[WoW] Annual pass thoughts, class design, end of expansion blues?

One of the interesting snippets that came out of Activision’s last earnings call was the information that about 10% of WoW subscribers took up the annual pass offer. Green Armadillo shares his thoughts on this, and I agree that this is higher than I would have expected to see. That’s a lot of people who have committed for the long term, even knowing that there was no new content due, D3 wasn’t likely to be out before the Summer and the next expansion beta probably at around the same time.

I think it speaks for a large number of players for whom WoW has become part of their lives, so they either don’t mind paying a premium for the privilege of only logging on occasionally, or else it’s too much hassle to unsub and then worry about resubbing again later (in the same way that people don’t tend to shift their bank accounts around much, even if they could get a better deal elsewhere.) It’s not fair to say that the annual pass decision is made completely without reference to what new content Blizzard will be providing, because D3 and the MoP beta were thrown into the deal. But I bet a lot of the people who picked it up thought “I’ll probably be subbing for the year anyway, might as well.”

Which mostly boils down to a lot of people being happy to pay Blizzard £92 pa for access to WoW, plus Diablo 3 (when it comes out) and beta access to the next WoW expansion (oh and a mount, I forgot about that). There’s not much more to read into that, except maybe that older established players who are glommed onto their game of choice are much less fussy about new content and bug fixes than players hopping into a new and shiny game. Next year, Blizzard won’t be able to offer as tempting a deal to annual pass holders so it’ll be interesting to see how that goes.

What I do wonder is whether subscription game players in general would prefer the option of an annual sub. (At that point, you’re getting quite close to the old Guild Wars model where they aim to release one paid expansion a year and that’s all people have to pay, the only difference is in the amounts charged and how much extra content you get for your money.)

Watercooler on Class Design

Ghostcrawler posted one of his neat thought blogs, this time on class design and roles  in WoW. And it sounds to me as though they know all the issues inside out and the base problems with  some classes being way more hybrid than others (compare the druids’s 4 roles with the mage’s 1 role) would just be too much hassle to change at this point in the game.

I think that’s fair. No point annoying the players who like their classes just the way they are – well not more than totally shaking up the talent trees every expansion would have done anyway. But it sounds a bit weary to me, the tone of designers who’ve mostly given up. Maybe they got burned on the old DK talent tree model, where each tree was intended to be able to perform both melee and tanking roles. It’s a shame because I thought that was good fun, but I can see why sinking back into one tree per role for hybrids and … uh … one tree per different play style for non-hybrids is an easier and more comfortable fit.

I felt tired just reading it. Tired of the game design which involves always having to chase after ‘OK, so which is the best class/ spec for this role I’d like to do’ or ‘ohnoes, my class/spec  got nerfed and no one will want me for role X any more’  or ‘class X can fill 17 different roles, what do I get to make up for not being able to do that?’ (There’s a theme around balance and how your class ends up as the lens through which you see the game here.) Ultimately, you either pick a class/ spec because you love the theme and feel and playstyle, or you pick your preferred role (possibly because of theme/ playstyle) and try to pick the class that best embodies it – and these two approaches don’t always match.

As a player, I just want to be able to pick my class because I dig it and be able to perform whichever role I want to a level that’s acceptable to the rest of the player base. Is it really that much to ask? (yes :P ) Oh, and I don’t want to play a melee class in PvP but I really like melee classes in PvE. Come back to me when you’ve thought it over again.

Is it that end of expansion time already?

Usually the end of an expansion is marked by an upswing of hype for the next expansion. I think in WoW, this changed during Wrath, because there was a long slow period between the last major raid being patched in and the new expansion. So now in Cataclysm, it’s not surprising that people are already talking about this being the end of the expansion. (Incidentally, it also makes me suspect that the  slow period at the end of Wrath is  setting the pattern now for future WoW expansion cycles).

I noticed that WoW Insider has a column on “what to do when you’re bored at the end of an expansion” to mark this. They suggest speed running heroics (just in case you’re not bored of running heroics yet, I guess), soloing stuff from the last expansion, or joining their new social guild. There is plenty of other stuff to do in WoW, including collecting achievements, PvP, levelling alts etc etc.

Or you could unsubscribe and play something else, the MoP ‘open’ beta isn’t likely to start until Summer at the earliest. Just a thought.

[SWTOR] Does Bioware have a vision for class design?

I mentioned in my last post that Bioware (via Greg Zoeller) posted an update on their advanced class design for SWTOR last week.

Talking about classes and class design in SWTOR is tricky for two reasons:

  1. It hasn’t been released yet and if it is in beta, it’s a very closed beta and no one is breaking the NDA. So design is in flux plus we don’t know how they really play.
  2. The big selling point of the SWTOR classes is that they will have extensive class-based stories/ questlines (in the Bioware story-driven game style). So if you love the idea of playing a smuggler, it’s likely because you have a thing for Han Solo rather than because you want to play an uber healer.

The easiest way to look at the advanced class mechanics is to compare them with WoW. I don’t know how much of this design was in place before Cataclysm but they’re now looking more and more similar.

There are four base classes for each faction. Once you get to level 10, you can select from a choice of 2 advanced classes which are specific to that base class. You will then have access to three talent trees, two of which are specific to that advanced class and one which comes from the base class (ie. both advanced classes share it).

For comparison, in WoW you also get access to three talent trees when you hit level 10. It’s less complex than this sounds, but then again WoW has more ‘base’ classes.

If you check out the link above, you’ll see that they’ve also listed roughly which roles accrue to each advanced class.

eg.

Imperial Agent Advanced Classes

Sniper (Roles: Mid – Long Range Damage Dealing)

Operative (Roles: Close – Mid Range Damage Dealing, Healing)

So the Agent has two advanced classes: Sniper and Operative. The Sniper is a pure damage dealer with all their talent trees arranged around damage (possibly one for mid range and one for long range), the Operative has one damage dealing tree and one healing tree.

The current plan is that there will be two ultra hybrid classes, both of which are ranged. Trooper/ Bounty Hunter and Jedi Consular/ Sith Inquisitor will both have options to heal, tank, and dps from range.

My experience with WoW leaves warning bells ringing in my head here. They now have a lot of tank/heal trees to balance with each other (eg. Will a smuggler offer better dps than a consular because they have an advanced class with pure dps trees? Who is the best healer? etc.), and role options on some classes are more limited. I don’t especially want another rerun of a game where I pick a warrior/ burglar and the paladin/ loremaster outperforms me in every respect.

And that’s before we include PvP into the mix.

My other concern is whether they really have a vision for class design in SWTOR. It was never going to be a new take on the trinity (healers/ tanks/ dps) but I hope they have enough time to polish this up and make it shine, because if the actual gameplay is clunky and unbalanced, it may not matter how great the storytelling turns out to be.

Improving Roleplaying: Props, emotes, Titles, Class Design, and Dressing the Set

This is the fourth post in a series about improving roleplaying in MMOs. Previous posts are:

We’re really getting somewhere with roleplay now. You’ve created a character, worked out some kind of backstory, found other roleplayers and maybe tried a scene or two in a pub or shop. But you’re still limited to just typing out what your character says. How can you bring your character to life other than just by reams of typing?

If you walk into a room with roleplayers, how can you indicate that something about your character has changed? How can you ACT the part instead of just typing text? Fluff is what makes roleplaying in an MMO different from roleplaying in a chatroom.

If roleplay is like improvisational theatre, then fluff in MMOs is all of the props. It’s the costumes, the pets, the emotes, the titles, the mounts, the house decorations – anything you can use to express who your character is and show what it does. An MMO is a visual environment, that’s one of the big draws. So our roleplaying should be able to involve visual elements.

A lot of these things are also fun for collectors. People love collecting pets, mounts, and titles, for example. But a roleplayer will be looking for items that they can use to act their character’s role. Sometimes the fluff will even inspire a character. If a roleplayer likes a cute pet or a silly hat, then RP can spring up around it and the story of how the character acquired it.

Some groups of roleplayers are more focussed than others on the dressing up side of the game. Many will happily let you emote what your character is wearing, rather than forcing all pirate characters to go farm for pirate hats (for example). So there is some confusion in the player base as to what fluff is really for and when or where to use it. You could imagine a strict RP game where people were always assumed to be whatever their costume would imply.

This is a good example of how rewarding achievers with fluff also nudges the RPers to chase the achievements whether they want to or not. From a roleplaying point of view, the ideal would be to have an in game wardrobe mistress who just handed out props and costumes as needed, the way actors would do it in a theatre. Devs think that fluff is pure entertainment, and that it doesn’t affect gameplay. But for roleplayers, a chef’s costume could be more important than a vorpal sword of dragonslaying – without it, no one can convincingly RP being a chef.

Instead, current MMOs require that every players has to also be their own stage manager and source their own props. I’m not knocking this entirely because working out what props you need and figuring out how to get them can be fun. But still, if MMOs were designed for roleplayers then they wouldn’t send us halfway around the world to get outfits that should be purchasable in any major city.

Variety is the spice of life

So what sorts of props do people want? The key is in the variety. Lots of different gear pieces means lots of ways to mix and match. Once you imagine gear as the wardrobe department in a theatre, or the old dressing up chest you might have had as a child rather than a bunch of stats, things come into better perspective.

But at a basic level, costumes should be available for lots of ‘normal’ professions, uniforms for in game organisations that might be accessible to players (town guard, for example), formal wear for formal events, and peasant/ normal townsfolk costumes for dressing down.

I’m a big fan of cosmetic costume slots too. In games like EQ2 and LOTRO, you can display a set of gear that’s just for show, as well as whatever your character is actually wearing for stats. So if you wanted to dress up as a pirate but actually be in your full raid gear, you can do it.

Emotes and non-verbal communication

The beauty of roleplaying via text is that you can type anything. Anything that you can imagine. You’re in the game world but not limited by it. But as soon as you want to perform any non-verbal gestures or movements, then you are limited by whatever emotes have been provided to you.

It’s a challenge, rather than just a limitation. I’ve played games where some players worked the emotes amazingly well to tell their stories and portray their character’s feelings. But it could go further.

I mentioned the chef’s outfit earlier. Imagine if there were a set of good chef-type emotes that players could use. /stir, /boil. /chop, /knead, /burncake … all would be props that chef players could happily use in among the text to portray their characters more vividly to others.

We could go further than this. What if your character had been injured and had an arm in plaster, or a limp, or an eyepatch? How about extra costume pieces or emotes to cover those? It would be easy to imagine a jacket that made your character’s arm look as though it was in a sling, for example. Wouldn’t that be a great way to show your RP partners that you’d been in an accident?

There is one other type of non-verbal communication about which MMOs have been wisely silent. And that is to do with interacting with other characters. You don’t generally emote actually giving something to someone. Or hugging. Or shaking hands. Unless you’re playing Second Life, you don’t emote cybering either. This is probably smart because it raises all kinds of permission issues. I remember in Castle Marrach (a text based game) they had a careful system of permissions which came into effect if someone approached you and wanted to stand next to you – which was a prerequisite for being able to touch another person in game.

But not being able to shake hands on a deal, or knight someone by touching their shoulder with a sword, or stroke a cat, or hand someone the salt across a table … these do hamper our ability to use emotes to communicate in game the way we would in real life. Maybe the system of permissions (so when you try to shake hands with someone, they get a box up on their screen asking if they agree) would be better than not having it at all.

Class design and roleplaying

One good thing about the holy triad (tanks, healers, dps) is that these roles are very effective for immersion. When you are tanking, you will feel like a big damn hero who is standing between the monster and the rest of the group. When you are healing, you will feel that your role is to support. When you are dps, you will feel a visceral thrill at the big numbers, and you will feel that you are a bit fragile and have to rely on the other classes to help you do your job. Playing your class actually helps you to get into the mindset of that role.

And from the point of view of roleplaying, that’s a mark of good class design. As soon as people are unsure of their roles, it becomes harder to roleplay being a member of that class. Again, this is a place where the demands of roleplaying may not gel with the demands of PvP balance or other game design goals.

Instead, we can make up the difference with fluff. (My examples here are for fantasy games, but there’s no real limit.) Support classes can buff people, and that’s something that can be used in RP, especially if the buffing spells have colourful emotes attached to them. Heavy armour wearers can clank as they move, and slam mailed fists down onto wooden tables, or tote around heavy shields that no one else can pick up. Casters may have access to cantrips (little cosmetic spells, the equivalent of fireworks or small illusions) and familiars. Healers can actually apply bandages to people or hold up a glowing holy symbol.

I would love to see more class specific emotes in games. It is a lot of work producing animations for such a small audience, which is why we probably won’t get them, but I think they’d be well liked by non-roleplayers as well as the RP crowd.

Set Dressing

One of the great things about in game housing is that a character can decorate her house however she wishes. The house itself could play the role of a theatre, dungeon, brewery, or zoo assuming that the fluff to decorate it appropriately is available.

But it’s a shame that more of the social areas don’t allow for players to change their ‘sets’. Why not let players rearrange the pub seating from time to time, or set out the town hall for a player meeting with rows of chairs? Maybe even give the more noted RPers special privileges to flick the in game switch that allowed for a set change in a building?

In conclusion, the big leap forwards that MMOs made over text based roleplaying was to let people experience the game world on a very visceral level. But to tell our stories, that means we need better visual tools. And we need to learn how to use them.