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Posts Tagged ‘world of warcraft’

With a new World of Warcraft expansion in the news cycle, it’s only inevitable that the Flying discussion cycles around again.

I make no secret of the fact that I love flying in games.  I am a Bartle Explorer, through and through.  Flying is perhaps my favorite activity in WoW.

So, when there’s a view that says “flying is bad“, I can’t help but think that they have a different perspective on what this World of Warcraft is.

(Caveat:  As I noted on Twitter in a comment to Big Bear Butt when he mentioned his article and that WoWInsider piece, I don’t mind waiting until the end of an expansion to be able to fly through it.  I think it’s a sledgehammer solution to the perceived problem, but I can live with it.)

One of the most repeated rationales for this worldview is that “flying makes the world smaller“.

To me, this is a completely alien way of looking at it, and completely backwards.

Yes, flying makes it possible to travel around quicker.  It makes it easier to plow through content.  It makes it easier for players to ignore enemies stuck on the ground and forces players to jump through the developer hoops and pacing.

(Aside:  When a game monetizes time, I consider it a cardinal sin for devs to waste my time, trying to find ways to slow me down.)

Also, from a technical standpoint, it does make something look smaller if you increase your distance from it, so flying up in the air will make something on the ground look smaller.

And yet, from my perspective, the ability to fly makes the World of WoW much, much bigger.  This is true for one simple reason:

I can explore more of it.

Flying opens up new camera angles, new places to go and see, and new ways for me to see how places relate to each other.  It’s a new perspective on what’s already there, a way to see things that I simply can’t get when I’m stuck to the ground.

It’s similar, in a way, to how I see the real world.  Yes, digital photography has allowed for more of the world to be captured and shared than ever before, and the internet makes it possible to “see” places around the world from the comfort of home.  In a way, it “made the world smaller” inasmuch as you don’t have to walk or ride out to see the sights yourself.

And yet, from where I sit, if I could never see those places, they may as well not exist.  (At least as far as my own personal experience, anyway; I’m not arguing any sort of absurd anthropic “China doesn’t exist because I didn’t hear a tree falling there” or any such nonsense.)  Being able to see, even just a glimpse, of what’s out there doesn’t make our world smaller, it makes it much, much bigger.  There’s all this stuff out there.  The more I see, the more I want to see, and the more aware I am of just how much there is that is there to see.

This is the beauty and fascination of the National Geographic magazine, or the Cosmos series.  They help us open our eyes, just a little, to what’s out there.

And when I see that, the only thing that feels smaller is me.

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Blizzard sent me their occasional “come back and play pleeeeeeease, so you’ll get hooked and buy more subscription time” email recently, and I decided to take them up on it.  Of course, they pitched it as “come take part in the Siege of Orgrimmar“, but since that’s a raider thing, I chose to interpret their email a little bit.

…and really, I know that this sort of “play for a few days for freeee” email is meant to lure back in players who have been out of the game for a while, but it seems to me that isn’t limited to end-game raiders.  Especially since it seems like you have to be out of the game for four or more months for them to even extend the offer, and by then… are you really on the cutting edge of raid content any more?

Anyway, I did break down a while back and buy a Collector’s Edition of Mists of Pandaria.  (It was something like $35 or so, which netted me the art book, soundtrack and DVD that I really wanted.  The other extras were icing on the cake.  Oh, and the game expansion was nice.  I’ll make a Dwarf Monk at some point.)  You see, WoW and I, we have a tenuous relationship.  It’s a game I could easily spend a lot of time in, mostly just looking around at the nicely realized world and art.

And yet… what time I do spend in it is torn between “ooh, that is a good screenshot opportunity” and “man, this game design needs work”, with a fair bit of mindless questing and dungeoneering in the murky middle.  The combat isn’t terribly engaging most of the time, but sometimes, that’s exactly what I want.  Sometimes I want involved, tactically awesome combat, sometimes I just want to zone out for a bit before I go to sleep.  It’s a bit like watching a Stargate SG-1 episode I’ve seen before; I can just sort of turn off my brain and enjoy the ride as I coast to a stop at the end of the day.  WoW is a game that I just “graze” in, really, and that’s OK.  I’m happy to just putter around here and there during those times when I’m in the mood, and I love that my Druid has flight form and the cat form’s stealth so I can poke around in places where I’m not generally supposed to go.

This is also why the subscription model is such an awful fit for me.  I don’t binge on the game, or commit to it.  I just play it a little bit, and the value calculations of a subscription make that an expensive bit of gaming.  For the $15/month I might pay to play, I’d get in maybe 15-20 hours, tops, and even getting that much in would mean not playing any other games or working on Kickstarter (Go, Go, Tinker Deck!) or other art projects.  I just don’t do that sort of single-game thing any more.  For that same $15, I can buy three Humble Bundles or the like and get hundreds of hours of gaming over the next year or so.

What stood out to me last night, though, wasn’t the value proposition.  No, it was the design.  My Tauren Druid was tasked with fetching rattan switches for this quest:

A Proper Weapon

And as it happens, there’s a bunch of these switches by a neighboring merchant.  That Wowpedia link describes it a bit if you want detail, but I, quite mindlessly, as is my wont when I’m doing these bog-standard fetch quests, just grabbed one of those switches.

And then the merchant started yelling at me.

Immediately, my response was to right click on the guy and see if I could give him back the switch.  There were plenty in the neighborhood, and I was sorry I took his.

This quick incident was at once intriguing and disappointing.  For once, a character in the game exhibited small signs of an AI that was more than just “be present in the world”.  That was awesome.  It was a glimmer of what the AI in Everquest Next might get up to (and I hope that they make it interesting; there’s a TON of potential).  I thought it delightful that a NPC would chew me out for an admittedly stupid minor theft.

And yet, and yetI couldn’t react to it.  I couldn’t give him back the switch.  I couldn’t attack him and kill him for his insolence.  (I didn’t think of that option until later, as it’s not a reflexive response for me, but I still couldn’t do it, even if I had wanted to.)  I could /bow to him or /laugh, but there wasn’t really interaction there.  It was little more than a scripted event that’s just barely beyond what most NPCs do.

Still, it was an NPC reacting to something I did nearby, not something I did directly to them.  That was a nice touch, and I’m looking forward to seeing games take that further.  There’s a long way to go, and it’s sad to see only the very rudimentary efforts when there’s so much potential, but I choose to see that as a glimmer of hope for these MMO things.

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Just a quick thought today.  The venerable Big Bear Butt and the inimitable Syl have articles up today that reminded me of one of my old wishes for World of Warcraft: Housing.

Big Bear Butt’s Putting the Pieces Together

Syl’s Off The Chest: Midlevel and Endgame Grinds No Thanks, I Rather Have A Castle!

And just for reference, my old collection of Allods Online screenshots.

Y’see, I’d love to see private Outland/Allod style floating islands as housing locations in WoW.  Wizard 101 does almost exactly this already, and for their trouble, they earned some money from me when I bought my Marleybone steampunk island home.  (That I currently can’t find any screenshots for, sadly.)  I’d love to have a little floating island home out off the coast of Nagrand, or maybe a Dalaran satellite.  Maybe I could have a little research hut out by Area 52 and a winter home tucked in the Grizzly Hills. Of course, these would all be phased, so they wouldn’t be a blight on the world, but that’s OK, I don’t necessarily want visitors anyway.

…it all reminds me a little of the system of outposts I tend to make in Minecraft, actually.  That’s a delightful game that I’ve spend a great deal of time in.  When I’m out exploring a Minecraft world, I build little waystations in interesting locations, and I link them with shortcuts via the Nether, since moving one “grid square” in the Nether is equivalent of 8 spaces in the normal world.  I have developed a good sense of how far to go before the Nether portals don’t just tether to existing portals, so I can leapfrog a series of Nether portals and overworld exploration to cover a lot of ground.  I wind up with the Arctic home, the Swamp home, Anvilania, the cliffside village, the Burrows, the tree farm, the diamond mine and so on… a whole system of locations that fit into the larger world, but that are uniquely mine.  (Get it?  Minecraft?  OK, my humor needs work.)

If I could have a set of private islands or shacks in the World of Warcraft, especially if they were linked via a portal system… I’d spend more time in the place.  It’s even another monetization vector.  Yes, it would cost something to develop, but I think it would be worth it.  I’d prefer the game to go subscriptionless, of course, and note that I’d spend money on said housing… y’know, while I’m dreaming.

And yes, I know WURM Online kind of scratches this itch, as does Minecraft.  I know LOTRO has housing, as does Wizard 101 and Puzzle Pirates.  I’m not hopeful that Blizzard will do this, and I’m not really looking for them to take over the world.  I just think this is an obvious design area that WoW could go in, and I’d have fun with it.  Just ruminating a bit on a Tuesday morning.

Ah, and many thanks to DÀCHÉNG for taking the idea and running with it over thisaway.  There really is a lot of fertile design space to mine in this housing concept.  Blizzard is missing a trick here, I think.  Maybe they don’t need to leverage the Minecraft/DeviantArt “artist” impulse to be successful, but I’m pretty sure the cost/benefit ratio is firmly tilted in the benefit direction.  Letting players modify their experience a bit and share their creativity is at least partially the heart of the whole “transmogrification” scheme, and that’s been a success.

I suppose I should have made it clearer, but yes, I am assuming that players would be able to invite friends to see their homes/islands/fortresses.  They wouldn’t just be private instances, forever sealed away.  They might be instances, but they would be places that other players could access in some way.

…as far as I’m concerned, that builds community while granting players ownership and letting them invest emotionally.  That sounds like a game design WIN to me.

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Guild Wars 2 is out, and apparently awesome.  I’ll get it someday, money and time are tight at the moment, but in the meantime, Syl has some great comments up on the game.  Others do too, I’m sure, I’ve just been out of the loop lately.  GW2 is the sort of game that sounds like something I want to play (I loved the first one), I just… can’t.  Not at the moment.

World of Warcraft‘s latest patch, 5.0.4, came out at the same time (the nefariousness!), and it’s apparently also amazingly awesome.  I’ll play WoW again someday as well.  Probably just by firing up my free account and making a Pandaran, though if I ever revisit my “paid” account, I’ll be happy to see some things like shared mounts and pets.  My daughter will love that she can have her character access the pets I’ve collected on my Tishtoshtesh character.

Oh, and as an aside, I love that Hunters now have no minimum range on their ranged weapons, but the deletion of their melee potential makes me sad.  I wish they had made the Survival tree into a melee-heavy Hunter, sort of like a Warhammer Online White Lion class.  That might spawn a few hundred thousand more Drizzt clones though, I guess.

In the meantime, though, I wanted to share a couple of photos I found that reminded me of WoW.  Y’see, sometimes it’s derided as being “too technicolor” or something of the sort.  Well, so is my home state, sometimes.  And it’s a blasted desert.

A Sea of Purple in the Badlands of Utah

Badlands Bloom by Guy Tal

And then there’s this mini-maelstrom in Hawaii… it’s not quite the size of Darkshore’s sinkhole or The WoW Maelstrom, but I think it looks a lot more impressive for its detail and energy.  And that whole “it’s real” bit.  (Another shot of the area over thisaway, also by Patrick Smith.)

Maelstrom at Kauai, Hawaii

Maelstrom in Hawaii by Patrick Smith

Both of those were featured in this “best photos of 2012” list, which includes some other fantastic photographs.  Go, peruse, enjoy!

When you’re done with that, you could go peruse the archives at the Astronomy Picture of the Day.  There’s a ton of great stuff there.  The shot from this morning even almost fits the theme, looking vaguely like a northern Azerothian badland, complete with some airglow fun.

Airglow over Italy by Tamas Ladanyi

…I wish I had more time for photography, too.  I meant to go to some local ghost towns this summer and look for texture photos and other interesting shots.  Alas, home repair/remodeling and other Stuff ate up my time… and none of those are even done yet.  I probably ought to sleep sometime, too.

…so yeah, I hope you all are having fun in those MMO worlds.  Take some screenshots for me, will you please?

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World of Warcraft finally steals the WarHammer Online “perpetual limited free trial” hook.

Too little, too late, says I.  The time to flank the F2P tide was a couple of years ago if not earlier.

It’s still probably a smart move.  It will be interesting to see what effects it has.

As for me and my house?  I’ll have a new baby Druid to play with when the itch strikes, and I don’t have to plunk down a sub for the privilege of picking up the game whenever I darn well please for a bit of sightseeing.  Oh, and I can patch the blasted thing without feeling like I’m wasting a couple of days of a month’s sub or firing up a new dummy trial.

…and I’d still pay for an offline version.

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Continued from Part 1, of course…

The left and right sides of this diagram are balanced.

The left and right sides of this diagram are also balanced.

These, too.

…but what of these?

Or these?

So, that in mind, how about I change a couple of labels up there?  Here’s where Street Fighter 2 comes in.

A is T. Hawk

B is Zangief

C is Ryu

D is Dhalsim

I know I grossly oversimplify here, but there’s minor method to the madness.  T. Hawk and Zangief are both mostly one-trick ponies; their strength lies primarily in grabbing the opponent and squashing them.  Ryu is fairly well-rounded, with a decent air and ground game, as well as a few basic throw options.  Dhalsim is also well rounded, albeit in different, tricky ways.

Every single one of those diagrams uses the exact same base, the same “piece of the pie”, I just sliced them up differently and pushed pieces around a bit.  It’s largely an asymmetrical balance, but the variety is generally a good thing.  Strictly speaking, if balance is only a measure of how much black each character gets, they are very precisely balanced.

…but then, that’s the key.  The metrics I’m using for balance let me state that the balance is precise.  This is critical.  Balance functions best when the measurements and means of measurement are very clear.  (Tangentially, this is why so many science experiments flat out ignore tangential data and assume things like a lack of friction.  It’s a way to clean up the signal and set the terms of measurement.)

Y’see, if we want to get picky, the letters also contain black.  The right side of the figure also contains a measure of black in the slight grey background.  Those are just noise, though, because I deem them such.  That inverse image mirror Zangief match actually does the Yin-Yang sort of balance, white vs. black.  These corner cases exist, surely, but they aren’t part of the finely crafted balance I care about.  Oh, sure, someone will nitpick about them, but since I’m the one crafting and defining the balance, those arguments don’t matter.

While we’re talking Street Fighter, though, look at the following comparisons between Ryu and Zangief:

The ground game:

The throw game:

The air game:

If you isolate the part of the game you’re seeing to a particular slice of the overall design, it’s easily argued that these two characters are imbalanced.  Zangief is the clear favorite in the throw game (though it should be noted that a solid block of color like that looks more impressive than it actually is), but Ryu dominates the air and has a small edge on the ground.  Overall, we can argue that they are balanced, but in particular situations, they most definitely are not.  When considering balance, then it must be asked:  “what is the big picture?”  Or, more precisely, “what metrics are these systems using for the overall picture that this design’s balance exists in?”

Speaking of slicing up perceptions, though, there’s another way to do it.  I’m calling it role slicing, but it’s really just a subset of situational slicing.  Compare World of Warcraft’s Druid to the Warrior.  Overall, the Druid looks like it has a significant edge over the Warrior, after all, it has a bigger piece of the action in the big picture:

And yet, if you look at the role slices, (noting that there are indeed overlaps, just by the nature of the game), Warrior and Druid tanking are remarkably similar and nicely balanced:

…and their melee DPS options are reasonably balanced:

Yes, I know, Druid melee DPS is more akin to a Rogue, but for the sake of this (oversimplified) argument, it might also be suggested that all classes that specialize in melee DPS are balanced, just with some tweaks and different approaches.  You get up in the bad guy’s personal space and bring the hurt.  Similarly, a Mage and Druid could be compared in the ranged DPS (when the Druid is in Balance spec, anywho), blasting baddies from the peanut gallery.

These role slices are balanced as opposed to the “big picture” being balanced, and I believe that’s the way it should be for something like WoW with its relatively inflexible roles.  (You cannot switch from offense to defense in a flash like you do with Street Fighter 2′s gameplay.)  This produces some quirks in game design when compared to SF2.

For one, there are more ways to interpret things, so naturally, more excuses to nitpick.  Two, even the designers can slip into thinking that the overall sense of balance matters more than the role, and wind up hobbling the multifaceted Druid in an effort to balance the big picture.  For WoW’s design, the role is key, since that’s what gameplay is designed around.  Tanks tank, healers heal, and DPS…ers kill stuff.  You just can’t generalize and shift roles effectively at any moment.  Three, the “metagame” and “class identity” really do matter to players, but mechanically, when it comes to balance, the function of moment to moment play (the roles) are more important.  Those can clash sometimes, especially since so much of the gameplay is decided by the initial choice of class… and that’s a remarkably unchangeable choice made early in the game with little good feedback.

So, lots of words to say “balance kinda sorta really, well… depends on how you look at it” with a subtext of “each game does it differently, for good reason”.

Oh, and I’d be terribly remiss not to point out the following:

Sirlin on balancing Street Fighter 2 and multiplayer games in general (since it was his job, he knows far more of the particulars than I do; it’s a great series of articles on a great site)

Just to throw some gum in the works, BBB reminds us that:

“Class balance is not a fundamental RPG trait”

Because sometimes, throwing “balance” out the window is actually a smart design choice.  Shunting it off of center stage makes room for different sorts of play.  Or different types of balance.

…and then there’s oddments like crowd control, buffing, out of combat utility like teleporting, crafting suites, cosmetics, racial traits, location modifiers, dice rolls and the hairy topic of randomization and its sometimes deleterious effect on balance…

Oi.

Follow the link tied to that picture to find a fun LEGO spin on Escher’s work.  I love Escher’s art.  Remember… balance depends on how you look at it.  It’s all… relative.

Edited to add, because I forgot it but really shouldn’t have, as I meant to work it in…

6 Inch Move’s take on the Myth of Balance

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Since the Shattering, the Lollipop Guild has been busy.  They have apparently meandered all over Azeroth building a Yellow Brick Road, a Golden Path Theme Park for Idiots, turning World of Warcraft into a game only brain dead vegetables can love.

Or, so some might have me believe.

OK, OK, that’s a bit of hyperbole.  There are reasonable concerns about pacing in the game, especially dungeon XP gain rate as Klepsacovic noted, which Blizzard fixed.  Pete of Dragonchasers also notes that a player control for turning XP gain off might be nice.  I agree, though I’d also like the ability to remove XP, so I could iteratively reduce my level and keep pushing myself as I solo dungeons.  Well, that, or have nice, tight difficulty control sliders, or even difficulty settings like DDO has for dungeons.  (I can sort of fudge this by removing gear and taking skills of my action bar, though, so it’s not a thought I expect to be taken seriously.)

I broke down and bought TBC and Wrath while Blizzard had them on sale for $5 and $10, respectively (having purchased the original game for $5 last year).  I used a gift card I got a while ago and fired up another month in the game to look around.  I played the possibly overscripted Troll starting areas and found them to be a nice slice of mechanics that show up later in the game as well as a nice bit of Troll species storytelling.  The Gnome staring zone is pretty good, and I love that they are fighting for their home instead of waiting for players to run the Gnomeregan instance.  The Tauren starting zone is great, imparting a sense of impending twilight for the species.  Even the Dwarf starting experience is fun and fresh, though I’ve played the old version many times.

One commonality is the NPCs milling about, caught in perpetual warfare.  Yeah, they never get very far in actually defeating their foes, but at least something is going on in that vast plain by the Tauren starting village.  I wrote about the Death Knight starting areas a while back, and it seems to me that Blizzard has learned that having NPCs doing things in the world helps give it a sense of life.  In the DK areas, battles are going on in the background as you do your quests.  All new areas I’ve played to date have either battles or NPCs training for battle.  Questgivers and trainers move around a bit sometimes and interact with other NPCs.  The game feels more alive and bustling than ever before, and it does that without a player in sight.  That’s a Good Thing.

When there are players, yes, a game will feel more populated, but at the same time, players rarely feel like part of the world.  They run and jump around like caffeinated squirrels (do players ever walk?), loiter around like heroes without a cause, dress like fashion accidents, and run through each other.  And those are the tolerable ones; some are flat out annoying, spamming chat channels, dueling, monkeying around with train sets, dancing naked on mailboxes or any of a number of other random nutty non-Azerothian behavior.  In a lot of ways, player characters kill the much-vaunted “immersion” that can be produced by a cohesive presentation that we see in strongly themed and behaviorally consistent NPCs.

The starting questlines are indeed streamlined and polished to a fine golden sheen.  You’re almost never left wondering what to do, as NPCs go out of their way to advertise their inability to do simple things on their own, requiring errand boys and assassins at alarming rates.  (Though, since death is almost always only temporary in Azeroth, maybe assassination isn’t so much a nasty profession as a hobby.)  The rails in the game are indeed more finely crafted and more prominent than ever before.

And yet… there is nothing keeping players on the rails but their own habit and Pavlovian training.  I can take a new Troll and wander over to the starting Orc area to begin my journey.  I can just go grind away and kill crabs and boars, totally ignoring any quests.  I can try to swim around to Tanaris and see the new Thousand Needles water park.  As a Dwarf or Gnome, I can hike to Ironforge and catch the tram to Stormwind and hop on a ship to Northrend to look around, all at level 1 (though I might level up thanks to exploration XP… might have to try that this weekend, just for fun, and see how many levels I can accrue just by walking around to places I’m not supposed to see).  I can’t tackle enemies far beyond my abilities, so going some places will be very difficult if not impossible, but I’m otherwise free to go in nearly any direction I feel like.

A few nights ago, I took my level 16 Dwarf Hunter to Bloodmyst Isle to train a blue moth.  My daughter wanted to see one in-game, so off I went.  Not having been there before, I had to do a bit of exploring and Petopia/Wowpedia diving, but I eventually acquired a blue moth and took some screenshots of the area.  It wasn’t really a difficult journey, but it was pretty far from the Ironforged rails I was on previously.

A few levels later, the now-19 Hunter went from Ironforge to Wailing Caverns via Stormwind, Teldrassil, Darkshore, Ashenvale and the Northern Barrens (yes, the Westfall>Stranglethorn Vale>Booty Bay>Ratchet>Northern Barrens route might have been faster, but it was an experiment, and I feared STV more than Ashenvale).  Darkshore has been significantly mauled in the Shattering, and it’s a blast to just wander around in.  Ashenvale is tricky, with Horde and Alliance butting heads and dangerous wildlife to a sub-20 character.  Though as always, Hunters can take down foes a few levels higher, it’s still not safe territory.  A level 24 wolf wasn’t much trouble… but a pack of them would be death.  I had to pick fights, dodge aggro bubbles and avoid Horde patrols.

I still couldn’t make it through the Horde gates at the Barrens border, though, even with Alliance footsoldiers running interference.  The Spirit Healer in the Barrens took pity on me and pulled me through, but after accepting the resurrection penalty, the Barrens were still dangerous, especially with Horde players roaming about.  Three Hordies killed me once 40 meters or so off the road on the way to the Caverns, so I carefully skulked in the shadows and along mountain edges after that.  They probably thought I was going to assault the Crossroads, but since Alliance and Horde can only communicate in cutscenes, I couldn’t tell them my intentions were peaceful.

Getting to the instance portal was also an exercise in careful pulling.  I could handle two foes at once in the cave, but three would have been death.  Getting past the nasty pond dinosaur trap midcave was tricky, too.  Luckily, my bear was OK with playing bait, and we both got through.  We even managed to kill one of the raptors in the instance itself, a level 19 Elite, but I chickened out of trying two at a time, since it was a close fight.  (Maybe I just stink, and two would have been easy for a real player, but 1 elite dinosaur was my limit.  Well, 1.5, probably, but I figured 2 was too much, and since dinos don’t come in halves, I stopped at 1.)

Tangentially, I find it interesting that often, those who complain about wanting challenge can’t be bothered to go find it, but want it brought to them on a golden platter and forced on everyone else.  They then complain about lazy players and “easy mode” as if those nefarious casuals (spit) were the only ones with a sense of entitlement.  It’s especially funny to see the complainers using heirloom gear and whining about going too fast.

Most definitely, WoW’s public face is more “gamey” than ever before, but there’s still a world out there to explore, and it’s better than ever, especially for newbies.  It’s beautiful, with the Blizzard artists taking the Old World and stepping up the visuals to great new heights.  It’s still not as worldlike as I’d prefer, not by a long shot, but Azeroth isn’t all about hand-holding and going through the motions unless you let it be.

Boredom is a sign of low curiosity, a personal failure to engage mentally.  It’s not the world failing to entertain you, it’s you failing to investigate some of the many wonders that exist and initiate experimentation with what tools you have.  The same applies to challenge and exploration.

We’re not in Kansas any more, so take that road less traveled, or even go make your own.  There’s plenty of challenging and interesting content off the beaten track if you go looking for it.

____________________________

EDITED TO ADD:

MMO Gamer Chick has an interesting article up with some real noob experiences.  Insightful stuff.

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‘Tis the time of year that many people gather in groups of family and friends to celebrate assorted things.  I’m of the American and Christian persuasions, so it’s Thanksgiving and Christmas for me and mine, but there’s no apparent shortage of celebrations for diverse tastes.  Maybe being cooped up together out of the snow means we either party or kill each other.  I do prefer the former, though the latter might be easier sometimes, especially when awkward situations arise.

I’ve noted, with no small amount of whimsy, that I could map certain classes or roles we might see in World of Warcraft to people I see in these gatherings.  They don’t map perfectly, since socialization is PvP (Player vs. Player) rather than PvE (Player vs. Environment), and threat doesn’t work the same way, but there are some interesting parallels nevertheless.

The Roles

Tank

This guy wants all the attention, and will make efforts to control the direction of conversation and protect weaker conversationalists from the ire of dissent.  There are, of course, different different tanking styles, but all have a variety of tools to deflect tangents and monopolize crucial conversational pauses.  A bombastic or otherwise “large” personality or presence greatly benefits the social tank, even if it is ultimately of little substance.  Maintaining the focus of attention is key, not presenting a cogent argument.

DPS (Damage Per Second)

These are the guys who actually move a conversation along.  The Tank has to spend so much effort keeping a conversation on topic and heading off tangents that he has to rely on the DPS conversationalists to move the chosen topic along.  They will usually do this with supporting anecdotes or witticisms.  Some are blunt force conversationalists, seeking to make progress by sheer magnitude of presentation, while others are precision specialists, doing the most with a few carefully timed words in the right place.  Occasionally DPS teams will form and act in concert to magnify their efforts.  They must be careful not to steer the conversation, though, since they don’t have all the necessary tools to direct the conversation away from tangents and deflect dissent, and may occasionally be leveled by a precise counterpoint.

Some DPS conversationalists might specialize in Crowd Control, a nearly lost art of taking down tangential threats on the periphery of a conversation.  Since this is a job best done without drawing much attention, it is often unsung, but no less important, especially in large gatherings.

Healer

These are the peacemakers.  When tensions get high, these conversationalists seek to defuse the situation with placation, humor, distraction or food.  This tends to require a soft touch, lest the tank lose control of the underlying conversational direction.  The Healer doesn’t so much seek to change the conversation’s direction, but rather, to manage its tone, keeping things moderate and keeping contentions down and therefore make the Tank’s job easier to manage.  This tends to be easier when they have food to offer, so careful pacing of meal courses and foresight in management of non-conversation resources will benefit the healer.  Desserts are a powerful wildcard in the healer’s arsenal, and many healers will come prepared with a wide assortment.

The Classes

Druid

A social generalist, the Druid can Tank, DPS or Heal as necessary, though they must specialize in one to be as effective as a specialist.  They smoothly shift between roles as a conversation unfolds, filling in gaps left by inattention or mistakes.  They might tank at close quarters and then shift to backstabbing at a moment’s notice, or they might lob comments from afar, or even bring some snacks to the table.  Since none of their tools are very strong, though, they must try to anticipate the social scene’s intricacies correctly and use precise timing as leverage to maximize their efforts.  More than most, Druids need to understand the ebb and flow of the nature of social situations and all the varied aspects so they can shift their own position.

Death Knight

These guys are well known for their ability to kill a conversation and then revive it under their control.  Well equipped to deflect criticism with thick disregard for insult and having very strong presence, they work well as Tanks, or they can fill the DPS role well by making heavy handed points as they make others uncomfortable with implications.  Likely to be depressed and depressing, and possibly harboring conversational grudges from past parties.

Hunter

Careful conversationalists, Hunters function in a pure DPS role.  Some prefer to snipe from the periphery, offering precision arguments.  Others bring a companion for distraction while they chime in with timely comments.  Yet others lay careful conversational traps and quietly guide others into making mistakes.  Hunters are often used by Tanks to initiate a conversation with offhand comments, which they then follow up on with their unique talents.

Mage

Another pure DPS class, Mages have a few distinct styles.  Some prefer fiery rhetoric with lingering implications.  Some prefer the cold shoulder technique (sometimes called “wet blanket”), heavy on control tactics that help the Tank.  Some prefer broad spectrum wild generalizations and arcane statements about irrelevant factoids, reveling in confusing the foe.  Mages love to flaunt their intelligence in one way or another, often trying to outsmart opponents for the sheer joy in doing so.

Paladin

A Paladin is a hybrid like the Druid, capable of filling any of the significant roles.  They can’t shift between roles as fluidly as Druids, but they are better equipped at all times to deflect dissent.  Their reduced flexibility is balanced by their defense.  They tend to specialize in one of the roles, but all will have a sanctimonious air that is offputting to foes and encouraging to friends.  They tend to direct conversations to The Truth when possible, and have particular and peculiar talents that keep dead conversations down.

Priest

The quintessential Healer, Priests share the sanctimony of paladins, but wield it much more effectively.  They might play the pariah or simply call for repentance, or they might simply offer a constant stream of calming platitudes with little substance to argue about.  Some will simply keep bringing food to the table.  A few will step into a DPS role with biting chastisement or darkly portentious comments.

Rogue

Rogues serve only their own interests, but understand that hiding behind a Tank (or better, hiding behind their opponent) is a safer place to be.  They are pure DPS conversationalists, seeking primarily to make a point, and if possible, to make it hurt.  They converse from the shadows, sometimes seeking to slowly erode an opposing viewpoint, sometimes acting swiftly and mercilessly to cut down a line of thought.  They are remarkably direct, and everything is personal with a Rogue.  They may serve a team goal at times, if circumstances align, but are unmistakably their own person with their own goals.

Shaman

Adept at sensing the nature of conversation, Shaman tap into social undercurrents to work their magic.  Some will Tank in lighter encounters, but most will either fill a DPS or Healer role.  Uniquely equipped with trinkets and tools with which to make conversational points via object lessons, they tend to be masters of minutiae and trivia.  This can serve to further a conversation or manage its tone.  Shaman are hybrids, adept at filling holes in a team, though they aren’t as agile as Druids.  Shaman tend to be relatively immobile, but versatile.  They are excellent team players, with a wide array of support tactics.

Warlock

Pure DPS in every form, a Warlock can’t help but be caustic, and is inordinately fond of veiled insults that result either in lingering shame or self-doubt.  May or may not have companion in tow, appropriately attired for maximum distraction, whether employing fear or more… amorous (though cruel) intentions.  Master of snide asides, arch allusions and faux British accents.

Warrior

Blessed with an uncomplicated approach to life, Warriors tend to either master a Tank role or a DPS role.  Heavily defended from conversational dissent with a heady mixture of ignorance (pretended or not) and thick disregard for insult, Warriors often serve as rallying points for friends.  In the occasion that they step out of the center of attention, they either rely on fast, furious assaults or heavy precision strikes to further a conversation.  They can wield nearly any conversational tactic, but work best in direct confrontation.

It’s no great surprise to me to find that I can most comfortably identify myself with the Social Druid, though I have pretty solid Hunter tendencies, too.  (Never mind that I wrote this, I tried to make them at least somewhat fair.)  I’m especially fond of my brother-in-law who is a fantastic Social Warrior.  Maybe it’s because he’s a military guy?  He plays the Tank and DPS roles very well, leaving me to do my own thing.

These are somewhat… loose categorizations at that, and might be applied similarly to Your Favorite MMO.  (I really ought to do a Guild Wars version of this, but Longasc and Nugget might be better suited for that task…)

Whatever your game of choice and celebration of choice, though, Happy Holidays and good luck socializing!

Oh, and don’t stand in the fire.  It really hurts in the real world.  The cooks might not be very happy with you either.

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I’ve written before that I’d buy an offline WoW and have fun with it.  It would be the ultimate solo WoW experience, maybe even something roughly approximating one of those weird Role Playing Game things.  I do think the world of Warcraft has some interesting things to offer, and it can serve as a stage for some good gaming that need not be of the MMO variety.

But then… what is an RPG?

Such a question has been bandied about for some time now, so I’m not going to rehash much of it, but rather ask:  What would a WoW RPG (offline, solo) look like?

Ignore for the moment, the tabletop version, another interesting iteration of the IP in itself, and yet another flavor of RPG, but not quite what I’m looking for here.  This is, of course, all whimsy and conjecture, and is completely incomplete.  Addendums are welcome, bearing in mind this is more about curiosity than anything I’d expect Blizzard to actually do.  A few thoughts, then:

  • First and foremost, it strikes me that a translation of the existing game would almost certainly be a Western RPG rather than a Japanese RPG (WoWWRPG?).  As in, more Neverwinter Nights (make your own character, make your way in the world), less Final Fantasy (assume a role the devs crafted and go through a story they tell).  The difference between the two styles is significant, and the existing game leans heavily in the Western direction.
  • But why translate more or less directly?  Why not make an entirely new RPG, perhaps even a JRPG-styled tale of a key character or band of characters within the WoW IP?  That would open the floor to big, sweeping changes, which may indeed be the healthiest route overall, but since it could take a LOT of different forms, here I’m mostly wondering about a game that is more of a mild translation of the existing game design rather than a new game.  There’s certainly room to imagine a completely new game within the world, but I’ll save that for another experiment.
  • With the increased focus on player agency and a largely seamless world of a Western-flavored WoWRPG, the balance between authorial direction and player agency is almost diametrically opposed to the tightly controlled Final Fantasy XIII or even tighter Heavy Rain.  (Tangential:  Is Heavy Rain even one of those RPG things?  You assume roles of characters who already exist and pilot them through a story with a few branching options and different endings, clearly heavily Playing Roles in a Game… but there isn’t much in the way of levels, loot and assorted “character progress” mechanics that some associate with RPGs.  How many thorns and petals can you remove from a rose before it’s just a stick?  How many games could easily be RPGs if it’s just about playing a role?  But I digress…)  On the one hand, that’s great for people just looking to noodle around in a cool world, but on the other hand, a good story under a strong directorial hand is more preferable.  The WoW IP could do both, but not so much at the same time.
  • WoWMMO is designed (perhaps obviously) for many players, from the group content to PvP to the player economy.  A single player offline version would either need to drop group content or provide henchmen, like Guild Wars or Dragon Age.  Solo-control party-based RPGing isn’t anything new, but neither is it something that exists in the WoWMMO.  Curiously, this might make it easier to teach players how to play with a group and teach the holy combat trinity, since the game could have tutorials that show the finer points of group dynamics without the unpredictability of real people monkeying around.  You could even make combat pauseable (even if only in tutorials) to make teaching easier.  It seems to me that educating people is a better long-term idea than making games so dumb and easy anyone can sleepwalk through them.  If we wanted that, we should make movies.
  • …and yet, why bother with the trinity when you only have one player?  The trinity assumes that multiple parties are in combat, so WoWRPG would really need to either make henchmen or dump the trinity.  (OK, snarky aside about Paladins and Druids being able to do everything goes here.)  It’s hard to say which would be harder to actually implement, but henchmen fit into the current design structure, while the trinity would be much harder to excise.  It’s the foundation of WoW combat, combined with aggro management and crowd control.  Lose the trinity, and all sorts of content would be suddenly skewed, and you’d have to lose most dungeons and instances.  Add henchmen, and the WoWRPG could offer offline players almost all WoW content.
  • Ultimately, that’s what this is about, by the way; content and the world of Warcraft’s lore, not the play experience itself, since that would necessarily change significantly.  MMOs offer a play experience that offline games just can’t do.  Offering a WoWRPG would be a way of getting the WoW content and lore to more players, thereby building the brand.  …if that matters.  It may not, which is why this is more of a thought experiment than anything else.
  • What of Altitis?  Some RPGs have toyed with multiple protagonists, like the Saga Frontier series, but those haven’t really been the movers and shakers of the RPG genre.  There are some interesting things that you can do with storytelling when you can bounce between viewpoints (especially between factions) and have different characters illustrate varied angles of an in-game event.  (Say, have low level Alliance players actually take part in the smallish Alliance invasion of Durotar, rather than just having that little outpost south of Orgrimmar be a mob spawn point for Alliance mooks for low level Hordies to attack repeatedly.)  That starts poking into JRPG territory and significant changes to the game… but it could be interesting.
  • Speaking of which… storytelling could change significantly.  Time could actually proceed… perhaps even while the player is off doing something else.  The world could feel more like a world again (gasp!), as the game moves out of the perpetual now twilight zone that MMOs are stuck in.
  • Persistence. This one is huge.  If you don’t have to recycle the world for every Tam, Dick and Ratshag, you can actually have bad guys stay dead, rather than respawn every few minutes.  This, of course, could run at cross purposes to the notion of letting players advance an Alliance character and a Horde character in the same universe (instead of their own instanced storylines), but at the same time, if you do let players bounce back and forth, and keep persistence, suddenly you’ve made the finite state machine go into overdrive… but also given yourself a TON more knobs to tweak for making the game interesting and telling an interesting story… or letting players tell a story by changing the world.  The scope could get out of hand quickly, unfortunately.
  • Phasing could still have uses, but the changes implemented could be more permanent as the storyline actually moves on.  Still, if alts enter the same world where things have happened and stay… happened… phasing might be a tool to let them replay some content that a predecessor had already gone through, if that were ever needed, then let them rejoin the “real world”… almost like a mobile, personal Cavern of Time.
  • Questing and the Yellow Brick Road… there are many, many small storylines in WoW, often tied up in quest chains.  Even so, there aren’t many larger, overarching stories.  A WoWRPG with persistence and a properly functioning arrow of time could bring those overarching stories into greater focus, and let the grindy tangential stories slip back into the shadows.  Kill Ten Rat quests could actually tie into a bigger story, rather than be something you do to level up so you can go kill ten bigger rats ad infinitum.  That, or quests themselves could be rarer beasts, especially if the XP curve is revamped…
  • Pacing could change significantly.  Instead of needing to grind in an area to qualify for the next (or extend subscription time), the XP curve could be tweaked to allow players to naturally proceed through zones as they follow larger stories, pillaging along the way instead of grinding in a zone to prep for the next.  To be fair, this is something that many other RPGs, Western or Japanese, still have issues with.  Even offline RPGs have grind in them… but structurally, they don’t need it nearly as much as a sub-based MMO.
  • Speaking of grind and quests, perhaps a WoWRPG could omit some of the obnoxious time sink quests (FedEX quests that take you back to areas you’ve already been, kill quests that only count critters killed after the quest starts instead of the pile of corpses left on the way to the quest hub, running all over the continent, that sort of thing)  that do little but extend playtime (and paytime in a sub model).  It really is OK for a game to be short if it’s fun all the way through.
  • Saving would be new; MMOs “save” all the time as they communicate with the server.  Offline games need to be saved… though that could be automated.  Still, if you allow saves, you introduce the Save-Load system where a battle that went bad can be replayed, and players effectively become Time Lords, able to rewind and replay at a whim.  That would be a big shift in how the game would play, for better or worse.  (Perhaps a little of both.)
  • Crafting could be either maintained (almost necessitating alts if you wanted to dig into everything and be self-sufficient, or let NPC henchmen in a party-based system also craft), or characters could be allowed to learn any number of crafting skills.  I’ve always thought that the two-skill limit (barring Cooking, Fishing and First Aid) was a silly hammer to try to force player interdependence, so I’d certainly lean to opening the system up.  We don’t often see a robust crafting suite in an offline RPG, so this is one area especially that WoWRPG could shine.  That, or crafting could be cut completely as another time sink and unnecessary appendix, since a lot of crafting does wind up fueling the in-game economy.
  • The game’s economy could either be a static beastie with NPC vendors as the currency fountains and skills and gear being currency sinks… or it could be a bit more dynamic and AI driven, like the economy in something like X3.  Either would function to make the game playable, but neither would be anywhere nearly as interesting as the multiplayer economy.  This and the multiplayer dungeons would probably be the biggest losses in taking the game offline.
  • Respeccing could be interesting.  I’ve long argued that a full and complete respec (even all the way down to the class) should be easy and cheap.  WoWRPG could offer this function with a lot less fuss than the MMO would see.  Of course, if you’re able to swap classes easily, you’d want a larger bank to keep the many, many potential “offspec” treasures that you collect.  The alternative would be to make the game less gear-centric… and that’s not likely.  Final Fantasy games have wavered between strict classes and very flexible systems, so there’s precedent for both… though it’s notable that strict class-based systems tend to introduce party members to keep a bit of flexibility as an organic party, if not a very mutable single character.
  • But why a WoWRPG over something like Morrowind or Oblivion, or even Fallout 3?  What does the WoW IP offer that those games don’t?

The World of Warcraft is an interesting, largely attractive place.  It’s a grand stage to tell stories on, and I do wonder occasionally what it would be like if it were initially developed as a single player RPG rather than an MMO.  MMOs are almost always kind of schizophrenic in their approach, a function of appealing to a large player base.  Might a more focused goal (a great story-based RPG) have changed it for the better?  Could the world still have some sort of tangential story-based RPG to offer?

The WarCraft universe did come from a pair of Real Time Strategy games, after all (possibly based on tabletop games and Tolkienish flights of whimsy), and it’s not unheard of for an IP to bounce between game genres, even the venerable Final Fantasy series (though that’s less about maintaining a consistent world-based IP as a brand name).  WarCraft even had an Adventure Game iteration once upon a time.  MMOs and RPGs are different, but not so different as to make such a tangential game impossible.  Whether or not it would fit into the WoWMMO timeline proper is perhaps a significant question, but it’s my rambling opinion that Azeroth has a lot to offer.  Even though the WoW live team tends to selectively interpret lore to various ends, there is still a LOT of lore out there to explore… and it might be satisfying to explore it in a slightly different vehicle.

…or a very different vehicle.  If the WoWRPG were more of a Japanese RPG, with strongly defined preconceived characters and a directed story, you’d lose a lot of what makes WoWMMO playable, but perhaps gain a much more focused experience that could tell a better story.  I can see a place for both approaches, actually.  All in all, I think that a translative approach that maintains much of the existing game would be more feasible… but I might be more inclined to play a well-crafted JRPG-ish WoWRPG that really digs into the world of WarCraft, finding some meat on the bones of the IP that is often only hinted at in the MMO.

Of course, in actuality, I’m more inclined to play Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey or Infinite Undiscovery than pick up a WoWRPG… but it would almost certainly make it on the list.  The world of WarCraft really could offer up a couple of games that aren’t merely WoWish subscription skinner boxes.  Blizzard has shown at least a vague interest in that sort of diversification before, and it might be good to see them branch out again.  I’m not an unabashed Blizzard fanboy, but I do see potential there.

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Spurred by a recent “Pick Up Group” experience in Allods Online and a couple of articles (OK, and doing the WoW Druid Bear art for BBB), I wanted to write a bit again about tanking and the Holy Trinity of MMO combat.  Here are a few great articles to prime the pump as well:

Overcoming the Fear of Tanking (Spinksville)

On Being a Tank (Tank Hard)

Rethinking the Trinity of MMO Design (Psychochild)

I’ve written about this sort of thing before.  Long story short, I’m highly in favor of breaking the trinity affording greater player customization and flexibility, hopefully making for more interesting combat.

Mostly, it’s because I want to be flexible when I’m playing a game.  I don’t want to have to depend on other people… though I’m happy to help other people.  That’s my particular brand of soloist play; I want to do my thing and have fun without needing other players… but if I want to help others out (and I often do), I want it to be fun and easy enough to get to do.  (Note, not necessarily “easy to do”; I like challenge in my games, after all.  I just don’t like fighting the UI or having insufficient tools to deal with idiot players.  I don’t like fighting other players, either; I’m all for cooperative PvE ventures.)

Perhaps a story will help illuminate.

I’ve been playing League side in the Allods Online beta as a Gibberling Psionicist.  I have characters of most races and classes for experimentation, but I picked the Psionicists as my “main” for the beta so I could push through to some non-newbie content before the beta ends.  The Psionicist is a DPS/Support class, designed somewhat along the lines of the Guild Wars Mesmer, where I find ways to control foes and the pace of combat, while burning them down with psionic blasts.  So far, it’s been good fun, if a bit repetitive.  (Finding my optimal “rotation” took all of three or four fights.  Certainly not several levels’ worth of fighting.  That’s another rant, though, and such design is certainly on par with other modern MMOs, so it’s not a glaring flaw unique to Allods.)

There is a “boss” fight on the League newbie island.  It’s a super powerful Wisp that requires at least three players to tackle; a tank, a damage dealer and a healer.  It’s the same old dance of “deal damage/mitigate damage/heal damage”.  As long as MMO combat is based on hit points and damage, we’re pretty stuck with these core roles in some form.  There is nothing crazy about this particular fight, then, it’s just a fight that requires a group (GASP!  I PUGged!) or an extremely overleveled soloist.

The first time I fought the boss, I just shot at it to see what it would do.  It chased me and pretty much ate me for lunch.  Gibberling nuggets, extra crispy.

A level later, still saddled with the quest to kill the boss, I answered the call of a tank who needed help to take it down.  A healer met us at the boss rock (it’s an open world boss that just putters around a rock in a circuit until a fight), and we proceeded to beat it into protoplasm… slowly.  The tank took the brunt of the attacks, I did my best damage from short range (so I could work in a dagger stab or three while skills were on cooldown), and the healer kept us all alive.  The healer’s mana actually died out close to the end, so he just moved in and started stabbing as well, but we were close enough to victory that it wasn’t a terrible breach of etiquette, and nobody fell but the baddie.

Yay, quest finished, experience earned, congratulations and thanks all around, group dissolved, chalk one up for the good guys.  (At least, until the respawn.)

A few days later, I’m one level older, slightly more powerful (though with no new abilities), and about to leave the newbie Allod.  Someone is spamming LFG in the zone chat, trying to get a party together for the same boss.  I figure, sure, I have a little time and would like to help.  I get there only to find three other DPS characters (two Hunters and a Druid).  OK, sure, just burn the boss down fast and hope it works, right?  Nope.  Nobody wants to try, and it turns out, for good reason.

A tank finally shows up after ten minutes of zone spam, and we go to town on the boss.  It turns out the tank didn’t actually tank, but just spazzed out in flaky DPS tango mode.  I get “aggro” because I’m doing solid DPS with my now-rote rotation, and the Big Bad Wisp proceeds to fry me again.  I’m soon followed by a Hunter who was also doing solid damage.  The tank disappears, the healer says the tank was incompetent, and we sit around for a while waiting for another tank.  Eventually, I give up, and move on.  (I still wonder about throttling my DPS, but the healer was pretty adamant that the tank wasn’t doing her job.)

So much for helping other players.  It’s a good thing I didn’t still need that quest; I’d have been more annoyed.  As it was, it was grist for the blog mill, so I was happy enough.  I won’t do that again, though.

The fight failed for lack of a tank who actually tanked.  I blame the game design just as much, though.

If any of us were able to step up into the tank role, regardless of class, we could have shuffled around and tried with someone else at point.  This is why I love the Druid class in World of Warcraft (or the Paladin or even Shaman, maybe even a Warrior).  Played well, a Feral Druid can either take point and tank in Bear form or shift a bit and start scratching backs in Cat form.  No respecs (though Dual Spec is nice to extend the flexibility), no gear swapping, just role swapping.

I would have happily stepped up as a tank if my Psionicist were able to do so.  Sure, it would probably mean some sort of “dodge tank” or “mesmerizing tank” rather than the traditional “hit me, I can take it” tanking, but that would be fine with me.  That wasn’t an option, though, so I wound up frustrated.  Sure, I had a stun (on a long cooldown, and the boss is apparently immune), a magic shield (on another long cooldown) and an “AAAH!!” button (a clone that takes aggro and then dies), but those aren’t really tanking tools when I’m puttering around in cloth armor holding a little dagger.  All in all, it just wasn’t working.  One guy in the group even wandered off to quest for a bit while we waited for a new tank.

Again, I don’t like depending on others.  I would have gladly put my head on the chopping block to help other people, even if it would have been more difficult to do, but waiting for someone else was something I didn’t do for long.  I’m not sure what it’s like to need a DPS, but I’ve also had occasion where needing a competent healer made for frustrating gaming, too.

When I have the ability to shift into different roles as occasion demands, I’m a LOT more likely to enjoy playing in a group.  I can plug holes and adapt to tactical situations.  I do that in Puzzle Pirates when I’m out sailing my ship with other people.  I let them pick their favorite stations, then play whatever still needs to be done.  I get and sympathize with the tanking philosophy, and the utilitarian moral of doing what the group needs.  I don’t like it when the game arbitrarily makes that depend more on the class (or even the build) than the player.

Short story long:

Tesh goes on 2 PUGs, one good, one bad.  Still tired of the Holy Trinity and inflexible game design.  Recommends the ability to change roles at the drop of a hat, even in combat.

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