Wednesday, 26 January 2011

SOE: Where's the company at now?

These are my thoughts after reading Chris's opinions over at Game by Night on SOE.

EQ2X has been very enjoyable but I agree they have mishandled the "newbie fawcet". Players will leave, if there isn't a seamless way to induct replacements your game will decline. Having said that I'm glad that I have been able to set up EQ2X as a backburner game so if I get tired of other things I can hang out there for free (but I'm very strict with myself, my impulse buyer friend gets absolutely hammered in the wallet when he plays EQ2X). It's an expensive F2P compared to Turbine's and even Allods so that's another trade-off: less players paying more per head.

SW:G I tried going back to in 2009 and it's just broken. A wonderful museum of better gaming times. Although it rarely gets talked about it has decent numbers and a community that is incredibly invested in the game. After all if you're mayor of a virtual city you have quite a stake. I think it may survive SWTOR better than many people expect.

Vanguard, Planetside, etc are on life support. I doubt they make any money but as long as they break even I imagine they'll stay open.

Planetside 2 is coming out at some point, probably this year. I would be astonished if it's not a flop. Taking one of the least successful MMOs ever and offering more of the same? How did they get that one past the execs?

DCUO is attracting guarded approval on the F13 forums for not being a disaster. It promised so much in the way of catastrophe that not being a disaster is a victory. See Unsub's blog Vicarious Existence for more details on the development of this game.

Overall SOE is a schizophrenic mix of some of the best designers in the business with people and departments who take bizarre decisions that don't fit the projects. They really need some joined up management. I doubt they'll get it but there's enough quality there that they will keep pushing out entertaining projects. I suspect though that as we move away from the $15/month for all games industry standard SOE's predilection for above par prices for below par games will see them continue to decline. There's some pretty stiff competion entering the MMO market this year, including Green Monster Games and Bioware.

One of the things I don't think SOE have ever sorted out is their attitude to players. Sony originally made radios and recording equipment. Now in that business if a customer comes and says my radio is faulty you don't argue you just give him a new one, it's cheaper to submit. I believe they have always applied this corporate philosophy to their MMOs.

It doesn't work however when your customers are also your players. Players exaggerate. Players see things only from a narrow perspective. Players game the system - it's almost taboo to admit your class is anything other than horribly broken as players jostle for development largess. And of course if you always give in to players you eventually end up with an unplayable game so the developers game the players. Buff what they've been asking for but blindside them by nerfing something they took for granted. EQ2X (yes, I've given up fighting the Extended starts with an E battle) is a case in point. The free system was horrible, severe restrictions on classes, items and broker, all rolled back as players complained. Like a veteran negotiator starting out by asking a tenth of what he's willing to pay so he'll have some room to make concessions.

It's just not nice playing a game where this behaviour is rife. Where half the posts on the forums are whines or outright lies. Where the devs are trying to screw us in sneaky ways. Where the last resort of the incompetent is exorbitant prices - yes you can have everything you want but by golly you'll pay and pay again.

I honestly doubt whether what's bad about SOE is fixable. Corporate culture that's lasted since 1945 and is appropriate for the rest of Sony but wrong for SoE. How do you get rid of that? Possibly a really dynamic CEO with a really strong support from the board could turn them around.

We'll see. Hopefully the company can salvage itself because they have made some of the best MMOs ever and have a very enlightened attitude to niche games. There's a lot to admire at SOE.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

WoW: Once more through the level-a-go-round

Well, chalk me up another max level WoW character. Is it bad that I've actually lost count now?

I've got a new account, partly because my old one would have required the somewhat arduous recovery process to reactivate and partly because I wanted to use a much more anonymous ID for Blizzard games in future.

So I started at level 1 on 23rd December and am now 85. I took a Druid up as Feral, got irritated with the nature of tanking in the low level ninja pulling zergfests that are now WoW's primary new player scheme, switched to boomkin at about 35, switched to Death Knight at 55 for what are essentially 3 free levels from the DK starter quests and a set of very nice gear and went on from there.

I did a little tanking and DKs make decent tanks. The only problem is Death and Decay. This is going to sound very silly but when your group moves fast and you are trying to move faster to keep ahead of them it's quite easy to drop it in the wrong place. So your big high threat aoe move sits in a big evil red cloud while your mobs are off chasing the mage.

LFD (the anonymous instance match-making service) is my preferred method of leveling. It has a lot of warts, as previously noted, but it's very entertaining even when things go wrong. Kill ten rats quests, even the smoother slicker variety we get now, seem awfully flat in comparison. There's also a very high ratio of good groups to bad, especially before you get to level 85 heroics.

Since 70 I've queued as dps. I'm old fashioned enough to find it annoying when I tank for dps who don't let me get aggro before they start killing. However the mobs are all so lightweight it really doesn't matter so I can see their point with their "go go go", "hael ffs" and ninja chain pulling. I just don't want to feel responsible for them or the healer whose safety they're jeopardising.

As dps, certainly as a leveling dps I seemlessly switched from being part of the solution to being part of the problem. I took a leveling build off Elitist Jerks which is basically designed to dump all your runes and runic power in a big aoe splurge as soon as possible. This is great for soloing mobs you're supposed to kill in 3 seconds it's also great fun in an instance (although possibly not such fun for the tanks and healers). It's hugely damage meter friendly, I'll have melted groups of weak mobs while the mage is still winding up his Fire Storm.

It's very interesting from a design perspective that the natural way to play a class in easy content is very tank and healer unfriendly. The design quandary is this:
- allow dps to blast many monsters at once with powerful aoe attacks (which is immensely satisfying)
- penalise dps for not respecting the tank's aggro.

These are inversely proportional, you sacrifice the Trinity for dps fun when you allow dps players to go nuts without punitive mechanics.

Being a sophisticated player, the rational thing to do is follow the fun. It also got me to level 85 in just over a month which was satisfying as I didn't have enormous free time to play.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

WoW: the ilvl exploit controversy

There's been some talk amongst WoW players and the Blizzard staff who interact with us about the exploit of using inappropriate but high level gear to spoof the LFD tool into allowing players into dungeons they don't have the gear for.

Oddly the devs have smiled benevolently on this.

Ghostcrawler, lead systems designer posted his opinion:

The item level requirement is intended only to keep out players who have no idea what is appropriate content for them. We know you can game it by getting PvP gear or hiding off-spec gear in your bags. Congrats on being sneaky! If you’re sophisticated enough to try and game the item-level requirements, you should be sophisticated enough to know if you can actually handle the content.

And Wryxian followed it up by advising a player to spoof the system if he couldn't arrange a group with friends or guildies.

Alternatively you could recreate the situation you had before, and just keep some higher item level gear in your bags or bank so you can use the LFD tool again. Yeah, it feels kinda sneaky, but if you're confident that your performance is fine and you know your health is high enough to take heroic damage, then this might work for you. The gear item level check for the LFD is very simple, and it's also simple to circumvent. Yes we could make it more complicated, but at the moment we're fine with how it's working. We're not currently very concerned that some circumvention is possible, because this can be useful in some cases.

This was my response:

Wryxian on page 2: "we don't outright advocate doing this"

Wryxian on page 1: "Alternatively you could recreate the situation you had before, and just keep some higher item level gear in your bags or bank so you can use the LFD tool again."

That is very clearly outright advocating that players do this.

I'm concerned that you and GC think players need to be sophisticated to do this. The Tol Barad fiasco, where entire servers win-traded shows how quickly people will realise there's an easy route to success. We do talk to each other, you know.

I'm concerned that you're equating sophistication with the ability to get the job done. I'm not even 85 and I know I can do a few bgs to get my ilvl up then join heroics. As tank even. I could do this simply by buying cloth epics for later resale and having them in my bank, just as part of regular auction house arbitrage. With the system as is I can instantly join a heroic the moment I hit 85 as a tank simply by doing low level bgs or playing the auction house while I level up.

I'm also concerned that you believe players know when they're not cutting it. A great many players always feel it's the other guy's fault no matter how clearly they suck. From a certain perspective it's true - if the dps vaporises all the mobs in 0.001 seconds then it won't matter if I tank in greens; if the healer has infinite mana and healing power then as long as I don't get one-hit killed I'm dandy. Freud called this projection, the trait of defending your ego by falsely assigning blame elsewhere and it's fundamental to human psychology.

I'm concerned that you're encouraging players to, well, cheat. Athene got banned at the start of WotLK for leveling using a mage who would leave group and aoe his mobs. Why was that exploit bannable but this exploit (which clearly harms other players) encouraged?

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

WoW: Know what? The devs aren't dumb

A topic of some debate in the WoW blogosphere has been the recent changes to Tol Barad, the high level battlefield.

Briefly this launched with the Expansion and required that the attacker hold all bases which isn't terribly practical. Blizzard then hotfixed an increase in the reward for a win which saw very large scale win-trading (classified as an exploit but not enforced). A win during this stage would instantly get you a pvp epic armour piece. They then hotfixed the reward down to just double what the defenders get for winning. However many people have already got their full pvp sets, it seems to be closing the door after the horse has bolted.

Spinks called it a complete clusterfuck. Tobold called it a massive blunder. Goldpaw described it as a place for honorless scrubs.

Here's what we know
- WoW is miles more popular than any other MMO.
- Many MMOs are very similar to WoW, arguably with better features (player housing, battlekeeps, etc) but lack its capacity to hook people
- Blizzard has access to the cream of development talent
- Blizzard has many years experience and insight into running their game and a pretty profound understanding of what sells subscriptions
- They've been getting feedback publicly about Tol Barad since early Beta.

In investigative journalism there's a truism: if you want to understand what is really going on, follow the money. The money here is sales of boxes, and renewals of subs.

So why does this "clusterfuck" make them money?

People play WoW because they get shinies, epix, virtual items that have real value to the players. By effectively throwing a lot of epics to players because of a "mistake" they have just addicted the latest generation of 85s to the gear collection playstyle. It particularly works because there's no skill - it's not about gaming in the old sense it's a virtual Skinner box.

Additionally another major factor in the gameplay of WoW is feeling smarter than other people. This is typified in pugs where 5 strangers come together each feeling that they alone are expert and the other 4 are probably noobs.

So what are the results of this so-called "clusterfuck"?

1. The crack dealers give you a large free sample of crack.
2. Anyone, no matter how terrible, is given the opportunity to gloat at how much smarter they are than those dumb WoW devs.
3. Players got to exploit and got away with it without being punished - it's good to be bad (when you get away with it).

Follow the money, folks, follow the money. And keep paying your £9 per month to those dumb folks at Blizzard because it feels great to have all epics and it feels great to be so much smarter than professional designers.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

WoW: inculcating a culture of civility, one noob at a time

Further adventures in the LFD, this time I'm healing in Stratholme. The pulls are rather silly, 2 packs at a time that leave me low on mana after each one. After 3 we're at Fras Siabi and I ask for a mana break. The tank says ok and I sit down to drink.

Naturally someone pulls the boss and before I can even start healing one of the dps is dead and the tank almost dead. We wipe, and a storm of name-calling ensues in my direction.

I run back into the instance with the rest, explain that they shouldn't have pulled in a mana break and the mood is unforgiving. At this point I decide it will be more entertaining to me if I give them an object lesson on courtesy rather than chase frantically after them playing keep-up.

I explain that they really shouldn't be rude to people if they want heals and announce I'm going afk for coffee and will be back in 10 minutes. The ensuing conversation was so entertaining I stayed to talk to them rather than make it

H: come here
Me: no thanks I'd rather slack until you lot decide to kick me
H: omgg
H: !!!!
Me: besides Undercity is very scenic at this time of year
H: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
H: ...
B: -.-
H: fast
Me: look, if we wipe we wipe but if I get all this noob and retard bullshit I dont heal you
Me: it's a game we all play for fun
Me: learn how to play nicely with other people
B: M I dont give a fuck xD
M: you cant really force me to do anything
M: and calling me a retard is not going to motivate me
B: M leave then we can seek new healer ..
Me: kick me, dont want cooldown
Me: because of dickheads
B: eat mah dick ??
H: healer ..
M: yes mate?
H: come here
B: dam it -.- lets just be happey nd finish the dungeon
Me: I bear grudges
Me: eat my dick, next sentence is lets be happy and finish
Me: not a winning combination
B: gowd M its a game xD !!
Me: :)
Me: i know i'm enjoying myself immensely
B: and ur like the winning combo for being a FAIL !!!
Me: i dont go looking for trouble but if people call me noob after they fuck up I take enormous pleasure in trolling them
Me: I'm quite happy to do this for hours
B: bye bye asshole ^^
B: xD
Me: i like to think I'm improving wow
Me: by encouraging civility
Me: and consideration for other people
Me: I'm a philanthropist really
Me: consider yourselves my good deed for the day
Me: awesome I've driven S to log off
Me: I love myself
B: haha u suck
Me: he he
B logs off
Me: and another one!
Me: 2-0
Vote kick goes up for S, a disconnected player. I vote yes and it passes.
Me: awesome
The rest leave

I seem to have managed the singular feat of rolling both Troll and Tauren on the same character!