[WoW] Farewell to Pandaria

A few of my favourite screenshots from this expansion. There are a couple from Kun-Lai Summit at the top, as it is my favourite zone in Pandaria. (I’m easy about the lack of flying in WoD but it does mean it will be harder to get these panoramic screenies there.)

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Home on the range.

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Bouncing around as a saurok was one of the more fun things we got to do.

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Remember the giant snails of doom?

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And this is a shot from the dark portal JUST before the prepatch expansion came in and changed everything for WoD. Nice shots of some cloud serpents there which were and are stunning mounts. Onwards and upwards!

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New expansions, MMOs as life simulations, and why only idiots whine about “welfare epics”

Aladdin

A whole new world …

So a new WoW expansion is now just around the corner which means that players are getting ready to take their characters into what is effectively a new game world. People are returning to the game, deciding which alts to play first, and (if they are keen) thinking hard about what preparation they could do now to give themselves and their characters a bit of an edge.

And of course, mentally preparing to replace hard won epics from the current expansion with blue and green quest gear. This is a time for getting some closure from current content and preparing to move on. Bloggers will be writing about their favourite zones and stories from the current expansion, people will be chasing those last few achievements while they are still just about current, doing the farewell tours, getting ready to leave. This time next month, no one will care about your Pandarian epics (tbh they probably already stopped caring).  Expansions are (gaming) life’s way of telling you not to take things too seriously.

I’ll probably put up a few posts remembering some of my favourite parts of Pandaria also before WoD is released.

MMOs as a simulation of life

OnlyAModel

MMOs are a simplistic simulation of life. Your character enters the world as a callow untried youth with nothing to them except their name and the clothes on their back. As you play the game you collect gear, gold, levels, pets and mounts (I guess these are the in game equivalent of family Smile ), friends/ contacts, maybe a guild and a social circle, reputation, achievements, knowledge, whatever passes for in-game wisdom – you become wealthy and save the world (possibly multiple times) and NPCs know your name. And it doesn’t really end other than when you get bored and leave, but if it did there would probably be some kind of state funeral and loving heirs waiting to take over your mantle and light a candle in your name every year.

Like I say, very basic simulation of a certain type of life narrative. Rags to Riches. The immigrant story.

I think people can get fooled by this into some odd political ideas if they are silly enough to try to apply MMO rules to actual life, where it isn’t quite that easy to start from nothing and end up as the coolest, richest character on the planet. But it’s nice to be able to forget all the horrible disparities of RL and just play in a world where everyone pretty much starts from a clean slate.

Anyhow, this leads to two ways of looking at a new expansion:

  1. Asylum model. You have to leave your home and go to a new place. It’s a new beginning with new opportunities. But ultimately you had no choice about whether to go. And you have to start from nothing.
  2. Emigration model. For whatever reason, your character looks to new horizons and going into a new expansion is like emigrating to a new country. You can’t take a lot of your existing knowledge and gear with you but you can plan to transfer whatever you are able.

A new player would pretty much have to start from option 1, unless they have friends in the game who are going to help them out. Existing players have a choice, and the way they make that choice will be largely about their own priorities and how they prefer to play.

I quite enjoy the sense of starting from scratch. You feel that you are making a lot of progress quite fast. It is exciting. It focuses you on making the most you can of the new experience. Others prefer to put a lot of work into achieving as many advantages as they can. Some would even argue that if it is possible to minmax some advantages, that is clearly the optimal way to play.

But what IS clear is that the vast majority of the effort keen players have poured into playing the current expansion will not affect their experience in the next one. It won’t matter how many times you wiped to **evil boss of choice – Elegon in our case I think** because all you will be able to take with you are the memories of the good times and the friends you shared them with. Players will simply have to live with that. It isn’t the traditional/ original MMO way (which would have been just adding more content all round but letting the players’ game history continue to have more impact), but HAS become the MMO way since level-advancing expansions were first invented.

This is because it allows new players to catch up a bit, and also offers a good entry point for returning players. They do expansions like this because it works and is profitable.

Lets talk about the ‘welfare epic’ whiners

If  you have every complained about ‘welfare epics’ in WoW you are an idiot. And you have been duped into equating poor people with gamers whose playing style you don’t like, and with dev companies whose strategies to make the game fun for different parts of the playerbase you don’t like either. Right wing political slogans simply have no place in describing MMO setups and I suspect the people who fall into those linguistic traps have no idea what they are talking about; it’s a trap laid by the MMOs being an incredibly simplistic life simulation, as I said above.

The original phrase was coined by a Blizzard Dev (who should have been disciplined for insulting large numbers of the player base, incidentally) and was about the way points were given out in PvP battlegrounds which meant you could get points by basically doing nothing. This was fairly dumb but had nothing to do with welfare – anyone who thinks that you get handed nice stuff via actual welfare for doing nothing simply does not know what they are talking about. (You get shit stuff and it comes with massive stress and being forced to let the system know far too much about your personal life. I’ve lived on benefits when I was a kid and I’m grateful that the govt paid for us to have a roof over my head and clothes on my back, but not needing benefits is better.) The people who deliberately exploited this were both stupid and lazy, but mostly they were exploiters and Blizzard  has to take the blame for leaving that loophole open. It is always surprising, in both RL and in game, how much more effort people will put into trying to exploit the system than just playing it regularly when the rewards are not that dissimilar either way.

(I always thought the welfare metaphor was an odd one incidentally — it would have been just as easy to refer to ‘spoiled children loot’ or ‘trust fund baby loot’ for a metaphor for people getting stuff they don’t deserve. But no, right wingers are obsessed to a bonkers level with whether ‘welfare recipients’ are deserving or not.)

It also should be obvious to everyone by this point that the way Blizzard run the game is via a succession of major and minor expansions. The minor expansion we tend to call major patches and there will be 3-4 of them within every major expansion. With every minor expansion, the game needs to make it possible for new or lagging players to catch up to the new content, hence the iLvL of drops/ quests from the new content will be edging higher.

  • So if you think the optimal way to play the game is to get the maximum loot for the minimum effort, the most sensible thing to do is collect your gear when it’s easiest (ie. slightly out of date but still useful), and play through the raids once or twice on LFG just so you can see them.
  • If you think the optimal way to play the game is to get every advantage available and see all the content while it is cutting edge, then be prepared to put a lot more work in AND to see your advantage become eroded with every expansion (both major and minor); it’s a never ending treadmill but “Fame costs and here’s where you start paying”.

(NB. If you don’t really care about the optimal way of playing the game then you will probably never feel stressed about any of this. Go and have fun Smile )

The aggro I think comes from the latter group who have a nagging worry that maybe, just maybe, all that work they are putting into the game has become somewhat devalued. WELCOME TO THE NEW REALITY GUYS! The only reason to put that much effort in is because you enjoy and prefer that style of gameplay. It is cool being part of a cutting edge guild, feeling that you have completely mastered your game of choice. Own your choice and enjoy it.

But don’t fucking complain about welfare epics, you idiots. It just shows that you don’t know anything about either welfare or epics.If it’s that important to you that your hard work feels rewarded, then you would be happier with a different game. Or in other words, in real life one’s hard work is not usually rewarded or even recognised, maybe this just means the life simulation is simply getting more realistic.

[MMOs] Your learning needs are not my problem

Stubborn has a great post up on the Epic Slant blog where he applies some of his teaching theories about collaboration to game design. You should read it, but I’m just riffing off the basic idea. He talks about how you design a collaborative task to give everyone in the group opportunities to learn.

I was intrigued because I feel increasingly that random group content in MMOs is an anti-learning environment. If people zone in with someone who is learning the fight, they’re likely to be disappointed because it will take longer. They don’t want to take ‘the hit’ of being part of someone else’s learning experience. It’s not surprising, if group content is designed to encourage group learning (I don’t actually think MMO devs have educators on board, sadly, because that would be awesome but let’s pretend) then the whole point is that the group learns together.

Even a lot of learning players would rather be boosted and not have to bother learning the fight than be thrown in with a group of similarly experienced players and all learn it together. That isn’t a function of noobiness, a lot of experienced players would do the same thing – just they’d probably actually bother to learn the fight at some point. Although possibly not to the same holistic level – if you learn a fight in a group where everyone else already performs their role well then you will only really learn your own role. You won’t learn how the fight fully works.

People are lazy. Only raid leaders are really motivated to fully understand fights. A lot of players are happy to just be told what to do. None of this is surprising. I also think it is most fun to learn a fight in a group of similarly skilled players who are also friends who are learning together; it’s harder than ever to get this type of group together except at the beginning of new content. Because people will head into LFR to learn what they can.

Your learning will slow us down

The other week we raided again with an old guildie who has just rejoined after spending the expansion in more hardcore raids. He’s a great guy, good player, geared to the gills, knows the fights backwards, and it was lovely having him back in raid chat. We got to one of the boss fights (Blackfuse) where some of the DPS have a slightly different role – he said he was happy to try it but it would be his first time as his old raid hadn’t let him do it before so he wasn’t really sure how it worked.

This gives an indication of how specialised and risk averse some raid groups can be. If you didn’t happen to be That Guy who took on that role when the raid first learned a fight, they will be reluctant to give you a chance to learn unless they have no choice because learning takes time and that would set them back. So do you make the whole raid wipe a couple of times while new guy learns the positioning or tell him to go practice in LFR/ go back to his usual role so you can make more progress?

Has learning got more scary in MMOs?

So what I am wondering is whether it has gotten scarier to learn new roles or fights. PUGs don’t care if it was the first time you saw the raid, they’ll have to judge you on what they see. Progression raids worship progression and will be frustrated if you take too long to learn.

I guess with a new WoW expansion coming up, we can say it’s easier to get into learning mode at the beginning of a new content patch when everyone (briefly) is learning together. And the goal isn’t just to learn, it’s to learn as quickly as you can do you don’t get booted from your raid later. That adds a certain extra stress that I suspect good educators would have tried to avoid. I wouldn’t be surprised if more and more people just avoid group content – it only takes one really stressful experience to kill someone’s confidence.

And I wonder if the genre (such as it is) would be more long lived if more design effort was put into making the learning experience less stressy.

[WoW] Proving Grounds–preparing players for group content?

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The Proving Grounds are a one-person instance in WoW where you can practice tanking, healing, or dps roles with and against mobs that are a bit more interactive than training dummies. There are some NPCs that will help you, and the various mobs have different abilities and/or need to be attached from different directions.

So far, so good, it’s a neat concept. I have friends and guildies who love the Proving Ground mini game; it has harder and harder modes and you can keep going until you get to Infinite Mode which means carry on until you are bored or wipe. The idea also is that it is a good way to practice the roles before trying group content. So in the next expansion, you will have to complete the Proving Ground for your role at Silver level (Bronze is the easiest, Silver next step up) before you will be able to queue for heroic instances.

If there is an issue with the Proving Grounds though, it is this. Bronze level is easy and still does the job of making you use different tactics for different mobs. The more difficult tiers I find tuned harder (or at least different) than what you generally will be asked to do do in instances; harder in the sense of no one to help, and hard timers (i.e. count down in the corner).  So Silver Mode in WoD could actually be harder in some senses than the content it will be used to gate, and still not guarantee that people who pass it will be useful in heroic groups.

Also when the game does this in single player mode, it penalises some classes/ specs more than others because the encounters are tuned by role, not by class or spec. For example, if I’m doing a tanking Proving Ground on my warrior, my dps will be less than that of the other tanks because of class choice. It doesn’t make it impossible (they do tune it reasonably from that point of view), but it will be harder for me to make the timers, even if my tanking is otherwise flawless.

It’s not necessarily bad for the players if the gatekeeping requires a higher skill level than the instances. It implies at least that the people you will be queuing with will be good enough to manage the heroic. But if the gatekeeping keeps out too many people who would have been fine in the groups but are no longer allowed to queue then a) people will leave the game and b) queue length will increase. It’s a fine line. My confidence in my WoW skills is very low at the moment, so I’m assuming I probably won’t be able to do it. Still, there’s always pet battles.

 

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The thing that annoys me most about Proving Grounds is that in the tanking one, you get an NPC healer who also nukes mobs. You have to tab around to find out which one they are nuking so that you can make sure to hold aggro on it. In a just universe, you’d be able to mark the mobs so that you can control which order the healer kills them in – IMO that would be a far more useful thing to learn before queuing for instances than whether or not you can kill illusionary mobs in under 10s.

It does make me wonder about how else you could train players to be more skilled and confident in group roles.

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?