Archive for July, 2009

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.



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

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Tip o’ the tam o’shanter to Zoso over at Killed in a Smiling Accident for this one:

Four for Free

So not only are they rebooting the MechWarrior franchise (with the Jordan Weisman neck deep in the process), but they are offering MechWarrior 4 for free.  Like the offering of MechCommander 2 before it, this is good news.  Some do consider MW4 to be a pretty weak entry in the lineage, but hey, a free game that was once a commercial release is worth at least checking out, especially for this BattleTech fan.

Now, if MS would just get the file download set up already

And yes, this is probably a scheme to show that there is demand for a new MechWarrior.  So… maybe I’ll download it twice… and send them a few sketches of ‘Mechs in steampunk style…

I can pick out a couple, but it might be fun to do a request or two.  I need to do some more portfolio pieces anyway, in a different style from the book illustrations.  The new MechWarrior looks to be all Inner Sphere ‘mechs, but as far as I’m concerned, pretty much any ‘Mech is open game for steampunking.  (Though if I don’t have the specs and some visuals on it, I may request such for reference.)

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Faction Raids

Just a quick set of questions that I’ve somehow never thought of before now:

If factions (specifically Horde and Alliance) are so important in WoW, why are raids not faction specific?

Why can anyone at the endgame go to any raid?

Do Alliance raiding parties and Horde raiding parties really stand in line outside a dragon’s door, waiting patiently at a shot at the Big Bad, while their sworn enemies are within spitting distance?

Why doesn’t Blizzard use faction specific raids to pad out the playtime even more than they already use alts?

What exactly would be the benefit if faction-specific raids were installed?  (Or even race-specific or mini-faction-specific, say an Argent Crusade Onyxia raid vs. a Dragonflight Onyxia.)

I’m not talking here about midgame instances, I’m talking specifically about a set of unique remixed raids at the “endgame” to extend content use even more.  They may simply be riffs on each other, like Onyxia hanging out in the Sunwell or something like that, giving the opportunity to create new tactics to adapt to new circumstances.  Sort of a “Caverns of Time in a Blender” approach.

Thoughts on a stressful Friday, brought to you by sleep deprivation and inquisitive minds.

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After I read much fussing and whining about Blizzard’s proposed change to WoW allowing players to switch faction (Horde to Alliance or vice versa), a thought coalesced in my mind.  (Though maybe I was just hungry.)

I want a different kind of cheese out of the World of Warcraft, or any other MMO, for that matter.  (Whether that’s cheese to go with maze running or whining, it works either way.)

The dominant MMO design ethos is one of a drip feed of rewards, where anything and nearly everything is rewarded somehow on the inexorable and execrable slog to conformity at the level cap, when everyone’s Super (with or without purple capes).  It’s a great little Pavlovian treadmill that has sucked in a lot of people to the tune of $15/month, so I don’t dispute the success of the model.  It’s just not what I’m looking for.

It’s American Cheese when I want something like… Gorgonzola.  It’s a highly processed, plastic experience, when I’m looking for something more organic, variable and interesting… and even a little crazy.  (Eating mold is a little crazy.)

I want these MMO things to be fun to play, not tightly scripted treadmills that play on my canine Pavlovian tendencies.  The current WoW design ethos that focuses on rewards over actually playing is a huge factor in all the whining that comes up when things change in the game.  It’s behind Achievements and guild application drama.  It’s behind the inane arguments over “nerfing raids” and “devaluing accomplishments”.  It’s behind the idiotic PTR culture that is really just a microcosm of the game at large.  It’s behind all the preening and posturing that make high level players so annoying.  It’s behind the hardcore/casual debate, since obviously people have to be playing it the way X is playing it, or else the rewards don’t mean anything.  (Since complaining about how someone else plays is ridiculous, the debate is shifted to the notion of keeping the rewards “fair”… as if that meant anything objective.)  It’s behind the complaints about faction shifting (and my proposed ability to change class), since obviously grinding up a new alt is the Only Way to Do it Right.  It’s behind those who defend the grind as “The Right Way” to play because it’s how they did it and everyone knows through self-evident reasoning that their own way to play is the only True Enlightened way to play an MMO.  (And further, if an MMO doesn’t support that style of play, it’s not a real MMO.)

It’s all just so much… SPAM.

I want an MMO that embodies what Wolfshead is arguing over here:  that Players Need to be the Ultimate Content for MMOs.  The game will need to be fun to play, and fun to keep playing, without resorting to cheap parlor tricks of drop rates, rep grind and alts.  They will need to be organic, dynamic, living worlds to play with friends in when the real world just won’t do for whatever reason.  They will let players change the game world and be the content because they are the prime movers of the game world, not a content-creating cube jockey with a Vision for How Things Work.  The reward will be the joy derived from playing the game and acting, not reacting.

Tangentially, the whole “group vs solo” debate can largely be solved by shifting the reward to the fun of playing as well.  One huge part of the debate is the notion of balancing rewards and how players inevitably optimize the fun out of the game.  In a game designed from the ground up to be all about min/maxing, is it really a surprise that there will be those who get offended when their playstyle isn’t the optimal one?  The only “incentive” that works to get solo players to group is for it to actually be fun to do so. Luring people into group situations with the promise of better loot is what causes the mercenary PUG nonsense, where loyalty and friendship only last as long as the rewards keep coming.

I’m probably just wishing for unicorns here, but if there are plenty of things to do in a fantasy world that let players simply have fun acting in the world, whether solo or in groups, then the very fluid notion of “fun” and playing can be the reward, rather than trying to quantify and compare via epic loot.  If people can get past obsessing about the rewards, they might just find that complaining about someone else’s notion of fun really is as silly as it sounds.  (To be fair, griefing is still something that needs to be kept under thumb.)

I know, some people consider the conditioned response set of the DIKUDing treadmill to be “fun”, but it’s just such a shallow experience that I’m not buying it, myself.  I’m certainly not paying for it.  I can pat myself on the back for free, thanks.  Some might argue that their game needs a way to keep score, or else it isn’t a game.  Perhaps, but it’s been my experience that setting your own goals makes for a lot more meaning when you get around to achieving them.

The MMO that can truly leverage the notion of playing with other people (directly or indirectly, group or “solo play in the same world as others”) in an interesting, dynamic, Gorgonzlolic virtual world will be the one that can capture my attention.  (Ysh, I promise I didn’t swipe Gorgonzola from your article, this one of mine has been in the pipe for two weeks now… funny how that works out.)  I haven’t found it yet, and nothing in the pipeline that I’ve seen even hints at coming close.  I see prettier treadmills and plenty of American Cheese…

and I’m hungry.

So I keep looking, keep theorizing, keep tinkering.  And I keep my money.  If nothing else, American Cheese MMOs are good for that; they help me save money and give me grist for the blog mill.  I guess I can’t complain too much.

*Yes, the book illustrating job is going again, and I’m still busy without blogging.  This just bugged me enough to write about it, consolidating a few thought threads that have been floating about for a while.  And yes, it’s an opinion piece with plenty of links rather than anything academic.  The irony doesn’t escape me.*

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My company’s latest XBox Live game update has finally hit the virtual shelves!

Band of Bugs

It’s been updated with the ability to put your Microsoft XBox avatar in the game as the lead character, and multiplayer is crazy fun with a lot of different avatars.

There’s also a whole new tileset and group of characters in a new storyline (Tales of Kaloki), and since it’s set in space, it changes the game considerably with different tactical attacks and options.  It’s almost a whole new game for a whopping $3 in MS points.  The multiplayer in that mode is a blast as well.

I don’t just say that because I did a significant amount of art on it either.  That’s just a bonus.

Of course, the irony of me promoting a fun game that I’d buy without reserve, while not having a machine to play it on, is not lost on me.  At least I can play it on occasion at the office and actually get paid for it.  (Well, OK, only while I’m technically testing it, but hey, I’ll take what I can get.  It’s a fun game!)

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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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