Sunday 31 December 2006

Pickup Premades

It's bonus honour weekend in Warsong Gulch, so I've been playing there more than usual thanks to the shorter queues, and the fact that you still get a bit of honour if you're trounced 3-0 in five minutes flat. It also makes it a bit easier to get into a "pickup premade": a premade, in the sense that ten of you get together from the same server and enter the battleground together (well, six or seven maybe get into the battleground itself, while one gets disconnected, one gets called into a raid, and the other goes AFK for no reason), but still ten strangers of random classes. This allows a modicum of tactical planning (defence, midfield and attack groups), enough to beat most pickup opponents at least.

The honour is ticking over quite nicely; with The Burning Crusade out soon, I don't think I'll go for an epic weapon which could be obsolete within a couple of levels. I'm not sure whether to upgrade a few bits of armour, or save up for the expansion. Probably a bit of both. I'm half tempted to pick up a couple of the Warsong/Alterac dagger rewards, and change spec (I'm currently running a more PvE-ish sword spec), but apathy will probably rule and I'll stay as I am for levelling to 70. I'm starting to really dislike Mages, though; if the vast majority of my health bar suddenly vanishes, a quick look at the combat log usually reveals 2000+ points of fiery death from a single hit.

I'm enjoying Medieval II: Total War as well, it's a nice change after a couple of fairly solid weeks in battlegrounds, and it's especially handy when my internet connection plays up. The pope is threatening to excommunicate me unless I cease hostilities with France, but they attacked me first for heaven's sake! Ah well, give it a couple of hundred years, I'll issue an Act of Supremacy and make myself head of the Church...

Thursday 28 December 2006

Back once again

I'm back from Christmas with the family, and thoroughly stuffed from several days eating both hot turkey from Christmas lunch, and cold turkey from five days of non-gaming. Actually, I didn't really miss it, didn't get the shakes or anything, so I guess I'm not too addicted after all.

Presents included Medieval: Total War II, which looks pretty shiny from the tutorial so far (loved the first, and while Rome was a major advance in many ways, I much prefer the Medieval setting), and the first volume of Michael Palin's diaries, which are interesting from a blogging perspective.

Anyway, back to the battleground queues!

Friday 22 December 2006

Merry Christmas!

Well I'm off for a big ol' family Christmas, so no updates for a bit (and no bonus battleground weekend honour, t'ch). Merry Christmas everyone!

Wednesday 20 December 2006

The Pickup Tourist's Guide to Arathi Basin

If you're joining the mad rush to the battlegrounds to rack up honour points for shiny stuff, but your friends/guildmates/enough other people for a pre-made team aren't around, it's time to join the queue and get ready for some pickup fun. Arathi Basin is a good choice: shorter queues than Alterac Valley, and more of a chance at bonus honour than Warsong Gulch. So here's a few tips:

1) Check the scorecard. If the enemy are all from the same server, don't bother applying any buffs that require reagents. You're going to lose. (Unless all your team are from the same server as well, in which case either cross-realm battlegrounds are down, or you hit a million-to-one chance and should buy a lottery ticket for this week).

2) Defend! Defend defend defend defend DEFEND!
This is where 90% of pickup group members go wrong. "OMG I've been standing here for FIVE ENTIRE SECONDS and nothing has happened I must MOUNT UP AND RIDE BY MYSELF TO CERTAIN DEATH!" The key to Arathi Basin is to defend your nodes; even if you lose the match, the more resource points you acquire, the more bonus honour you get. Pull up the map, if by some miracle your side has captured some nodes, check where the yellow dots are. If there's none by one of your node (chances are, the stables/the farm), head there, and defend it. If you're very lucky, you might even hook up with a second defender, which gives a much better chance of holding the node, plus you get someone to chat to while waiting for the next attack.

3) Bring your own healing. If your class can't heal, stock up on bandages, food, healing potions, whatever. You'll be in a random team, which might not even contain a healer, and you probably won't see the rest of your team for much of the battle anyway. My personal theory is also that PUG healers know full well how rare it is to get healed in a pickup, so they deliberately don't do it, else you'd wind up staring in shock at the green text on screen going... "It looks like someone in my team healed me... but... but...", and getting stabbed by a rogue. Remember: never, *ever* shout "HEAL ME FFS!" It's unlikely someone is playing a priest, but completely forgot they had healing spells until they noticed your helpful message. The only thing shouting "HEAL ME!" does is annoy the people who were considering healing you, until you shouted that. You might also receive equally helpful tips from them, like "ATTACK TARGETS! USE ABILITIES TO CAUSE DAMAGE!"

4) Communicate. Keep it simple, though. Everything you type in the battleground channel runs through an English-to-Pickup translator (though you don't see the results). Something which seems fairly straightforward, like "OK, group 1 defend here, group 2 take the gold mine, group 3 take the lumber mill", after running through the translator, becomes "EVERYONE RIDE AROUND RANDOMLY! RUN AWAY FROM THE NODES WE'VE TAKEN!" For that matter, you could type "Group 1: perform an interpretive dance version of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Group 2: devise a method for transporting an egg over a distance of three kilometres with only two elastic bands and a jar of herring. Group 3: form an anarcho-syndicalist commune to wrest the means of production away from the bourgeoisie", and it would also get translated into "EVERYONE RIDE AROUND RANDOMLY! RUN AWAY FROM THE NODES WE'VE TAKEN!"

Here's a handy phrasebook:

Coming and going:
Inc (incoming) - The enemy are approaching the following location...
Go - I suggest that we attempt to seize, or reinforce, the following location (although the chances are nobody else will follow, so I'm going to be dying at the following location)...

Stab, stables - the stables (on the left)
Farm - the farm (on the right)
GM, mine - the gold mine (centre top)
BS, smith - the blacksmith (centre middle)
LM, mill - the lumber mill (centre bottom)

That's about it. Following point (2), you'll quite possibly be standing all by yourself at the stables/farm when you see a mass of the enemy heading towards you. At this point, switch to the battleground channel, and alert your team thus:
"/bg inc stab/farm"
If you're feeling particularly adventurous, you can add the number of attackers. If you're *really* lucky, and you can delay them from capturing the flag for a couple of moments, one or two of your team may deign to turn up, giving you a chance of resurrecting at the same point and rejoining the fray. Failing that, you can at least say "told you so" when the node gets captured, though it's best to mumble this to yourself rather than sparking one of those oh-so-amusing pickup group rants ("OMFWTFBBQ u r teh noobs LOLOLOLLOL").

5) Fight at the flags. Try to avoid skirmishes in the middle of nowhere, if you're drawn away from the flag, a stealth type can sneak around you and grab it.

6) Don't get fixated on a node. If more than five of the enemy go for one node, don't try and overpower them, let them have it, and find a more lightly defended node to take in exchange (communicating with your team as you do: "/bg go GM only 2 there")

6) Defend some more. If, by some miracle, your team takes three nodes, you can defend them to win (if you haven't fallen too far behind). You can try and remind your team of this, with a message like "Defend these now!", although that's often translated to "QUICK! Fruitlessly hurl yourselves at the remaining two heavily defended nodes, leaving our own nodes unprotected to be easily captured so we can lose by a great margin!"

7) Sod it, ZERG RUSH! KEKEKEKEKEKE! Defending is all well and good, but it might well wind up with the enemy controlling three nodes, quite happily defending them, and not threatening the one node you're sitting at. In these sort of rounds, chances are it'll get to the stage where they have about 1500-ish points, and your team have maybe 1000 or so, and there's no way you'll win short of taking all five nodes, so you might as well grab a few HKs at least. Pull up the map, look for the massed blob of yellow, and ride there at all speed (optionally yelling your battle cry).

Monday 18 December 2006

Recipe: Instant Noodles (Requires Cooking (1))

I thought I might divert slightly from games themselves a moment to talk about food, perhaps starting with a recipe for lobster thermidor aux crevettes with a Mornay sauce garnished with truffle paté, brandy and with a fried egg on top and spam. Or possibly not.

Actually, I was inspired by my own gourmet lunch today to consider the ideal gaming foodstuff. It should be quick to prepare (while in a battleground queue, for instance), easy (can't waste time skilling Cooking up to 300 in real life), cheap (so as not to encroach on monthly MMOG subscriptions) and long life (so you can stock up on vast quantities at the supermarket every couple of months, reducing time away from the game). Filling those criteria admirably are instant noodles, or ramen, staples of students and coders. My favourite variety of these are Blue Dragon 3 Minute Noodles, the "chicken with chilli bits" flavour. The only drawback is they do need some highly technical equipment to prepare (a saucepan and bowl); for a while, they were usurped in my favourite noodle spot by Nong Shim "shin cup" noodles (like Pot Noodles, but actually edible), until the supermarket stopped selling them. In trying to hunt them down again, a Google search turned up an "undeclared presence of irradiated ingredients". Oh well!

Winterlude by the telephone wire

It's coming up to Christmas, and that means event time! Both the MMOGs I'm currently subscribed to, World of Warcraft and City of Heroes, are running winter events.

World of Warcraft has the "Feast of Winter Veil", which has been in before, but not while I was playing. Christmas revellers, eggnog and reindeer abound, towns are decorated with coloured lanterns, and there's a few quests you can run which are fun. The only drawback is there are Christmas outfits of... gnomes. Gnomes! What is it with gnomes? If it's not leper gnomes at Halloween, it's santa-hatted gnomes at Christmas, and they're just wrong on so many levels.

City of Heroes has added a ski chalet to "Pocket D" (the transdimensional nightclub). Apart from anything else, it's great fun sliding down the slalom course provided; there's also new badges, costume parts (ear muffs and fur edged boots and gloves, to go with the santa hat from previous years), and a mission for Old Father Time to rescue Baby New Year, who's been kidnapped! (Baby New Year, oddly enough, is a small figure with a freakily large head. More gnome infestation!)

City of Heroes can never quite match their first winter event, though, from 2004. This added cold-hearted snow beasts all around the city to be defeated, plus giant, evil, snowmen: the winter lords! The thing was, they hadn't quite tweaked their XP-giving formulae for these giant monsters, with the end result that low level characters could rapidly gain *huge* amounts of experience and levels over the course of the event, it was powerlevelling run mad. The aftermath was hilarious, as level 30 and 40 heroes ran around without any idea of their powers or where they should be taking missions, having skipped major chunks of the game. Some people who'd started during the event were most indignant on the forums that XP gain was so slow without the Winter Lords, demanding to gain their last few levels in another week or they'd be quitting (ignoring the fact that City of Heroes doesn't exactly have an end-game, so they'd be almost certainly be quitting anyway). Ah, happy days...

Friday 15 December 2006

Mmm, widescreen...

I've just got a rather nice early Christmas present: a shiny new widescreen monitor. I'm off to see how games look now! (Also: I picked a new template for the blog, which fills this screen a bit better)

Back to the Battlegrounds

So as I mentioned back in the first of these articles (titles courtesy of 1970s Doctor Who), there's now a revised honour system. Gone is the treadmill of you versus the server to be replaced with... another treadmill! But at least you can get to the controls of this one, and adjust the speed to suit.

Kills and other achievements in battlegrounds still give you honour points, but instead of totalling up those points every week, comparing them to the rest of the server, giving you a rank based on relative performance, and having rewards linked to this rank, honour points are directly exchanged for the rewards you previously obtained with ranks. All the rewards, including the highest ranking epic armour and weapons.

Prior to the revamped honour system, to get epic items you either had to raid or spend every moment in game PvPing to get to the higher ranks. (Or get *very* lucky with a random drop, or spend a vast amount of gold at auction, and even then they tend to be lower level items). Now, epics are in reach of everyone! Just sign up with your friendly neighbourhood battlemaster, queue for a while, and smite your foes until you have enough honour points for the rewards of your choice! You don't even need a group, the battlegrounds takes care of that for you.

Of course, it's not *quite* that simple. The epic rewards still require a good chunk of honour points which take time to get (even more so after a slight tweak), but this system works for me for several reasons. Battlegrounds are flexible. If no friends or guildmates are around, and I have a spare 20 minutes, I can hop in a queue for Warsong Gulch on my own and work on a bit more honour. The rewards are flexible too; being able to choose rather than hoping for a random drop means I can replace my chest armour, which previously I could only have upgraded with very low percentage drops from a few instance bosses. I can choose swords, daggers, maces or fist weapons to fit my spec (if I ever acquire the requisite 22,000-odd honour points). Most importantly, I'm enjoying fighting in battlegrounds as much as when they first arrived. The huge upswell in popularity amongst more casual players has reduced the chances of encountering a pre-made team and being overwhelmed (though it still happens), and I've had quite a few enjoyable, closely matched contests.

It'll be interesting to see how things change as more and more people get kitted out in their battleground epics; will the dedicated players take some time out, or work on banking up honour towards the level 70 rewards? Perhaps they'll start practising for the new arenas, which look like they could be interesting. So long as I can get a couple of bits of armour, and maybe an epic sword, it works for me!

Wednesday 13 December 2006

Bane of the Battlegrounds

When I resubscribed to WoW, shortly after the 1.12 patch, it seemed like many of the problems with battlegrounds had been fixed. "Battlemasters" in the capital cities allowed you to join the battleground queues without trekking off to the middle of nowhere; cross-server battlegrounds in the 1.12 patch went some way to shortening queues. I joined up for a quick look at the new Arathi Basin battleground, got in without too much of a queue, and... was butchered in seconds. Battlegrounds still had a fundamental problem: the honour system.

The pre-2.01 honour system was a terrible thing. As brokentoys says, it puts all the players on the server in competition with each other. To get near the top, you had to kill. And kill. And kill. And kill. All day, every day. I've called it "laughably mis-named" before; while browsing around the forums, I found a Rogue's guide to gaining "honour" on a PvP server, and it was... enlightening. It basically contained every underhanded, low-down dirty (but not explicitly banned) trick in the book; hunting people waiting for boats, lurking by hearthstone points to catch people returning from instances, pretending to be AFK to lure people in, all entirely legitimate techniques, but not by any stretch of the definition honourable. Aside from the semantic quibble, if you weren't on a PvP server, there was really only one place to go for your honour points: battlegrounds. And because you're in competition with the entire rest of your faction, you need to optimise the amount of honour you gain in the battlegrounds. And the way you do that is by organising your pre-made group, and crushing pick-up groups in the shortest time possible to win a battleground. I'm working from hearsay here, not having been a heavy battleground participant in the period involved, but I gather it wasn't uncommon that if two pre-made groups found themselves opposed in a battlefield, they'd simply leave or go AFK, as the "honour" gained over the half hour or more of an evenly matched fight wasn't as great as the "honour" gained from abandoning the battle and crushing a PUG in a couple of minutes in the next fight. The only chance a PUG had was meeting another PUG, but a lot of casual players were frightened off by the scary pre-mades, reducing those chances.

Better still, honour decayed over time, so if you stopped killing, you slipped back down the rankings. It really was a treadmill, stop running, and twang! Off the back you get flung. Now, I don't have anything against people who can play WoW for eighteen hours every day. OK, that's not strictly true, I begrudge them every single moment they spend in game while I'm working, or clearing leaves out of gutters, or trying to arrange a plumber to come around because the boiler is making funny noises, and they're probably students anyway, why aren't they at lectures? Those are my taxes, you know, funding their grants (which don't actually exist any more, but never mind), here's me, working my fingers to the bone, and those slackers are spending my hard earned wages on booze and WoW subscriptions and what's the government doing about it, eh? Eh? [This rant brought to you by a Grumpy Old Man. And I seem to have slightly strayed from the point.] So! I don't begrudge (much) the fact that other people can devote more time to the game than me, unless the game puts me in direct competition with them. And more than that, makes me the fodder that needs to be trampled in their mad dash for PvP ranks (and consequently EPIC LEWT). There doubtless were teams who relished the actual fight, cared more about a knife-edge struggle against comparable opponents than just steamrollering a disorganised mob, but at the end of the week they'd be Middle Ranking Officers who'd qualify for a commemorative tea towel, and the PUG-trashing mass-slaughterers would be the Grand High Lords Of The World, dripping in jewelled finery. All in all, not much fun for the casual player.

Tuesday 12 December 2006

Beginning of the Battlegrounds

With the next patch after the honor system came battlegrounds: Warsong Gulch, 10 vs 10 Capture the Flag, and Alterac Valley, 40 vs 40 with the ultimate objective of killing the enemy general (and plenty of side quests along the way).

Coming from FPS games, particularly Unreal Tournament, Warsong Gulch was great fun. When you could get into it... Alterac Valley, I couldn't tell you. There were a few flaws with battlegrounds to start with.

The main problem was faction imbalance. With the Alliance outnumbering the Horde by about 3-1, it could take an Alliance player a long time sitting in a queue before they could get into an instance of Warsong Gulch; 30 minute queues were common, even at busy times. Alterac Valley, requiring many more players and taking much longer, I got into once, after about an hour and a half in a queue, and promptly had to leave. The battleground entrances were stuck out in the middle of nowhere, so there wasn't much for a level 60 to do while waiting, apart from maybe a bit of grinding.

After the first week of novelty had worn off, queues were longer still, 45-60 minutes for Warsong Gulch, and nobody even bothered trying Alterac Valley. There was also the rise of the dreaded "premades", groups of 10, often in the same guild, who'd join en masse, and have the gall to use tactics, organisation, communication and everything else that was anathema to the PUG. After waiting in a queue for an hour, there was nothing quite so dispiriting as to be ripped apart in a couple of minutes by well drilled opponents. Not being a raider, or having the *huge* amount of time needed to get to the high PvP ranks with rare/epic rewards, my gear was getting more and more outclassed. From a promising start, the gloss had come off battlefields, and I didn't really miss them when I let my subscription lapse.

Monday 11 December 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.

Thursday 7 December 2006

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...)

Monday 4 December 2006

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.

Friday 1 December 2006

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".