I want to believe in EQ Next

In the jaded MMOsphere, dulled with years of falling subscriptions, shorter and shorter player lifespans (remember when we used to think calling a game a “three monther” was disparaging?) and a slow but certain move away from being virtual worlds to monetised gamification platforms, the announcement of a new PvE sandbox-style game backed by one of the main players in the business is always going to be a wake-up.

Many of the blogs I follow are projecting what they expect to see, or would want to see in the upcoming set of announcements at SOE Live tomorrow (2nd August).

One thing is for sure. EQ Next has the potential to shake up the hobby. The second thing that is for sure is that they won’t do that. Am I jaded? Maybe so. I want to briefly give some ideas for what I think they should do, and then some thoughts about what I think they will do.

How to do a successful PvE sandbox

I think there is a room in the market for a more accessible version of games like Wurm Online and Tale in the Desert. Minecraft shows how much people enjoy building and creating, and the incredible success of games like Sim City and Civ shows how much appetite there is for large simulations. And if the boom in social media shows anything, it is how much people enjoy creating and being part of communities. For a lot of people this could include a roleplaying aspect.

To make this work, EQ Next would need to take lessons from games like Glitch and Ultima Online as much as WoW. Instead of focussing on making a world to adventure in, make a world that people would want to (virtually) live in.

Keep direct PvP to a minimum. People don’t want to live in a warzone. And the ones who do already have games that cater to them, those players aren’t the people you need anyway. You need the settlers of the gaming world (consider this a new category alongside explorers, achievers, etc.) to inhabit your world and bring it to life.

There needs to be gameplay to keep things moving, but it can be based on a more simulation-type model. It needs a proper economic model also. Players enjoy ‘taming’ their local environment and building up their smallholdings but there are surely more interesting gameplay models with which to do this than either Farmville or “spreadsheets in space”. The players this game needs are not necessarily the achievers although there can be quests, instances and adventures for them as well. You don’t even need to encourage ‘grouping’ so much as ‘interacting’ and ‘organising’.

A sandbox needs, more than anything else, space. That means virtual space in the sense of large worlds to explore and exploit. But also space for players to carve out their own niches, explore different playing styles, think up different in-game projects to pursue, and space to step away from the levelling track.

Lore is an important part of building an immersive world, but SOE need to ditch the EQ lore. Or at least reboot it into something more coherent. No one is interested in the existing lore except the grognards, EQ2 was always a chaotic mess lorewise, and when the only thing people know about your main character is that she’s a blonde with big boobs, it’s time to start over.

What I think they will actually do

Given that the reveal is at SOE Live, they will hype up the Everquest/ EQ2 connection, which is probably not of huge interest to anyone who either didn’t play those games or didn’t like them.

I think the game will ultimately fail as a virtual world, under the pressure to monetise and to stick to tried and tested F2P mechanics (yes, they said they plan to stick with a P2P subscription model but I can’t see that happening). Expect to see lots of talk of high impact PvP, frequent world events, “a living world” (hint: the best way to have a living world is fill it with players) and some pretty screenshots.

But for all that, they have been saying a lot of interesting things in interviews about ditching the story. Maybe they will surprise me yet.

In which we complain about solo quests in an MMO world

I realised last week that the most frustrating moments for me in MMOs are not losing in PvP, nor being yelled at in a PUG, or having a wipe night in a raid, or being beaten to a mob (in old school games in which that still is a thing). Nope. It is being forced to do a solo quest that I can’t do.

In all of those other situations you can take a break and come back and things will have changed – maybe you’ll get a better random group, or raid makeup, or find a quieter time. Maybe you could grab some friends/ willing strangers to help. But the solo quest is potentially going to block your progress forever. Plus just as it’s frustrating to be asked to find a group if you had been happily soloing, it is annoying to be forced to solo if you’d been duoing or playing with friends.

Mirkwood in LOTRO has issues with this design. It’s still one of my favourite zones, but the epic quest there does love its solo elements. Which can be fun and all when you can do them, and crazy frustrating when you are struggling. Especially if you had been duoing (or playing in a group) and now feel that everyone is waiting for you but no one can help. Arb and I have been enjoying playing our alts through Mirkwood lately, but some of those solo quests are pretty non obvious (yes I’m talking about the one where you have to help a dwarf escape from a prison via using barrels of poison to send some of the other inmates to sleep) – not hard once you know the trick, but non obvious in a frustrating way.  I’m not sure either of us were prepared for how failing a solo quest just makes you want to log off and never play the game again. (At least for awhile).

This is partly the specific quest design – a well designed piece of game will at least give you some clues as to why you failed one attempt and how you can improve next time. But it’s also because an MMO is not the same as an offline game. Most MMOs don’t optimise solo quests for specific classes (SWTOR is the exception) so the difficulty is probably not only fixed but also likely to feel unfair if it doesn’t favour your class strengths. Which is especially frustrating if you had been duoing with someone for whom that isn’t the case. It can make a huge difference if your character has strong AE, or heals, or a pet.

The legendary WoW quest

Speaking of frustrating, I’ve tried to complete the solo stage of the legendary WoW questline (Celestial Blessings) several times on my shadow priest, for both the healing and ranged dps versions. I can’t do it at all. I’ve read tactics. I’m not really interested in trying any more.

So what does this mean really? Aside from killing my enthusiasm (admittedly waning anyway) for this expansion, I guess I’m just not good enough.

I can live with this. I don’t like PvP and I’m not big on trying impressive soloing adventures. I’m a decent healer and dps on my priest but I’m not a great or talented soloer so maybe I don’t deserve cool epic things. What I find more frustrating is  feeling trailed along by this stupid questline all expansion to the point where I will have to give up. When they put in a PvP section to the legendary, people complained but it was actually very non-PvPer tolerant  (just had to win a couple of battlegrounds, which you can pretty much do by queueing repeatedly until random chance gives you a good set of team mates). So how come the solo section can’t be non-soloer tolerant too? Why is this the point where the game decides to get elitist?

I don’t know the answer to that because there is no reason. It makes me feel stupid (for assuming that the quest was aimed at the same level of player it had been from the start), as well as wanting to quit.

How do you feel about solo (I mean forced solo) quests in MMOs? Does anyone else get as frustrated as I do?

[Misc] EVE advertising, Flexi raids in WoW, E3 and the rush of FPS MMOs

Apologies for this being a bit of a mashup. I should probably post more often rather than waiting till I have a few items together.

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This banner was part of a banner ad for EVE Online on rpg.net. This is their advertising slogan. “Be the villain”. And they wonder why their community has a terrible reputation, and only 4% of the player base is female.

Just saying.

I’m still playing through my first month in EVE quietly, deliberately not getting involved in corps or PvP because I just wanted to get a feel for the flow of the game. By far the most compelling part so far is the Facebook-like skill training system. I don’t mean that as a knock to the awesome economic game, beautiful graphics or fairly dull PvE. But the skill training is surprisingly compelling (or perhaps not if you’re used to Farmville). So perhaps it is not surprising that the devs have introduced a new mini game in the recent update – I can’t personally comment on it since I haven’t really figured out probes in any case.

The immensely clever thing about this game is the gamification of boredom. PvE activities like mining are made deliberately dull to encourage player-ships to hang around while players are reading something in another window, making them easy prey for wannabee pirates. ie. the pirates are pretty much guaranteed easy player prey, whilst the miners/ distributers can still make enough credits to shrug off losing the odd ship every now and then.

And as long as everyone roughly gets what they want most of the time, no one will get pissed off enough to leave. It’s actually pretty clever, but still boring. Before anyone comments, I realise that the PvP game is where most of the fun is, just joining a corps is a massive hassle and my goal here was just to get a feel for the game.

One of the  main issues with EVE is always going to be how the devs can balance making the game accessible to newbies while allowing the longer term players to enjoy the advantages of lengthy playing time. For all I’m told that newbies can easily fly with PvP fleets (if in the right role), I still see a  lot of fleets in chat that have far more rigorous requirements.

Are you flexible?

One of the features coming to WoW in the next patch has been dubbed flexible raiding by the devs. In addition to LFR (25 man) and  normal mode (10 or 25 man) for raids, there is now going to be an inbetween version that lets you bring any number of players between 10 and 25 and scales based on how many you bring. The flexi raids also are on a separate lockout from either LFR or normal mode, and drop loot that is also between LFR and normal mode loot.

I’m cautiously hopeful about this new raid mechanic. At the beginning of Cataclysm, like many other people, I commented on how forcing 10 and 25 man raiding to the same lockout would impact on casual raid guilds. Back in the day, we used to run fairly chilled out 25 man raids and the more hardcore raiders could still go off and run their own 10 mans at weekends. After the lockout changed, we compacted into a casual 10 man guild where the more hardcore raiders could still raid with the main group and everyone else could come to alt runs or LFR.

The new flexi raids mean that if people want, we could return to the old Wrath raid pattern. I expect to see a lot more public flexi raids being run also, where raiders and their alts can chill with other raiders from their realm in a non guild exclusive environment. Given that more choice is good, I’m going to welcome the new raid type.

What it means to 10 man normal raid groups, I’m not sure. If like us they raid successfully but at a cost of rarely being able to include less hardcore raiders (I realise I am using hardcore in a different way to heroic groups Smile ) and often having a couple of people on the bench, it will be tempting to just shift to flexi raids and throw in the odd normal mode as an extra if players want.

Blizzard are also releasing more information about the next patch, which looks as though it will be rather more interesting than the current one. The Godmother has a quick summary of some of the new upcoming  features.  I actually applaud them for releasing the current quieter patch over the summer period, because players don’t really want to feel stressed to play MMOs when the weather is nice (I live in hope).

What E3 brought

I’m not really sold yet on either XBone or the PS4 as a next gen console, my PS3 is still looking pretty good and PC gaming has rarely been better*. However, I’m going to bow to Sony’s PR guys this week because their video on how the PS4 lets you share games is a winner; at least it makes them look as though they understand gamers rather better than Microsoft. I wouldn’t write the XBone off though, MSoft have a very clear vision of their customer – someone who loves watching sport, playing ‘core’ video games online with friends, and isn’t that price sensitive. We should just call the console the XBROne and have done with it. Imagine my surprise that the Microsoft E3 presentation a) showed no games with female protagonists and b) involved a scripted rapey joke at the expense of a female presenter. Like I say, they know exactly who their target audience are. And yes I do enjoy watching them get mocked for it in the national press.

* I will probably eventually pick up a PS4 to play whichever version of Final Fantasy we are up to now (15 I think) because old habits are hard to break.

I am also seeing (finally) a rush of FPS MMOs lined up for the next gen consoles. Between Destiny and The Division, along with Planetside 2 and whatever MMOlike features are planned for CoD et al, it will be interesting to see how both the monetisation strategies and gameplay catch on with console players.

And the game that most intrigued me was the Plants vs Zombies shooter. Like Liore, I think this is an interesting way of opening up the genre to a different audience. I kind of want to play a Sunflower that spits sunbeams, even though I’m not big on shooters.

[WoW] The raiding dropoff in MoP

I think it’s approaching that time in the expansion where I get a bit burned out on raiding, notwithstanding having a great guild and raid team. I can tell this because I was getting quite frustrated at being the nominated turtle kicker (I promise this makes sense if you know the encounter) on Tortos this week. (Fortunately we’re taking a week or two off due to people being on holiday and then we have a guild meet coming up so I’ll probably be back to normal after that.)

Or maybe it’s just a frustrating role that no one really likes. Who knows?

Well actually, Zellviren has been collecting stats on normal-mode raid participation and has put up a long and detailed post on MMO-Champion about it. To summarise: raid participation in normal mode 10 man instances has been steadily dropping off since Wrath. Even with the surge in subscriptions that came with MoP, fewer guilds killed the first boss in Mogushan Vaults than the last boss in Dragon Soul (last raid in Cataclysm) in normal mode 10 man. He also collected data on a boss by boss basis to show which have been the main roadblock bosses in MoP for these raiders.

I know the main roadblocks for us were Elegon and Garalon so it’s no surprise to see large drop offs associated with both of them, but the numbers also show that after hitting those walls, a lot of guilds seem to have given up on raiding. He concludes:

“1) This is the first time we start to see massive jumps and “brick walls” appear in normal mode raiding. Elegon himself puts paid to more guilds than the entirety of tier 13.
2) The Heart of Fear is a one-instance wrecking crew. Of the guilds that started the expansion by managing to defeat the Stone Guard, it’s managed to kill over 58% of them.
3) The ‘attunement’ for Heart of Fear is bypassed, allowing more guilds to kill the Sha of Fear than killed Grand Empress Shek’zeer.
4) 75% of the final tier instance was less punishing than Amber-Shaper Un’sok; the Heart of Fear accounts for an average mortality rate of over 7.6%.”

In Throne of Thunder, only 25k 10 man guilds have taken out the first boss in normal mode. Ghostcrawler did comment that counting the number of guilds wasn’t a great way to measure progress (I interpret this the opposite way he does and wonder if it’s because hardcore players might have multiple alts in different raid guilds) but agrees that fewer players have made an attempt on Jin’rock 10 m normal than on Stone Guard in the earlier tier.

Then Horridan (which admittedly took us several weeks of attempts) filtered out another 5k, that’s 20% guilds which killed the first boss still haven’t killed the second.

Well, it makes me feel better about our current progress, even though we’re not one of the elite 7k who killed Lei Shen on normal. I was tempted to put elite in ‘’ but really what else can you call it?

Basically, the current endgame model doesn’t seem to be working. Yes LFR will have soaked up all of those raiders but does LFR have the stickability of raid encounters which each might require a month or more of effort from a guild to clear?

Catching up: Neverwinter, WoW Raiding, Diablo

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“I got eaten by a gelatinous cube!!!” she said, “This is the best day of my life!”

I feel late to the party so going to link to a few other people’s experiences with the Neverwinter open beta. I haven’t really seen any bad reviews, it’s a solid game and if you like that sort of thing, it’s F2P so you can go try it. For me I get strong vibes of a mixture of Diablo and standard hotbar MMO play, and it mostly works. Also my character has a really cool devil tail that waves around.

  • Dusty Monk – “… when you first log on, you’ll be presented with a Home Page of the various kinds of content available and how to get to them.   And for most of that content, a robust LFG queuing tool is available, and works really well.  So whether for skirmishes, dungeons, or PvP matches, you can queue up, and typically within less than 20 minutes or so, be whisked away to the instance of your choice.”
  • Tipa at West Karana – “I play the game, I like the game, but I don’t know why. Game just _confuses_ me.”
  • The Jester, a blogger at wizards.com (blogging for a pen and paper audience) – “The static world reflects a style of MMO design on the way out. It’s very much a third-generation MMO despite every MMO in the last three or four years trying to become an early fourth-generation MMO. There’s not a whole lot of innovation. Excluding the Foundry, it’s an unremarkable game I would have not looked twice at had it not been using the D&D licence (and even then, only because it’s free). There’s also only enough official content for a single playthrough.”

Like many of the other bloggers I follow, I’m finding a lot more fun in the game than I had expected. It is, as The Jester says, a very static world design but I don’t entirely agree with him about the third-generation MMO. Cryptic have been looking at more recent developments in other games, so Neverwinter features companion NPCs and crafting based on facebook style games/ SWTOR, LFG queues for all the group content in the game, a web interface where you can check your crafting/ auctions/ etc., and a more active combat style than typical MMOs. I find the dodging works better here than in GW2, for example. The game does default to mouse look, and binds your two main attacks to the mouse buttons for that classic Diablo feel. This didn’t annoy me as much as I was expecting although it feels awkward when you want to drop out of mouse look mode so that  you can click on some other part of your screen. All in all, it feels like a modern take on an oldschool genre, which is pretty appropriate for a game based on Dungeons and Dragons.

And Arb and I do get a kick from the oldschool D&D references that are studded through the game, especially when we remember the monsters showing up in tabletop games that we ran as teenagers.  The gelatinous cube shown above was an old GMing favourite, as were the illusory walls that have featured in other dungeons in the game. Fortunately this particular cube was not immune to cold and lightning damage, given that my wizard has a lot of ice spells. And that shows up one of the downsides of Neverwinter – it’s not actually as tactically interesting as a D&D game probably should be. Monsters are supposed to have strengths and vulnerabilities, but that doesn’t really work with this type of MMO where players don’t want to be told “You should really bring someone with fire spells if you are going to fight gelatinous cubes.”

It’s a dilemma. In any case, we’re having fun with the game at the moment. I don’t know if it really has long lasting stickability but Cryptic have played to their strengths by including The Foundry for player generated scenarios and that is something I am curious to try out.

Raiding in the Throne of Thunder

Kadomi has written a much more colourful description of our raiding progress over at her blog (I love being in a guild with other bloggers, I can just link to what they wrote and say “just read this.”)

Short form: We got council down last week in normal mode for the first time. So we’re making slow but steady progress through the raid. I have had more fun raiding in MoP than in any aspect of WoW since Wrath, although the encounters are sometimes overtuned in normal, they’re pretty well designed. I don’t know what other people consider good encounter design but for me, I don’t mind a complex boss fight that takes us a long time to learn as long as we can feel we are learning on every pull.

Encounters like Elegon and Council have been incredibly rewarding fights for our guild to master, I think. So I don’t much care that we’re not on heroic modes, the raids we are doing are at a really good difficulty for us I think. But I’m pretty tolerant of slow progression if the company is good and fun is being had.

At the same time, LFR being available helps a lot with keeping the general good mood in a casual raid guild. I think back to Burning Crusade and just how darned important it felt to be in progression raids because it was the only way you could be in with a shot at the gear you’d need to be included in the next progression raid. Now you can keep up reasonably well with gear levels by running LFR and collecting rep gear so it’s not the end of the world if you miss a week or two. Plus if we don’t have enough people on a raid night, we can take a guild group to LFR and still have the opportunity to hang out together.

As anyone who has been reading gaming news recently will know, WoW posted a drop in accounts over the last quarter. This can’t be surprising given general trends in the genre and doesn’t really reflect on MoP – anyone who quit because there were too many dailies probably wasn’t going to be in it for the long run anyway.

Diablo III

Since the new patch, I have been tentatively trying out my old Barbarian in Inferno level and … this is probably not surprising but now that several nerfs have been applied to the mobs and buffs to the characters, I am quite enjoying it. The original difficulty just wasn’t fun for me, this is.

I have enjoyed all the Diablo-esque games that I have played recently, Torchlight 2 is a lot of fun also, but Diablo 3 does have some very moreish design factors to it. I love silly things like the increasingly outlandish types of arms and armour you pick up (what is a Schynbald? Heck if I know!), which brings me back to original Dungeons and Dragons with it’s lovingly illustrated pages of exotic polearms.

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The great Diablo 3 economy meltdown

Funnily enough, I’d been getting back into Diablo 3 recently so I was aware of the new patch that hit this week. One of the new features was that Blizzard raised the limit for maximum gold sold on the auction house from 1m to 10m gold.

And then … some players discovered a buffer overflow due to these changes that led to some easily replicated gold dupe mechanics. Very soon after this, some accounts amassed ridiculously huge amounts of gold, even by D3 standards. Blizzard disabled the US AH last night and deployed a hotfix earlier today.

But they’re reluctant to roll back the servers. Presumably lots of players returned to try out the new patch and Blizzard are aware of the effect of taking away any cool RNG drops that they picked up while playing on player morale. Instead they’re trying to identify offending accounts and doing selective bans.

It’s probably too late though, once that amount of gold flooded into the AH economy, legitimate players started selling drops/ gems for hugely inflated prices so the money has been distributed.

Here’s the lowdown from reddit, and the Blizzard official response.

It’s at times like these that it pays to be on EU servers that update after the US ones, our patch had the hotfix included.