Yearly Archives: 2006

Before the Battlegrounds

With the revised PvP/Honor system in the latest WoW patch, I (along with just about everyone else) am battling away to get myself enough honor for a shiny reward or two, so I thought I’d look back a bit…

When the original Honor system was introduced, giving “points” for kills and assigning ranks based on those points, with progressively shinier rewards as you went up in rank, there were no battlegrounds. Not being on a PvP server, this meant there wasn’t much opportunity to get honor, but the shiny rewards were tempting, so anyone “cruising for a bruising” would head to a common spot: Tarren Mill.

For a typical Tarren Mill fight, the Alliance (almost always outnumbering the Horde) would line up on the road near the mill, and, en masse, slowly shift forward. The Horde would line up in the town, and also slowly shift forwards, both sides cagily staying out of range of each other, an occasional skirmisher darting in a ranged attack then heading back to his own lines, sometimes a particularly brave (and insane) melee class launching themselves into a mass of the enemy and being promptly slaughtered. Gradually the Horde would be pressed back towards the town until a member of the Alliance got too close, at which point the NPC guards would go bonkers and fling themselves upon the Alliance, who’d fall apart in disarray, hotly pursued by the Horde for a variable distance, then everyone would form back up for another go.

This was, frankly, rubbish. Especially for a melee class, firing the odd missile now and again between insane rushes. It was probably the closest PvP got to a “real” battle, from my limited reading on pre-gunpowder warfare, hardly a bundle of laughs. So after a few visits to Tarren Mill, and enough kills to make Sergeant (which gave a handy discount from vendors), PvP was again forgotten until… battlegrounds.

Patch Day of DOOOOOOM!

So World of Warcraft got patched to 2.0 last night. Updating up the game itself wasn’t too bad, thanks to 95% of the patch being pre-downloaded, but logging in revealed a seething mass of humanity (and of course gnome/dwarf/elf-anity) in Stormwind, no NPCs, and fairly rapidly, no Stormwind as everything fell over. Nothing unexpected there.

One of the big changes is in the scripting, requiring all user add-ons to be updated. Most of the popular add-on sites were thus slashdotted by thousands of people trying to get the latest version, so I just popped on with the “vanilla” UI, which made me realise just what a difference the add-ons make. When I returned to WoW a couple of months ago, I just grabbed a compilation pack recommended by friends of 10-20 various add-ons and never really glanced at the standard interface. None of the other MMOs I’ve played have WoW’s level of customisation; are Blizzard empowering players by letting them tinker so much, or abdicating their responsibility?

Either way up, another of the big changes is new talent trees, taking account of the extra talent points that will come up to level 70 in The Burning Crusade. With the new trees, everyone gets their talent points refunded to spend again how they like. It’s all a bit abrupt for me, though; while information on the new talents has been available for a while, it’s all been in testing, and subject to change (fairly significant change, in some cases). Furthermore, without actually being able to use the new talents, it’s difficult to get a feel for them. A trial period, with another talent refund at the end of it would be nice, or resetting the cost of resetting your talents back to the initial 10 silver, or however much it was (it’s been a while…)

Forums are Scary

There’s some debate over forums at the moment. Much of which (in conjunction with several years of related blog archives) serves to remind me that just about anything I vaguely think of in relation to MMOs has already been posted about in vast detail hundreds of times before, usually better than I could put it myself. But still, I might as well shove my tuppence worth in, that’s the point of a blog, right?

Web forums, bulletin boards, usenet, I’ve been around them for a while, subscribed to a fair few over the years on various subjects, and they all develop their own quirks, cliques, personalities, styles, inevitable arguments not helped by the anonymous, textual medium. Even by those standards, official game forums are pretty scary places. This piece nails them perfectly, but doesn’t quite capture the deeper horror still…

I develop systems; for a few hundred people, rather than thousands or millions, and about as different from MMOGs as you get. And I take criticism pretty personally, even when it’s just about the system as a whole. When someone provides helpful feedback like “this system is stupid and useless”, I get pretty annoyed and resolve to change all their records to read “I’m a buffoon and know nothing”, for about 30 seconds ’til I get a grip. I get annoyed even though I know I do the same thing myself, I get instructed to use some system or piece of software, and I’ll probably swear at it and decry it for being unintuitive and useless. But it’s a temporary thing, a little bit of thought, possibly even reading some instructions (as a last resort) usually works things out, and I can appreciate that these things are done with finite time and budget, the designers set out to do the best they could and didn’t deliberately plan to ruin my day. I wouldn’t ever send them a mail saying “OHMIGOD YUO SUCK”, or enter that into some feedback system, there’d be no point. If people make suggestions about my systems, that’s great, if they’re impractical or whatever, we can discuss it. So long as everyone stays amiable about the whole business, it’s fine.

One thing that web forums (of any kind) seldom are is amiable. I’m not sure if The Nice Society Of Nice People Who Are Nice To Each Other have a forum, but if they do I bet there are frequent flamewars over just *how* nice they should be. That’s the nature of the beast, but it’s more unusual for the actual subjects of the rants to be expected to read and take action on them. There’s some forums for a TV series I watch, where one or two writers occasionally post. Not everyone knows they do, and now and again there’ll be a ranty post about one of their episodes that they’ll reply to. It’s often a lovely thing, the writer maybe points out what they were trying to do in a certain scene, and that they appreciate it didn’t work for everybody but they value feedback, and the original poster often realises they may have worded their post a bit strongly, and perhaps “I didn’t like the way this was handled” would have been better than “whichever fool wrote this has no idea what they’re doing”.

Official forums, though, give people a target. The company as a whole, the designer of the game, the developer who coded that last tweak which rendered your character USELESS. Everything becomes very personal. People say “the devs are grown ups, they should be able to handle the stuff posted.” But come on, how many of you could really work that way? Could objectively come in every day and say “oh look, another twenty seven people called me an incompetent moron, still, never mind eh?”

The false dilemma frequently presented to people saying “be a bit nicer, maybe?” is “oh, so you just want everyone to say good stuff and praise them HUH? HUH?” Of course not. The inevitable righteous defenders, who in their impassioned defence of the game shoot down any criticism at all, often cause the worst strife by being as unreasonable as the people making bizarre demands. Everything gets polarised and cliquey, everyone gets labelled as “fanbois” or “whiners”.

What can be done? I don’t know. Like DKP systems, there’s any number of forum/blog-with-comments/internet based communication systems, and all have strengths and weaknesses and problems of their own. In the meantime, I’m off to found The Nice Society Of Nice People Who Are Nice To Each Other, and if you’ve got a problem with that, you can bite me, loser.

Character Customisation

What does your character represent in a MMOG? The unconscious self, the id, finally given free reign in a world with no constraints? An idealised version of ourselves as we’d really like to be? Or a nice ass to stare at while playing?

City of Heroes has an incredible character customisation system. You can change almost anything. Sliders for the overall character size, as well as individual body parts (leg length, chest broadness etc etc). Hats, helmets, hoods, masks, coats, robes, tights, gloves, belts, trousers, boots, etc. etc. etc., all individually coloured, for literally millions of combinations. You can spend hours just working on a costume.

Starting World of Warcraft after that was a bit of a shock. After selecting your race, customisation stretches to a few skin tones, some hairstyles and facial hair, and off you go! The whole of your starting area populated by a series of clones with slightly different hairstyles…

Of course after a while in World of Warcraft, you start picking up different weapons and armour (ironically, if your character in City of Heroes uses a weapon like a sword or axe, that’s one of the few things you can’t change). But it’s a very different philosophy of customisation: the way you look is almost a direct representation of your power (and thus time spent) in game. You start off in tattered rags and scraps with a stick/rusty knife, and work up to a set of armour that will take someones eye out if you turn around too fast, and a weapon you nonchalantly heft in one hand even though it’s twice the size of you.

That fits with the genre for each game. A superhero’s costume seldom changes, whereas the protagonist of an archetypal fantasy story frequently finds a magical weapon and/or armour on his journey from humble beginnings to mighty feats. A superhero’s powers aren’t necessarily reflected in their appearance: an innocuous looking chap in a T-shirt might have skin as hard as metal, or amazing regenerative powers, or be able to shoot blasts of energy. For a fantasy hero, appearance is usually more closely related to role.

Even so, the limited customisation of World of Warcraft still irks when compared to City of Heroes. Due to the nature of loot outlined before, you’ll normally end up wearing whatever useful items happen to drop for you. Your outfit is random. And your outfit *is* your character customisation, as by the late game, even your limited selection of hairstyles is covered by a helmet unless you turn that off. True, you can buy “casual clothes” (before they added the “see what this item would look like on my character” feature in WoW, I’d often buy several cheap pieces of low level cloth armour just to see what they looked like), but you can’t have them around at any time unless you devote bag slots to them, and much as I like playing dress-up I’ve usually got better things to keep in my bags. If you devote time to raiding (or PvP), you can get the “Tier” armour, sets of matching armour, usually very impressive, but looking identical to someone else with the same set of armour. And if you don’t like the design of the armour, well, tough.

Blizzard are aware of the issue, and it’s not really a deal breaker. Wielding the katana-looking Assassination Blade and Hanzo Sword was nice for my inner ninja-samurai-monk-pirate of whirling death, but when I got the rather drab looking (but harder hitting) Sword of Zeal I didn’t seriously think about not using it (a Krol Blade, on the other hand… that thing just looks foolish!) Still, it would be nice to have a few more options.

Random Loot

I hate random loot. I really do.

We made a bit of a run on Blackrock Depths, just completing a couple of the earliest quests, in the process killing three or four bosses. In a group of two plate wearers and two leather wearers, what BoP items dropped? Mail and cloth, of course, every time. And that seems to be a bit of a running theme, that whatever our group consists of, the BoP drops would suit a class that isn’t present. A random loot generator (not that it’s totally random, clearly, when a boss has a certain chance of dropping certain items, but it’s close enough to rant about) doesn’t favour a type of item any more than an iPod favours certain artists, but either bad luck means the dice happen to fall the wrong way for us, or selective memory edits out the times we get appropriate loot and reinforces the times we don’t. I suppose I could record exactly what drops every time I play (or get an add-on that does that), but it doesn’t really matter, it feels the same either way. It’s not so bad for “trash bosses”, but if you spend several hours battling through to the Super Tough Boss at the end of an instance, and you know he has a chance of dropping something really nice, how much of an anticlimax is it when you end up with something nobody in the group really wants? (OK, the first time you do it there’s the sense of achievement of having beaten the dungeon, beaten the boss, but let’s be honest, it’s all about the loot isn’t it? Why else would you keep playing WoW…)

Then, of course, when that desired item does drop, you’ll probably have to win a roll for it against someone else of your class, or someone who values similar item properties to you, or a hunter (I kid, I kid). So you have a second layer of random capriciousness to deal with. In the last week or so, while out and about doing general quests, three drops have particularly stood out amongst the usual bits and pieces: a 16 slot bag, and two potion recipes worth around 50g and 100g at auction. From a group of three or four (with no alchemist), the same person has won the rolls for all of them. Not that I’m bitter (he said through clenched teeth). OK, so I’m very slightly bitter. But then, the person who won the stuff hasn’t hit level 60 yet, and I just got my epic mount, so fair enough. For raiding, there’s a bunch of DKP systems that can be used (none of which are perfect, judging by the number of them), but what about just while generally out and about?

One of the things I work on is a job management system. It used to be that eight sites each had a person who’d do all the jobs raised by people at that site. This wasn’t ideal, as workload could vary a lot from site to site, and there was major disruption when someone was sick or on leave. Thanks to the wonders of networking, it got to the point that people on one site could do jobs raised at other sites, so they wanted to change the job assignment system. But to what? In hindsight, it’s a similar problem to loot distribution (see, there is a point), only inverted, as people really don’t want new jobs, rather than wanting loot. In both cases you want to make sure the distribution is equal as possible, but the jobs vary wildly in terms of effort required, much like loot varies wildly in value, so a simple “number of jobs” total is as meaningless as “number of pieces of loot (ignoring quality/value)”. What did we end up with? A random assignment scheme, so the users probably feel the same when three jobs in a row get assigned to them as I feel when someone else wins three loot rolls. I guess, to paraphrase Churchill, “random rolling is the worst form of loot distribution, except all those others that have been tried”.

RvR in Warhammer: Age of Reckoning

Slashdot just had a Q&A with the developers of Warhammer: Age of Reckoning. One thing that comes through very strongly is that the game will focus on “Realm vs Realm”, grand scale PvP.

Now, I like PvP. Or at least, I like good PvP. That’s a bit like saying “I like food. At least, I like nice food”, but still. When I say “good” PvP, I suppose what I really mean is balanced. The worst possible experience is getting beaten again, and again, and again, and not being able to do a damn thing about it. For some people winning is everything (or as the quote goes, “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing”), but winning with no challenge gets boring pretty quick too. Also, my ideal PvP really needs some reason or structure. A straight-up deathmatch can be fun, but I much prefer something with objectives like Onslaught mode in Unreal Tournament 2004 (as did the majority of the player base, if the number of servers per game type was anything to go by). With objectives other than just “KILL!”, there’s space for players to be good at different aspects of the competition.

So if I purport to like PvP, why wouldn’t I touch a WoW PvP server with a barge pole? Because… it’s not PvP, really. I mean the “general” PvP, the fact that you can attack anyone while out and about (as battlegrounds and the like are common to all server types). It’s playing a PvE game, only with extra being-killed now and again while trying to do your quests. Balance is non-existent; you’re running around as a level 50, see a level 60, chances are you’re dead. Vice versa, sure you can kill him, but what do you get? The laughably mis-named “honor” system attempted to give an incentive to “fair” fights, but I won’t go into the train-wreck of 14-hour-a-day honor farming which the new patch is hopefully fixing.

Obviously a whole lot of people like the PvP servers, fair enough. In discussions about it, the most common reason I’ve seen is the extra sense of excitement, danger, that you constantly have to be on your guard. But the frisson of being randomly killed is about as appealing to me as the frisson of playing on a dodgy internet connection. After all, in both cases, without warning, at any moment… boom! Something happens which takes a few minutes to recover from (reconnect to the ‘net and log back in to the server, or run back to your corpse). Yeah, it’s a pretty facile analogy, but still.

Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see how Warhammer does it. If they can really get meaningful large scale PvP working, I’ll be impressed. If it’s random ganking with occasional massed lag-inducing zerg rushes… meh.

History of a time to come

I like to think I can see different sides of an debate, though I’m sure I’m as guilty as anyone of assuming that my experiences/opinions are universal (and as such TEH DEVS SHOULD DO EXACTLY WHAT I SAY OR EVERY PLAYER WILL QUIT). So, as a bit of a background to frame my posts, I’ve been playing PC games since about 1989, starting with an 8086 with 512k of RAM, mono CGA graphics (4 shades of gray) and games like Zork, Elite, Rogue and The Ancient Art of War on 5.25″ disks. No hard drive; Curse of the Azure Bonds was about four disks, and as I remember you had to swap disks around pretty much every time you got into combat.

About the earliest multi-player gaming I can think of (aside from clustering around a single keyboard trying to play some beat ’em up, which never really worked so well) was carting a PC round to a friend’s house, connecting it to another PC with a null modem cable, and shooting each other down in Falcon (yes, Falcon before it had numbers on the end…) This LAN party-without-a-LAN wasn’t a frequent event, though, as lugging PCs around was a bit of a pain, and trying to get them to talk to each other via the null modem cable was an exercise in frustration involving a couple of hours of changing random options, maybe five minutes of playing, then losing the connection. (So, good training for a life of computers). Skipping over ten years or so, there were odd bits of multiplayer fun, like getting an actual LAN going for Doom and Descent and playing XPilot on the university Sun stations instead of working, but generally games were still single player, offline experiences. I was vaguely aware EverQuest and Counterstrike existed, but was playing Baldur’s Gate and Half-Life. Not much choice, really, with a dial-up internet connection (not if you wanted to stay sane, at any rate.)

I only got broadband a few years ago (thanks to the fantastic telecoms infrastructure and absurd prices for even 512k connections until recently), and dabbled in a few online games; a bit of Neverwinter Nights, some Unreal Tournament 2004. With a broadband connection I looked more seriously at MMOGs, but was put off by the monthly fee and the prospect of being months or even years behind players in established games. I almost got Star Wars Galaxies when it launched… lucky escape there, I guess! I’m not entirely certain quite why I went for City of Heroes a year later. A few slashdot comments, some buzz from a friend-of-a-friend, the client was available as a download and I wasn’t doing anything else that evening… but that was it, and I’ve been MMOGing since.

Of guilds and raiding

What finally motivated me to start this blog was Tobold’s post “Guild management in World of Warcraft“, and the comment in reply to it:

“I don’t raid in WoW to make friends. I’m here kill new bosses and get new epics. I expect everyone else to be putting out as much effort as I do.”

(so I’ll now copy and paste my comment on the comment…)

I guess that’s why raiding is so utterly alien to me. (Not saying that quote is representative of every raider/raiding guild by any means, but I don’t think it’s a small minority view.) I get enough of work at, er, work! I don’t need administration, performance reviews, office politics, all that stuff, when I finish for the day.

I started in City of Heroes as my first MMO, played with a small group of people for a bit, then most of them drifted away. Browsing around the forums, I found a supergroup recruiting, and joined up. Never looked back. Through pure luck, I guess, I found a bunch of people who were generally cool, laid back, didn’t take things too seriously, and had a blast playing. The game itself helps a lot; death means very little, you can team pretty much any class with any other class/combination of classes, and the sidekick system allows disparate levels to group far more easily than anything else I’ve ever seen. The flip side is that there’s not really much to the game itself, as Tobold notes when he talks about it; basically, instanced mission after instanced mission, over a few different tilesets. But the people kept me playing.

When WoW came along, quite a few people headed over there, set up a guild. But it wasn’t quite the same; where in CoH you’d just shout and see if anyone was teaming, in WoW you’d try and work out if you had the same quests, in the same areas, whether the other people would have finished them by the time you flew over there, ran there, got the ferry there… You couldn’t just run an instance with whoever was kicking around (CoH missions scale according to the level and number of people in the team, and almost any class combination works), you needed exactly five people, and you needed your tank and your healer and your DPS. Loot started getting divisive; in CoH there isn’t really any loot to speak of, “money” hardly exists. In WoW, x was jealous that y got the roll on the UberLewt of Niceness. Some people would offer loot to the guild for nothing, others for vendor prices, others would keep quiet and list it on the auction house to make a bit of money. I got to level 60, ran a few late game instances (it was difficult as there were an overabundance of damage dealers compared to other classes; usually it would end up as a Raid, no quest completion, tiny chance of a decent drop which seldom happened), but then what was there? As a “hardcore casual”, as I think someone else termed it, I play quite a lot but can’t commit to x hours on night y so raiding is out. 5 man instances in a good group were fine, but good groups were rare and raid-zerging the same thing again and again and again for a 10% drop? No thanks. The guild was more or less finished by then anyway; the raiders had moved onto raiding guilds, others to new games, and the general “hanging with friends” vibe had never really been the same for all the previously mentioned reasons. There’d always been more “drama” than in CoH, and if there’s one aspect of online communities I really hate, it’s “drama”. Sure, it’s inevitable that people don’t get on, but where in CoH you needed a pretty colossal personality clash for everything to kick off, WoW had all the additional niggles. Do you, as a guild, try and legislate and have strict guild rules enforced by officers? Or just say “play nice, kids”? It’s a sort of mass prisoner’s dilemma.

When City of Villains came out, I went back to that, and put the WoW account into hibernation, and to be honest, never really missed it. I flitted around various betas and/or initial months of other MMOs since, but always came back to CoH/CoV for the people, never found another guild/group like it anywhere else. Then, a while back, I got together with a bunch of friends, and they were all talking WoW. Some had been playing since launch and kept going as raiders, some were inveterate game-switchers and had been dipping in and out, and they’d ended up with various combinations of mains and alts around the same level. I’d been thinking about coming back for The Burning Crusade, but got so nostalgic for it that I reactivated my account right then. And I’ve been really enjoying it since, just playing with close friends; we’re fairly similar levels, and happily have synergistic classes, so can team up pretty well in most combinations. We all get on, so there’s no drama over someone getting better loot, or someone else getting that place in the instance. We’re not actually in a guild, as there’s no point, we just use the friends list and a custom channel.

I don’t know if I really had a point or was just rambling… I guess a “guild of friends” is possible, even for raiding, as brian shows in the comments, but it’s a pretty rare beast compared to groups of people held together by DKP rules and the desire for epics. I’m hoping the Burning Crusade will have enough to keep me going for a bit in my little group. From what I’ve been picking up, it *sounds* like it’s moving in the right direction for me (winged instances you can do in “bite size” chunks, more emphasis on turning in tokens to get class items rather than praying for that 6% drop chance from a certain boss, variable difficulty instances (in my case, so hopefully you can run the instance for not-too-bad loot without agonising over optimal group make-up, rather than ramping up the difficulty for uber-items)). But we’ll see.


So, inspired in no small part by Tobold, I thought I’d inflict my random MMO thoughts on the world. I should warn you now that my attention will probably be diverted by something else entirely different within a couple of months, I never could keep a livejournal going, but never mind, eh?