My game provides a useful service at a reasonable fee, your game gouges gamers with RMT shenanigans

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These are the new Everquest 2 mounts which went on sale this week at the innovative and market testing price of $25 (aka same as the WoW sparkle pony). (I hope openedge1 is going to keep up his campaign for people to give the money to charity instead.)

Reaction has been predictable. Some players love the idea and rushed out to buy them. Others worried that EQ2 is spending too much time copying WoW and not enough in more innovative ventures. Arkenor even dubbed the new mount Copykat. Both bloggers (and developers, evidently) realise that for better or worse, Blizzard has the power to set prices in the MMO sector so $25 is now the going rate for mounts.

Sera@Massively is big enough to own up that while she hated and despised the idea of the sparkle pony, when it turns up on a game that she plays and enjoys, she wants one too. I thought that was a very honest article to write, so props to her. And I think it encapsulates how a lot of gamers feel about RMT –  if a dev produces something we want at a price we’re willing to pay, we’ll buy. But not until then.

Also, watch how they have restricted which buffs each mount can give. Unlike in WoW where you buy one sparkle pony and all your alts can have one, in EQ2 you’ll have to get one for your melee and one for your casters. In fact, their site doesn’t make it clear whether you have to buy one for each alt anyway. Honestly? Sparkle pony is starting to look like good value, and that scares me.

The bought mount provides more advantages to the player in EQ2. Unlike in WoW (where the riding skill is the expensive part of owning a mount), buying the mount itself is the primary cost of owning one. And these particular EQ2 mounts also provide in-combat buffs for owners. The leads me to another facet of EQ2 which frankly boggles me, which is that you can ride mounts into combat … and use a switch on the UI to decide whether or not you can view it. So if I get this right, mounted combat is exactly the same as non-mounted (you could sneak up and backstab someone, for example) and there’s a toggle to decide if you see the mount or not. (Hence the combat buff from these ones.)

Surely mounted combat ought to be rather different from ground combat? Colour me confused that people don’t complain about this, and in fact they actually complained when the devs agreed that it was dumb and wanted to take it out.

Oddly enough, I don’t care about being able to turn off hat graphics. That’s the sort of thing you’d see in films or plays where a director makes that decision for better dramatic effect. But turning off the mount? I find that very bizarre.

Gaming News: Bungie signs up with Activision, EQ2 removes starting zones, Fallen Earth Dev cuts staff, and Vote Norman!

It’s that time of the week again. I feel I should thank the entire gaming industry for coughing up interesting news regularly since I started this column! Especially since all news in the UK has been postponed until next Thursday because of the election.

Bungie signs soul away for 10 years to Activision

Activision will be have been pleased to distract investors from the continuing saga of Infinity Ward (can we start calling it Finite Ward yet?) by announcing that the highly respected studio – best known for the Halo franchise, as well as Myth and Marathon – has inked the deal on a 10 year exclusive worldwide partnership.

Bungie were however careful to retain ownership of their IP. And this is all good news for PS3 owners because future games are likely to be multi-platform.

But lest we forget about Infinity Ward, this week 38 members of the Modern Warfare 2 team launched a lawsuit against Activision in respect of unpaid bonuses.

More Obstacles for Starcraft 2

As if it wasn’t bad enough that SC2 was rated 18+ in Korea, Blizzard is now in dispute with KeSPA (the Korean e-Sports Players Association) about which organisation is in charge of managing the sport of SC2 in Korea.

I think this is likely a bigger story than it seems, and that we’ll hear more about this one. It also sheds some light on the tricky relationship between a developer and the third party organisation responsible for organised player events.

Blizzard sets up a Cataclysm in the WoW Raiding Scene

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Blizzard has also switched into full-on information mode about Cataclysm recently. As well as the well publicised announcement about raiding changes, they’ve also started to release screenshots such as the one above.

The substance of the planned raid changes is:

  • 10 and 25 man versions of all raid encounters. They will drop the same loot, and offer approximately the same difficulty.
  • 10 and 25 man locks will be exclusive, players will not be able to run both on the same character. Instead they will have to choose.
  • The aim is to make 10 man raiding seem like a stronger option rather than the lesser and easier way to go.
  • Class designers will also be tweaking classes to make 10 man groups easier to form (that means spreading out raid buffs and abilities even further). So if you are deciding what class to play in Cataclysm, at least wait a couple of months until they’ve announced all the details because they may yet surprise you.

A lot of bloggers came out either in favour or against the changes, and you can see from the comments on my post how strongly people feel about their raiding. I’ve been most surprised by the number of people who feel that they’re carrying half the members of their current 25 man raid and can’t wait to ditch them. Really? But if you feel like that, why don’t you just go apply to a more hardcore raid guild yourself that will do a better job at winnowing the chaff than your current leadership? I thought that was how it worked.

And also at the people who think that if people flock to 10 man raids it must mean that they hated the other ones. It might, but more likely it just means that players will always take the easiest available route to the rewards. If Blizzard decided to put the same loot on 5 man instances, they’d do that instead.

Still, the jury is still out about whether this change will actually make the raid game more accessible or not. Bearing in mind that any group of friends who just want to run 10 mans can do that right now. And that to my mind depends a lot on the accessibility of PUGs.

EQ2 cuts out a starting zone

The new EQ2 producer, Dave Georgeson, has already started to make his mark at SOE. A couple of recent changes in the latest test-patch have riled up the player base because they’re removing content rather than replacing or updating it.

If anyone tried the EQ2 trial, you might remember the Trial of the Isle. This starting zone involved players learning their trade on an island zone, before graduating and being transported to their respective capital city. Well, treasure those memories because that zone is due for a Catac^D^D^D^D^D to be removed.

As a former (albeit brief) player, my reaction is that they could have just nuked Qeynos from orbit and left the harmless newbie zone (which really wasn’t at all bad) to drift under its own steam towards happier waters. Ysharros claims that some players loved the saccharine Wood Elf village in Qeynos. I agree 100% with her view which is that the districts were poky little racial ghettoes and when I tried playing a (ugh, can’t remember the name of the race, slender bald magic using humanoids) I quit the character in disgust at how awful the city was. Say what you will about WoW, it has awesome racial starting zones.

And I think the EQ2 devs made the right call here, their newer starting areas are SO MUCH BETTER than those tedious old cities with the constant zoning. I still think an actual nuking would be the way to go.

Level up in your sleep in Age of Conan

Funcom announced a new feature this week for Age of Conan, which is a variant of rested xp.

With this new feature you will get additional levels gained over time that can be allocated to characters in the character selection screen if you wish. It is designed to earn and allocate additional levels to gain over time even while being offline and it’s only available to put on characters that are at least level 30.

Again, the blogosphere has exploded with collective outrage at the notion that you might be able to level up a character without playing it (*coff* WoW register-a-friend *coff*).

I actually think it’s a pretty good idea. Probably a super turbo charged rested xp bonus would have done the same job without ruffling as many feathers but if I’ve been playing a game for long enough to have accumulated lots of offline xp then I probably do want the option to skip any levels or zones I didn’t much like the first time.

Now if AoC wasn’t so boobs and blood oriented I’d be tempted to give it another look. I keep hearing good things about improvements that the team has made since last year, and they have an expansion due out on May 11th.

Fallen Earth Dev cuts staff

Icarus Studios announced a restructuring this week which involved laying off 75% of the original staff. That’s not good news whichever way you cut it.

And if you get bored of the real election, why not vote for William the Conqueror instead?

This is a great story. A teacher in Northamptonshire decided to use the election as part of a history lesson. He set up a 1066 election between Harold Godwinson, Harald of Norway and William of Normandy (guess they didn’t want to call him William the Bastard). Connoisseurs of English history will remember that what actually happened was that Harold beat Harald at Stamford Bridge before marching down to Hastings to take an arrow through the eye from one of William’s men.

Anyhow, he took the whole thing onto twitter and that’s where the rest of the universe got involved.

I think it’s adorable and p.s. vote Norman, for change you can believe in.

Along the Golden Path: EQ2 takes a shot at a smoother levelling experience

The MMOs I currently play are all several years old. This was never a deliberate choice, I have tried (and liked) newer MMOs, but like so many other players, I’ve drifted back to the virtual homes I’ve loved most and where my friends are after testing the new waters.

In any case, game design and MMO design shifts over the years. The trends are well known. Towards accessibility, away from enforced grouping. Towards instanced content, away from having to beat the other players to the named mob. Towards achievers, away from explorers. Towards the game, away from the virtual world.

LOTRO has offered complete redesigns of some of the low and mid level zones. They’ve introduced new content for levelling characters via skirmishes, and made it easier to complete book 1 of the epic questline solo. WoW has the dungeon finder, and a redesign of much of the world coming along. They’ve also eased the xp curve for levelling. Plus numerous other accessibility tweaks.

EQ2 is going to take a different tack. Instead of redesigning the sluggish zones (although I believe there have already been some revamps), they are going to offer a guide to players on how best to navigate the mid levels. The game already has so much content that one of the main sticking points for new players is trying to find a way through the maze. There has also been some tidying up of older zones, and a new epic questline to guide players through the good bits.

We want to make a path for new players or players that are making new characters where they can level up a new character quickly and effectively through a bunch of zones that we’ve gone through and really made sure are just top-notch content,

I thought this was an interesting approach. Instead of streamlining the content, they offer a guided tour option to those who want to take it. Chances are the guided tour is more fun than the DIY tour, but the other content is still there for those who want to explore. What I like is that this exploits one of the huge benefits of playing an older game – there’s tons and tons of content.

Also, it would be great if the guided tour epic questline dribbled in more information about the game’s theme and lore. I always felt that was lacking in the starting areas, and is one of the reasons why EQ2 is not as welcoming to newbies as games like WoW or LOTRO which settle you in with some lore and background as you explore the newbie zone. It isn’t that EQ2 doesn’t have tons of both lore and background, and it is out there to some extent for explorers to find, but not having racial starting zones does affect the experience.

EQ2 was never a sandbox game, so this isn’t about turning a sandbox into a theme park. But it might be about turning a chaotic theme park into a better organised set of levelling rails. Speaking of sandbox games, and in another example of blogger hive minds, Tobold explores the same phenomenon today in EVE Online. EVE is certainly closer to being a sandbox games, but new characters are nudged towards more familiar mission running (ie. quests) to help them acclimatise to the game. I suspect EVE is a game that you can never really ‘get’ until you join a solid corps (guild) because like most sandbox games, the sandbox only really opens up when you have a bunch of people behind you.

I’m going to be curious to see how EQ2 players take to the new golden path. Also, I’ve never been a fan of EQ2 mounts, my time in the game was punctuated by regular pauses to watch other players ride by on their flaming rhinos (I did not make that up) and think, “WTF?!” But the cloud mount is genuinely awesome.

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The nature of monkey was … irrepressible …

Battlegrounds for Everquest 2

In one of the more unexpected announcements I’ve ever seen, SOE unveil their next great idea for EQ2. Battlegrounds. Due for release on Feb 16th, there are going to be 3 instanced battlegrounds on offer, a 6v6 capture the flag scenario, a 24v24 hold territory scenario, and a 6v6 kill the dude with the thing scenario.

Now, EQ2 is not really a PvP focussed game, to say the least. There are two factions but they don’t really clash as such. And it doesn’t look as though the new battlegrounds are going to have any effect on the wider game, instead they give special new armour sets.

So my question is, were any players actually asking for this? Assuming the designers have taken a few notes from the best and worst of WoW and WAR, the new battlegrounds could be a great success and introduce some fun new gameplay into an aging MMO. But does the EQ2 playerbase want PvP?

I guess we’ll find out. I do feel it’s a shame that SOE aren’t capitalising more on the strong points of their game, instead rushing around to add features like achievements and battlegrounds in long after the competition.

You can only wonder if the player base wish they’d had their eye on LOTRO skirmishes instead.

How not to do a crafting tutorial

This is the tutorial that gave me SAN loss.

Notice that the text overlaps with my chat window (the green text in the bottom left). I could not figure a way to stop it from doing this. There is also a massive amount of text in that text box.

Also, whatever you do, do NOT follow the suggestion to go check out your skill book. I (foolishly) did this and was overwhelmed by pages and pages of evocatively named icons. None of them said which trades they affected so even if I had wanted to pull some out and put them on a quickbar, I would have had no clue which ones to use.

It turns out that in practice it’s a lot easier than this sounds. But my first reaction to this text was to run screaming to a friend and beg for a comprehensible guide. That’s a pretty good indication that your tutorial is not working as intended.

Everquest 2: Crafting, and Taking Things Easy

We’re still playing Everquest 2, but we’ve slowed down a bit on progress for a couple of reasons:

  1. I got to the end of my trial period, so I forked over some cash for a month. The EQ2 launcher responded by wanting me to redownload the game. That kind of ate one of our sessions.
  2. While I was doing this, Arb decided to experiment with a couple of other classes she was interested in. A couple of hours later she announced that Warden was The One :) (You can take the girl away from the healer, but you can’t take the healer out of the girl!) She then decided to reroll it so that we could both stay as fae.
  3. Found that we could both get some housing! Major excitement! Distracted us from questing for a while.
  4. New patch in LOTRO has been distracting for Arb. That basically gave me more time to get into the crafting in EQ2 (I think we both accept that if our main game puts in some new stuff, it’s likely that we’ll want to play that with other friends.) I do love that I can mess about with crafting without getting out of synch with xp.
  5. It’s been hot, so we haven’t been much in the mood for long sessions.

In any case, we’re all caught up now and the fae are at around level 12. So the fae starter area has been much slower for us than the Sarnak one, but we are both enjoying it more. The wings definitely help.

I definitely spend more time in EQ2 feeling puzzled or frustrated than I remember being the case in other games I’ve played over the last couple of years. That’s not particularly a bad thing, but the game doesn’t go out of its way to hold your hand, even when that seems to have been the intention. Once we got used to it, we enjoyed getting lost occasionally, having to stop to discuss what to do next, or figure out what was going on.

We’ve certainly had some quests where we had to spend a few minutes exploring or searching round and area to locate the specific place they wanted us to be. And quests themselves do a fairly good job of mixing up exploring (go to location X), with killing (and kill mob Y), and gathering (and pick up stuff Z while you’re there). We also finished the long quest line that ends up making you a citizen of the city, which was good fun. They get you to explore, to learn your way around the treetops, and you wind up by killing a mini-boss in an instance.

I’m also enjoying the 3D nature of Kelethin (the fae starting area), although I imagine it could be a pain without wings. For a start, we can easily jump off the fae treetop city without having to go via a lift. Now that we’ve spend some time running around it, the city is also growing on me. It’s a set of platforms linked by rope bridges and branches.

Unsurprisingly, I haven’t seen many other low level characters around. There are chat channels for levels 1-9 and so on. People who talk on them aren’t restricted to those levels, but we do sometimes hear people asking for help (and generally being answered). So the chat channel gives the lower levels a sort of community … kind of. I like the basic idea.

A room without a view

Most exciting part of exploring the fae city was when I found that we could each get some housing. It starts as a cheap one-room acorn and you zone into your room via the housing area. So the rooms are instanced and you pay a weekly rent, which you can pay in advance. It’s like being in a hotel.

You also get given a few items of furniture to start you off, and you can place them wherever you like in the room. I put my mirrors at fae height so I guess anyone taller will get a good view of their own crotch. There’s a vault too.

I know that houses can get very big and expansive but even right from the start it’s obvious why EQ2 housing has been so popular. It’s accessible, it’s fun, it’s easy to customise, and it’s useful. Thumbs up. Now I just need more stuff to put in mine.

I dip my toes into crafting

I knew a few things about EQ2 crafting before venturing into it. It is more involved and complex than the typical ‘hit the button and watch the green bar’, you get separate crafting xp from adventuring xp so you can actually level up as a crafter in this game, and … that I regularly got killed in crafting accidents when I tried the game in beta.

So I started off by locating the crafting trainer in the Fae City, who gets you started with a quest – to go and gather lots of stuff. Gathering is similar to other MMOs in that you wander around the world looking for herbs, ore, fish, or rats nests which are nodes that you use to harvest the materials. Maybe it’s my WoW (and LOTRO, and every other game ever) bias showing but I’m still not clear why you’d gather leather from rats nests when there are perfectly good deer and pigs around the place to kill.

Eventually, when you are done with this, you go back and are allowed to actually use the equipment located in an instanced crafting area. Each type of craft has its own table/ forge/ oven etc which has cool animations when you use it.  The crafting itself stymied me at first, I made the mistake of looking at my skill list which instantly resulted in confusion at the very very extensive list of craft related skills with no clues on how to use them.

But I decided to press on and just try making something, and that worked out much better. When you create an item, a crafting window comes up showing various green progress bars. Along the bottom of this window (and bound to keys 1-6) are various icons. As the crafting progresses, icons will occasionally flash up on the window. When they do, you hit one of the matching icons at the bottom.

Crafting progresses as a series of ticks. On each tick, your progress has a chance to increase, but the durability of the item also has a chance to decrease. Your goal is to get to the end of the progress bar while there is still some durability left on the last bar. So it’s a kind of pattern matching game. There is a bit more to it. Each icon you pick at the bottom has a bonus and a penalty (so one might give a bonus to success but a penalty to durability or vice versa) so as well as pattern matching, you have to balance up your success/ durability.

It’s definitely a lot less complex than I remember from the beta (at that stage you had to make lots and lots of subcomponents too).

I found it quite frustrating initially. It feels very random. Sometimes you’re just going to fail but you have to keep going anyway because you need the skill ups. But after a few practice tries, I was more able to understand the long email of useful crafting advice that Ysharros kindly sent us. I made some stuff!! I’m feeling that this process is a little deeper than it seems at the start and quite enjoying EQ2 crafting now.

At the exalted tiers of crafting level 9 I now get to select a crafting skill in which to specialise. I can pick between being a crafter (can make furnishings, food), outfitter (can make armour and weapons), and scholar (can make potions, jewellry, scrolls). I have no idea which of these might be useful to us or work well for making some cash in game. But I’m not really attracted by the idea of Scholar –- I’d rather make stuff we can wear, eat, or put in our rooms.

In a typical example of non-handholding, the materials you gather from the first part of the crafting quest are not actually quite sufficient to let you craft all the items that they ask for in the second part. I decided I was too lazy to gather more so instead I checked out the broker who is also located in the crafting area. It’s not really an auction house so much as a combined player vendor. So players from all over the game can give items to a broker to sell, which he’ll do in return for a small cut of the profit.

So I browsed the vendor for my missing rawhide leather hides, and bought a handful of the cheapest ones. They were transferred immediately to my bag without needing to go via the mailbox. I think I much prefer this scheme to an auction house for commodity type goods. Auctions are great for rare or high value items where the actual value isn’t well known. But so often I just use it like a shop – I think I prefer having an actual shop in those cases.

And … the exit questionnaire

After I subscribed, I immediately unsubbed so as to avoid any kind of automatic resubscription. I always do this on MMOs, even if I know I’m in for the long term because I like to at least have the choice to get out at regular intervals even if I decide not to use it.

EQ2, like many games, sent me off to answer an extensive exit questionnaire when I unsubscribed. Most of the questions were very irrelevant, especially since I have every intention of resubbing as long as we’re still playing and enjoying it.

But I do give them props for including “I don’t like automatic resubscriptions” as a selectable answer in the first ‘Why do you hate us??111!!!!’ question. I like it when drop down lists actually include an answer that does reflect my thought process, it makes me feel less weird. I’m pretty sure that WoW, by contrast, doesn’t give that option and makes you fill out the ‘you must be some kind of weirdo’ “Other answer, please specify below” box.