Catching up: Neverwinter, WoW Raiding, Diablo

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“I got eaten by a gelatinous cube!!!” she said, “This is the best day of my life!”

I feel late to the party so going to link to a few other people’s experiences with the Neverwinter open beta. I haven’t really seen any bad reviews, it’s a solid game and if you like that sort of thing, it’s F2P so you can go try it. For me I get strong vibes of a mixture of Diablo and standard hotbar MMO play, and it mostly works. Also my character has a really cool devil tail that waves around.

  • Dusty Monk – “… when you first log on, you’ll be presented with a Home Page of the various kinds of content available and how to get to them.   And for most of that content, a robust LFG queuing tool is available, and works really well.  So whether for skirmishes, dungeons, or PvP matches, you can queue up, and typically within less than 20 minutes or so, be whisked away to the instance of your choice.”
  • Tipa at West Karana – “I play the game, I like the game, but I don’t know why. Game just _confuses_ me.”
  • The Jester, a blogger at wizards.com (blogging for a pen and paper audience) – “The static world reflects a style of MMO design on the way out. It’s very much a third-generation MMO despite every MMO in the last three or four years trying to become an early fourth-generation MMO. There’s not a whole lot of innovation. Excluding the Foundry, it’s an unremarkable game I would have not looked twice at had it not been using the D&D licence (and even then, only because it’s free). There’s also only enough official content for a single playthrough.”

Like many of the other bloggers I follow, I’m finding a lot more fun in the game than I had expected. It is, as The Jester says, a very static world design but I don’t entirely agree with him about the third-generation MMO. Cryptic have been looking at more recent developments in other games, so Neverwinter features companion NPCs and crafting based on facebook style games/ SWTOR, LFG queues for all the group content in the game, a web interface where you can check your crafting/ auctions/ etc., and a more active combat style than typical MMOs. I find the dodging works better here than in GW2, for example. The game does default to mouse look, and binds your two main attacks to the mouse buttons for that classic Diablo feel. This didn’t annoy me as much as I was expecting although it feels awkward when you want to drop out of mouse look mode so that  you can click on some other part of your screen. All in all, it feels like a modern take on an oldschool genre, which is pretty appropriate for a game based on Dungeons and Dragons.

And Arb and I do get a kick from the oldschool D&D references that are studded through the game, especially when we remember the monsters showing up in tabletop games that we ran as teenagers.  The gelatinous cube shown above was an old GMing favourite, as were the illusory walls that have featured in other dungeons in the game. Fortunately this particular cube was not immune to cold and lightning damage, given that my wizard has a lot of ice spells. And that shows up one of the downsides of Neverwinter – it’s not actually as tactically interesting as a D&D game probably should be. Monsters are supposed to have strengths and vulnerabilities, but that doesn’t really work with this type of MMO where players don’t want to be told “You should really bring someone with fire spells if you are going to fight gelatinous cubes.”

It’s a dilemma. In any case, we’re having fun with the game at the moment. I don’t know if it really has long lasting stickability but Cryptic have played to their strengths by including The Foundry for player generated scenarios and that is something I am curious to try out.

Raiding in the Throne of Thunder

Kadomi has written a much more colourful description of our raiding progress over at her blog (I love being in a guild with other bloggers, I can just link to what they wrote and say “just read this.”)

Short form: We got council down last week in normal mode for the first time. So we’re making slow but steady progress through the raid. I have had more fun raiding in MoP than in any aspect of WoW since Wrath, although the encounters are sometimes overtuned in normal, they’re pretty well designed. I don’t know what other people consider good encounter design but for me, I don’t mind a complex boss fight that takes us a long time to learn as long as we can feel we are learning on every pull.

Encounters like Elegon and Council have been incredibly rewarding fights for our guild to master, I think. So I don’t much care that we’re not on heroic modes, the raids we are doing are at a really good difficulty for us I think. But I’m pretty tolerant of slow progression if the company is good and fun is being had.

At the same time, LFR being available helps a lot with keeping the general good mood in a casual raid guild. I think back to Burning Crusade and just how darned important it felt to be in progression raids because it was the only way you could be in with a shot at the gear you’d need to be included in the next progression raid. Now you can keep up reasonably well with gear levels by running LFR and collecting rep gear so it’s not the end of the world if you miss a week or two. Plus if we don’t have enough people on a raid night, we can take a guild group to LFR and still have the opportunity to hang out together.

As anyone who has been reading gaming news recently will know, WoW posted a drop in accounts over the last quarter. This can’t be surprising given general trends in the genre and doesn’t really reflect on MoP – anyone who quit because there were too many dailies probably wasn’t going to be in it for the long run anyway.

Diablo III

Since the new patch, I have been tentatively trying out my old Barbarian in Inferno level and … this is probably not surprising but now that several nerfs have been applied to the mobs and buffs to the characters, I am quite enjoying it. The original difficulty just wasn’t fun for me, this is.

I have enjoyed all the Diablo-esque games that I have played recently, Torchlight 2 is a lot of fun also, but Diablo 3 does have some very moreish design factors to it. I love silly things like the increasingly outlandish types of arms and armour you pick up (what is a Schynbald? Heck if I know!), which brings me back to original Dungeons and Dragons with it’s lovingly illustrated pages of exotic polearms.

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[Thought of the Day] Difficulty isn’t always about difficulty.

Berath wrote last week about returning to LOTRO after having missed a couple of expansions. She was struck by how much there is to know, how many things have changed, and how hard it is to adjust once you have been used to playing a minmaxed/ optimised character in the past. She compares this experience with that of a new player on her kinship forum who is still struggling with being able to move, steer and fight at the same time.

I feel very much that the real currency of MMOs is knowledge. It’s the knowledge of how to play many facets of the game (tactics for all the bosses, instances etc, knowing your way round all the zones, how to counter every other class in PvP, work many different PvE markets), how the lore developed, and how the game has changed over time that marks out the real dinos. This is one of the reasons that although themepark players enjoy new content, they don’t always welcome expansions which make old content irrelevant or mean they have to totally learn how to replay every character. It makes that process of knowledge collection worthless. But at the same time, ensuring that players must work to keep their knowledge up to date means that current players can feel a sense of achievement, and that there will be payoffs for keeping up to date with the game.

The persistence and progression of player knowledge (along with a social network of gamers) is the true persistence and progression of MMOs. This is one of the reasons it can be so difficult for a new player to join an older game. Because they are consistently playing with people who just know more than they do, and may have no reason to either share the knowledge or teach newbies.

We tend to wrap game knowledge up as a part of gaming skill. ie. you can’t be good at game X unless you know A, B and C.  This is fine for people who enjoy collecting knowledge. Of which I am one. MMOs suit me fine; I have a good memory, like learning pointless trivia and don’t mind relearning it regularly. Being expert about in game lore and mechanics can also be quite sociable, it isn’t really a twitch game, and it encourages community/ blogging/ etc.

We really should stop treating in game knowledge as if it was optional or unimportant. And the game that can crack the nut of encouraging player communities to welcome and teach new players will have solved the numbers problem.

[GW2]What do you give the gamer who has everything? More progression!

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Someone is a bit enthusiastic about serving the Mad King

The Guild Wars 2 team have been wasting no time with pushing new content into the game. We have already seen a Halloween Event which included new quests, jumping puzzle, mini instance, mini PvP zones, and lots of cosmetic rewards. This weekend sees a slew of one off events and the introduction of a new zone (and free trials for the first time) and there is a new PvP map for sPvP also. Then there are the inevitable Winter/Christmas events which are doubtless in the pipeline.

But the latest announcement about this month’s new iteration of dungeons has been greeted with a 126-page threadosaur of outrage on the official forums. Why is that? Item progression. Entombed explains in more detail what the players are angry about. Some of his points look more valid to me than others – sure, a portion of the player base will care deeply about which site breaks the news but probably most don’t.

Truth is, in a game that was going to break open the MMOsphere by ditching all the conventions, this new content and gear looks very much like a traditional endgame gear progression. A new tier of gear is being introduced that sits between exotics and legendaries in terms of stats, and includes sockets for players to add a stat that will allow them to go further into future dungeons. Syp comments on the similarity with the unpopular LOTRO radiance mechanic.

And like the LOTRO radiance mechanic, none of this will impact on players who play the game more casually because they probably never had much intention of grinding cutting edge ‘endgame’ anyway. If I lack zeal for attacking Arenanet on this, it’s because I think their logic with the new content is sound. It’s just unfortunate that it goes against the entire spirit in which the game was sold.

To be clearer: The current dungeons are flawed, inconsistent, and not particularly fun. Let’s call it ‘inconsistently fun’; there are some cool encounters. There is also way too large a gap between exotic gear and legendaries, in terms of the amount of effort players need to put in. Legendaries stand at the end of an excessively long grind. Enough so that a player looking at the legendary requirements is likely to get sticker shock and end up playing the game LESS because they decide it’s not worth investing the time.

So a slew of new mini dungeons and introducing a tier of gear between exotic and legendary are both pretty good ideas. Introducing a classic MMO progression endgame grind into GW2? Nope, was never going to be popular. Particularly when the only way to get the gear is via dungeon runs. Particularly when players had become used to multiple pathways to gear so that dungeoneers, crafters, PvPers and dynamic event fans could all collect similar gear.

The outrage will get worse before (if) it gets better.  Yet still, Arenanet are putting a lot of effort into supporting their game with new content.

The problem with cosmetic progression

There is one huge sucking problem with the concept of cosmetic progression, i.e. letting players grind for gear that looks different/interesting/better rather than gear that has better stats. It is, “What if you don’t like the look of the grindy cosmetic gear?” Taste is subjective in a way that stat improvements are not.

And whilst you can transmute gear in GW2, who wants to grind dungeons so that they can buy some exotic gear with a new skin that they then transmute to looking like the old gear?

[WoW] Assorted thoughts, the curse of accessibility, crafting in Pandaria

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Accessibility is the curse of Warcraft at the moment. Whatever the designers do, they can never seem to please all of the people; even offering a  range of content from chilled out casual daily quests and farming, to high speed challenge dungeons with a leaderboard and ranked battlegrounds will not stop players complaining when they try content that was aimed at a different group and find it wasn’t tuned for them. It must be frustrating for devs who are trying to entertain the masses, and World of Warcraft has never tried harder to provide entertainment than it is right now, with Mists of Pandaria. The new expansion is terrifically endearing, like a puppy that just wants to be loved.

If you have enjoyed WoW PvE in the past but burned out on lack of content or high end raiding or the frustration of being bottlenecked by group content, there has never been a better time to come back to the game. The new continent is beautiful, the zones are stunning, the storytelling is classic Blizzard (spotty in parts, but lively and likeable, and the good parts are really exciting), and the company has also made real efforts to tweak the gameplay with modern updates.

For example, the picture above shows Spinks (who is in the foreground, bottom right) fighting a big elite mob. You can see the shiny spell effect wings of the paladin who is helping her, behind the mob. That character is Alliance. That elite quest mob was not tagged to either one of us, we both got the kill. Now anyone who has been playing GW2 will be au fait with this, because it’s a game where no mob is ever tagged. In Pandaria, only the named quest mobs get this treatment, but they have done it fairly consistently. So while you will still be competing with other players (unless you group) for mobs in farmed out daily zones, when you go for the bosses, everyone can pile in.

I quite like the interplay of both different types of fight. Sometimes you have to compete and others you cooperate.

The world feels very vibrant compared to some previous expansions. I couldn’t say exactly why this is, but there is something very lively and lived in about Pandaria.  They’ve really taken the Chinese inspiration, put a fantasy twist on things, and run with it. As far as the storytelling goes, I will have more to say in future, but the goal has clearly been to make the player feel like a hero. And not just the murdering zillions of kobolds kind of hero. The kind of hero who helps people who need heroes. There are thrilling set pieces where your character helps to defend a village from bandits, in classic wuxia style, or takes part in larger battle scenes, and these offer much better actual gameplay than previous set pieces such as Wrathgate (however cool it was).

And maybe it’s because I play a warrior, but the wuxia storytelling style really plays to the warrior as a class. It felt very appropriate that Spinks might just take a feisty young panda girl under her wings and teach her a bit of warrioring along the way (I hope that panda grows up to be panda Mulan, just saying). So it felt more personal to me than Cataclysm, and more meaningful also.

Accessibility to a fault

Now the expansion seems to be trying to train people to play the game, even though anyone who has managed to get to level 85 probably already has a clue or two about that. So the introductory quests are quite streamlined and don’t encourage you to explore much. You could, but its not encouraged. Later on, the world does open up more, but throughout the first three zones I never had any fights that left me below about 80% health. I was thinking, “This is fun and all but surely they didn’t mean it to be THIS undertuned?”

However, by the time you get to the level 90 content, mobs will put up more of a fight and there is a definite trend for requiring movement in fights. There are mobs which put damage down on the floor, or have an attack which will do loads of damage if you are standing in front of the thing, or need you to run out of melee range, etc.  All of this is very well telegraphed (well I thought so, but I’m an experienced raider), and I’m sure the idea is to train players for instance and raid bosses. Which is great, and all very well, but not very satisfying to players who already knew that.

The panda starting zone, to my mind, is even worse. It’s very fun, very in genre (with nods to Ranma, for example), very railroaded and easy up until the last few encounters. The intent is very clearly to be an introduction to both the pandas and to the gameplay for new players. And as above, this is great and all, but the majority of people rolling pandas are probably not new players.

For my money, the best starting zones currently in the game are the Blood Elf and Draenei areas, and it’s because they open up very quickly and encourage you to wander around, explore the areas, and smell the roses. I would have enjoyed a Pandaran area more in that style, with more quest hubs, more hints about the culture (maybe for the various classes, like Pandaran magi et al) and less about ‘you will follow this questline until it ends.’

Crafting

Crafting actually feels coherent in this expansion. The goal is clearly to make it easy for people to train Pandaria crafting skills, but characters who are actively played will have access to more recipes, and more specialist materials. This is made easy by the baseline materials being incredibly plentiful. ‘Actively played’ doesn’t mean that they need to do hard group content (there may be raid recipes and materials in future I guess), they just need to be levelled through the content and after that can amble around doing the odd daily quest or anything else that involves a bit of random killing. So a casual solo player will have better access to crafting and recipes in this expansion than ever before.

In some crafts, such as Blacksmithing, if you want to raise the skill above 575, you will need recipes that are accessed from a vendor that you will have to open up by completing a questline. But it is a questline that can comfortably be done solo. I think this is a nice balance between gating content and still making it accessible in a non-frustrating way for more casual players.

Accessible Progression

I think Blizzard are aiming for an accessible form of progression in MoP. This is good news for all those players who do enjoy the progression aspects of WoW but have felt frustrated or gated in the past when hitting a progression brick wall that only raiders could pass. There are still ‘gates’ (or things you have to do before you can access other content you want to see), but people who enjoy working on progression goals but prefer a more casual or solo style will also have cool things to work towards.

See, it was never attunements themselves that were the issue, and people who argued in favour of them were always pretty much on the money. A lot of people enjoy planning out how they will attune a new character. Just now you can largely do it with less frustration. Not ‘no frustration’ because sometimes someone else beats you to that rich trillium node, or you wish you could just skip the dailies, but mild frustration is also a part of the genre. For a lot of players, it adds to the sense of achievement when you stick at it and finally get the thing/key/content/progression that you want. And I think Blizzard realise that, and have embraced it.

The Myth that One Raid Endgame Fits All

scrusi posts today about why he thinks the Lich King endgame leads to boredom, and underused raid instances. I read this, and I think about the TBC endgame, which also led to boredom and underused raid instances. (Ask anyone whose raid was stuck in Serpentshrine for most of the expansion.)

I suspect that all raiding endgames, when stretched out over months or years, will lead to … boredom and underused raid instances. The only difference is who gets bored, how quickly, which raid instances are underused, and which guilds feel most of the pressure.

So what is the ideal?

  • Raids become a regular hobby. The raid group becomes like a sports team with scheduled games, et al.
  • You should always have something to do, and something to aim for both individually and as a raid group.
  • Your group should be able to replace any members who leave so that it can keep raiding.
  • If you come late to the expansion, you should be able to join a group of your friends.
  • There should be enough new or varied content that people in your group don’t get bored.

To my mind, the big issue with raiding endgames is that players have to balance up group progression vs individual progression. If all raid content consisted of PUG raids with relaxed gear/ ability requirements and there was a lot of solo (or small group) content where players could go for progression, then we could have a setup in which one endgame fits all. It might be that newer games try a version of this model. It’s probably easier to support and would make a lot of players much happier and less stressed.

And yet, progressing as part of a group can lead to a deep and rewarding gaming experience. For a lot of players, it’s key to why we enjoy MMOs, because we can play alongside team mates and friends for weeks, months, or even years. If all players started at the beginning of the expansion and progressed alongside their raid, then they’d be able to take on the content when it was introduced. Given enough difficulty sliders, they’d get through it somehow at an appropriate pace. But this doesn’t always happen. Some players start playing later into the expansion. Some change groups for social reasons, scheduling reasons, or play style reasons. Maybe you want a more hardcore experience. Maybe you decide you would prefer to raid with your mates. Maybe something comes up iRL and you need to switch from raiding four nights a week to one.

There are no easy answers. Either progression is less important, so newer players can catch up easily with established groups. Or else progression is king, players are forced to raid with other people at a similar progression level, and guild hopping returns as the recommended way for people to ‘jump a few tiers.’

Accessibility means that Blizzard have prioritised letting newer players gear quickly and raid with their friends in Wrath. Those friends have no need to go back and run older instances again, and (more importantly) they don’t generally want to because they already burned out on that content.

In TBC, recruitment posed a different type of issue to guilds. It was harder to just gear up the new alt or new player and let them join. Guild hopping was recognised as the best way for a new player to manage this, which probably suited some people but made others a lot unhappier. Ultimately, forcing progression raiders to go back to older instances to gear or key new recruits certainly didn’t help with avoiding burnout for them. Using less progressed guilds as feeders to more hardcore guilds (ie. they recruited new people and trained/ geared them, who then left to join more hardcore raids) also gave them a demoralising level of turnover. It wasn’t a better raid system, it just hit a different group of players more harshly.

We know that players can be enticed to run content by suitable rewards, but that adds an extra element of pressure into the game which won’t suit some groups. (Imagine if the rewards for running Naxx, Ulduar, and TotC in the same week were so high that competitive raiders felt pushed to do as many as possible.)

Weekly raid quests have been fairly successful. PUGs form quickly. But it’s not really the same experience as running those old raids when they were new, with a bunch of similarly geared people.

For all that some people complain about WoW’s lack of innovation, Blizzard have tinkered a good deal with the raid game, and how new content is introduced into the end game in general.  They’ve made changes during Wrath that would have really eased pressure in TBC. For example, being able to extend the locks on a raid instance means that even raids on a very casual schedule aren’t pressured to clear everything in a week before it resets,

So why don’t new players form new raid groups?

So if people who aren’t burned out on the older instances still want to run them for fun, what is stopping them?

The answer is, because you need a group. And because a lot of people don’t want to organise one, especially not with other new players who they may have to teach. Only at the very start of an expansion do raids start from the beginning (and even then, a lot of them will be full of experienced raiders from other games or expansions.)

Logic says that raid progression is an old and outdated mechanic. The type of progression that groups can earn via rated battlegrounds will probably work much better for WoW. Gear matters but good play and tactics mean that a skilled team can work around it while gearing new members. But that’s PvP.

And yet, some of the best experiences I’ve had in MMOs have been watching entire raid groups grow and learn together. Very soon, I suspect, we’ll rate these experiences alongside waiting 17 hours for a boss to spawn or crippling death penalties: memories of an earlier and more hardcore era.

Whiny Post Day: What would you sacrifice at the altar of progression?

A couple of weeks ago, Klepsacovic came up with the idea of Whiny Post Day.

And so I announce to you, the first annual Whiny Post Day of March 17. On this day, bloggers everywhere are allowed to make one whiny post in solidarity with their fellow bloggers who are also making whiny posts.

Tobold and Larisa have already taken up the challenge, and I’m very intrigued to see what other bloggers come up with. I suspect that for all of us, the topic we select here is fairly core to how we feel about blogging and MMOs.

It’s a game, why do so many people want to make it like work?

I have been a gamer for most of my life.

My great aunts taught me to play Rummy and Poker. My grandmother taught me to play Scrabble. At family gatherings, we often brought out the board games. And let’s not forget the epic sibling battles over Monopoly which often wound up with the board upended and pieces all over the floor. Later on, I played RPGs with cousins, and with friends at college. And there were computer games – single player and MUDs/ MUSHes. Collectible card games like Illuminati. And so on.

But aside from the single player games, all of those gaming activities were social. The games had objectives and we played to win, but they were social activities. We played because we wanted to play together.

I thought in the beginning that MMOs would be like that also. They weren’t so dissimilar to our MUSHes really, just with extra graphics, more grind, things to do with other people … and less roleplaying.

But the basis of MMO relationships isn’t the same as with RL friends. Friends in MMOs form because they want more progression and think you can help. That’s the basis of all MMO relationships. In many ways, it’s like being at work where networking and cultivating ‘work friendships’ is important for your career. This isn’t true of everyone, of course, it is possible to wind up with a tight knit group of people who all have similar attitudes and goals and work on your progression together. But you will likely meet because you all wanted to run the same instance, or blast through some quests together, or work on some other joint progression-related goal.

This is why friendly guilds so rarely work in WoW. Everyone can act friendly as long as it suits them, but as soon as they have to choose between sticking with the friends and progressing together or jumping to another guild with faster progression, the majority will jump. Again, it’s very similar to a work atmosphere where no one would ever expect you to delay your personal career for the team.

I’m not immune to this lure, I switched raid groups during the last WoW expansion for this exact reason. But it was only recently that I had more time to think about exactly why this pressure made the game less fun for me. And it’s because I don’t play games because I want to play ‘being at work.’ Maybe that’s fun for students who are intrigued by the world of work. Or maybe it’s fun for people who want to play at corporate career making if they’re not happy with how their real job is going. Or maybe for people who are high flyers at work and can’t switch off.

But I am a social player. There is a limit to how far I can enjoy a game where people are more friendly to me when I am leading raids (because they want a raid spot) and will ditch me as soon as they get a better offer. I expect that at work, where it is both logical and pragmatic.

And I think I come full circle now, back to appreciating gaming with RL friends and family. Not because there would never be any pressure to guild hop or progression hop in MMOs if we all were playing together, but because I know that our friendship is based on something just a little more.

My love of multi-phase boss fights

I first got the notion of multi-phase boss fights from kids cartoons. In Battle of the Planets, when a fight got really bad the various team members would combine their powers and turn their ship into the awesome fiery phoenix … which would then kick serious arse.

Admittedly I didn’t think “Hm, a 2 phase boss fight. Note to self: make sure lazydin puts up fire resist aura in phase 2,” but that was because I didn’t have the wealth of raid leading experience then that I do now. Also they were the heroes so you weren’t really supposed to spend too much time thinking about how you’d fight them. (Am I the only person who spent serious amounts of time as a kid thinking of ways to confound Doctor Who in case I grew up to be a space baddie?)

This weekend we had some good attempts at the 10 man Trial of the Grand Crusader (ie. heroic edition), and it brought home to me how much I prefer leading progression raids through multi-phase encounters to single phase ones.  The reason is because it is much easier for everyone in the raid to get some feedback on how we are progressing. If you start the night with wipes at about 5s into phase 1 and end the night getting solidly into phase 3 on every attempt than everyone can feel as though it was a good solid night of learning. Even though you might not have actually killed the boss.

I think this is key to the idea of making learning fun in groups. After each failure, you get to tweak something about the raid or the tactics and try again, and get some instant feedback about whether that helped or not. The phases help by ringfencing different parts of the fight. It’s a more interesting way to judge how the learning is going than saying ‘We got him to 42% that time, that’s a 2% improvement in efficiency over the previous attempt.’

Also the WoW raid fights tend to have fairly spectacular phase change animations which at least keep everyone awake. Or give them a chance to adlib amusing commentary to the inevitable long speeches and keep everyone else awake.

On the other hand, I’m not so fond of the phases on farm raids where I have to actually explain them to the person who hasn’t been there before and didn’t read up on the tactics. The worst WoW culprit I can remember was the 5-phase horror of Zul’jin. Firstly it wasn’t that fun of a fight anyway but you also couldn’t really expect a newbie to remember 5 phases worth of instructions (cluster on this phase, spread out on this phase, run away from whirlwinds in this phase, etc etc) off the bat.

Our raid leader wrote a macro for that one in the end.