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Posts Tagged ‘wizard 101’

Dear Kings Isle,

Thank you.

It’s nice to think that someone listened, even if it was just a coincidence.

You’ve also earned some money from at least one fan, and maybe another.  *waves at the good Cap’n*  This is effectively a lifetime sub for all current content, almost a Guild Wars sort of purchase.  I love that business model, and I really like Wizard 101.

Sincerely,

Tesh

(Scot Silverblade, Balance/Death Wizard, still enamored with Marleybone but now chasing elephant demons in MooShu)

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I’ve played Puzzle Pirates for a couple of years now, and I’ve played Wizard101 since the open beta, though I’ll play both in fits and spurts.  Both have puzzle minigames, and both are a ton of fun.   There is one niggling little thing about W101 that bothers me, though.  At least one of the minigames is machine solvable.  (Yes, Tipa complained about busted minigames ages ago, and I actually started this article around then, but I’m just now polishing it off… since I forgot about it.)

The games in question are Diego’s Duel and Potion Motion.  The part that made me think this are the score tables with obscenely high scores and even duplicate scores (see Tipa’s screenshot for Diego scores), as well as the perfect predictability of upcoming events.

As a Puzzle Pirate veteran (and one-time Tetris addict, and everything in between), I’m pretty good and fairly experienced with puzzle games.  I had the second highest score for the Sorcery Stones W101 minigame for a while a month or two after release. This isn’t just sour grapes on my part, this is something that looks and feels like someone manipulating the game.

I also had the #5 score in Potion Motion until someone consistently filled the high scores with the exact same score of 12345.  (Which has since been surpassed, of course, but I doubt those are legitimate either.)  That was a very high score for the time, and I soon thereafter hit just over 10000, so I know that it’s possible to be legitimate, but to score exactly the same score seven times in a row, at the top of the charts, and with no clear outliers like a 12300 or 12450 just screams “hack” to me. (Oh, looky there, one of the hacks is documented.)

It’s been noted more than once that with online games, the client is “in the hands of the enemy”, who often can and will abuse it.  Cheating in offline games doesn’t usually affect other players, but cheating online is a problem if competition is important.  Thankfully, competition in W101 minigames is just for high scores (which do little), but they do act as currency and item fountains, which has effects on the interplayer economy.

W101’s minigames also differ from PP games in that at least some W101 minigames (Potion Motion and Diego’s Duel) are completely predictable.  New pieces in Potion Motion always come in in the same order, so it’s possible to learn the pattern and set up obscene combos and optimized move routines.  (At least, they used to be… I’ve not tried it in months, so please forgive me if this has since been changed.)

Sometimes, predictability is a good thing, as in Diego’s Duel, effectively a pattern recognition almost-platformer.  NES players wouldn’t have ever finished Ninja Gaiden if it were random.  Though notably, it’s possible to design a machine that plays Mario perfectly… the skill isn’t in learning to master a dynamic system and make good split second tactical decisions, it’s in memorizing the timing and patterns, then executing perfectly.  Potion Motion, on the other hand, would benefit greatly from randomized piece generation.

Puzzle Pirate devs go to great lengths to design their minigames to avoid machine solvability.  They are built on random piece generation and player choices, meant to maximize benefit within the constraints of an unpredictable system.  Game pieces behave predictably, and the game mechanics themselves don’t change, but the pieces of the playing board change.  Without foreknowledge of the pieces to come, the games are not machine solvable.

Of course, the puzzle minigames in PP are the backbone of the game, where in W101 they are little more than a diversion and health/mana refill. It’s understandable that their respective devs would have different priorities.

Still, if you’re designing a game in video format, and multiplayer competition is relevant to what you’re doing, it’s a good idea to avoid machine solvability. Someone will abuse it, and blow up the scoring curve.  Random puzzle piece generation can be a pain sometimes if the game board is prone to locked positions (sanity checks help, but those can be expensive), but even that can be dodged with savvy design.

In other words, it’s good to give players choices.  If their choices degenerate to locked boards with no moves, or One True Path that was devised by a computer (and executed best by one), you’ve destroyed player choice.  Client hackery is one (bad) thing, but a game designed in such a way that machines can find the best way to play them in the first place isn’t much better.

Yes, players will always seek to optimize their play (like an optimal build and damage rotation in WoW, something that Elitist Jerks are dedicated to), but it’s not ideal to make it easy for the cheaters to ply their trade.

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Wizards in Wizard 101 can jump.  It’s actually more of a half-hearted hop, but they respond to the spacebar.

Jumping does absolutely nothing for gameplay.  Your character is just as much on spatial rails as Guild Wars characters who cannot jump.  Neither game lets you jump off cliffs or clamber over small obstacles.  Even a character who jumps in Wizard 101 doesn’t get any sort of “z-axis” benefit for getting around.

So why can they jump?

One of the silliest complaints that I’ve seen about Guild Wars is that their characters can’t jump.  Somehow that matters to some players.  Specifically, those players who come to the game with preconceived notions.  (And then they claim that GW is not an MMO, as if that meant something.)

I submit the notion that such is the reasoning behind letting W101 characters jump.  Some players are expecting video game characters, especially MMO third person characters, to jump when the player hits the spacebar.  No matter that the combat in W101 is radically different from any other MMO, no matter that the theme is aimed squarely at the tween crowd who may not be jaded MMO veterans, no matter that the art direction is more “last gen” than “next gen” and more “Rowling” than “Tolkien”, if those characters don’t JUMP, the “first fifteen minute” impression will somehow be lacking.

W101 jumping is probably not about smart game design.  It has no use in the game if it’s taken in a self-enclosed context.  A player new to MMOs likely won’t care, and if they play for a while, they may indeed question why it’s even an option as jumping obviously does nothing but play an animation.  It is more likely a smart business decision, a bone tossed to MMO veterans (or tourists, if you’d like) so that they can feel more at home when they start to play the game and get around.  Jumping in W101 is more for those players who normally play something else, a hook to hang their virtual hat on, so that they might stay a few critical minutes longer.

So, I ask again:  What evolutionary purpose does the combat trinity serve?  What purpose, levels?  Do you really need raiding?

Some have levied criticism against my somewhat revolutionary design tenets, saying that evolution, not revolution, is the likely way to go when proposing game design.  There is truth to this position, and a large part of it lies in just these sort of vestigial design elements.  People tend to dislike change, and too much, too quickly can be a considerable obstacle.  Sometimes, for non-game design reasons, you may indeed have to include design elements that make no sense.  It’s an unfortunate evolutionary necessity.  (And as has been noted, MMOs aren’t really the best stage for revolutions, for better or worse.  The critical mass and adoption curve concerns pretty much make MMOs evolutionary beasts, rather than revolutionary, to my chagrin.)

At least, if poaching existing customers is important to you, rather than carving out your own “blue ocean” niche.  When I talk about revolutionary game design, I’m not catering to existing WoW addicts or other MMO tourists.  I thought that much was clear, but perhaps it’s still nice to reiterate.

If you are jumping in the “red ocean” shark pool, I simply propose that such choices shouldn’t be made “just because that’s how things are”, but that inclusion of design elements catering to expectations be carefully weighed and considered.  Perhaps they are right for your game, and perhaps they are a waste of dev resources.  Either way, do not design or create anything just because “everyone’s doing it”, or because “everyone expects it”.

You’re playing directly into Blizzard’s hands, and you will be crushed, perhaps without even knowing why.  The established MMO design priesthood has a Vision for How Things Should Be, and steering your game design into their trendsetting mainstream is giving them control over your success.  You can make money as a cheap clone, but it’s a precarious position.

EDITED: In his link over at his place (the AFK trackback link below), Syp corrects me, noting that the word is “vestigial” rather than “vestigal”.  I have no excuse for this oversigt, other than that I’ve seen it both ways in more than one publication.  I thought it was akin to the difference between “color” and “colour”.  An appeal to Webster confirmed the error of my ways, though, so I’ve made the appropriate corrections.  I’ve left the actual article http address alone, though, so as not to break anyone’s links.  It’s an undying testament to my everlasting shame.

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Dear Kings Isle,

I really like Wizard 101.  It’s a great game, and while I’m quick to point out some of its flaws, you have a great piece of work on your hands.  I also appreciate how you address concerns, like your recent revamp of the bizarre Bazaar and the ill-received boss encounter alterations.

I’m especially fond of Access Passes, since my casual gaming schedule makes subscriptions extraordinarily poor value for my money.

I know, some people get great value out of subscriptions, and your current sale price of $60 for a year of subscription is a fantastic value for those who like subscribing.

For the moment, though, my question is merely this:  When will Access Pass players like myself get similar bundle value out of Crown purchases?  50% off of the subscription price is a great deal.  For a time, there was a bulk bonus for Crown purchases (about 25% maximum, if memory serves), but even that doesn’t match the subscription deal.

Perhaps the fact that Crowns can be used for things other than Access Passes is a problem.  Maybe it’s time for an Access Pass sale, then.  Yes, that might mean different mechanics to keep those Crowns that would be spent on Access Passes from going elsewhere (though the current Crown gear is underwhelming, to be frank).  I believe it would be ideal in the long run, since Access Passes are one of your best ideas.

Why does it matter?  Simply, I’ve been on the edge of giving you more money, but at the moment, I’m waiting for a deal.  Valve established that bargain sales can be profitable with their price cut on Left4Dead. In a stressful economy, people are more price sensitive.

If you were to sell Crowns at 50% off, like the subscription deal, even for a limited time, I would give you some more money.  It’s that simple.  An “Access Pass-exclusive” package deal would be extraordinarily enticing.  It would be very much like buying a Guild Wars expansion when it went on sale, which I have also done.  Of course the margin isn’t as high on sale items, but you make it up on volume *and* on triggering sales that wouldn’t even otherwise exist.  Also, when you’re just dealing with bits and bytes, with no real storefront overhead or CDs to press and distribute, those margins look even better.

In the meantime, thank you for making an excellent product, a true gem in the morass of modern MMO mundane design.  I wish you the best of luck.

Sincerely,

Tesh

(Scot Silverblade, Balance/Death Wizard currently enamored with Marleybone)

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…is another Wizard’s trash.

I’ve had a little more time than I thought over the holiday weekend, since the book illustration is on hold for revision, and I had a few hours to actually go play something.  I know, I said I’d be out of commission for a while, and I will be soonish, but I wanted to slip this in while it was on my mind and while I had a few minutes to write.  It’s how I polish my thoughts, for better or worse.

I popped back into Wizard 101 recently to see what recent changes have done to the game.  In short, I like Grizzleheim’s design, housing is pretty cool, and the Bazaar is nice, but I really don’t like No Trade/No Auction items, I’m very sad that I can’t get the old crown gear, crafting is an unholy grind, and gimmick fights are unfortunate.

The Friendly Necromancer wrote to King’s Isle about the No Trade flag (a while ago, I’m catching up, remember?), and received a response, chronicled here:

Of Shared Banks and No Trades

One of the King’s Isle admins, Professor Greyrose, wrote:

Professor Greyrose:

“Making certain items restricted to one character makes them more rare and valuable. The number of items in the game that are restricted is a tiny percentage of items. We are constantly assessing which items to mark as No Trade and are listening to the community feedback on this and other matters.”

I strongly disagree.  Items restricted to a single character have a higher chance of being almost completely worthless as anything but vendor trash.  My Balance Wizard scored a spiffy healing ring from an instance boss in Marleybone, but he couldn’t use it because he isn’t a Life Wizard.  It was marked No Trade/No Auction.  I couldn’t even break it down into crafting ingredients like I could with a WoW Bind on Pickup item that I couldn’t equip.  What should be a very valuable ring was vendor trash to me.

To add insult to injury, it was “appraised” for 3500 gold or so at the Bazaar, but I wasn’t allowed to put it up for sale.  Since Bazaar buy prices are very low compared to sale prices, I was holding a ring that would have sold at the Bazaar for well over 30,000 gold.  I couldn’t even give it to an alt on my account.  I had to sell it to a vendor for a whopping 355 gold.

This isn’t working.  I got a useless item, was taunted with how much it could have been worth, and it didn’t even function as a gold sink as most other Bazaar-resale items do.

That’s not “rare and valuable” in my book, that’s annoying, wasteful, and ill-conceived.

As for the now-unavailable crown gear, I’m rather disappointed.  One of the early draws of the game was that you could get gear with crowns (W101’s secondary microtransaction currency) that offered unique bonuses and extra cards for your deck, expanding combat options.  A short while after release, you could also get that gear with in-game gold (though it was very expensive).  I thought this to be the best of both worlds; you could pay cash and get the gear, or pay with time and get the gear via grinding gold.  Now, the “crown gear” has changed, and is severely underwhelming (weaker stats and no extra card), and it’s not available for gold purchase any more.

I’m baffled by this decision on King’s Isle’s part, and I consider it to be extremely ill-conceived as well.  One of their brilliant ideas, and a sterling example of “RMT” done right (pay with cash or time for the same stuff), is gone.  That doesn’t bode especially well in my book, either for W101 in particular or the genre at large.

The gimmick fights, as noted by Tipa over here (Cyrus Apologizes), are another strange decision.  I’m very sympathetic to the notion of introducing a bit more variety than simple “smash and grab” encounters by introducing “puzzle” aspects of boss encounters.  It’s nice to have different ways to play the game.  Except… these weren’t presented as an option, they were a sudden and complete change.  What would have worked better is to offer both styles, and let players choose what they wanted to do.  You can’t always do that when you change a game, but this one would have been a very natural fit for “Heroic” dungeon options in the game.

Crafting is a nice addition in theory, but the mechanics of crafting in W101 aren’t all that impressive.  It’s a significant grind to get all of the materials to craft items, and most crafted items just aren’t all that useful, especially as an older character going back and grinding up through the ranks.  Vertical progression in crafting is just as annoying as it is in character development.

The game is still very good, and a great bit of fun.  I could just be oversensitive to change, as I’ve suggested others are in the past.  I’m certainly not boycotting the game or suggesting that anyone else should either.  It’s just that these decisions make little sense to me.  They aren’t like Blizzard’s Faction Switch fiasco, which can be handwaved away as a way to let players get together easier while earning a bit of revenue from those willing to pay the fee.  These are just pure game design decisions in W101… and they don’t make sense.  Even the stated rationale isn’t well reasoned.  It’s a bit disheartening seeing devs that I’ve held up as being great examples make dumb decisions like this… it makes me wonder if earlier successes were just lucky.

When changes in these MMO things happen, they need to happen for good reasons, and the notion of “bait and switch” needs to be carefully avoided.  Changes should bring about more choices and things to do, not fewer.  As I’ve written elsewhere, change is inherent in the MMO genre, and it’s only fair that I find myself on the bad end of some changes when I applaud changes in other games.  Karma and all that…

Even so, stepping back and trying to see what they are doing with W101, I see some odd choices and some ideas that really needed to be thought out a bit more, and then changed before implementation.  It’s something to learn from, at any rate.  I’m glad that I’m not invested in the game to the tune of hundreds of dollars and several months of hardcore playtime.  The disappointment would be more personal, rather than abstract.

So yes, Spinks, I understand the notions of “betrayal” that invested players get when things change.  That’s a personal itch that makes sense.  I just see things like the WoW Faction Switch as a smart decision overall, and can ignore the personal annoyment borne of attachment, investment and a sense of entitlement.  I just can’t find a good game design or business reason for these W101 changes, so it’s annoying personally, which I’m already over, and professionally, which is a bit more unnerving.  Strange that my priorities are thus, perhaps, but so it goes.

Edited to add: Beej’s comment below reminded me of something.  I still heartily recommend Wizard 101 to play, especially if you’re just going to try out the free zones and get a feel for it.  It’s a lot of fun to play.  These concerns I have are about itemization, crafting and the economy.  They aren’t insignificant complaints, but they don’t have a significant impact on how you actually go about playing the game from day to day.  The core card-game combat is brilliant, and the setting and story are delightfully whimsical.  It’s still a fun game to play, despite concerns, and that makes it an easy one to recommend.

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Thanks to Tipa for noticing this and posting about it:

W101 Player Housing

My wife has more than once suggested we check out working for King’s Isle.  Unfortunately, they aren’t hiring artists at the moment.  Still, these guys seem to get it better than most MMO devs.

I can’t help but think “if King’s Isle can do this, why not Blizzard?”  I’m sure excuses can be made, but man… King’s Isle is earning their keep.  Keep at it, lads!

…I wish I were at the GDC.  It’s a lot more appealing than E3 or PAX.  Then again, I’m the sort that wants to go to the SIGGraph classes, rather than prowl the product floor looking for free loot.

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I have a minor confession to make. I finally broke down and gave real money to another MMO game. It’s only the third one that I’ve ever felt like giving cash to.  As of… five minutes ago, Wizard101 joins the esteemed company of Puzzle Pirates and Guild Wars in my household.

It’s really all their fault.  They hooked me with great and unique gameplay (not unlike how Atlantica Online got me involved, despite the two being very different) and an extended free trial.  Actually, they snagged me in their open beta, but I never did have the time to spend then to see the areas that were later locked down under a subscription model.

Yup, they started with, and still have, a subscription model.  So, wait, I loathe subscriptions.  How did they get my cash?  I bought Crowns.  Crowns in W101 can be spent on unique items (often disparagingly called RMT items).  At least, that’s about all they were good for at launch.  I’ve been reading Saylah and Capn’ John for a while now, and Tipa here and there, so I figured I’d pop in and see what has happened with the game lately.

Ah, what difference a couple of months makes.  The geniuses at W101 are now selling “Access Passes” to unlock areas in the game.  These cost a set number of Crowns (again, purchased with cash), effectively unlocking content for your account.

See the sneakery?  They are selling both subscriptions and content!  They are making the best of both worlds, catering to those who get the most out of subscriptions (WoW refugees), and those who would rather buy content to consume at their leisure (GW nuts like me).

The only thing that would make their monetization strategy perfect would be a blind auction currency exchange like the Puzzle Pirates Doubloon/PoE exchange.  Still, since the W101 crew are now selling content rather than time, I finally cracked open my rusty wallet.

I’ve always thought the game was good, ever since tinkering in the beta days.  Now, I feel the business model is sufficiently caught up that I want to support them.  Perhaps that’s selfish or egocentric, but y’know, it’s my name on the credit card.

A hearty round of applause for Wizard 101 and may their business thrive!  They deserve it.

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