What goes up must come down

It is part of the general cycle in MMOs that some classes are seen as more powerful than others (maybe better at their roles, easier to play, fewer disadvantages, more flexible, have access to some overpowered ability, etc). Over the life of the game, as balancing tweaks are made, the class on top will probably change.

Although people mock ‘flavour of the month’ players who switch from one powerful class to another, there’s no special reason not to do this if you have time spare to level and gear another class. Or rather, there’s no real in game reward for sticking with a class through thick and thin.

Hopefully if balancing goes well, there should never be a huge gap between classes. They should theoretically always be close enough that people can just play whichever they prefer without being disadvantaged. But for some people, even a small gap is too much when there’s no advantage to make up for it.

Do you think there are advantages to sticking with your favourite class when it is on a downswing? It will be rarer, for a start. People will know that you play it because you love it. Maybe those are social advantages. Or are you also more likely to get bitter and burned out, especially if your class then gets some love and all the flavour of the month players flock back?

On warriors, and nerf/ buff cycles

I wonder sometimes if players enjoy the idea of a cycle  of nerfs and buffs. Where if a class is overpowered at one point, it is guaranteed to be underpowered again when the wheel turns. And the underpowered classes will be buffed up to be the next flavour of the month. It’s like a wheel of fate. Everyone gets what they deserve. The last will be first and the first will be last.

Except that it’s stupid.

Ideally in game we want to get to an equilibrium where everyone is roughly equal for whatever that means. So that people can just play whatever they prefer and if it is below par in some respect, trust that it’ll be brought back into line, without feeling that they deserve to be overpowered as some kind of reward for having been underpowered in the past.

Who cares about tank dps anyway?

The Blizzard developers continue to experiment with giving players a heads’ up about future changes before the specific changes are announced. I think this is partly to allow people to get through their grieving cycle and also to stop players jumping on the bandwagon of overpowered classes too quickly – if Blizzard say immediately, “We think this is wrong and it’s being fixed next patch,” then it probably won’t seem worth the effort.

Changes coming down the line soonish are a buff to warlock damage, and a nerf to protection warriors damage because the spec has been performing too well in PvP. Naturally, since the majority of tanking warriors are PvE focussed, this raised an uproar. In PvE the spec isn’t remotely overpowered, if anything it is slightly behind the other tanks in terms of threat generation, effective health, how easy they are to heal, and so on; so a nerf was never going to be a popular move.

If a spec IS overpowered in PvP then they do need to act quickly, because top end PvP players are notorious for how quickly they’ll switch to the flavour of the month.

And no one really wants to pick a tank because of their damage. They want to pick them because they’re tough, hard to kill, good at keeping threat, and doing whatever other tanky things the raid requires. For a tank, damage is part of their utility, it’s a small buff to raid damage that you get as a bonus when you slot them in.

So I think the warlock buff will be way way more significant to future raid performance than any protection warrior nerf. But it’s still harsh to be in a spot where you think, “Actually, the best thing the raid could do to make this encounter easier would be to bench me and get one of the bears or paladins to tank.” Even worse if they could just grab a lesser geared alt or offspec paladin and still find things easier.

It just doesn’t make you feel good about the game.

In memory of absent friends

Towards the end of the year, it’s normal for us to look back over the last 12 months and take stock. What has changed? What goals have we met? Have we made any new friends? Lost any old ones? Learned anything new? Had major life changes? Anything unexpected that we coped with well … or badly?

And looking over the raid roster, I’m struck by how many people I have raided with since the release of Wrath (call that about a year). Many of them I barely knew when that year began, if at all. We aren’t all best friends, we don’t all mix or chat socially outside raids, but I feel that I know all of them even if that just means names, personality traits, voices on voice chat and maybe a few shared jokes and experiences. We spent a fair amount of time in each other’s company — even my one raid per week is a regular 3 hour weekly slot. That’s more time than I spend with a lot of my real life friends, whose lives are so busy these days that we have to plan a few weeks ahead to meet up.

Some players  we were fond  of had to bow out during the year either for good reasons (new job! new baby! switched up to more hardcore raid guild!), less happy ones, or just plain burnout with the game. It’s very easy when you are bound up with a regular raiding schedule to feel that people in online games have short memories. If you take a couple of weeks out, you might be replaced – after all, the raids need to keep running either with or without you. And it’s easy to feel that you’d be quickly forgotten also.

But when I look over the old Naxx signups, I don’t think we’ve forgotten those names who no longer raid with us (I’m sure there are some which have a special place in raid leaders’ memories, for sure :) ). I think we’d be thrilled to see them if they ever hopped back into the game to say Hi. I don’t know whether there would be room in raids, that’s harder to organise, but I know they aren’t forgotten. Thinking even further back, I still chat to Arb about people we used to play DaoC with years ago. For most  I never knew their real names, but there was some level on which we knew them as friends with a shared hobby, who used to play games with us. Or else they were ‘those guys’ who were jerks in game and still are the subject of massive bitch fests when we can be bothered.

And it’s part of the normal cycle of gaming that people join and leave. Life happens, circumstances change, people get bored. There is a quote I read (and I don’t know the origin) that runs: We will all be the same in five years as we are now except for two things: the books we have read and the people we’ve met.

Here’s to all the people we met this year, and to the people we’ll meet in the year to come.

And it was evening, and it was morning

I logged into EQ2 the other day and headed out into the unknown wilds of Butcherblock Mountains. The zone is unknown to me for three main reasons:

  1. I’ve only just poked my (small but perfectly formed) fey nose into it, so it’s all new to me, kobolds and all. I am still getting my head around the notion that EQ2 kobolds look a bit like gorillas.
  2. I still have a fog of war setting on my map so most of it really is still hidden to me.
  3. It was night time in game and I couldn’t see very far past aforementioned nose anyway. This is why I didn’t take any screenshots of the kobolds, I was struggling to find an actual screenie to link but the best I could do was one of Tipa’s epic cartoon strips. The kobolds in game don’t look as dogman-like as the room decoration she’s using here — at least not on my settings!

Lots of MMOs have included some kind of a day-night cycle. “Well of course it’s night time”, you tell yourself as you trip over a treeroot, whilst all the regular daytime beasties continue to frolic in their enforced darkness, “That’s because having day and night settings is so fantastically immersiv–OWWW!” (that was you falling off a cliff, by the way.) I do really enjoy the day-night cycles, especially when you throw in the sorts of heartbreakingly beautiful sunrises and sunsets that MMO artists love so much. If I ever pause in awe at the sheer beauty of the virtual world around me and take a random screenie, there’s a good chance that it is during in-game dusk or dawn.

Days and nights in game can genuinely be hugely immersive. It does give a sense of time passing, and of being able to see different aspects to zones that you know. In a PvP game, the difference between night and day is even more marked. I remember night time raids in DaoC where the whisper went down the line for everyone to turn off their torches and march in darkness, so as to catch the enemy by surprise. Night time raids felt stealthier and more exciting than the day time battles where you could see your enemies cresting the hill on the other side of the zone … (OK, who am I kidding? In DaoC we knew where the zergs were coming from by turning around and seeing which direction felt more laggy but you get the general idea.)

It’s because day and night don’t usually have a huge effect on gameplay (apart from walking into things) that I remember so vividly when that rule is broken. The inhabitants of Pyrewood that transform into humans during the day and into worgen during the night, for example. The schools of nightfin or sunscale salmon that only spawn at the right time of day. The quest mobs who only appear at night (I don’t recall many of these in WoW but I think DaoC had some), and so on. Pokemon actually goes the whole hog with this, synchs its cycles to the player, and includes some encounters that only happen at day or at night, and others that only happen on specific days of the week too. But while this is just about acceptable in a single player handheld game, there are issues with it in a MMO.

A casual player may not be able to either hang around until in-game nightfall, or may not want to arrange her playtime around the extra hassle of working out the in game cycles.

So how long is an Azerothian day?

So let’s assume that you decide you want your game world to have nights and days. How long should a day be?

If you set a 24 hour cycle then players who always play at the same times of day will never see the full cycle. Some of them will be stuck in virtual eternal darkness forever. If you want some content to be specific to the time of day in game (and frankly if you are going to all the effort of generating extra art, it’s tempting to do so) then there’s also a limit on how long a player will want to wait around for the sun to rise or set, so the cycle needs to move fast enough for a player to experience it all during a typical session. Alternatively you need to find ways to give players lots of other reasons to hang around in the right area, so that it’s likely that they’ll be there for several sessions and will get a chance to see both day and night.

So there’s definitely more to this than meets the eye. Also probably you want the day to be longer than the night, because falling over treeroots gets old quick. So assume that most players would like to be able to see where they are going for most of the time. There are some exceptions — some games or genres favour night over daytime. In a vampire game, most of the action takes place at night. Any grim, moody, or gothic setting might have long evenings and gloomy moonlit nights, and very short days. As far as WoW goes, I’m not certain but I think their cycles are zone specific. So some zones will be in night whilst others are in day. The darker themed zones like Duskwood might never get proper sunlight.They do the same thing with seasons — different zones are themed for different seasons, rather than changing through the year.

I always feel that it’s a lot of effort to put in the day night cycles for so little gameplay return. I love them and I know I’d miss them if they weren’t there, but Im always impressed that people bother.