Links of the week

  1. We’ve seen a lot of discussion about Blizzard’s plans for the Icecrown patch (3.3). Fives writes the clearest and most heartfelt summary of them all. This isn’t just an analysis, it’s a love letter from a hardcore raid leader who sees his game on the verge of extinction. Six words that terrify Blizzard.
  2. The other big topic of discussion in gaming blogs has been some little shooter called Modern Warfare, perhaps you’ve heard of it? (It slays me that this outsold dragon age by about a zillion to one. Expect to see a slew of FPS based MMOs in about 5 years time.) Rock Paper Shotgun explains why the real problem with the ‘moral dilemma’ level wasn’t the moral dilemma, it’s that it was rubbish.
  3. As anyone who’s been keeping up with this blog knows, I’m totally enamoured of Dragon Age Origins. I finished my first play through earlier, but haven’t had time yet to marshall my thoughts. In the meantime, check out what the effervescent Tipa has to say in her DAO review. ElectricDeathRay also has a super review in the form of a love letter, explaining just why he loves the game so much.
  4. Overly Positive has another angle on DAO. In his view, Bioware have put their money where their mouth is and shown us now that they really are way ahead of the field in storytelling right now. So what does this mean for Star Wars: The Old Republic?
  5. The Final Fantasy XIV Core blog asks “What kind of gamer are you?” Apparently I’m a generic gamer, I’m not even sure if that’s good or not. (Or maybe a storyliner – they added that later after I’d read the post!)
  6. Dragonchaser takes a first look at skirmishes in LOTRO and loves what he sees. This is a really neat sounding feature that’s coming out in the next patch. It involves instances that scale from single player up to a full group. It involves randomised encounters. It involves customisable NPCs who can help out with healing, tanking, or dps. What’s not to love? (I think Tobold’s on crack when he says he’d rather play Cataclysm than Mirkwood – but more on that next week.)
  7. octalblack is upset because she thinks that people give Champions Online an unfairly hard time for the cash shop, where WoW gets a free pass. Why can’t people be consistent in how they criticise features? I fear the sad truth is that most people who criticise CO have no intention of playing it, whereas most people who talk about WoW are current players, so that affects how it’s seen.
  8. p@tsh@t echoes the feeling that a lot of oldtime MMO players have, which is that we’re slowly losing the worlds from our virtual worlds. Can the mass market support a virtual world or are we relegated to a shiny 3d chat room with a right click adventure menu?
  9. Anyone else noticed that lots of people are easing up on their MMO playing at the moment because of all the great single player games that have been coming out? Dusty asks (tongue in cheek?) whether single player games are ruining our MMOs.
  10. And in honour of Twilight, here’s an old Halloween link. The Escapist asks whether you can identify these 30 vampires in 30s.

By the way, check out the new banner, courtesy of Veneretio. I think it’s bluerifficly awesome, and not just because  this font makes me think of ice creams at the seaside.

Icecrown: The self-nerfing raid

Blizzard have really outdone themselves with this one. The plan for opening up the Icecrown Citadel (the raid instance which is coming with the next patch) has been released. They’ve thrown the kitchen sink at it. It’ll have bosses gradually being unlocked as time goes on, bosses only being unlocked if you kill previous bosses within a limited amount of tries, and the whole instance actually coded to get a bit easier over time by dint of a raid buff that increases as time goes on.

So imagine a self-basting chicken if it was a castle full of undead. Instead of Blizzard having to take it out of the oven every so often to pour fat over it/ nerf it, they can just leave it in until it is done.

Larisa echoes my thoughts on forcing limited attempts. It punishes people who wanted to go into the instance blind, or who have raid members with poor connections, and puts undue stress on the learning side of the encounter. Limited attempts is something you do to spice up farm raids.

Self-nerfing raids forces people to raid to Blizzard’s schedule. This has happened to some extent anyway but if like us you raid on a relaxed schedule, it’s hard to know what that will really mean for the difficulty side of things.

I think what they’re aiming at is that the limited attempts (and the number of attempts allowed also increases over time) should  let the hardccore stay ahead of the rest for a short while at least. The autobuff should make it easier for PUGs to form towards the end of the raid’s lifecycle.

But none of this is really ideal for players who would prefer it if their own raid group could select the difficulty. A group like mine doesn’t need limited attempts, we already have a relaxed schedule and aren’t going to sweep through the instance in a week. All that does is add extra stress for us. But since we’ll also be gearing up and getting more practice in, I’m not sure we need the increasing raid buff either.

I don’t think any of these ideas are bad on their own, but I’m not sure how well they all will work together. Can you really throw in some stuff for the hardcore and some for the casuals and bake it all in the same oven? It will be interesting to find out, and to see what players do with it.

Only as good as the last patch

I cannot remember a time when I have been as glutted on awesome computer games as I am right now at this moment. My gaming hours are still very occupied with Dragon Age, which is offering some of the most compelling, immersive gaming I’ve ever had on PC right now.  It is not only a great game, but it also plays right into my storytelling/ RP AND gameplay preferences so it’s absolutely the whole package.

If I want a break from that and some mindless hack/ slay action, Torchlight is still brilliantly entertaining. I find I enjoy it more when I don’t sit down for long sessions — that can get repetitive. But in short bursts it’s very fun and refreshing, and I still have more character classes, more builds, more endless dungeon to try. As if that wasn’t enough, we finally decided to pick up a PS3 so have a couple more great games there (Little Big Planet and Uncharted 2) when we want to sit down on the sofa together and play. I will have more to say about both of those games sometime but they’re both fantastic.

The nice thing about the single player games is that even if I build up a backlog now, it just means I won’t buy any more for awhile until I’m done with them. There’s no special hurry.

But where is WoW in all this? It’s on the back burner for me. I’m keeping up my relaxed raid schedule of one 25 man raid a week, and that’s about it. But why is that? This current patch is simply not compelling and I’ve run out of goals. Until the next patch drops, I’m finding other things to do with my spare time.

Larisa comments that she worries that people think she’s burning out because she’s been critical of WoW recently. I don’t think that. I think they put out an unexciting patch, and I remember noting that it sounded like filler when I first read about the Coliseum. I also don’t see any reason why even a fan has to ooze positivity over a lacklustre patch. By all means find something positive to talk about, but what if the positive thing is, ‘Well, at least we’ll all be geared for the next patch which should be better’?

Compared to the single player games, patch 3.2 offers very very little gameplay. There was one new raid instance that didn’t put up much of a challenge – I enjoyed the new mechanics but they didn’t keep us occupied for very long. Being offered the chance to keep rerunning old instances to be rewarded by a slightly different set of badges which could be turned in for better loot got old before the patch even went live.

One thing this has crystallised in my mind is that WoW at the moment is only as good as its last patch. Oh, there’s plenty of other content in there but I’m done with the rest of the expansion myself, as are a lot of other endgame players. We’ve run the instances, gotten the rep, experienced the quests/ storyline, and capped the tradeskills, so we are very focussed on the new patch content to keep us engaged. Or in other words, many people who played since the beginning of Wrath are now out of in-game goals and bored of the year old gameplay. As soon as a new patch hits, everyone who is endgame-ready will be motivated to switch to the new content — partly because it is new and partly because they will be enticed there with ever increasing rewards. But what happens when they’re done?

Any subscription game needs to keep offering players a mixture of short, medium, and longterm goals to keep their interest in maintaining a relationship with that game. Those are the things which make it worthwhile to pick up a longterm sub, knowing that there are things you want to accomplish that will take months. Goals aren’t enough on their own, but if they’re not there, then you’d better hope that your community is very sticky indeed.

The reason this has become more of an issue now in Warcraft  is that Wrath heralded a new era of accessibility for the game. And that meant fewer long term goals, and a shift in perspective for raid goals. For example, if your goal is to kill the last boss of a raid instance, you can now decide whether killing it on normal mode (possibly in a PUG) will satisfy the sightseeing instinct. Is it worth the extra hassle of finding a raid group just to get the boss on hard mode? A lot of people don’t find that as compelling a prospect as when it was the only way to see that boss die at all. Not only that, but because of the way players are now corralled through the game, many more of them will run out of patch content before the next patch hits.

So these things are in many ways a result of deliberate design decisions. I don’t think the decisions were bad, and I rather enjoy that I’m able to see all the bosses and finish a patch and move on without having to dedicate vast amounts of time and effort. But it does mean that if one patch is less exciting, it’s far easier to either skip it or take a break and do something else until Blizzard provide something more interesting for players to do.

I’ve seen a lot more raid groups recruiting at the moment, so I’m guessing a lot of people are bored with the Coliseum. Will they come back to see Arthas fall in patch 3.3, or will other games — maybe even single player games — have stolen their gaming souls?

Would you rather be Frodo or Aragorn?

In the next Wrath patch, Blizzard announced that players will have the opportunity to face down The Lich King himself in a 5 man instance.

On cue, the outraged complaints began. How can the end boss of a whole expansion possibly be epic if you can fight him in a (casual friendly) 5 man instance? Surely he should be a raid boss? But I don’t see that myself.

Going back to Lord of the Rings, who has the more epic adventure? Frodo and Sam sneaking into Mordor on their own to destroy the ring, or the rest of the Fellowship who get to ride with the great armies, participate in world changing battles, and do valorous deeds? They are both epic and exciting adventures which turn the course of the story.

It’s been commented before that Icecrown bears a strong resemblance to illustrations of Mordor. Is it so hard to imagine that the parallel goes deeper? After all, why mess with a winning formula? (And not messing with winning formulas is one of the things that Blizzard does best.) And using important lore characters in group instances was one of the ways in which LOTRO really brought their epic storyline to life. I don’t remember players in that game complaining that it wasn’t ‘fair’ or ‘epic’ that they got to fight trolls alongside Legolas, or talk to Frodo in Rivendell before the fellowship departed.

I think Blizzard will take the easier route and although the 5 man encounter will be meaningful in terms of story, it won’t actually allow the 5 man group to defeat Arthas. But I can’t help wishing that they could. It wouldn’t stop the raid instance from being epic and exciting if we knew that some brave adventurers were also sneaking into Icecrown on a bold but uncertain mission to weaken our foe so that our strike would be successful.

The Tale of One Bronze Drake

Me and my drake, out on the town

Me and my drake, out on the town

I’m sure everyone has their personal blind spot in MMOs. That one puzzle you can’t solve. That one jump you can never make first time.  That one instance run that you need but can never get anyone else to do. That one drop that doesn’t. (Don’t even start with me about tanking trinkets, they do not exist in my personal universe!)

For me, it’s been the heroic mode of Old Stratholme. If you can make it through on a particularly tight timer, you have access to an extra boss (he despawns when the timer runs out). And aside from the achievement, you are rewarded with the shiniest shiny of all — he drops a gold dragon for someone to win as a flying mount.

The Culling of Stratholme

Old Stratholme is a fantastic, story-based event style instance.

It’s located in the Caverns of Time which means that you’re being sent back in time by the Bronze Dragonflight, Quantum Leap Style, to prevent the timeline being messed up. In this, run, you and your mates get to play through one of the character defining sequences from Warcraft III. This is the point where Arthas turns away from his paladin mentor and decides grimly that the only way to save the City of Stratholme from the Scourge Plague which assails it is …. to kill everyone in it. And the voicetrack from the Warcraft III cut scene is used here too, which is a nice easter egg for people who played it.

And we get to help him. Because apparently worse things will happen if the timeline is not preserved, however much Mrs Spinks thinks aloud on every run that a swift dagger in the back would solve a lot of problems further down the line. (Note #1: She’s not one of those warriors who believes in fair fights. Note #2: You can do this on a RP server and no one minds.)

First he makes his way through the plagued parts of the city and we’re there to smack down the waves of undead scourge patrols and associated mini-bosses that can spawn at several different locations near the main entrance. So lots of running back and forth.

Then Arthas leads us through the Town Hall, where he is attacked by members of the naughty infinite dragon flight who like messing up timelines. Or at least, he would be if we weren’t there to protect him. After following him through a secret passage, we end up back on the streets and facing a gauntlet of scourge before we can get to the final confrontation with Mal’Ganis, the demon deathlord.

Arthas: I won’t allow it, Mal’Ganis! Better that these people die by my hand than serve as your slaves in death!

Morally, Blizz wimped out here. In the actual storyline, Arthas kills both plagued and unplagued residents alike. It’s his one step beyond the pale which signposts his future moral decline and plummet. Not only do we not get a chance to talk him out of it, but all the mobs we kill in Stratholme are either dragons or scourge. No burning down houses full of innocent but possibly plagued residents here the way he does in Warcraft III. So the scenario lacks the moral disquiet that it is supposed to resonate.

We also lack the Warcraft III background, where the script would have shown us that Arthas was met by a prophet on the way to Stratholme and offered an alternate choice (“If you wish to save your people, lead them across the sea …. to the West.”) which he ignores.

So although we’re told that Arthas crosses a line here, we don’t really see it. But it’s a fun instance for all that, with lots of running around and lots of dragons and zombies to fight. Plus you get to see a familiar old instance (Stratholme) as it was in the past as a thriving city.

My history with Old Stratholme

I’ve run this instance several times on heroic mode. Somehow, we’d never managed to beat the timer. There’s no special trick to it, you just have to do the same things as usual but faster. I’d seen the extra boss on a few occasions, just as he disappeared. On one memorable occasion I was even able to engage him only to die a bit later because our healer was running way behind everyone else for some reason.

Most of my friends have done the speed run. Many of them have drakes of their own. When I commented that perhaps I was the problem (not fast enough? Not crazy enough with the pulls?) they all said that wasn’t the issue.

Various reasons put forward for not beating the timer on Stratholme:

  1. You were unlucky with spawns. (You can have a lot of extra running to do if the scourge at the start insist on all spawning at opposite ends of the map).
  2. You didn’t have enough dps. Killing things faster would make more time. But I’ve known people who got their drakes with new level 80s in the group.
  3. The stars are not aligned, it just wasn’t meant to be.
  4. Maybe the NPCs just move more slowly when you’re there?
  5. Bad luck. Sod’s law.
  6. Lag. If all else fails, blame lag.

But however much people said it wasn’t my fault, it seemed to me that all the failed runs had one common factor. Me.

I wasn’t really even thinking about the timed run when we ran Stratholme last Sunday.  One of my friends recently hit 80 on his mage so we grabbed a few bored people to run him through some heroics. This was the last one we had time for before lunch, and we aced it.

Sad to say, the main thing that was different on this occasion was that we had an Unholy specced Death Knight in the group, and they have a group speed buff. The other advantage on this occasion was running with a healer who actually kept up with me.

Other than that, I pulled the gauntlet at the end very quickly when we realised we might be on track for a speed run. Warbringer (being able to charge while still in combat, one of the current prot warrior hallmarks) and a decent set of shield block gear make crazy pulls possible. The gauntlet itself consists of some static elite ghouls, lots of static non-elite skeletons, and some elite patrols of various scourge creatures. So the trick to it, if there is one, is to charge from ghoul to ghoul while still keeping an eye out for the patrols so as to be able to grab those quickly too.

In any case, I was very excited when I won the bronze drake! I’m really not a mount-obsessed player and would have been happy enough with just the achievement, but you have to admit it looks great.

I feel a bit disloyal to my old nether ray though …

Which Evil Overlord would you work for?

Evil Overlords are one of the great staples of fiction. It isn’t just in fantasy; Holmes has his Moriarty, Bond has his Blofeld,  the Harkers have their Dracula, Superman has his Lex Luthor, the BSG crew have their cylons, the Four Musketeers have their Cardinal Richelieu and so on.

But ever since Tolkein set pen to paper, it’s been a core staple of fantasy fiction too. So it really isn’t surprising that MMOs have worked hard at creating evil overlords we love to hate.

But I was wondering how these guys would be as employers. In a few of the MMOs I’ve played, you actually get a chance to be on the side of evil, even if it is just temporarily, to see how the other side lives (or doesn’t). And I have come up with a few criteria:

  1. snazzy uniform
  2. clear command structure
  3. opportunities for advancement
  4. potential for gloating at PCs

So let’s see how they stack up.

LOTRO

Sauron: The biggest name in evil overlordness around! He may not offer a great uniform but the “Eye of Sauron” has stood the test of time and become one of the stronger evil overlord brands out in the market. You don’t get much of a view for how he interacts with his minions either in the books or the game. Less powerful employees such as orcs, worgs, spiders, etc do seem to retain a lot of self will and the orcs in particular have a decent social structure. It isn’t really clear quite how smart they are but in some ways that is a bonus – no witty conversation required.

My doubts about Sauron are that he doesn’t seem to have a clear game plan and his military tactics boil down to ‘throw hordes of minions at it.’ Also the more powerful minions, such as dark riders, seem much less self willed. But the Nazgul do look great and also get to scare hobbits, which is a bonus.

You do have the chance to play orcs, spiders, and worgs in LOTRO but not with much interaction with your evil overlord.

Saruman: Now I think he’s a better bet. He does actually talk to his troops and is more tactically minded. His symbol may not be as cool as the Eye but you could get a lot of ‘talk to the Hand’ jokes in. Plus he’s based in a nice forest and not a nasty fiery mountain area which makes for more pleasant living conditions.

City of Heroes/Villains

There are a few different NPC villain groups but the one you get to work for as a supervillain is Arachnos. They are an actual organised villain group and they do have a proper uniform for their minion forces. Of course, as a PC you get to pick your own outfit so it’s your own fault if it ends up being insufficiently cool (I was trying to find a screenshot of Captain Colorblind from my husband’s server as a bad example, but we’ll have to skip that since he doesn’t have one handy).

The problem with being made up of so many PCs is that they seem a bit weak on the whole masterplan thing, which is fairly inexcusable for a group of supervillains. Or at least, if they have one, I never figured it out when I was playing.

They do however have a clear career structure. You start fairly low down in the organisation and work your way up as you level. And you do get to gloat at superheroes as much as you want. Because of all the egos involved, they do have a crazy amount of infighting though.

Warhammer

In Warhammer, you can choose to play as one of three Destruction races. The game has a couple candidates for Evil Overlord Supremo: namely the Chaos faction leader (Tchar’zanek, Champion of Tzeentch) and the Dark Elf faction leader (Malekith, the Witch King). Since they are allies, in practice if you roll Destruction you will be working for both.

The third Destruction race is the Greenskins who would be by far the most fun entertaining faction to work for because at least they have fun while they work. They may be dumb and orkish but all they want in life is the chance of a good scrap. They do have good banners and a great esprit-de-corps, and it doesn’t really matter if they don’t have a plan because the Witch King will think of something for them to go fight. So if brainless yobbo with good team spirit is your goal, look no further.

The Chaos guys are not only nuts but work for evil gods who are even nuttier. Now I personally prefer not to have too many deities involved with my evil overlord because they tend to be worldspanning evil who do not care about mere miserable minions, plus not very sexy (uh, unless you like tentacles). They are also kind of grubby, they get decent armour and uniforms later on but none of their camps look very comfortable which is a turnoff to me.

Dark Elves on the other hand do know how to live in comfort. But they tend to get sacrificed very frequently to the Witch King’s latest schemes. There is also an inane amount of backstabbing — no competent evil overlord would put up with that — so although it might be fun for awhile, I don’t see it as a great longterm prospect.

WoW

The Lich King: Unsurprisingly, in the most recent expansion we have learned a lot more about the lich king and how he manages his troops. There are a few quests where he makes a personal appearance (either to gloat at you or interact with his minions) and others where you have the chance to briefly work for him in deep cover.

Bonus points: He does genuinely have a lot of loyalty from his top goons. He rewards competence and promotes accordinly. On more than one occasion, his minions tell us that if you do well, you will be rewarded. The flipside to this is that he’s pretty brutal when minions fail in their tasks. But I’m sure we have all had bosses like that. He also seems to have some tactical awareness – I haven’t seen him actually outthink the Alliance/Horde leaders but he’s not doing anything obviously dumb either.

There’s no cool uniform though, unless you are a death knight which is not the majority. You do however get to be a zombie which could be a bonus if you’ve always wanted to be a zombie!

Scourge minions seem generally happy with their role and with their boss and his schemes for world domination so whatever he is doing it seems to be working.

Scarlet Crusade: These guys are the Nazis of Azeroth. They have a snappy uniform, a fascist command structure, and they are big on genocide (well, if you happen to be forsaken which my warrior is). They also always end up being commanded by demons which shows a lack of judgement by their human leaders, in my opinions.

More fun to kill/torture/fight than to work for.