larger population of DPS into regular grouping, which has swamped the increase in tanks.

But I don't think that is true. I think the number of people willing to be tanks is just rather low, regardless of the different ways one can tank.  Introducing more tank classes just increases the diversity of tanks, but not the overall total.

Monday, August 19, 2013

What If Paladins Had Stayed Alliance-Only?

I was thinking about the story imbalance between the Horde and the Alliance, and started wondering. What happened to all the Alliance paladins?

In a lot of ways, the story of the Alliance in Warcraft is the story of their paladins. Uther, Turalyon, Arthas, Bolvar Fordragon. But all the major Alliance paladins are gone. The last one is Tirion Fordring, and he is now neutral.

Back in Vanilla, paladins were unique to the Alliance, while shaman were unique to the Horde. I think that class distinction added a great deal of character to the two factions. The paladins symbolized the civilization and law of the Alliance, while the shaman symbolized the wildness and more natural state of the Horde.

But when the two classes were opened up to both sides, I think the Alliance lost more of its identity than the Horde did. For example, the Order of the Silver Hand went neutral, and became the Argent Crusade. However, the Horde gained two paladin orders: the Blood Knights and the Sunwalkers. It seems odd to me that there is no Alliance paladin order, but two different Horde ones. A Horde paladin, Sunwalker Dezco, is playing a major role in the Horde storyline.

I don't think the parallel case of the shaman matches. Alliance shamans are pretty marginal in the lore. There are some in the Earthen Ring. But shamans, especially with Thrall, are still central to the Horde.

Personally, I think the classes should stayed faction-specific. In my mind, the balance issues were not that bad, aside from Blessing of Salvation. Had Blizzard just axed that one ability, I think the imbalance would have been easier to fix.

It's interesting to ponder an alternate timeline where the classes had remained faction-specific, and the mechanical divisions between the factions had been deepened instead of lessened.

For example, in Wrath, Tirion Fordring and the Argent Crusade might have remained Alliance. And this could have been balanced by making Death Knights a Horde-only class. Death Knights were always classic Horde units, and the theme of outcasts banding together fits in well with the Horde. Not to mention the natural relation with the Forsaken.

Then in Mists of Pandaria, Monks could have been an Alliance-only class. In my mind, the quiet, contemplative nature of the monks and pandaren fit in better with the lawful Alliance than the rough-and-tumble Horde.

So in this alternate timeline, we'd have a Horde with Death Knights and Shamans, and an Alliance with Paladins and Monks. The differences between the factions would have been more pronounced. I think this would have made it easier for the writers to craft stories that were unique to each faction.

Of course, I don't think this plan would have been okay with the players though. If the Death Knights had been revealed as a Horde-only class, with no Alliance class in Wrath, the howls of outrage would have been deafening.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

First Impressions: Final Fantasy XIV

I decided to give the open beta of Final Fantasy XIV a shot. I don't really play FF games, so I'm not too sure what the backstory of this game is like. I did like the trailer very much.


I haven't played a lot, so these are very basic impressions.

Character Creation

The character creation is superb, the best I've ever seen. It offers a very nice balance of options, while still making it easy and not too complex. In particular, I like that you can save a character look, and reuse it.

I think you can download the character creator from the main site, if you just want to see that. The only downside for character creation might be that you cannot really change body types.

Initial Gameplay

The game seems very polished. The UI is clean and colorful.

Gameplay looks like the pretty standard tab-target hotkeys. The GCD seems a little high, it's 2.5s to start with, but I think that there is a stat which reduces it. Combat is decent, though the effects seem very "flashy", with lots of particle effects. It's pretty typical "kill 3 squirrels" stuff.

Talking to people feels very much like a console game, with the speech bubble you keep clicking through.

One interesting thing is that there are three starting zones, but your starting zone is determined by your initial class.

Setting 

The setting seems like a typical Japanese fantasy setting, with a melange of types. You know, different characters using very different accents, and the word choices and names are mixed in from all real-world cultures.

It's interesting how Western settings seem to emphasize far more cohesive cultures. There is a common culture and style to Ferelden in Dragon Age, for example, which is different from the other countries in that setting. I wonder if it is the influence of Tolkein, or just the structure of Europe in general.

Experiences

I first rolled a gladiator, which looks like a one-handed sword class, maybe with a shield. Unfortunately, I ran into a bug where the North American servers think that I am logged in, and won't let me log in again. I didn't even get to test out combat on the gladiator.

So I made a lancer, which is a spear-wielding character, on the Japanese servers.

I gather that a single character can take multiple classes, though the classes use different gear. The armory system seems a little complex. I'm not exactly sure how multiclassing works.

Conclusions

It seems like a good enough game. It's colorful, nicely polished, and seems to work well (aside from that nasty login bug).

But it's pretty much the same style of MMO we're all used to and have been playing for years. Indeed, it feels very old-school, closer to vanilla WoW and Lord of the Rings Online (and probably Everquest, etc.). If you're looking for something different, this is not the game for you.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Diablo III Expansion Speculation

Blizzard is starting to put out teasers for the D3 expansion. Here is the first teaser image: Reaper of Souls.

This means it's time to start speculating about the expansion. Here's my wish list:

1. Two new classes, including the Paladin

I'm biased of course, but I'd love to see the paladin come back. D3 could really use another class that emphasizes melee weapons and armor.

The second class could be the necromancer, or maybe the druid, or even something totally new to Diablo. Actually something totally new would be cool, so we'd have one returning class and one new class.

2. A No-Trade, No-AH mode

I'd like to see another game mode, like Hardcore with its separate stash, only without trading and the AH. I think the AH hurt D3, and I'd like to see what the game is like without it.

Introducing a new mode with the expansion also creates a new level playing field for everyone to compete in.

3. Allow Hardcore characters to transfer to Normal mode on death

This one is shamelessly stolen from Path of Exile. When a hardcore character dies, transfer it to Normal mode. That way the hours of work that was put in is not completely wasted. I think this might encourage more people to play hardcore mode.

On the other hand, part of attraction of hardcore is the "sting" of losing a character. Maybe reducing the risk will make hardcore less thrilling. Maybe having the character lose all her gear would be a good compromise. Or maybe it would be better to just leave it alone.

Those are the three (or two and a half) ideas I'd like to see in a D3 expansion. What would you like to see?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Thoughts on Garrosh Hellscream

Dacheng asks:

Why are the orcs turning on Garrosh? Isn't he the best warchief they ever had? Oh, I understand why the other species in the horde might not be so happy with him, but why would any real orc care about those wusses? Lok'tar Ogar, and all that.
If we're talking story, the orcs generally aren't turning on Garrosh. Which is why we're besieging Ogrimmar.

As for players, I think that Horde players see themselves first as Horde, and second as an orc, troll, tauren, etc. So they oppose Garrosh for damaging the Horde as a whole.

I saw an interesting question today: Why do players hate Garrosh, but like Sylvannas? You can make a case that Sylvannas is morally worse than Garrosh, what with the plague and the val'kyr. Yet Sylvannas is still a clear favorite with many players.

My first thought is that it is because Garrosh is a jock, and Sylvannas is a nerd. Garrosh is a thug, with lots of shouting and physical intimidation. Sylvannas is all cool and calculating. Since the playerbase draws extensively from the nerd/geek subculture, which is pretty hostile to the jock subculture, their sympathies are with Sylvannas.

What's sometimes lost is that Garrosh is pretty effective as a warleader. He's conquered most of Kalimdor. The strike on Theramore was tactically brilliant. He took out the main Alliance stronghold on Kalimdor, and killed many high-ranking Alliance officers. He almost took out Jaina Proudmoore, which would have been the one of the greatest Horde victories. Not to mention that if Jaina had been killed, Dalaran would have almost certainly fallen to the Sunreavers, as both Rhonin and Jaina would have been dead.

Yet if you asked the players which type of villain they would be like, the vast majority of players would choose the cool, calculating intellectual style of a Sylvannas. They look upon the rough, physical style of a Garrosh with distaste.

Still, the greatest crime of Garrosh is not Theramore, but the death of Cairne and the treatment of the other Horde races. It would have been interesting to see a Garrosh who took the exact same actions towards the Alliance, but chose to bind the Horde together instead of dividing it. A Garrosh who gave Vol'jin command over a theatre of war like Sylvannas, instead of attempting to assassinate him.

I think that if Garrosh did that differently, but everything else the same, including nuking Theramore and despoiling Pandaria, I think the great majority of the Horde would have been happier with him as Warchief, even supporting him over Thrall.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What to Talk About?

I'm drawing a blank on what to write about. We kind of seem to be in a waiting period in MMOs. There's some interesting stuff on the horizon, but nothing immediate.

We could rehash F2P, or the Trinity, or similar, but I'm a bit tired of those topics.

So I will turn to you, faithful readers. Anything worth writing about?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Musings on the Bench

Everything seems to be moving along steadily. My guild in The Old Republic is trying to move into Nightmare Modes. We've killed Writhing Horror on NiM, but absences have delayed attempts on Dread Guards.

The thing is that we have exactly 8 players on the team, all with solid performance and excellent attendance. This is great most of the time, as we move through content at a steady pace. But when one person is out, we fall to pieces.

I dunno, it's the same pattern I saw in WoW at this level. Progress is so good with a consistent core that everyone tries for that instead of maintaining a bench. Then absences cause significant setback. I just can't convince anyone that preparing for those absences is a good idea.

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the increased performance from a smaller team is worth infrequent chaos around an absence.

This was also the problem with 25s and 10s. The performance gain from simply taking the 10 best and most consistent raiders was too high for many 25 guilds to ignore.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Destructible Terrain and Griefing

Another major element EQ Next is promising is destructible terrain. I think it's going to be an interesting experiment.

The immediate question, of course, is how long will it take for everything to be destroyed? What will the anti-griefing measures be like? For example, if a monster can destroy a city, I foresee someone kiting a monster to the city at every opportunity.


It's kind of sad how everything can turn into a tool for griefing. Destruction can lead to griefing. Creation can lead to griefing. For example, people can take up all the free space with buildings, making it hard for new players to start. Or they crowd out existing players.

I think there could be a lot more work to be done with costs in MMOs, especially non-linear costs. For example, maybe maintaining 5 buildings costs 1 resource per building, but maintaining 10 buildings could cost 2 resources per building. Or something where it's easy to destroy one piece of terrain, but gets harder and harder to destroy more terrain.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Stable PvE Strategies

Continuing the discussion on Trinity gameplay, I'd like to take a step back and survey the situation from a higher viewpoint.

So far, in my experience of MMOs, there are three stable strategies for dealing with PvE. The reason I call these "stable", is that all other schemes I've seen are "unstable". These unstable strategies always break down and devolve into one of the stable strategies.

The stable strategies are:

1. Zerg - The enemy's target cannot--or it is not worth the time to--be calculated ahead of time. Whichever player is targeted is reactively healed or protected, or forces the enemy to turn away, or just takes the hits until death.

2. Kiting - The enemy's target cannot--or it is not worth the time to--be calculated ahead of time. Whichever player is targeted proceeds to run away, out of attack range or utilizing line of sight, forcing the enemy to chase after. The chasing enemy does minimal damage, while the other players can attack the enemy. When the enemy switches targets, the new target runs away.

3. Tanking - The enemy's target can be identified ahead of time, and the situation manipulated to force the enemy to attack a specific, hardened target. While the enemy is focused on the hardened target, the other players attack the enemy freely, while the hardened target is healed and protected.

Of these three strategies, Tanking is the most interesting, the structure capable of the most variation. Zerg and Kiting are far less fun if they are the major strategy in a game.

I do not think these are the only stable strategies in existence. But I have not yet seen an MMO that has successfully executed a fourth strategy.

A "rock, paper, scissors" strategy might be stable. The classic "infantry, artillery, and cavalry" is one example. Artillery destroys the slow-moving infantry before the infantry can reach it. Calvary moves too fast for the artillery, but gets broken upon the defenses of the infantry. But "infantry, artillery, and cavalry" generally requires a great difference in movement speed, which I don't think will work in a single-character MMO .

A game that is entirely ranged might have a strategy based on cover and firing lanes. This is typical of shooter games. This strategy is rarely suitable if melee is an important part of the game.

If you want to convince me that a non-Trinity PvE MMO will work, you have to outline a fourth stable strategy. You can't simply assume it exists. Describe it, and show that it will not devolve into Zerg, Kiting, or Tanking.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Revisiting the Trinity

Once again everyone is hyped up for another game which promises to do away with the Trinity of tank-healer-dps. This time the game is EQ Next. I am deeply skeptical of this claim. I'm not saying that the Trinity is necessarily the best system for PvE. But so far, no one has demonstrated a better system.

I've seen various people saying that EQ Next will feature complex AI, which will obsolete the idea of the Trinity. In my view, if the system does not work at the simple level, making it more complex is not going to improve things.

Let's take the very simplest PvE scenario. We have a knight with sword and shield and a barbarian wielding a two-handed greatsword. Both characters are fighting an ogre in melee combat.

Who does the ogre attack?

This is the simplest decision the AI has to make. The knight's shield improves her defense. The barbarian's greatsword improves her offense.

Logically, the optimum path is for the Ogre to attack the barbarian. Generally, the rule of thumb is that you first want to kill the highest offense or the weakest defense. The barbarian meets both those criteria. And indeed, this is what will happen in PvP.

But the archetypes of fantasy demand that the Ogre attack the knight, to take the sub-optimal path. That is the very point of the shield, to take the blows. The shield is a pointless choice if no one is attacking you.

So no matter what, to stay true to the soul of the fantasy archetypes, the ogre has to attack the knight. Trinity systems do it very simply by introducing the concept of threat, which is linked to--but not equal to--damage. You could also do it by having the knight "intercept" attacks made against other characters. Or perhaps by turning the knight into a source of debuffs strong enough that getting rid of the knight first becomes optimum.

Another path might be making the knight do the highest damage, making the choice harder. This probably won't go over too well with the barbarian, though. And it doesn't match the archetypes.

It is trivially easy to make a more competent AI than the Trinity system. The harder task is making one that leads to fun gameplay and yet stays true to the fantasy genre.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Group Dynamics in Raid Finder

I had an interesting experience in a Raid Finder group yesterday.

We had killed the first boss and were clearing trash to the second boss. One DPS player called out one of the tanks for not pulling fast enough. The other tank spoke up in support of the tank in question. Other people in the group chimed in saying that everything was fine.

The DPS player persisted in his comments. Then he got vote-kicked out of the group.

If this is a trend in WoW, it's a good one. Vote-kicking people who cause drama will make Raid Finder groups more pleasant. But most people would say that this is unusual behavior, and that normally the "elitists" hold sway.

So what made this group different?

I think it was the vocal support of the other tank. Followed by the agreement of a couple other players. In my experience, Raid Finder groups follow the lead of the first few people who speak up, and of the "skilled" people. I think there is a majority of people who don't like the "elitist" rhetoric, but they will keep their heads down and defer to the tanks and the top healers and top dps who do express an opinion.

Which leads to two conclusions. If you want to promote a positive Raid Finder group, you have to be:

  • Vocal. You have to make your voice heard early, when the first sign of conflict occurs. You can't let the elitists hold sway, and attempt to reclaim the group later.
  • Competent. No one questions you if you are the top dps or top heals or a strong tank. Maybe it is unfair, but as far as WoW groups are concerned, "might makes right". This is, of course, because the presence of a strong player makes the run more likely to be successful. Deferring to their wishes means they are more likely to stick around and shoulder much of the burden.
The thing I've found about many of the people who complain about the quality of WoW groups is that they don't put enough effort into the second requirement, into being skilled.

If you want to contribute to a better environment in WoW, you have to be competent. Otherwise your voice is discounted. Maybe this is unfair, but it is remorselessly practical. A tyranny of skill.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Resets on Player or Game

Clockwork at Out of Beta has an interesting post on questioning whether timers should reset based on the individual player's cooldown, or on a fixed schedule.

I think the general rule of thumb should be that if the timer can involve multiple people, it should reset based on a fixed schedule.

To see what I mean, imagine dailies had a personal cooldown of 22 hours.  Anna logs in a 4pm and does here dailies. Betty logs in at 10pm and does her dailies. The next day they both log in at 6pm and want to do the dailies together. Only they can't, because Betty's dailies reset at 8pm. In these types of situations, fixed schedule resets are better.

In contrast, personal abilities generally work better when they are tied to the player.

The intriguing situation comes when personal abilities are tied to the group. For example, in-combat resurrection. These ability cooldowns started off tied to the player, but more and more they are shifting to be tied to the group. In WoW, abilities with a cooldown greater than 5 minutes reset when a raid encounter ends. In SWTOR, using an in-combat res puts a debuff on the group for 5 minutes, preventing more in-combat rezes.

It's an interesting shift in how cooldowns and timers are handled.