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Posts Tagged ‘Warhammer Online’

Yay, we have another slippery slope bit of HWFO to keep November interesting before Deathwing dominates blogs.  (Yes, those are icons I created for Puzzle Pirates.  Whee for self-promotion!)

Oh, right.  Context.  Here, have a few links.  (These cover a range of opinions, so I’m not endorsing any particular viewpoint but my own.)

RaviousSyp, Arkenor, Spinks, Tobold, Hunter

So apparently, Warhammer Online intends to sell a thingamawidget that lets player characters advance a single level (out of 40 possible), completely free of grind.  Naturally, that means the sky is falling.  (OK, OK, not everyone is saying that, but what good is a slippery slope argument without a little hyperbole?)

First of all, levels in a PvP game are a Bad Idea.  Player skill should be paramount in PvP, not avatar level grinding.  WAR is broken on a fundamental level because of this.  Not to be too pointed, but I think it’s actually a Good Thing to get everyone up to the level cap faster, since that’s where the playing field is more level… class imbalances aside, of course.

Secondly, this is pretty clearly a nonexclusive item.  Players who get riled up about someone getting ahead can just go grind to catch up.  As such, it’s not about the sale item itself, it’s about someone else having something that you don’t have yet… or in the case of level capped characters, it’s whining about someone else not having to walk uphill barefoot in the snow to reach the vaunted upper echelon of the game.  If you’re not having fun with the game, and have to denigrate someone else to feel superior, grow up.

Thirdly, it’s a single-use item, best used by characters in the apparently mind-numbingly slow endgame to bypass some grind.  I just don’t see it actually doing much.  Yes, this might set a precedent for selling advancement, but…

Fourthly, I’ve argued before that games like WoW should sell level-capped characters direct from the factory (conveniently with low overhead).  If the “game starts at the level cap”, why in the world are they forcing players to monkey around for months before they play the real game?  If someone wants to raid on day one, let them.  And charge them for it, naturally.  (Does anyone really complain about the dollar cost of the sub time that it takes to get a character raid-ready?  I don’t see it, but maybe I’m not reading the right places.)

Fifthly, I’m tired of the “those dirty capitalists” arguments, whether they are leveled at the producers who are running a business or those dirty, dirty people who have money to burn and want to spend it on games.  This is how markets work; they naturally evolve as demand and supply tease each other, and customers and providers jostle to get the best deal.  Funny thing about that; it tends to also improve the product offered as well, as honest competition makes everyone bring their best product to the table at the lowest price.  There are naturally growing pains as a market matures, but mature they do, even if some of the customers don’t.

Sixthly, for all the arrogant arguments about “a subscription is cheap if you can afford a computer and an internet connection” or “it’s cheaper than a movie and dinner” or whatever other knee-jerk mindless defense of the cost, there is an inordinate amount of moaning about how other people spend their money.  The same people who will look down their nose on other people not wanting to pay a subscription have no restraint in whining about other ways money gets spent, as if it’s any of their business.  Apparently it’s only OK to spend money the right way, which is to say, the way we do it.  Get over yourselves, folks.  The market is expanding, and your gated communes aren’t sacrosanct.  (Though I also support private servers for those who really want those gates.  Live and let live, I say.  Of course, that might cost you more.  This also applies to an argument Dblade rightly made at Spinks’ place, that advertising spam and item shop sales intrude on subscribers’ immersion.  Private sub servers should be able to have all that static turned off.)

As Spinks notes, this is possibly the clearest measure yet for how much time in an MMO costs in real dollars.  That cost has always been there, but it’s hugely variable.  I, for one, welcome a clearer basis of comparison.  That benefits the consumer looking to spend their money and the producer who wants to better understand what to sell.

Until we have a socialist utopia where MMOs are developed for the Good of Mankind with no eye whatsoever on the monetary side, we’re going to have to deal with the business of games.  More choices are a Good Thing, as they have a refining effect.  It’s entirely possible some incumbents will be burned in the high stakes game.

It’s about time.

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The first time I played World of Warcraft was almost five years ago.  The most recent time I played WoW, the game was more than five years old.  The newbie experience has… changed a bit.  Digging a bit into the newbie experience of WoW 2005 vs. WoW 2010 vs. Allods Online, it’s interesting to see where things have gotten better… and perhaps, where they haven’t.  These observations are mine alone in the newbie areas of the games.

These are relatively uncontrolled nonnormalized experiments, so this is far from scientific, but it has still been interesting to me to see the differences and changes.

Years ago, playing as a Tauren Shaman, I got the sense that the game was approximately 70% running from place to place, sometimes carrying various body parts for a quest.  The remaining 30% was either combat or waiting for combat, since those were days when I waited for named critters to respawn.  Ah, when the lowbie areas were populated, eh?  I didn’t mind it much, since most of what I do in these games is look around at stuff and take screenshots, but I did get the vague sense that I wasn’t progressing very quickly at all.  That only mattered indirectly, as I needed to level up and get better gear to go different places.  It was a 14-day “buddy key” trial, but even so, I never even got far into the Barrens.  I walked up the hill from the Tauren lands into the south end of the Barrens, got stomped by some giant purple Kodos, and then went back to roam the grassy plains for my remaining time in the game.  It felt grindy even then, since leveling was fairly slow and new tricks and tools of the Shaman trade never did present themselves.  I was just an anthropomorphic cow, casting spells and whacking monsters with a stick.  I only remember getting one totem.  It was a neat little trick, but I had hoped to see more of what the class had to offer.

Five years later, there are all sorts of new toys for the newbie.  Sure, I was playing Mortiphoebe, a Forsaken Warrior, but leveling seems considerably faster.  Critters have cursor-hover tooltips that tell me if they are part of a quest and whether I still need their body parts to complete my quota.  The map has an integrated quest tracker, complete with locations conveniently marked to tell me where I should be, what I should kill, where critters roam, what fiddly bits I need to collect, and what the questgiver promised in return.  I can even reread the quest text right there in the map.  (The official quest log is still there and useful, but going through the map is simply a lot more informative.)  Popup tips seem to be more common and descriptive, but that’s especially hazy, peering back into the distant plains of 2005.  All in all, though, the game has a higher level of polish, is easier to understand, and as such, more fun.  There is less running around blindly (except when I want to go off in the wilderness), more doing stuff.  It also seems like drop rates of body part collectibles has been altered for the better.  There is still some weirdness with liverless wolves and the like, but it seems like I can get the requisite components more frequently than I did years ago.

Allods Online’s newbie experience is similarly streamlined.  You’re rushed through some carrier quests, a few kill quests, and leveling is fast… for a while.  You get useful gear much quicker than you do in WoW, even today, but that makes sense since AO is even more gear-centric than WoW.  You wind up geared to the teeth pretty quickly, at least giving the illusion of power earlier than you would in WoW.  The pace of character ability development is still pretty glacial, though.  You do have more tools earlier than in WoW, but once you’re out of the newbie zones/instances, things are pretty slow in both cases.

The AO map is more descriptive than WoW2005, but less useful than WoW2010.  To be sure, this especially will be a matter of taste, as some players want to explore and wander the woods, while others just want to know where to go.  I find myself ambivalent, since I do like exploration… but it’s also nice to have pointers when I just want to get moving.  It’s worth noting that even with a superdescriptive map, I can still wander around if I feel like it, but without a useful map, wandering is pretty much a given, whether or not it’s welcome.

AO has no minimap, though, which is actually pretty annoying.  Once you learn an area, or get used to popping open your full map every minute or so, you’re OK, but I’ve always seen the minimap as a way to compensate for the lack of peripheral vision and good spatial cues.  Scale is way off, with simple building doors being easily 15 feet or so tall… but then, we get that in WoW, too.  It’s a stylistic choice, but it means instinctive spatial cues are skewed.  There are  glowing icons that show you what direction vendors and such are in, which is extremely nice when you wander into a busy town, albeit a wee bit visually cluttered.  Good UI design dances a fine edge between too much and too little information, but I tend to like UI that leans to “too much” rather than “too little”, especially when the spatial and directional cues of a game world aren’t what I’d like.

Speaking of UI, though, major bonus points to Guild Wars for being almost completely customizable out of the box.  Yes, WoW has addons and scripts, and Allods Online is moving in that direction, but when you can change your UI without third party nonsense, that’s a thing of beauty.

At any rate, it’s fairly clear to me that AO benefits from being a part of a generation after WoW hit the mainstream, and similarly, that WoW itself has made good moves over the years, trying to make the newbie experience better.  Some will certainly call this the “dumbing down” of the genre or WoW in particular, but it’s my experience that getting newbies up and running with the fun stuff as quickly as possible is a good idea.  Making new players grind through twenty or more levels before the game starts being fun isn’t good design.

Speaking of which, however, I’d like to see a couple of changes for Cataclysm.

Hunters should be able to tame pets from the beginning. Apparently, there’s a not-insignificant number of characters who never get past level 10.  Ignoring for the moment that such data tells us all of Jack Squat about retention, conversion, monetization or anything truly useful to the financial guys, and that there are probably many bank alts and the like clogging the data, there are some game design implications.  Level 10 is when you first start to understand the Hunter class since you can finally tame a pet.  If you never get past level 10, it’s entirely possible that your impression of a Hunter is of a gun/bow-wielding, weak melee, sting-y… mess.  Those first ten levels are completely wrong for getting a handle on the long-term interest of a Hunter.  I call that Bad Design.

Similarly, Druids should get Bear Form and Cat Form before level 5 or even earlier. The core of Druid appeal (at least for me) is shapeshifting and flexibility.  Why make the first ten levels of a Druid be Just Another Caster?  You may as well play a Mage.  (Shamans are lame in the early levels, too, before totems, but not quite to the same degree.)  Sure, keep Treeform and Moonkin form deep in their talent trees, Aquatic and Travel forms are fine where they are (better as early as they now are than as late as they once were, though), but the core “caster/healer-tank-melee DPS” flexibility of the Druid really should be embraced as early as possible.  It’s a matter of getting a bead on the way a class will play over the long haul as quickly as possible.

Also, I find it weird that some professions are available at level 1, but others require level 5.  If I can manage to explore my way to the capital cities where I can find NPCs to teach me professions, let me learn them already, whatever level.  Sure, keep the Expert crafting and such for those who have spent some time learning the ropes, but Journeyman professions can and should be opened to all.  (Of course, I’d also let anyone learn as many professions as they like, but that’s probably pushing too far.  Then again, it’s not like the economy really functions with all those level-capped characters throwing around their gold.  The scale of the economy is pretty crazy at times, too.)

The newbie experience is crucial to pulling new people into your game world.  The intro cinematics of WoW, with a flyby through the live world (I showed my wife how other players will occasionally run through the scene in these flybys, and she was impressed; that’s the magic of these MMO things after all), really set the scene well.  Going from that (even as old as it is) to a pedestrian “kill ten rats” just isn’t going to cut it any more.

I can’t help but wonder if the MMO genre could benefit from some Metroiditis.  Metroid Prime and even Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (so it’s not a new trick) start you with a powerful character, letting you play with a lot of toys right at the beginning.  The player soon loses access to many of those options, but at least they have been teased properly, and the player knows what to expect later… and they itch to get there.  MMOs that dump you in the world as a dude with a stick are perhaps more “realistic” (whatever that means in context), but they are also downright boring at times.  Yes, this does seem to pull more to the “gamey” than the “worldy” design I’m so fond of, but that’s just working in the current framework; I’m talking of MMOs that are indeed more “game” than “world”, and they may as well play to their strengths.

Is it any wonder that we get the refrain “the game starts at the level cap”?  That’s when everything comes together and your class reaches full potential.  I’ve argued before that WoW could sell level-capped characters for immediate raiding (not unlike the instant level-capped PvP characters of Guild Wars) if that’s the part that really keeps players invested.  Sure, that won’t be everyone, and you might need some restrictions on them, like making them raid-and-capital-only (no open world ganking on day one), but sometimes it’s nice to let players have more toys when they start playing, rather than doling them out via a drip feed of leveling.  There’s a fine balance there, to be sure… but in a saturated market, you need to get people interested and having fun fast; you can’t tell them to wait for a month before it gets fun.  Arguably, WAR did that, with early public quests and PvP craziness.  They have other problems, but they do get up and moving fast, to their credit.  Age of Conan’s best part is the first twenty levels (or so I hear, not having played it m’self).

Yes, I’m pretty powerful at level 1 compared to equal-level critters in WoW, but I’m boringly powerful.  Cracking skulls with a stick while mild-mannered rats nibble on my toes just doesn’t give a fair representation of what the game will always be like.  At least, not for everyone.

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Warhammer Online now has a “perpetual” free trial.  It joins the ranks of Wizard 101, Free Realms (which is now almost just like WAR, albeit having arrived from a different direction), Guild Wars, DDO and Puzzle Pirates in the short list of games that I think are starting to understand the market.  Of course, Guild Wars is still the frontrunner in the business model department, and Puzzle Pirates will likely remain the one I play most (it’s just so durn schedule friendly!), but this change by the WAR crew is exactly the tipping point that has me itching to download the game.

If it turns out well, I might even give them some money, like I did for W101 and Puzzle Pirates.  In the immortal words of Daniel James of Puzzle Pirates fame:

Money can’t buy you love, but love can bring you money. In software the only sustainable way to earn money is by first creating love, and then hoping that some folks want to demonstrate that love with their dollars.

I want to like WAR. I’ve been digging into the tabletop game, and it’s fascinating.  While there are some considerable differences, WAR looks interesting enough to take a look, and Public Quests look interesting as a mechanic.  They have offered me (and many others) a gift by changing their business model this way.  Time will tell if I love them enough to demonstrate it with dollars.  The chance of that went up from 0% to at least 33%, and that has to count for something.  Even marketers understand that math.

Of course, dearest Turbine and Blizzard, if either of you wanted to up the ante by offering me a lifetime sub to LOTRO or WoW for my birthday, I’d not turn you down.  I’d even promise to take lots of pretty screenshots and write about what you are doing right in your games.  (The records show that I’ve done plenty of complaining, so I can afford to balance it out.)

It is my birthday, after all, and turning up my nose at gifts would just be… improper.

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Disclosure:  I know, I know, some would say that WAR is dying and should be taken out back and dumped on the Tabula Rasa heap.  Some might suggest I give money to someone more deserving.  There are definitely (largish) grains of truth in those opinions.

WAR will never be my “main” MMO.  Still, this is a Good Move for the business of MMOs, and hopefully a good one for WAR, and I want to let these people know that I approve.  If they don’t read my blog (slackers!), maybe I can send them a birthday card with a nice $10 bill or something.  Since, y’know, we’re supposed to vote with our wallet.

And, well… I’ve spent my fair share of money buying games that aren’t the biggest boys on the block, and that aren’t the greatest examples of game design.  Yet… they are fun enough to warrant an expenditure on my part as a reward for a job well done.  Call it my way of paying the tab after a decent, middle class night out to eat.  It’s not The Ritz, but it’s not Carl’s Jr.  I’m totally happy paying game devs for their work, I just want to do it on my terms.  That will never be paying for a subscription.

Heck, I even gave Braid $5.  If I can do that, I can lob some dollar love at the WAR guys.  Well, that is if their gift really is a fun bit of work, not something I’m going to send along as a White Elephant to someone else in a week…  and $10 is half of Torchlight or Machinarium…

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