I want to believe in EQ Next

In the jaded MMOsphere, dulled with years of falling subscriptions, shorter and shorter player lifespans (remember when we used to think calling a game a “three monther” was disparaging?) and a slow but certain move away from being virtual worlds to monetised gamification platforms, the announcement of a new PvE sandbox-style game backed by one of the main players in the business is always going to be a wake-up.

Many of the blogs I follow are projecting what they expect to see, or would want to see in the upcoming set of announcements at SOE Live tomorrow (2nd August).

One thing is for sure. EQ Next has the potential to shake up the hobby. The second thing that is for sure is that they won’t do that. Am I jaded? Maybe so. I want to briefly give some ideas for what I think they should do, and then some thoughts about what I think they will do.

How to do a successful PvE sandbox

I think there is a room in the market for a more accessible version of games like Wurm Online and Tale in the Desert. Minecraft shows how much people enjoy building and creating, and the incredible success of games like Sim City and Civ shows how much appetite there is for large simulations. And if the boom in social media shows anything, it is how much people enjoy creating and being part of communities. For a lot of people this could include a roleplaying aspect.

To make this work, EQ Next would need to take lessons from games like Glitch and Ultima Online as much as WoW. Instead of focussing on making a world to adventure in, make a world that people would want to (virtually) live in.

Keep direct PvP to a minimum. People don’t want to live in a warzone. And the ones who do already have games that cater to them, those players aren’t the people you need anyway. You need the settlers of the gaming world (consider this a new category alongside explorers, achievers, etc.) to inhabit your world and bring it to life.

There needs to be gameplay to keep things moving, but it can be based on a more simulation-type model. It needs a proper economic model also. Players enjoy ‘taming’ their local environment and building up their smallholdings but there are surely more interesting gameplay models with which to do this than either Farmville or “spreadsheets in space”. The players this game needs are not necessarily the achievers although there can be quests, instances and adventures for them as well. You don’t even need to encourage ‘grouping’ so much as ‘interacting’ and ‘organising’.

A sandbox needs, more than anything else, space. That means virtual space in the sense of large worlds to explore and exploit. But also space for players to carve out their own niches, explore different playing styles, think up different in-game projects to pursue, and space to step away from the levelling track.

Lore is an important part of building an immersive world, but SOE need to ditch the EQ lore. Or at least reboot it into something more coherent. No one is interested in the existing lore except the grognards, EQ2 was always a chaotic mess lorewise, and when the only thing people know about your main character is that she’s a blonde with big boobs, it’s time to start over.

What I think they will actually do

Given that the reveal is at SOE Live, they will hype up the Everquest/ EQ2 connection, which is probably not of huge interest to anyone who either didn’t play those games or didn’t like them.

I think the game will ultimately fail as a virtual world, under the pressure to monetise and to stick to tried and tested F2P mechanics (yes, they said they plan to stick with a P2P subscription model but I can’t see that happening). Expect to see lots of talk of high impact PvP, frequent world events, “a living world” (hint: the best way to have a living world is fill it with players) and some pretty screenshots.

But for all that, they have been saying a lot of interesting things in interviews about ditching the story. Maybe they will surprise me yet.

[GW2]Going with the flow

I am finding it tricky to know what to say about GW2 since a lot of bloggers have covered the same ground. I like the game a lot and so do the people I am playing with; I enjoy the peaceful pace which is particularly fun for explorers and crafters, but the world often lacks ‘meaning’ (as in ‘why should I care?’). This latter is why GW2 won’t have ultra longterm appeal for many players, the genius of games like EVE and WoW being that a lot of their players care enough about progression/ sandbox issues to stay engaged for months or years – I think GW2 will keep a solid core though who love the game the way that it is.

I have also enjoyed the racial quests that I have seen so far, I think they strike a nice balance between having a storyline and letting the player wander round the quest area and talk to all the NPCs – it’s Diablo 3 style storytelling but rather better written. There is also a pleasantly whimsical note to GW2 as if to remind you not to take it too seriously, without going all technicolour on the pop culture a la Warcraft. It’s been awhile since I played a fantasy game that wasn’t afraid to be magical. And as you’ll no doubt have seen from everyone’s screenshots, it is a very pretty game.

So in effect, the prettiness, the lack of grimdark (so far), the peaceful PvE pacing, and the whimsical fantasy make it a very relaxing MMO, especially for soloers. Some of the fights can be tricky, but so far at least those are avoidable. You can earn xp in many different ways so if you are getting frustrated with one encounter, you can always just move on.

I also liked the suggestion Arb had which was not to buy the collectors/digital deluxe edition and just spend the extra money on gems in the store instead. That way Anet still gets the cash (if you wanted to support the game) and you can spend it on cosmetic stuff you prefer or bag space/char slots/ whatever rather than whatever the deluxe perks, which aren’t very good.

PvE Pacing

gw2_monastery

A peaceful view down into the courtyard of a quiet monastery. No one is in sight. It’s probably dusk or dawn from the way the shadows fall across the vineyard. Pink flowers are trailing up one of the walls. If you wandered in here as a player now, you’d be able to look around, interact with the local NPCs and fill up their little gold ‘influence heart’ by helping out with killing the odd enemy, picking stuff, and tasting the beer and giving some feedback on it. You might even spot the vista point (where I was standing for this screenshot) and figure out how to get up there, and hunt around the area for crops, trees, or minerals to collect for crafting. (I call this ‘chilled out PvE when nothing else is going on’.)

But occasionally an event spawns off where the monastery is invaded by waves of centaurs who want to steal the beer. Every player in the area will be notified that an event is happening, a big orange blob will appear on the map to show them where it is, and everyone who shows up is given the objective to stop the centaurs stealing the beer (by massacring them, which is the general event dynamic although there are some more peaceable ones.) The rewards for taking part in an event are decent – good xp, karma points, and some in game cash. So when an event kicks off, people usually hurry to find out what it is and help out. (I call this ‘pile in on a local event PvE’.)

The players don’t always ‘win’. I haven’t seen this particular event being lost, but there are areas of the map where the centaurs can end up in control – which may actually be good if you want to go farm centaurs quietly.

Anyhow, point is that the endearing features of GW2 PvE pacing are:

  • The flow for casual PvE is very very good. By that I mean that while you are wandering around harvesting, exploring, and/or filling hearts you will have plenty of opportunities to keep doing that (ie. more materials nodes will pop up, you’ll see another vista turn up in the map, or another heart) and are also likely to get notified of local dynamic events that you can casually wander off and join for a few minutes if you fancy a fight. If you get bored halfway through you can wander off again. It’s a good mixture of ‘just a few minutes more before I take a break, I’ll just get this vista, and then gather this node, etc’ and not feeling obliged to stay longer than you had intended (which can happen in sandbox games or in instances.) It’s also very easy to take a quick break to answer the door/ get tea/ etc and the teleport points mean that you can pop back to town very easily whenever you want.
  • One of the ways you can tell that the flow is good is by how rarely the game feels frustrating once you are on a roll.
  • The pace of PvE is also good and offers both fast and slow paced action. If you find grouping stressy or prefer to only fight monsters when you are solo, you can pretty much do that by just avoiding the events. Crafting also can give a lot of xp so you could easily just explore, gather, and craft and never worry about killing things at all. I haven’t tried any of the dungeons yet, I assume that dynamic is more like a typical instance.
  • The game works well for small groups or duos. When I’ve been playing with Arb, we’ve happily scampered round the map doing pretty much the same things we would have done solo and felt the rewards were worthwhile. I particularly like how the crafting nodes are all shared, you don’t need to race people for them.
  • I’m only level 18 or so on my character but so far the zones are really quite large, enough that they don’t feel cramped even with the initial rush of players. There is a sense of space. Divinity’s Reach, the human capital, is particularly stunning in this respect.
  • Brilliant attention to detail. A lot of MMOs include far more attention to detail than the majority of players consciously realise (I like to kid myself that players do appreciate this subconsciously though), but even so, GW2 goes above and beyond with the little conversations, critter animations, and minor details that bring the world to life.

How is the launch going?

My experience has been good so far, although I believe the auction house/ trading post is still down and has been since before launch. Others have reported outages, problems with creating and joining guilds, queues for WvW, all of which point to some rocky technical issues. But as I said, our little server is managing well and we’ve found easy workarounds for the guild invites (we just had to get people to relog after the invite) so it hasn’t been an issue. I’m relatively tolerant for rocky MMO launches, I’m sure they are working hard on things and will get it sorted out in a few days.

Note: because Piken Square (PS) is the unofficial RP EU server, it doesn’t have a heavy PvP population which is probably why we never have to queue for WvW. Hopefully as the matching works itself out over the first few weeks, we will end up matched with equally non-hardcore servers because at the moment the PvP scores I have seen tend to involve one server massively dominating the points. It’s still fun to run around and take/defend keeps but will work better (and be easier to get more people interested) when the balance is improved.

My guess is that there are some incredibly huge server imbalances at the moment with respect to PvP, as hardcore guilds tend to cluster so that they can fight with/against each other. I have no idea how Arenanet will resolve this, although server matching seems like a good idea.

If you are ambivalent to PvP, or at least can have fun even if your side isn’t winning, there’s very little downside to picking a less populated server. I am touched to see a lot of roleplaying going on in PS in the cities, when I wandered into pubs or other buildings while exploring. It does make a game feel more ‘alive.’

Characters, classes, levelling and so on

Like many other people, I was amused but not surprised to find that someone reached max level (80) in game during the headstart. At this point in the MMO cycle, I think this is a good sign that casual players will be able to reach max level in a couple of months or so. I don’t entirely agree with Wasdstomp’s irritation with people who claim to take games ultra slow to enjoy them more, but it’s also true that just about anything you do in GW2 will gain xp so given that you are playing the thing at all, you will level up.

At the same time, I’ve noticed a few bloggers feeling that they had to apologise for taking things easy with GW2 and just drifting with it. Since this is pretty much how I play any MMO (wander around, do stuff, play) the main difference I notice is not feeling penalised for veering off the beaten track, since there isn’t really one.

The main character I am playing at the moment is a human mesmer, and I’m mostly running around using the staff with sword/sword as an alternate set for when I want to hit stuff and do more damage. The joy of the mesmer is having about a zillion clones running around the place and annoying everyone (and/or exploding). I think the class may have been designed for anyone who really likes to mess with their opponent’s head in PvP. At any rate, my dude now feels sturdy enough to take out several mobs of his level solo if I play reasonably smartly.

Anet is particularly awful at teaching players about combos. I figure I’ll read up on those when we get round to running instances or get more serious about PvP, because there’s no way I’ll ever learn them from the game itself.

I find it hard at the moment to drag my head out of the game enough to really offer much analysis on the mechanics of the classes. Still, it’s all fodder for future posts!

gw2_escort

Social Capital #2: How we make connections in MMOs

Last week I was writing about communities in games, different types of communities, and why strong social capital is a good thing for both games and players.

Next week, I’m going to talk about the challenge of building strong, long term communities.

This post is more focussed on the nuts and bolts of player interaction. The different ways by which we can make connections with other players. If you like, these are the building blocks that make social networks happen.

Buffs: the gift that keeps on giving

Abilities which temporarily make other players stronger are very specific to computer games. Pen and paper RPGs didn’t typically time combat closely enough to allow for a variety of short or long term buffs.

But mechanically, buffing is a brilliant mechanism for allowing players to spontaneously help each other. I’ve known many players who enjoyed being able to carry out drive-by-buffing when meeting another player ‘in the wild.’ Usually the convention is that if someone else buffs you, you return the favour if you have any buffing abilities handy and they hang around for long enough.

Buffs in MMOs are one of the many ways in which players can do favours for each other. You can compare this with how virtual gifts are passed around in Facebook games. A buff is something quick and simple that you can do for another player, and it doesn’t cost you anything, require spamming your friends list, or ask you  to making pointed suggestions that they should give you something back in return.

It has always puzzled me why some games are so down on out of group buffing. Limiting buffs to situations where the entire group benefits, including the buffer, means that the buffing character can’t just get to go around freely handing out buffs and feeling generous and altruistic. I don’t mean that all buffers should do this, but some people really enjoy it. By contrast if buffing only happens passively or in groups, all that happens is people whine like crazy in a group if the buff isn’t there. In my opinion, something is lost.

And you can see how a game in which it’s very common for people to happily buff/ assist other strangers could feel friendlier and more welcoming than a game where they don’t. If your first contact with a strange player is that they wave, buff you, and move on, it shapes your expectations for the game and its community.

Emotes: Is there really an emote for that?

Emotes, like buffs, are very very old school. MUDs had plenty of them, and even in a text only game where people could just chat to each other anyway, people did still use the canned emotes (they functioned like macros).

The great thing about emotes in MMOs is that they are so immersive. Seeing another character wave at you in game and being able to wave back is pretty cool. I’m now sure how many people would actually be watching the emote rather than the chat window, especially if you are in a crowded location, but it is a way to exchange greetings and simple interactions without having to get into a complex discussion.

Amazingly, given the amount of animation work required, there are way way more emotes in games than most people would ever need. And yet, when some of them catch on in the community, they take off like wildfire.

In WoW specifically, dancing has been vastly popular. This is partly because Blizzard put so much effort into the special racial dances when the game first went live, I remember everyone being blown away by the dance videos. However awful people find the WoW community, when a group of bear druids start dancing in one of the major cities, expect EVERYONE to join in.

Emoting also can be a type of minigame. You can play it with enemy players as well as friends, or with players who don’t speak much English. Occasionally you will see people communicating mainly via emotes, either for one of these reasons or just because it amuses them to try to act out their responses and try out some of the less familiar emotes.

Emotes are also great for nervous players who aren’t sure about chatting yet or are cautious of the community. You don’t really have to worry about saying the wrong thing with an emote. It can be an ice breaker. And emotes are also great for games targetted at children where there is a desire to not allow unedited chat channels. It’s a more controlled way to communicate (although players can usually find a way to simulate some sort of sex via emotes if they really want.)

Given how old school the emotes are, I’m always surprised when they make it into new games. And yet, being able to wave at that guy who you always see in the auction house at 6am and get a wave back does engender a sort of feeling of recognition and community. You don’t always want to have long conversations with people, and text based conversations do tend to take awhile.

Grouping for quests and PvE

Joining a PvE group is a step above waving at someone in a city or buffing someone as you run past. This is a form of mechanic where players have to work as a team in some way to beat a mutual challenge and reach a mutual goal.

Closed groups involve a fixed number of people. Whoever creates the group will recruit people, either from anyone in the vicinity who is interested, to members of their guild/ friends list, or directly contacting other players of the right class and level to invite them. I have memories in DaoC of paging people across two zones to ask if they wanted to group, it was how we used to do things.

The way in which groups were traditionally formed was blown apart by WoW’s random dungeon finder tool which forms groups based on role and level and dumps them into appropriate dungeons together. Being able to skip the harrowing group forming step has definitely made group content a lot more accessible. But it is having an effect on how players view the rest of the LFD community. Rather than being able to negotiate with each new player individually and decide who you wanted to group with, there’s a good chance you’ll be thrown in with players who you would never ever have come into contact with otherwise.

And unfortunately, people now view it as the equivalent to jumping into a shark tank. Maybe you’ll be lucky (in actual fact, the vast majority of runs I have done have been fine, they might not have been smooth but the actual players were OK) or maybe you’ll meet Jaws and have to bail.

The other issue with LFD is that it has become so accessible that dungeons are no longer really seen as special content that you have to really focus on because it might have taken so long to arrange. So a lot of people take a really half arsed approach, bail as soon as anything doesn’t go their way and generally act as though everyone else was an NPC with bad AI.

It’s hard to blame Blizzard for this entirely. It was a shame when so few people had access to their nicely designed dungeons and they must have been thrilled at how many more can play through them now.  How to fix LFD is a subject for another day, but it may well be that different types of instance is the answer and recognising that there is a hunger in players to play with other people and get the group rewards, but also to chill out after work, not be tied up for hours and not have everyone feel forced to play at hardcore levels.

What grouping also does is require people to play with a team at a similar level to beat PvE based puzzles/ mobs at a fixed difficulty (games like CoH allow you to vary the difficulty a bit which I always thought was an interesting idea). This team play is one of the more addictive qualities of MMOs from a gameplay point of view. It shows off how the different classes and roles can fit together and should ideally give everyone the chance to both help other players and help themselves. I am personally a fan of the class model where everyone has some buffs, heals and crowd control but not enough to solo buff, heal, or CC an instance.

Ever since Warhammer Online, we have seen a lot of interest from designers in the idea of open public groups, most recently demonstrated in Rift. In this model, when you see a group of players out in the wild fighting a group encounter, you can easily run up and join in. Having more people involved should always be a good thing in this design (this has not always been the case), and in fact EQ2 is making this specific in their next patch with better rewards given for having more players in the public group.

A great alternative to instancing for the casual players, open groups let everyone pile in on an encounter with rewards for everyone and very little chance of being shouted at for not being an expert in your class or in that particular encounter.

I’m not touching here on raiding, because in WoW and similar games it has more of a long term approach so will be talking about that next week. There are also large scale casual PvE raids which are just another form of public quest. In my experience, players always enjoyed them and I certainly enjoyed organising big public master level zergs in DaoC.

Group and solo  PvP

One way in which we communicate with other players is by ganking them in PvP. If you think this doesn’t communicate anything worthwhile, it’s worth noting that some of the strongest communities I have ever seen in games involved hardcore PvP players of several factions chatting outside the game. They had a good competitive atmosphere.

Having a competitive encounter with another player of similar skill isn’t really any different from playing chess with them, in the sense that you’re playing a game.

Battlegrounds have become the PvP equivalent of instances. They are mini zones into which fixed groups from both sides zone in and have to battle over specific objectives. To me they always feel very sterile, I prefer open world PvP or large PvP zones where you can really make use of the terrain and make good use of scouting and area knowledge to lay out ambushes. However, they do encourage tactical play and if they feel more like pocket games than actual PvP, that’s because they are. The team with the best communication usually wins, a fact that you kind of hope would not be lost on players.

One of the trademarks of MMOs is also the big open world PvP battles involving 10s of players on each side. There is a strong sense of community that you can get from fighting alongside others in your faction for your faction goals.

Other games allow economic routes to help your faction in PvP also. In Pirates for example, you can create “unrest bundles” to help either stabilise or destabilise ports that are under attack. Again I think this is a great way for allowing different types of players with different strengths to aid their faction in a meaningful way.

((Ugh, out of time here. Will finish this post tomorrow when I want to talk about economic transfers in game, in game chat, guild chat, sharing information, and out of game communications. Sorry everyone, this almost never happens.))

How to acquire Wrath (level 80) heirloom items in WoW

heirloom sword

Heirloom PvP sword - note the bound on account and gold coloured text

Heirloom Items have been one of the great innovations of the current Warcraft expansion. There are three reasons for this:

  1. They are account bound. You can pass them freely between any character on your server which is on the same account, even between horde and alliance.
  2. These items are designed for alts. Whereas a normal WoW item has fixed stats, an heirloom grows in power in proportion to the character wielding it. It will always be roughly equivalent to a good blue item of similar level, and will scale smoothly from level 1-80. Plate heirlooms even scale down to chain if the wearer is below level 40 (so that low level warriors and paladins can use them), similarly chain items scale down to leather at low level.
  3. As well as scaling with level, some of the heirloom items also give the wearer a permanent xp boost. Other games may let you buy a temporary +10% xp potion, but some heirlooms offer that bonus permanently.

Currently available heirlooms include a wide choice of weapons, chest pieces, shoulders, trinkets, and a ring. And characters can equip any heirloom of an appropriate armour type or lower (so for example, your resto shaman could use cloth heirloom shoulders).

If you can equip a new alt with heirlooms, you are not only giving it a boost but also making the levelling process much easier on yourself. No need to keep looking for a new weapon every few levels, just use an heirloom and don’t worry about it.

OK, so you are playing WoW at the moment and would like to earn some heirlooms for your alts and to help prepare for Cataclysm, how can you do that? There are three different methods for buying heirlooms – all of them will require a high level character as the buyer (at least level 70 although it will be difficult to get enough emblems, seals, shards etc before the buyer is level 80.)

A fourth method is that an heirloom ring (+5% xp) can be acquired if you win the weekly Ka’luak fishing derby. The ring cannot be gotten in any other way.

Buying Heirlooms with Emblems of Triumph (Group PvE Route)

Emblems of Triumph are the rewards given for running Wrath instances, heroics, and lower tier raids (Naxxramas, Malygos, Ulduar, and Trial of the Crusader).

  • In general, you will receive 2 emblems of triumph for completing a random (normal) instance via the dungeon finder (first instance of the day only, any random instances after that give cash and xp instead.)
  • Heroic instances give more emblems. There will be one for each boss in addition to the two awarded at instance completion (the first instance of the day will give two emblems of frost instead.)
  • Lower tier raids award one emblem per boss.
  • The weekly raid quest awards 5 emblems of triumph and 5 emblems of frost.

You can run normal Wrath instances in levelling gear. If you wish to run heroics, it would be a good idea to gear up a bit and get some practice first. This means that there is a trade-off between spending your emblems on gear that will make it easier for you to run heroics (and hence get emblems more quickly), or saving up for the heirlooms first.

To put this into perspective, you would have to run  random normal instances for 20 days to acquire enough emblems to buy an heirloom chest. You could acquire the same number of emblems from 6-8 heroics which you could run back to back in a single day, if you really wanted to (warning: I don’t actually recommend doing this).

Heirloom costs with emblems of triumph

  • Chest (+10% xp) – 40 emblems
  • Shoulders (+10% xp) – 40 emblems
  • 1 handed weapon – 40 emblems
  • 2 handed weapon – 65 emblems
  • Trinket – 50 emblems

How to buy your heirlooms with emblems of triumph

allyvendor

The heirloom vendors are located with the other emblem vendors inside the Horde or Alliance specific areas in Dalaran.  Enchanter Isian is the Alliance vendor, and Enchanter Erodin does the honours for the Horde.

allyemblem You will notice that the vendors want to be paid in emblems of heroism. But you only have emblems of triumph!

Fear not, it is possible to convert your emblems into lower tier ones (which is what emblems of heroism are), although it is mildly annoying to have to do so.

conversion

1. First go to the emblem of triumph vendor. On the very last page of items which they sell, you will see Emblem of Conquest. You can exchange emblems of triumph for emblems of conquest on a 1:1 basis. So if you want to buy an heirloom chest, first buy 40 emblems of conquest.

2. Then go to the emblem of conquest vendor. Just as above, on the very last page of items, you will see Emblem of Valor for sale which you can buy for emblems of conquest. Buy 40 (or however many) emblems of valor with your emblems of conquest.

3. Then go to the emblem of valor vendor. Again, on the last page of items that they sell emblems of heroism and each one will cost one emblem of valor. Swap your emblems of valor for emblems of heroism.

4. Now finally you can go and buy your heirlooms!!

If you also have spare emblems of frost which you’d like to use for this, you can convert them into emblems of triumph at the frost vendor in the same way. So do that first and then go to step 1, above.

Buying PvP Heirlooms with Stone Keeper’s Shards

Another way to buy heirloom items is using Stone Keeper’s Shards. These are awarded every time you kill an instance boss while your faction holds Lake Wintergrasp. They are also awarded for completing daily PvP quests in Wintergrasp.

You’ll tend to acquire these in large amounts if your faction does regularly hold Wintergrasp and you run instances, and the cost of the heirlooms reflects this. If you don’t want heirlooms, you can also buy gems and enchants with the shards.

The PvP heirloom vendor is inside the keep in Lake Wintergrasp so you can also only buy the items when your faction holds the zone.

Costs are as follows:

  • Shoulders (+10% xp) – 200 shards
  • 1 handed weapon – 200 shards
  • 2 handed weapon – 325 shards
  • trinket – 250 shards

Note: Heirloom chests are not available as PvP rewards.

Buying PvE Heirlooms with Champion’s Seals (solo PvE)

The last way of buying heirlooms involves the Argent Tournament. Before you can even access the vendor, you must have completed the Crusader achievement and also be exalted with the Silver Covenant/ Sunreaver faction. (Note: This may be very grindy and does involve lots of jousting and daily quests.)crusaderemb

Champion’s Seals are awarded by the Argent Tournament for any quests that you complete for them. This includes all the Argent Tournament dailies that you access once you are a champion for at least one faction. You can also earn Champion’s Seals by completing the Trial of the Champion instance on heroic mode. (1 seal per boss.)

The heirloom vendor is located inside the big Argent Crusade tent at the tournament, the heirlooms are identical to the PvE ones which you can buy with emblems of triumph, and costs are as follows:

  • Chest (+10% xp) – 60 seals
  • Shoulders (+10% xp) – 60 seals
  • 1 handed weapon (melee) – 60 seals
  • 1 handed weapon (caster) – 75 seals
  • 2 handed weapon – 90 seals
  • trinket –- 75 seals

The easiest way to buy heirlooms is by instancing, and then using emblems of triumph for PvE heirlooms and shards to buy PvP heirlooms (either of which will be fine if your main goal is to ease levelling).

It is very difficult to buy heirlooms before the buyer is level 80 (this has been a big criticism of the heirloom system). The only way to do so would be via daily random normal instances (2 emblems of triumph per run) — although you can also access the Argent Tournament at level 77, by the time you have done enough quests to get the Crusader title, chances are that you’ll have hit level 80 anyway.

ps. I would not be surprised to see these turning up for sale in the cash shop at some point, but Blizzard have not yet mentioned any plans to do so.

The problem of stealth in MMOs

Melmoth writes about his fabulous Warden in LOTRO – it’s a very powerful and capable class, and great for both solo and group work. It can tank a bit, has some self heals, ranged as well as melee attacks, gets some AE capability, and can even teleport around the map (very useful in LOTRO, which has a large world map).

Whereas my burglar …. has stealth. Which doesn’t work all that well in groups, in raids, or against tentacles (this is a real tentacle by the way, not a tame pond one in the garden).

watcher_dangling

Stealth classes are usually popular in games. Being able to pick your fights is a huge advantage in PvP – the classic stealther attack of leaping out of hiding and backstabbing an opponent is fun to play (and a nightmare to balance).

Stealth has advantages in PvE also. In particular if you are an explorer.

  • Ever wished your game had a pause button? If you are a stealther, then it does. Any time you need to get the phone or grab a drink, just hit the stealth button. Your character will (probably) be safely there when you get back.
  • Ever needed to get to a quest mob that is behind a bunch of trash and wanted to do it quickly? Stealthers can usually avoid a fight whenever they want to. It’s great for exploring dangerous terrain also.
  • Or even if you’ve ever just wanted to check quickly if a quest mob is present, stealth saves the bother of having to clear an area unnecessarily.

But stealth simply isn’t that great an advantage compared to just being generally badass. You won’t notice this so much in WoW because the classes are all generally very powerful. But if a champion can mow through mobs almost as quickly as a burglar can stealth, then stealth isn’t really much of an advantage. Avoiding combat is never as rewarding as killing mobs in most MMOs.

Most players like to mow through mobs. A rogue-type class that dances around with crowd control, debuffs, and juggling survivability cooldowns is never going to kill a bunch of mobs as fast as the plate wearer with the devastating AE attacks. In WoW they just gave rogues better AE, and watered down the roguelike feel of the class.

In games like WoW that have become so focussed on the group content, and where the main object in instances is to clear then as fast as possible, rogues and their stealth playstyle has no purpose. The tank pulls, the healer heals, and everyone else AEs. No one wants stealth or the more strategic sneak-and-dodge pace of pulls which goes with it.

LOTRO isn’t quite the same style of game. They do provide many more quests which ask characters to scout out an area – something which stealthers can do quickly and neatly. There are entire zones (ie. most of Moria) where simply exploring and finding your way around is a big challenge, and stealth can be really useful. There are solo dungeons where a stealther can explore and set up ambushes without worrying about a group zooming ahead of them and just nuking everything anyway.

It may be that the different pace of a soloing stealther is one that can never really fit into a group based MMO. Not unless the whole game was about thieves (which would be pretty cool, actually). Maybe stealth belongs back in the era where games were more about exploring and less about quick badges and achievements.

Thought of the Day: Leadership, boredom and MMOs

The mark of an effective leader in a MMO is how well they can achieve goals which require players to repeat boring tasks such as:

  • raiding farm content
  • sitting on the reserve bench
  • guarding a warp gate for 4 hours

You have to persuade people that the boring task is meaningful and important. You also have a limited toolbox available from which to reward or punish players.

Sandbox Games don’t have grind, they just have boredom

I was musing the role of a good MMO leader when reading over Tobold’s posts about his time in EVE Online.

EVE is described as a sandbox game, which means that players get thrown into the virtual world and mostly left to their own devices. A lot of content is provided by other people by some form of PvP or competition. Players in a sandbox game are encouraged to stake a claim to various parts of the game world and defend it from others. My first MMO (DaoC) had sandbox elements. Before that, our MUSHes had strong sandbox elements too – they didn’t involve PvP exactly but people definitely did compete over resources.

It is absolutely a feature of these games that you will spend a lot of time sitting around and doing nothing (or doing something very dull) while waiting for something to happen.

So in Tobold’s example, he warps into a 0.0 system and gets blown out of the skies. But what about those poor bastards whose ‘job’ in game is to sit around in the middle of their boring sector, waiting for someone to zone in? And they have to try to keep a 24 hour watch rota if they are properly hardcore because people play in all sorts of timezones.

I have been that person on the Albion Milegate. We used to spend hours sitting around and chatting. Maybe a few people would occasionally go on a wide patrol because they were bored. In a good evening we’d get maybe one or two groups trying to come through who we’d beat down with superior numbers. That would be it, for the entire evening.

But if you are an MMO leader who wants to hold some territory, you need to convince people that they should be sitting around for hours waiting for something to happen. If you don’t, then someone could sneak through. It’s the problem of the absentee landlord. The only way you can prove that you hold domain is to be there to fight off any intruders. And since players complain like crazy if intrusions are only permitted at pre-arranged times (they tried this with bases in CoH) then the defender needs to keep a 24 hour guard. Depending on how hardcore they are.

Now sandbox games can be extremely lively and exciting too. The thrill of having a guild that holds its own keep or territory is huge. It’s just that the exciting parts are unpredictable (or in fact sod’s law says that they always happen just after you went to bed, or in someone else’s timezone.)

So sandbox games require people to be bored because they can’t offer scheduled entertainment. You have to be around, “just in case.”

Progression raiding needs people to sit out and do nothing

By comparison, let’s look at PvE. In hardcore progression raiding, a raid group will make a schedule. And then they will recruit a few more people than they need to make sure that there are substitutes in case anyone has to miss a session.

That means some people will be signing up every week to not raid. We’ve been discussing on our raid forums this week how best to reward people for being substitutes. And unfortunately there’s no real reward that can possibly make it up to anyone for missing a first kill, or missing a load of badges/ experience in the raid when a new raid has just opened. The satisfaction of knowing that by doing nothing, you helped your raid, is not really very comforting when you’re fretting over being left behind.

And duly, raid guilds often have trouble with substitutes leaving for greener pastures if they don’t feel that the raiding rotation is fair.

PUGs never have this problem because they don’t run scheduled raids. They just grab whoever is online, wants to go, has the right gear/spec, and has enough time. So PUGs guarantee raid fun (to some extent) and no one ever has to sit out.

So PvE/raid games require people to be bored because they must offer scheduled entertainment but need a fixed number of raiders of fixed roles. You have to be around, “just in case someone else has to drop.”

Either way, being a hardcore leader in both types of MMO requires that you persuade people that it is worth them logging in for hours of boredom in order to help the group. Is it surprising that many designers are pondering whether PUGs, open groups, or dynamic events are the way forwards?

We need bigger links!

  1. In a week where Blizzard announced their plans for upgrading Battle.net to support online Starcraft 2 play, RPS asks whether people really want to play online RTS. If you’re a casual player, do you want to be thrown in amongst the hardcore even if the vaunted ‘skill matching’ works as intended? Do you even see them as PvP games, or prefer your strategy to be player vs environment?
  2. Farmville sells its most expensive item, would you spend $42 on a ‘cheat code’?
  3. Would older gamers rather play together than die alone? wired.com asks whether shooters with the associated hyper-competitive online posturing are really a young man/woman’s game. (Note: this is why it could be a mistake for MMOs to drift to more shootery gameplay, do they not know the age of their demographic?)
  4. Tamarind@Righteous Orbs has an unfortunately named alt (but at least people will remember his name!)
  5. Tanking class comparisons? We got ‘em. Big Bear Butt Blogger has been playing both a paladin and druid tank lately and has written a couple of posts comparing them. Shintar has another angle on paladin vs druid tanking – I wonder if she’s more objective because neither is her main. Gameldar also writes about paladin tanking for warriors (ie. if you’re switching), but again he steers clear of actually making any value judgements.
  6. evizaer has been playing and writing about Global Agenda recently and in this post he explains why DPS Medics are a design failure. This will be a familiar argument to anyone who has ever played or whined about healers who don’t heal in PvP.
  7. Nerf the Cat plays through the Dragon Age DLCs, Warden’s Keep and Return to Ostagar.
  8. James Wallis proposes a new standard for distinguishing between games and … non-games (eg. software toys.)
  9. Locke Webster on the MTV blog looks at how Mass Effect changed the way he roleplays. (I have a longer post planned on this.)
  10. We like stories about good vs evil, but what is evil anyway? Jon Evans on the tor.com blog argues that every society has its own, changing notions of evil. And fantasy or futuristic societies even moreso. It’s an interesting thought for roleplayers.
  11. Syp explains why no one cares about Taris, referring to the latest SW:TOR infosnippet. I think the SW:TOR team should hire some cricket commentators, they have plenty of experience in filling airtime with chatter while raid stops play.
  12. And finally Mattel unveils … Computer Engineer Barbie. I’ve heard complaints that the laptop is Bismuth Pink but I think they miss the actual subversive nature of the new career — it shows that computer engineers can be girly too, and that’s the point.