[Diablo 3, LOTRO] What were they thinking?

Two examples this week of devs making some unexpected decisions.

Diablo 3

Now there’s no launch date yet for D3 but we’re assuming that it will be ‘soon’ since it’s only taken Blizzard about 12 years to get this one going. And yet, even as recently as this week they are announcing that they’re still making major changes.

It’s good to see a company respond to feedback received during beta testing, but when you get to “we’re going to be iterating on designs we’ve had in place for a long time, making changes to systems you’ve spent a lot of time theorycrafting, and removing features you may have come to associate with the core of the experience” then it all starts to sound a bit major. That’s not an issue, if they’ve got ideas for making things better then it’s a good idea to implement them. Just the new builds will also need a good soak of playtesting to make sure that they haven’t introduced more problems than they’ve solved. Especially when you are reitemising everything.

I think the comment about ‘systems you’ve spent a long time theorycrafting’ is quite telling. That’s what some beta testers do these days, and whether it’s for fun, or for profit (ie. prepping some future game guide), there’s a strong commercial element for players who are up with the newest game information and wish to package and sell it. Tobold commented on this with reference to D3 also.

I don’t think D3 will be especially commercialised just because of the real money AH (although it’s bound to attract the “Make Money Now” sites/ ebooks), I think any large and popular game released now would do the same thing.

The other raised brow from D3 this week is around bannings from the beta. Now I’m not uptight about devs banning players (actually I laughed like crazy when I heard that Bioware banned someone for using a stupid meme about ‘I am 12’ on the bboard, because the boards are restricted to 13+ – that was actually and genuinely hilarious), but the only reasons I’ve known people to be banned from betas previously have been around harassment or breaking NDA.

So when Stabs commented on Markco’s banning which was around gold making in the beta, I was surprised, since D3 doesn’t have an NDA on the beta and I very much doubt he’s been harassing anyone. I don’t know the details, but I do wonder how ready they are for the prime time.

LOTRO – the money pit

It’s clear that Turbine have been thinking about how they can get some more cash out of LOTRO players. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if it means selling items/ content that people will want to buy.

It’s behind the recent announcement of the next expansion, Riders of Rohan, which is said to be huge. And also that they plan frequent content updates afterwards. If paying for content is your preferred form of F2P, this is good news, assuming the content is fun and all. I’ve always enjoyed LOTRO questing, especially the epic books, so I don’t see much of a downside here. They’ve found that the player base is more willing to throw money at them for expansions than for fripperies. Is this a move away from the ‘whale model’ of F2P payers, I wonder?

And then there is adding gear with stats to the item store. This is lower level gear, and the notion is that lower level players were having trouble gearing … or something.

“Lower level players are telling us that they are having difficulty obtaining good gear. This is us coming up with solutions to problems players are reporting to us. We’re trying to create solutions for players”

Fine, but there is a solution for players. It’s called crafting and the auction house, it’s called skirmish gear, it’s called doing quests. It’s called playing the game. So why is that not working? This is one of the issues with F2P, the devs have very little motivation to figure out what’s not working and tweak it, if players will just pay for a band-aid instead. Or maybe they have thought about what’s not working and decided it’s a structural issue with the way the entire game is made. Maybe it’s inevitable that the lower level game gets left to its own devices, that crafters can’t be bothered to keep crafting for alts, that gold gets less important so no one cares about that in-game market.

The other LOTRO innovation that I thought was quite smart was selling class-specific mounts on the item shop. I think there’s a lot of mileage in cosmetic class-specific items. They’re fun. They’re thematic. Sadly not as fun as having an actual class-based quest in game associated with them, but there’s also the notion that players might buy a different mount for each of their favourite alts. It’s all quite smart.

Updates! LOTRO, CoH, Glitch, SWTOR, and stuff

meand saruman

Most of my gaming time this week (sadly, not enough) has been spent in LOTRO. My impression of Isengard so far is that Turbine have done a good job of providing ‘more of the same.’ That’s not a bad thing per se, it means that the zones feel well designed, the storylines are engaging, the PvE flow is good, and I haven’t seen the servers this busy for a long time. I’m enjoying how the burglar plays, as long as I don’t compare it to any other class. There are a few minor tweaks that improve dps, and the new Isengard skills involve updates to existing skills which make stealth more appealing (can riddle from stealth, get automatic crits from stealth, etc). As a QK burglar, I’m happy enough.

Although there are definitely other classes which are tougher in PvE, what I love about my burglar is that when I die in PvE, I can usually stop and think and try another approach and then succeed. The class has a large toolset. And that’s one of the things I enjoy.

One of the things that works well for Turbine’s storytelling in these zones  is that Middle Earth legitimately has poor communications across the regions (unless you cheat and use a palantir or MMO mail/ chat channels). Also the ring quest is secret and no one is supposed to know much about the rangers. So this means that when you rock up to a village and no one knows who you are, but they see that you look like a seasoned fighter who has come in their time of need, it’s plausible. It also means that you end up feeling like the man/woman with no name, which is actually pretty cool.

I’ve encountered Saruman in an epic storyline (yes, I was expecting someone taller too), and I’m enjoying the swashbuckling look of the Dunland clothing, as modelled on my burglar above. And through the wonders of cosmetic clothing, she can keep looking like a female version of Errol Flynn for as long as I want. Wish I could get those boots iRL.

Turbine have a very cool dev blog about how they develop their epic storylines, recognising that players will want to visit key locations from the books and encounter key characters.

As we design the Epic Story for LOTRO, the biggest consideration is something we call T-Factor. The more Tolkien something feels, the more T-Factor it’s said to have. All the most iconic characters and places in The Lord of the Rings are considered to be the “Biggest T.” In all things, but especially in the Epic Story, we’re aiming for lots and lots of Big T.

I’m a great fan of tea.

City of Heroes

CoH is in full F2P mode now, and my beloved is encouraging me to jump back in and have a go. Because I used to subscribe, my account still has some of the veteran rewards, mostly costume pieces or minor (but quality of life enhancing) abilities. I hear a lot of good things about the F2P revamp and it’s definitely on my list of things to do when I have more time.

Anyone have any feedback on how the game is feeling at the moment?

Glitch

Other people have written about their experiences with Glitch, which is a side scrolling flash-based browser game with zones and crafting and things to collect. I’m struggling to really call it a MMO but I think it probably has to qualify. Lots of players can play simultaneously and communicate with each other, it has zones and quests, and customisable characters.

I hung out in the game for about an hour and found it fun but I’m not sure I feel very compelled to go back. I can understand why people compare Glitch with Facebook games (there is something of Farmville in the point-and-click and you-can-only-collect-cherries-once-per-day), but for me it has more in common with Kingdom of Loathing. And a fairly complex skill tree system that probably has more in common with EVE than anything else I’ve seen.

I will definitely aim to spend more time with Glitch, if only to understand better why some of my friends like it so much. I don’t really find much of interest yet in the virtual world, which probably says more about what I like in MMOs than anything else.

It is free to play and you can spend money to buy credits to customise your character etc etc. I have 3 spare invites so feel free to leave a message if you want one.

SWTOR

Anyone else excited about SWTOR? Among the blogs I read, I sometimes feel as though I’m the only one. I haven’t seen the beta so I’m just basing this on what I’ve read, but really, if you like Bioware’s RPGs and are expecting more of the same with full voice acting, Old Republic setting, sub model and extra MMO-like stuff borrowed heavily from WoW which you may or may not like, and find that appealing I don’t see a reason to pass on it. I’ve said this before but I do expect a LOT of the storytelling in this game, and since that’s one of my great interests I can’t wait.

I know there is a large probability that I will be bored after 3 months, but I now know that this is because I’m /usually/ bored of a new MMO after 3 months. The test for me is whether I want to dip in again after having played at the start and taken a long break.

In my case, given the current workload, I think it may take me longer than 3 months to get to max level anyway.

WoW

In my view, the main issue with WoW is (and maybe has always been) that the devs can’t quite settle on which type of customer/ player they are aiming at. This means that if you find one expansion or patch is absolutely perfect for your playstyle, it’s practically guaranteed that this will change on the next content update. Blizzard really struggle on the idea of providing more of the same.

Over Wrath and Cataclysm, they seem to have been changing tack more and more often, so it’s not surprising if the player base (which usually reacts to changes approximately a year or so after they happen) is feeling restless and uncertain. When I say that the player base has a delayed reaction, I mean that social structures designed for one type of play tend to endure even after the game changes.

This is why raid guilds continue to fall apart. WoW hasn’t really been that holy grail of hardcore raid games for awhile, probably not since TBC. This is because part of the hardcore raid appeal was being able to see content and lore which others didn’t, and hard versions of existing raid instances don’t really fill the same niche.

I actually think that they’re now settling into a new model, and hopefully they’ll stick with it long enough that people can at least decide where they’re at for more than one patch at a time. The new model is: new or returning players can jump in at any patch and easily gear for raiding, raid and instance content available via PUGs to all players, and hard modes for hardcore players. There is a squeezed middle here but as Tobold says, maybe they aren’t the player base you’re looking for. With WoW, you always have to ask: who is this content aimed at?

The new Looking for Raid finder is going to be great for anyone who wants to see the last raid of the expansion (and kill Deathwing) and isn’t in a hardcore raid guild. The LFR version of the raid is going to be easier than normal mode (which is likely to still be pretty hard, if Firelands was anything to go by) and should fill the purpose of getting everyone to see the content.

I don’t know how this will affect raid guilds but I suspect casual raids in particular will be hit hard. If you have the choice of raiding regularly with a casual guild that struggles through the normal modes or hitting up the LFR (which has no raid lock so can be done multiple times per week if you’re desperate to grind it and gear up that way) I think people will tend to drift to LFR unless the social aspect of the regular raids is stellar.

As to why they put in a special legendary weapon and questline just for rogues, I have no clue. I imagine part of the questline will require hardmode raiding, so that narrows the possible user base even more. Having legendaries be rare is fine, but a whole epic questline just for one class still feels like an odd way to go about things to me.

Another thing to note is that the new instances will be dropping gear of equivalent level to normal firelands drops. That probably signals the death of firelands raids once the new patch drops.

EVE

Syncaine thinks it is awesome that the CCP CEO has apologised to EVE players and decided to actually focus on creating content that they want.

I think that if I was playing a sub game where the only new content I’d had for a year was something lame that NO ONE wanted, I’d expect an apology too. And if they’re so bad at listening to the player base (less large than you’d think given the number of players with two or more accounts) that they need grandstanding tactics by players on an egoboo to draw their attention to basic things like this, then why are they running an MMO in the first place?

The nearest equivalent I can think of is that LOTRO had a fallow patch when the devs were working on the unannounced F2P conversion. That was shocking too, but at least people could see that the F2P conversion was actually done in the best interests of keeping the game viable. Unlike a new CPU-eating character generator used only in a single room for each player.

One of the side effects of the rise of the F2P model is that it does make players think about what they expect from a subscription model in a game.

[LOTRO] Playing swapsies

I had an interesting encounter in LOTRO yesterday, of the sort that only really crops up just after an expansion is released.

I was wandering around Dunland, minding my own business (well, actually minding other people’s business because that’s what we quasi-ranger PCs do in Middle Earth) and I saw on the zone chat someone looking to swap for a 3rd Age Runekeeper’s Runestone. They linked a wide range of other legendary drops they’d picked up as up for trade.

I thought, “Hm, I know I’ve been picking up some legendary weapon/item drops over the last couple of days, was one of those a runestone with the fire attunement he’s asking for?”

So I looked through my bags and found it. Then I whispered the guy asking if that was the sort of thing he had in mind, because I’d be happy to trade it for the burglar item in his list of unwanted drops. He was really excited, apparently it was ideal. So we met up and did the swap. (The burglar tools did turn out to have pretty good traits which was a bonus, but I could have levelled them up to disenchant regardless.)

Now, you could argue that since he really did want my random drop, I could have gotten a much better price. Even from putting it up for auction for gold and pointing him to the auction house. But somehow, a win-win swap of something you don’t want for something you do just FEELS more satisfying. I am sure all the AH goblins will be shaking their heads at this. Absolutely certain of it. But since I don’t really need the gold, I have the luxury of bartering if it makes me happy.

The reason I say this only really happens at the start of an expansion is because in MMOs these days, that’s about the only time that a random drop will be useful and/or an upgrade over what you already have.

[LOTRO] First impressions of Isengard

So, the latest LOTRO expansion was released earlier this week. I’m not sure expansion is really the right name for it, but there’s plenty of new content for high level characters and lots of class changes.

The game has been busier than I have seen it for a long time, underlying Turbine’s claim that Rise of Isengard is their biggest selling expansion for LOTRO of all time. The game does allow for multiple instances of zones when the player load is especially heavy, and I’ve been seeing that a lot this week (so if you get an unexpected zone load message when entering or leaving an area, it’s because your character is being assigned one of the multiple instances.)

The storytelling so far in the expansion has been of Turbine’s usual high quality. Unlike most other MMOs, LOTRO doesn’t digress hugely with gonzo zones or plotlines, and is mostly bound to its core lore and background. So in many ways the challenges for writers are how to make the zone storylines fresh and interesting when they are bound to involve similar NPCs and themes.

One theme they have been working with is that the human settlements become more and more influenced by Saruman the closer you get to Isengard. So in Enedwaith (the last zone), the human camps were in the process of speaking to emissaries from the white tower and the PCs (along with the Grey Company, the rangers with whom they are travelling) had to persuade them not to cut the deal. In the end, I seem to remember that they decided to remain neutral, which we counted as a win – sort of.

Now in Dunland (first of the new zones) the first large town we encounter is already allied with Saruman and is fielding men and supplies to his armies. But there are still some rebellious factions who would prefer to be free … your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find them and help their cause.

I find this interesting because it’s a similar storyline to the first Horde encampment in Twilight Highlands, in WoW. There you also encounter a town which has been taken over by a cruel overlord and have to help the rebels take over. It’s just that in WoW it’s all over and done with in a handful of quests and then you can move on. In LOTRO, you get the extended version in which you get to know more of the individuals. Although the game can feel a bit glacial, I quite enjoy the contrast of the slower storylines.

Also:

  • Minstrels seem very powerful in this expansion. Just from hearing kinmates chat about how much they are enjoying soloing.
  • A new crafting tier. Many of the recipes are available from random drops (which has also been true in previous tiers) and in the excitement of a new expansion, it’s still quite cool to get one. That will fade fast, I am sure.
  • One of the themes in the new epic book so far is encouraging players to choose whether they want to stay in an area and finish all the other quests before picking up the next book quest. You always had those options, but now they’re explicitly saying things like, “Decide for yourself how long you want to stay and help the men of **wherever** before going to the next ranger.”
  • Whilst LOTRO storytelling is pretty cool, I don’t think it’s all that plausible that elves, dwarves or hobbits could really pass as potential allies to the Saruman-allied men of Dunland.
  • I don’t really think my burglar has the best disguise ever either. (She’s wearing one of those typical ‘burglar’ domino masks. I love it, but it does scream “I AM A BURGLAR!”)

[LOTRO] Expansion pricing, and when points get devalued

Turbine had previously announced the pre-release package for Rise of Isengard, which costs $30 for the expansion zones (including raid and dungeons), some pretty cosmetic gear/ mounts, and 25% xp bonus for all characters on your account. Sounds like a reasonable deal for an expansion, and the xp bonus is a nice perk for people with lots of alts.

Yesterday they also released the details for the expansion pricing if you prefer to buy it with Turbine points, and the forums went wild. The price is points is significantly higher than the price if you buy the pre-order in cash. And not only is the price for the expansion higher, you have to pay extra in points for the raid and again for the dungeons.

Note: One of the vaunted advantages of F2P was only having to pay for the content that you wanted. This advantage does not feel so exciting when it’s a) cheaper to pay cash for the entire bundle including the part you didn’t want and b) the price of the basic content has risen so high that you’re paying more for the part you do want anyway.

Now, it obviously makes sense from Turbine’s point of view to devalue points in favour of cash whenever they get the chance. This being the case, anyone who stocked up on turbine points when they were on special deal with the aim of using them to buy the expansion has lost out here. Player vs Developer discusses the expansion pricing in more detail. As PvD comments, even at the best deal possible, this would still be more expensive than paying cash for the preorder.

(Although if you aren’t in a hurry for the content, it’s bound to be on sale in a few months time.)

But the point cost isn’t for people like you, it’s for people like me

Now to get this into perspective, you have to consider players like me. I have a lifetime subscription, but I actually play LOTRO in fits and starts, a few months here and then a few months there. I very very rarely spend Turbine points but my account accrues them at 500p per month.

I have about 7500 turbine points on my account. Buying the expansion with points is a no brainer for me, there’s nothing else I wanted to spend the points on, I don’t have to buy the raid if I don’t plan to raid (which I don’t) and it doesn’t matter to me how much those points would have cost in real money because I didn’t pay for them. I could imagine that my lifetime sub covers the cost of this expansion – because it basically does.

Now I just have to decide if I want to pay the extra for the 25% xp bonus for my warden alt. I think I might not bother, actually. If it had been an account bonus I probably would have done it but the version you can buy with points is for one alt only.

So my advice with Turbine and Points is this:

  • Don’t buy any content before you need it unless there is a particularly good sale on. The longer you wait, the more chance of it coming up in a sale.
  • Don’t buy points unless there’s something you really want to spend points on, regardless of how good the sale is. Turbine have shown here that if they really want people to spend cash, they can always make that more appealing.
  • If something has been in a sale once, it’ll be in a sale again.
On another note, I do wonder how pricing the raid separately is going to affect raiding in Isengard. I don’t think many casual raiders will be quick to plonk down the extra points for the raid instance unless they are very keen.

What if you like grinds in MMOs?

So grinds in MMOs are out at the moment. Out is immersion and player engagement. It’s all about slick story based gameplay and/or lobby-based PvP/ PvE. It’s all about the casual F2P crowd who will drop a tenner on a cosmetic cloak because it’s shiny and it’s less than going out to tMcDonalds. (This incidentally is why Gevlon isn’t quite right about money as a measure for player engagement – some people demonstrably spend loads of cash on things they don’t care about.)

In many ways, playing LOTRO is the antithesis of all these things, which is why I find it so delightfully old school. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t find it very alt friendly, there are so many different things to do with your character that it tends to foster fewer, deeper alts rather than lots of shallow ones.

But their attitude to reputation grinds is very interesting. My new warden has just levelled high enough to have access to a zone/ dungeon called Goblintown. This is quite an interesting piece of design, it was brought in via a patch before Moria was released along with other rep dungeons, so it’s been in the game for several years now.

  • 1. The main purpose of Goblintown is to let players grind reputation (with Rivendell in this case). It’s full of goblins. They drop reputation items. If you like grinding, you can go there either alone or in groups and kill goblins for your rep items until you get bored. It isn’t the only way to get reputation with the Rivendell elves, but I think it is the only way to max it out (I could be wrong on that though.)
  • 2. It’s tied deeply into the lore. Goblintown is the goblin stronghold under the Misty Mountains where Bilbo met Gollum in The Hobbit. In fact, one of the introductory quests is from Bilbo himself, who sends the character off to scout out the secret entrance so that he can make sure he remembers the details correctly for his book. You can also explore and find the cave where Gollum used to live, it’s quite an interesting and well detailed dungeon.
  • 3. Rivendell rep is purely optional. Unless you desperately want the reputation-based mount, there’s no special need to grind this rep at all. It is definitely a grind, but no one is forcing anyone to go there.
  • 4. The reputation items are not bound. So people who like grinding can always sell them on the AH to people who want the rep and don’t like grinding.
  • 5. Because it can be done solo or in a group, it makes for quite a chilled out kinship activity if people just want to hang out together and kill stuff in a social way (a sentence you won’t really see anywhere outside gaming.)
  • 6. At this point in the game, it’s a mid level instance. So a high level character can just mow their way through very easily. If collecting reps is your thing, it can be a relaxing goal to work through for an endgame character.

I am sure I will get bored of Goblintown long, long before I have ground out Kindred rep (the highest level), but as a MMO player, I love that it’s there as an option. And I do want to explore and find Gollum’s cave sometime. (The player doesn’t actually get to meet him until Mirkwood though, I think.)

How do you feel about the idea of rep grinds, particularly as opposed to daily quests (which are a kind of grind I guess but seem more rigid in terms of how much you can/ should do per day.)

What is your nemesis fight?

Back in the ancient era of TBC, anyone who was raiding at the time may remember a little raid instance called Karazhan. When you raided back then, you had to accept that some fights would be fun for you and some …. less well designed for your class/ spec/ style. Karazhan contained both heaven and hell fights for melee classes.

Shade of Aran was a melee dream fight. There was a bit of running in and out so that you didn’t get bored, you could interrupt to your heart’s content, and most of the rest of the time, you could just hit him. Even better, the fight didn’t need a tank so your tanks got to let off some steam too (unfortunately dual specs didn’t exist at this point, so letting off steam meant dual wielding in your tanking spec – but it was the thought that counted!)

And then to make up for it, Prince Malchezaar was the fight where melee always died. (Apologies to anyone who didn’t, you are either a mutant, sleeping with ALL the healers, or very lucky.) You had to run in and out … but you also had to dodge random infernals and if the tank was unlucky they could end up in a position where melee literally could not get out in time safely.

And there was a kind of expectation that there would be some balance. For each horrid fight, maybe you’d get a melee friendly one. And similar for ranged, and healers, and tanks … and maybe now you see the design issues here.

But what happens when one fight is SO hellish that it puts people off the entire raid? One of my ex-WoW guildies hates healing Chimaeron, for example, and checks the goals of a raid before he signs up. In LOTRO, I hated one of the fights where I had to stand pointlessly on a distant  platform for about 80% of the time because it was so melee unfriendly and my class wasn’t that important anyway. (Nothing will make you hate a fight so much as feeling pointless … apart from guaranteed insta-death I guess.)

This is not so good for raid leaders, who really would like people to just sign regardless of which fights are on the menu. And back in the good old TBC days, that’s what we did. What else were you going to do? It was how things worked.

Now I suspect that players are more willing to just say “suck it” if they hate the fight that much, because there’s always another game, or waiting until the next tier to see if that’s more fun. I’ve wondered also if class/ soul design feeds into this, meaning that it’s easier to make fights that are just that darned unfun for some people. Or maybe the drive for devs to keep finding new and different mechanics to drop into a fight – maybe tank and spank with a few movement mechanics wasn’t so bad after all.

Do you have any hell (or heaven) fights? Have you ever considered only signing for a raid if they’re going somewhere you like? And as for me, I hate that LOTRO platform fight and never want to see it again, but it seemed rude to only sign up conditionally (eg. I can come but only if we don’t go to that wing) so I stopped signing up altogether. I wonder if that was better in the long run for everyone else.