Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Resolutions for 2009

Braver souls than I have tried their predictions for the coming year, but, honestly, I don't have any really original preditctions. Blizzard will try their darndest to get three content patches out, but the next expansion won't be out til 2010. They will have to do something to encourage alts that aren't DK's - I've predicted that all characters will be allowed to start at 55 sometime in 2009. And, beyond that, I've got nothing.

What I can do is write up some resolutions for things that I'd like to do in 2009.

World of Warcraft
1. Finish the major level 80 reputations on my main.
2. Gear up my main to somewhere in the ilvl 200 epic level.
3. Complete each 5-man at least once, perhaps on heroic.
4. Obtain some heirloom items for alts (top priorities are a pair of daggers and leather shoulders for my rogue, perhaps some goodies for the Warlock, and maybe plate shoulders for the Pally).
5. Buy a motorcycle for my hunter. (I ordinarily don't spend anywhere near that kind of money on an alt, but that's the character I play with my wife, and she will love being driven around places. :))
6. Work on misc achievements, especially the holiday ones.
7. Finish at least one additional level 80 character. Not sure whether the Rogue, the Pally, or the Horde Warrior is the most likely candidate for my second 80, but I'd like to have one.

Other Games
8. Try out EQ2, which seems to keep appearing on people's "games that aren't WoW that you're missing out on" lists.
9. Give Turbine a few more patches to flesh out Moria and then visit LOTRO to get Allarond up to level 60 and see the sights.
10. Send good vibes in the direction of Mythic so they can keep improving Warhammer - perhaps even give the game another shot somewhere down the road if there's time amidst all this other stuff.

Player vs Developer
11. Continue to blog about all of the above.
12. Write at least 200 posts (this is number 176 of the blog since its start in April, but I don't want to overcommit), with a goal of having my 400th post up in 2009.
13. Thank all my readers.

To get a head start on that last one, Happy New Year from Player vs Developer, and thanks to all of you for reading! :)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Silly Daily Quest Logic

One of the quirks of the Daily quest system is the need to explain why the questgiver actually wants to pay players to do the same thing every day. Case in point, the Kalu'ak rep grind raises some interesting questions about the black market for Wolvar puppies amongst other things. Sometimes the quests make sense, but sometimes you have to wonder about the people paying your quest bill. Here are a few favorites from the dailies I've been doing recently.

How to Motivate Your Troops, by Captain Rupert
The Troll Patrol dailies in Zul Drak would actually make a fair amount of sense - there are posts around the zone that are under attack, and each post may be facing different issues on any given day. The quirky part is the behavior of one of the Captains.

Captain Rupert is an officer in the Argent Crusade. Some days he needs you to inspire his recruits, who are suffering from low morale for some reason. Other days, he orders you to burn the bodies of the fallen so they don't rise again as evil undead.

Well, actually, it's not so much "burn" as "detonate". And the poor recruits are watching you swoop in demonstrate what their fate will be if anything happens to them - there won't be enough left to send home in a box.

Somehow, the Captain never seems to think the two are connected.

Who exactly is losing their minds?
Not to pick on the Argent Crusade, but their other daily quest, Slaves to Saronite, also has some logic questions. A priest, Absalan the Pious asks Alliance players to rescue slaves from the Saronite mines. Unfortunately, the mines drive people crazy. As a result, the questgiver tells you to wait a day before going to rescue more slaves to preserve your sanity. Fair enough. Only problem is, if you complete the quest again tomorrow, he will be just as shocked to hear that the mines are driving people nuts as he was the first time.

The solution would have been to have a non-repeatable first round where the priest is shocked, and then have the repeatable version remark that yep, the mines are still making people crazy. But hey, what's a little logic when it comes to nutty quest givers? Just no one tell him that we're turning the slaves loose to run into the Vrykul village, where they are likely as not to be killed or recaptured anyway, he might really lose it.

Why wipe them out when you can hurt their feelings?
The Death Knight Baron Sliver wants you to demoralize the local Vrykul. To do this, he has you slaughter 15 of them per day and plant ebon blade banners on the bodies for good measure. He hands this quest out to probably hundreds of players per day, and it's actually hard to find living Vrykul to kill for quests in the area because they're all dead with banners sticking out of them.

All of which begs the question of why we want to demoralize the enemy if we could just kill them outright. I guess those Death Knights can be mean when they set their minds to it.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The entry barrier to playing a healer

The perennial topic of incentives for healers has crept back up to the top of my blogroll over the last two days.

The steep learning curve
Rohan got tired of not being able to find groups and respecced his Pally for healing, only to be surprized by the learning curve.

The closest I've ever come to serious healer like activity is click-casting decurses with my mage, and, frankly, I found it stressful in group settings. I was asked to join a PUG raid on the Obsidian Sanctum the other day (aside: don't PUG OS unless you're absolutely sure the group doesn't contain multiple players who won't move out of the bleeping wall of fire because it lowers their personal DPS numbers) for the sole purpose of decursing on trash, and I frankly semi-failed that extremely simple role because it didn't occur to me to drag out pet health bars from my UI (and good luck doing that in combat if you don't know where the option is).

Point being, I don't see how you're supposed to learn to heal if you don't already know - heck, Rohan healed raids extensively in TBC, and he sounds like he had a tough time getting back into it. I guess you can always try to heal stuff that's 10 levels below you until you get the hang of it, but that's a fair chunk of patience.

Healing incentives
Syp's got a good summary up on healing incentives and disincentives. It's worth noting that I actually liked Warhammer's Rune Priest, I just hated being the first to die in a flurry of focus fire in every single skirmish. My solution to this problem was to reroll Witch Hunter and go inflict the same punishment on other fledgling healers, so not only did I give up on Warhammer healing, but I might have helped drive others off from it as well (sorry, guys).

If/when I get around to giving Warhammer another shot, I should really try to find some friendly bloggers willing to babysit a new Rune Priest up to a high enough level to see if I like the class better with all its defensive tools.

What if this is NOT an incentive question?
Much as I hate to ask that question, part of me wonders if the problem here isn't the in-game incentives as the out of game ones. Healers face an out-of-game learning curve as they try to adapt to group tactics, which are typically very different from solo ones. Healers face out of game pressures for performance that generally serve to raise their stress level disproportionately compared to other classes. If the tank isn't putting out enough threat, the DPS can slow their damage, and, if the DPS isn't doing enough damge, the tank and healer can try to cover with longevity, but there's no helping it if the healer can't keep up for whatever reason.

What makes this tough is that it isn't something that a dev can solve by throwing achievements, contribution, loot, etc at it. Those are much easier fixes than social pressures that the devs have little control over. Short of designing a game with no healing whatsoever, I'm not sure how to address this one.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Examining Mage Emblem of Heroism Rewards

I'm currently away from WoW for the week due to holiday travel, which gives me a bit of time to think about how I plan to spend my hard-earned Wrath currency equivalents. Since it seemed like some folks enjoyed my post on heirloom items, and I'm not going to come up with any other topics while out of game, I figured I might as well post my thoughts.

I'm looking at these from the point of view of a mage, but they might be useful thoughts for other clothies, YMMV.

The big picture
Via WoWhead, the [Emblem of Heroism] is used to purchase 138 items. Doing a quick filter for items usable by mages trims the list down to 27 items (there's a duplicate Mammoth mount in the list because the Alliance and Horde get different colors). Take out:
- The mount
- Six various items that provide tanking stats and/or attack power
- The non-soulbound [Frozen Orb],
- The five pieces of the Savage Gladiator's Regalia set (available through PVP, so not a high priority for me)

And the list is down to 14 items that aren't available elsewhere. Let's see how they break down.

The [Ward of the Violet Citadel] is a very nice off-hand, available for the low cost of 25 emblems, which I could actually afford right now. The spell hit is not a priority for me since I'm not actively raiding at the moment, but, even so, it's a nice upgrade from the [Prison Manifest] I'm currently carrying in my off-hand - even if I ignore the hit rating, it's a best-in-slot item prior to 25-man raiding.

I will probably end up buying one of these sooner rather than later just for the 8 spell power and 23 crit rating, with the hit rating being a bonus for those PUG Archavon raids. If you're raiding, this is a nigh must-have.

(Also on offer is the [Handbook of Obscure Remedies], but this trades in hit rating - which IS useful for raiding - for spirit, which isn't really usable by mages, making it seem like more of a healer item.)

I'm not sure what to make of these two offerings. I would peg the [Encircling Burnished Gold Chains] as a caster DPS item due to the hit rating (after all, heals can't miss), but, like many seemingly caster items, they spend a decent chunk of item budget on Spirit, which really doesn't help mages. I think I'd actually prefer the [Lattice Choker of Light], though I'm guessing it's intended to be a healer item (espec Pallies?) due to the mana/5s.

These guys are both reasonable cheap at 25 emblems. That said, I'd take a Hateful Gladiator's Pendant over either item (Blizzard has even taken the step of offering a seemingly PVE-oriented [Hateful Gladiator's Pendant of Ascendancy] with hit rating, or swap out the hit rating for your choice of haste or crit ratings). Stamina and Resilience aren't strictly speaking PVE stats, but they're still more useful than mana regen in my book, cause a dead mage does no damage. Meanwhile, I'm pulling in 5K honor/day anyway in Wintergrasp, so there's no reason to spend comparatively rarer emblems on this slot.

Tier 7 Armor Tokens
The tokens for the tier 7 Robe and Gloves sell for 80 and 60 emblems, respectively, and there's no question that I'd spend 140 emblems on them if I had that many emblems. The [Heroes' Frostfire Gloves] is a hands down, best in slot item for the tier. Unfortunately, the [Heroes' Frostfire Robe] continues the irritating trend of spirit on mage items - if you compare it to the [Water-Drenched Robe] I'm wearing now via heroic 5-man content, much of the difference in item budget is spent on that whopping 60 points of spirit. The two piece bonus probably makes it worthwhile anyway if you're already sporting one other piece of the set, but that aspect of things is a bit disappointing.

The other catch is that 140 emblems is going to take a while. If I earned 12 emblems per week (2 from pugging Archavon, two additional Heroic dungeons at 5 emblems each), I'd have the two items by late March. As I discussed for the robe, that's a lengthy time investment for items that I could win outright on a lucky roll at Archavon any given week (especially since the set bonus is a large part of the upgrade from the blue I'm currently wearing, so any of the other three pieces would also do). For that matter, there might be a new content patch with better items available by March.

I have a hard time justifying holding off on spending my emblems for that long while there are still other items that I might snag with them. The gloves are probably worth the emblems anyway, but the robe looks more like a luxury item to me at the moment.

Your choices here are the healer-oriented [Elegant Temple Gardens' Girdle] (funny how many of these items' names cannot be contained in a mere three words) or the [Plush Sash of Guzbah], for 40 emblems. The Sash is a nice DPS item, and I'd call it an upgrade over the other items in the slot (notably the [Belt of Dark Mending] for exalted with the Ebon Blade and the [Hateful Gladiator's Cord of Dominance] for just shy of 50K honor).

Then again, both of the others are, for someone with my playstyle at least, easier to obtain than 40 emblems. This one probably goes on hold for a bit.

There are two trinkets here - the [Sundial of the Exiled] and the [The Egg of Mortal Essence] (which intended for healers with the proc effect, but 98 spell power on a trinket is not horrible). Either trinket will run you 40 emblems. The PTR has a clone of the Sundial as a Wintergrasp mark reward though it's unclear whether they intended that trinket to have resilience instead - if it stays as is, that would slightly diminish the value of these guys by occupying one of your trinket slots. Either trinket would be a large upgrade for non-raiders with few comparable options, so it's just a question of figuring out when to spend the emblems.

Heirloom Items
There are four mage-relevant heirlooms, three of which are pretty irrelevant to the level 80 mage.

(Those three are the [Tattered Dreadmist Mantle] for 40 emblems, the [Dignified Headmaster's Charge] for 65 emblems, and the [Swift Hand of Justice] for 50 emblems. As I noted in my article on heirlooms, I'd rather take the Wintergrasp versions of either the staff or the shoulders.)

The exception is the [Discerning Eye of the Beast], for 50 emblems. The Eye is not as good as the soulbound trinkets, but you can pass it to your alts for leveling and/or when you no longer want it on your main. It's not a min-maxer choice, but it's definitely tempting for long-term value if you're ever planning on leveling caster alts.

Heirlooms are also going to be your main sink for excess emblems once you've got everything else you want from this shopping list, but that's another story.

So what will Green buy?
Having been through the options, I'm pretty much decided on spending the 25 emblems I have now on the off-hand. There's no replacing the combo of that offhand with a [Flameheart Spell Scalpel] unless you're farming Naxx, which I suspect won't be me for the near future. Beyond that, not to cop out, but the priority will probably be a trinket. My trinket slots are a big of a hodge-podge at the moment, and having one solid, always equipped trinket would be a good thing. The only possible hesitation would be if if the Wintergrasp trinket stays unchanged and I decide to become a Jewelcrafter, but I will probably make up my mind on that front before I earn another 40 emblems. If I'm in doubt, the gloves would be the next priority.

I would love to get the robe for the T7 bonus, but I just don't see when I'll be able to snag 80 emblems. If I start snagging 20+ per week that would be a much higher priority, but that's not in my schedule for now - it doesn't make sense in my view to be toting around enough emblems for a major upgrade to my existing gear in the hopes that I will eventually get to 80. As I said up top, the amulets don't strike me as worth the effort for a side-grade, and the belt is an upgrade but not an exciting one over the PVP version (which I will have within a few days of getting home).

Depending on how involved I get in leveling any alts, I might be switching over to farming heirloom items in as few as 60 emblems from now (if I snag the gloves, pass on the robes and belt, and then opt for the Eye over the other trinkets). Even if I went after everything for my main, I'd still be done with emblem upgrades 220 badges from now. Of course, there's also that looming content patch to consider. It would be sad to sink a huge number of emblems into a big ticket item, only to see a substantial upgrade that only costs 20 more emblems come out down the line.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Recapping Winter's Veil Achievements

Before the Winter's Veil holiday kicked off, I took a crack at breaking down the Winter's Veil achievements. Having wrapped up all of the achievements, I figured I might as well post a wrap-up before the holiday ends so that those of you still working on them can read all about it. The three I predicted would cause problems weren't as bad as I'd anticipated, but two that I didn't think of have seen complaints.

- The HK's in the gnome costume was potentially irritating, but I wound up getting it in one Wintergrasp siege. This one would obviously be a lot harder for melee classes than ranged DPS, but it's not unattainable - melee can always man turrets to participate without wading into harm's way.

- The Winter hat was potentially a dealbreaker for me simply because I'm going to be away from home next week, and thus had less time to farm one up. The good news is that the hat turns out to drop from the first boss of the Nexus, a level 70 dungeon, so you can run that dungeon quickly, kill the boss, and reset it to run it again for the rest of your group. A few level 80 characters can snag this without a proper healer/tank as needed - I was able to get mine with a level 75 DK tanking and a balance druid healing occasionally, though we added a rogue to make the last pull (with four mobs) a bit easier. I even got several Stone Keeper Shards out of the deal, since we owned Wintergrasp at the time. As Euripedes points out, some classes can even solo a hat. (I may have to try this for shards someday.)

- The present boxes, containing the racer, didn't go live until 6 AM server time on the 25th. Fortunately, I was able to log in from the road for long enough to complete the last crucial achievement, so my hopes of a violet proto-drake in 2009 remain alive.

The two achievements I DIDN'T anticipate causing problems were:

- The Horde version of Bros before Ho Ho Ho's caused some problems, even though there are only three brothers to visit, because one of them is on an airship in Icecrown that is very hard to reach before you unlock your flying mount for Northrend at level 77. I'm not sure what portion of the playerbase that cares about achievements will not have reached level 77 by the New Year, but it would certainly be frustrating to fall into that group. The only consolation I can offer is that this is an achievement that can be completed immediately in Winter's Veil 2009 if you don't make it this year - it would be a much more serious problem if we were talking about something like the Brew of the Year achievement that can't be done for a year after NEXT year's Brewfest if you missed it.

- The other achievement that got complaints was The Winter Veil Gourmet. One of the three recipes requires 325 cooking skill to learn. Most achievement hounds reluctantly conceded that they had to level cooking or give up. The group that ran into serious problems here was the people who decided to go to war with the Steamwheedle Cartel in exchange for the pirate hat. It turns out that the quest needed to advance past 225 cooking is given out in Gadgetzan, and thus is unavailable to pirates.

In fairness, there isn't a good reason why that particular quest couldn't be available somewhere else. That said, I hope these Bloodsail Admirals realize that, every time they cause this sort of a scene on the forums, they're reminding Blizzard why they should not have offered anything like the Bloodsail rep in the first place and certainly never should again.

Wrapping up the holiday
Overall, as I said, originally, it looks like Winter's Veil went reasonably well. The Lunar Festival's major event is lengthy but completely soloable and not dependent on the random generator, so it looks to me like Blizzard will be in the clear through til February.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Holidays from PVD!

Here's hoping that you're all having happy holidays, with just enough time to sneak away for a bit and check out the festivities in your favorite MMORPG!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Have WoW Players Solved the Effort-Reward Curve?

Tobold appears to have boiled down the point of my lengthy post on the solo grinds at WoW's endgame to a single line. (This isn't necessarily hard to do - I have the time to either write about everything I want to cover OR write about less and spend more time distilling posts down to the minimum, and I tend to prefer the former.) In a post on the economy at level 80, Tobold observes:
"If you can reach your goal with a reasonable effort, why would you want to make an exceptional effort, and grind money for hours for a small incremental effect?"
Citing my example of ilvl 200 epic robes, he notes that he can sell the epic BOE robe he had crafted for his mage/tailor and wait out the raidID resets for a few weeks to get equivalent gear from drops.

Difficulty versus accessibility
There are two main variables the Developers have to consider in designing content that they hope will occupy players for X months until the next patch comes out.

One the one hand, the content needs to be accessible. With respect to those of you who routinely cleared the toughest raids in 1.0/TBC, the devs' time is not being well spent if 90% of players don't make it in the front door due to the attunement requirement and another 5% can't make any meaningful progress if they do get in.

Case in point, my old 40-man raiding guild (which once ranked in the top 10 on our server) never saw any 25-man TBC dungeons. Tired of slow progress through Karazhan, about a third of the guild broke off to form a successful 25-man raiding guild of their own. Another third eventually raided with other guilds, and the rest of us either quit or rode out the rest of the expansion cycle in non-raid content. This would be fine if there was enough non-raid content to go around, but Blizzard is clearly struggling to keep up in all aspects of the game.

Lowering difficulty to increase accessibility
To address this problem, or perhaps over-react to it, Blizzard went the opposite direction in Wrath. Every raid (well, the one legitimate dungeon and two one-off encounters currently in the game) is now available in 10-man flavors, and the content has been tuned to allow groups to "bring the player, not the class". This motto means that, instead of requiring 100% efficiency at the risk of dictating what classes must be in the raid to provide the requisite combination of buffs/debuffs, Blizzard is allowing more flexibility (say, for the sake of argument, 86% efficiency).

The catch is that, with easier content, there are less in the way of incentives to go all out with the best gear/enhancements that money can buy. It also paved the way for guilds - and not just the ones who push the envelope to 100+% efficiency - to clear all the raids in the game with the next major content patch nowhere in sight. (3.0.8 will need to wrap its test cycle before 3.1 and Ulduar can even hit the test realms, and, given the combination of Christmas and New Year's, somehow I doubt that 3.0.8 is going live before January 6th.)

How do players make their cost-benefit decisions?
The central design of MMORPG is that time spent playing leads to greater power for your character. The rate at which characters improve slows over time as players get closer to running out of content - a level 1 WoW character gains level 2 after a mere 8 mob kills (before they can complete their very first quest), while later levels can take hours, and rep/token grinds for gear at the level cap take days. Eventually, a player is going to hit the point at which the effort needed to reach the next minor upgrade is more trouble than it's worth. The tweaks the devs make to try and convince most players that the next minor upgrade really IS worth the time is the nuts and bolts of what I call the player vs developer process.

If Tobold is right, and it's definitely a reasonable theory, the difficulty of raiding zones created an artificial incentive to push the envelope. Players didn't WANT to spend time farming gold to pay for consumables, and guilds didn't WANT to tell their off-specs they weren't welcome in raids, they just HAD to in order to complete the content. Blizzard nerfs raids to improve accessibility, and, as an unintended consequence, players no longer care about the highest of the incremental upgrades.

The consequences of living the easy life?
What I find fascinating about this unfolding story is what it says about the way the playerbase makes its cost-benefit decisions.

I suspect that I'm probably on the extreme end of the curve in terms of evaluating these things - case in point, I wrote up probably 1000 words evaluating heirloom items to determine which ones I'd get the most milage from, where a normal player would just trust their gut and buy whatever their most recent alt wanted. When I complain about an incentive question, that should probably carry less weight because I think too much on these topics. On the other hand, we may now have reached the point where the majority of the playerbase (or, at least, the portion of the playerbase that would ever consider raiding) can tell by trusting their guts that the top of the line is more trouble than it's worth to them.

That's fascinating and potentially dangerous for Blizzard - people who are out of content right now might have some less than kind words to say about the difficulty of the expansion, but that doesn't necessarily mean they'll be thrilled to go back to a grind that they have realized that they would, given the choice, prefer not to do.

For example, Blizzard defended the concept of the "resist check" fight at a Blizzcon raid design panel over boo's from the crowd. From the developer standpoint, resist fights represent a tactical tradeoff between optimal damage and mitigating the incoming attacks on the entire group. From the player side of the equation, resist fights are often hated because they require large amounts of time farming gear and consumables (in the process delaying their progress) to overcome an artificial barrier imposed by the devs. How will a generation of raiders who have grown accustomed to bringing the player, rather than the class, not needing top of the line everything, etc, react if the next dungeon implements a truly challenging resist check?

Player/Developer cooperation?
I'm not - though others might, and it's certainly their perogative - arguing that the changes to raiding in Wrath are bad. I call the process "player versus developer" but the devs (hopefully) would prefer happy players to players reluctantly jumping through hoops. It would certainly seem like the new regime would allow greater participation and less burnout, and I believe Blizzard when they say that they don't intend to make raids as difficult as Sunwell/Naxx1.0 in the future (though time will tell how that holds up).

The real bottom line, though, is that more accessible content places added pressure on Blizzard to deliver content at a greater rate than they managed during the TBC era. I'm not sure that anything other than time can actually derail WoW's success in the near future, but, if you asked for a guess, I'd say that Blizzard's glacial patch cycle (especially if resources start shifting to mystery project number 4 as it nears completion) is probably the biggest threat to this brave new World (of Warcraft).

Monday, December 22, 2008

Heirloom Items and Alt Priorities

I'm rapidly drawing near to the point where I'll have enough of Wrath's various currencies to buy my very first heirloom items. The quirk of these items being from a currency, rather than a typical reputation, is that I have to pick one item to purchase first. The extra special quirk is that which items my alts will need depends on which alts I intent to play.

Heroic Badges versus Stone Keeper Shards
The Wintergrasp-related [Stone Keeper's Shard] is used for a variety of PVP-related enchants, meta gems, and jewelcrafting recipes, none of which I'm making a high priority of right now. As a result, I'm really free to use these guys almost exclusively on heirloom items without feeling like I'm passing up the chance to help out my main. (Don't cry for Greenwiz, he's earning a good 8K honor per day in Wintergrasp and is well on his way to his third epic quality PVP reward item, and that's BEFORE they add in the rumored Wintergrasp mark rewards.)

The only bad news is that these things have PVP stats, with a focus on stamina and resilience. If, at some point down the road, I ended up with an excess of [Emblem of Heroism], I might regret spending shards now on an item I would prefer to replace with its PVE equivalent. I'm not sure how likely this is to happen, though - my main remains my favorite character and there are almost no heirloom items I would consider equipping on him.

(The exception is the [Discerning Eye of the Beast], which would actually be a decent upgrade in the short term, and could be passed down to my caster alts, and/or to my Pally for a healing set piece or somesuch. If my caster alts more of a priority, this item would probably top my wishlist. On paper, the [Swift Hand of Justice] can be equipped and used by ANY class because Haste rating is now universal, but I can't see myself using that on my mage at the moment.)

Shouldering the exp burden
The heirloom shoulder items are the only in-game source of bonus experience in WoW. I'd say that the two most noteworthy of these are the cloth [Exquisite Sunderseer Mantle] for casters and the leather [Exceptional Stormshroud Shoulders] for melee DPS.

The reason why I pick out those two in particular is because, with those two, you can equip any class in the game with a pair of shoulders that isn't totally irrelevant to their spec. Sure, you're losing a lot of raw armor value, and the stats won't be spent exactly how you might prefer for the melee version (the platewearers in particular would like strength) but I'll take those two debuffs in exchange for bonus exp any day of the week. The loser on the utility scale has to be the healing Pally shoulders, the [Pristine Lightforge Spaulders], which are only usable by one spec of one class, and not a spec that most players will use to level. I'm sure they're great if you're using your Pally as a low level healing twink in PVP, but otherwise that's a lot of shards to sink on a single item.

Of course, if you are getting that much milage out of them, that might make you think twice about whether you'd prefer to get something that has the stats you actually want, which was why I mentioned the topic of the PVE badges up top. Of all the items on the list, I'd get probably the most use out of the leather shoulders, but I'd also be most likely to want to replace them if I ever had emblems to spare.

(The cloth ones are relatively similar (in fact, I might prefer the Wintergrasp version to the [Tattered Dreadmist Mantle], which opts to spend item budget on spirit. The big difference is that the melee leather shoulders - the [Stained Shadowcraft Spaulders] - are more universally useful than their wintergrasp counterpart because they feature hit rating, hard to get pre-Outland, and lots of attack power over Agility, useful for some classes but not others, and less attackpower.)

If you're planning caster alts, you want a staff, and there are cases to be made for either the Wintergrasp [Grand Staff of Jordan] (hit rating is hard to come by at low levels) or the PVE [Dignified Headmaster's Charge] (int and crit are more useful than resilience). There is a 1H mace for the healers, but there is no accompanying heirloom shield/offhand, so it would really only appeal to Holy Pallies. (I guess the other exception would be for players who want to be able to off-heal in instances as needed and don't want to be bothered to keep a current healing weapon on hand, but, again, that's a specific niche market, and you know if you fall into it.)

The melee weapons are more complicated because they really force you to sit down and figure out which classes you're actually going to play. Some questions:

- Have you been meaning to play an Enhancement Shaman? Wintergrasp's 2H weapon is a sword, which Shamen cannot equip, while the Emblem 2H weapon is an axe.

- Does your race, class (Rogues need daggers for a number of special attacks), or talent spec (weapon mastery talents for Rogues and Warriors) favor a specific type of weapon? Having a guaranteed scaling version of that weapon may be very valuable to you. (The other PVE vs PVP difference is that Wintergrasp offers a gun while the Emblem ranged weapon is a bow, so take note if you're planning a troll or a dwarf hunter.)

- Will your new alt pick up the ability to dual wield (or, for Fury Warriors, later pick up the ability to dual wield 2H weapons) down the road, changing what type of weapons your new alt wants? This may or may not influence Feral Druids as well, since Feral attack power staves (whatever they're going to be called after the changes next minipatch) aren't available pre-Outland.

One minor additional wrinkle is that you're going to have to use a pre-TBC enchant on your new toy, because the items count as level 1 (since they scale down that far) for the purposes of enchants. This isn't too bad for the melee weapons, but the old school +30 spell damage enchant for weapons is a recipe that drops in the Molten Core, which means that you may have a hard time finding anyone who HAS the recipe to enhance your new staff.

For my own characters
I think my two top choices right now are the [Sharpened Scarlet Kris] and the previously discussed Stormshroud Spaulders.

The dagger is nice because I can use it on both my rogue (Cheerydeth version 3.0) and my Hunter (who can't use exp bonus shoulders because I'm keeping him at the same level as my wife's druid, who won't have access to my account's heirloom items unless I paid to transfer a character over to her account to deliber them). It would also see potential use for a future Feral Druid, Enhancement Shaman, or Fury Warrior (the likely specs I'd go with for each of those three classes), and the rogue (and Hunter) would happily dual wield daggers if I someday got the badges for a [Balanced Heartseeker].

Despite the concern that I'd rather have the PVE leather shoulders, the fact remains that they would be usable by almost every alt I'm considering leveling. My main is a mage, I'm not a fan of the shadow priest spec, and I'd rather do Feral/Enhance over Balance/Elemental if I do a Druid or Shaman, so the cloth shoulders would really only be for my Warlock, if I ever decided to dust her off. I suppose there's nothing stopping me from getting a pair of the PVE [Polished Spaulders of Valor] if I ever find myself swimming in badges.

So that's where I sit on heirloom items at the moment. I don't know how useful this wall of text was to all of you reading this, but hopefully you either A) learned something or B) got something useful out of reading the thought process I used to evaluate them.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Are the Solo Portions of WoW's Endgame Worth Doing?

Let's say you want to obtain an ilvl 200, epic quality set of cloth robes. Via Wowhead, here are your options:

1. Obtain exalted reputation with the Kirin Tor. (Also gets you access to other rep rewards, and likely some combination of cash or dungeon drops depending on how you get there.)
2. Craft, or have crafted for you, one of the three Tailoring BOE robes (costs you a lot of money, but can be done immediately - earning said money probably netted you other stuff like rep, dungeon drops, etc).
3. Join an arena PVP team, earn some points, and obtain at least a 1675 rating in order to be allowed to spend them on the robe. (No other fringe benefits, beyond the fact that you now have a 1675 rated arena team.)
4. Kill one of two bosses in the 10-man Naxx raid. (You'll pick up a decent chunk of heroic badges in even a single run, and probably would get a shot at other loot.)
5. Spend 80 heroic badges. (Obviously, you earned these doing some form of dungeon content.)
6. Zerg down 10-man Archavon, which shouldn't take more than 15 minutes, and be friends with the Random Number Generator.

This afternoon, I came within the flip of a coin of the last option (actually the [Heroes' Frostfire Leggings], but I went with robes for this example because there more options for obtaining them), only to lose the roll to the other mage in the group. There's always more loot, so I'm sure I'll have more chances down the road.

The thing that does get to me a bit, though, is how easy getting a drop like that is compared to the solo options. Sure, Archavon is a reward for winning Wintergrasp, and you can only do the raid once a week. That said, I've been working on Kirin Tor rep for literally weeks. I'm doing Heroic dungeons whenever I get the chance. And yet, I'm one lucky roll away from cutting to the front of the line and wondering why I bothered with all the effort in between.

In another example, my Stone Keeper Shards count went over 100 today. I've been getting the majority of my shards via Wintergrasp daily quests, which also award a hefty chunk of honor (I'm wearing the PVP neck and ring rewards now) and Wintergrasp marks of honor (due to be good for something next patch). So typically I'm netting 6-7 shards per day. Well, that total is nothing compared to what you get in a heroic dungeon with the Wintergrasp buff up - 4 shards per boss, with some bosses that are very quick kills. For that matter, a single daily heroic dungeon run will net you at least five badges, and the PVE badge heirloom items cost only 40 badges, compared to 200 keeper shards for items that have PVP stats (which are probably going to be less desirable for leveling your alts).

Is the solo endgame worth it?
People complain frequently about how WoW is "dumbing down" to be accessible to "casuals" (I try to avoid using that word on this blog because it has no agreed-upon meaning within the community, but I suspect people can guess in this context), but make no mistake that the game's best rewards still come from group PVE content. If you have a 2 hour window and a choice between doing a heroic dungeon or running daily quests, it's an absolute no brainer - the heroic nets you 3-7 heroic badges, 9-15 Stone Keeper Shards if your side owns Wintergrasp, a massive pile of reputation, and whatever loot drops during the actual dungeon run.

Of course, one big difference is that the dailies are available whenever, on whatever schedule, while you're going to need to find a group if you want to do heroics. Still, if you find yourself faithfully logging in every day to spend 2 hours on daily quests and then see that progress dwarfed by what you can get in a single afternoon with a skilled group, it's enough to make you question why you spent all the effort on all the other stuff.

(In case anyone raises the effort argument, bear in mind that I'm talking about 5-man content, which you can often 1-shot with a group that has never seen it before, rather than raid content that requires weeks of farming and wiping to learn and complete.)

Ironically, I probably wouldn't even be raising this point if I NEVER did group content. Doing group content SOMETIMES is just enough to notice how much faster I obtain stuff than I do solo. Obviously, I still think it's worthwhile for the moment while the various rewards are streaming in fast and furious from all the reps and tokens I'm obtaining on a daily basis. Once I wrap up with most of the reps, though, it will be harder to justify spending the time online on days when I don't expect to find a group.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Overcrowding woes come to Wintergrasp?

I spent some time talking population balance for Warhammer open RVR, so it's only fair to bring the subject back up now that I've had some more time to play around with the Wintergrasp zone in WoW.

Company is coming to Wintergrasp
Last night, I would guesstimate there were at least 150 players in Wintergrasp during a peak hour siege. The Alliance had one full raid and two nearly full raids (ours had ~35ish, and the other was saying that they were LF5M in general), so that's 110 or so right there, not counting players not in any of the three raids. There were enough Horde to put up at least a bit of a fight in the Wintergrasp keep proper (I don't think they had like 30 stacks of Tenacity or anything) so it could easily have been 200+.

This has a variety of dicey effects on the actual gameplay. First of all, my FPS slowed to an understandable crawl. I certainly could turn down the graphics settings on my machine, but I'm not keen on doing so given that the game runs fine in any other setting, and I did spend a fair amount of money on a computer that could run the game with graphics set to pretty. Second, and more irritating from my perspective, having three raid groups made completion of the daily quests take three times as long - even a second round of fighting, with smaller but still massive numbers well past East Coast peak hours, wasn't enough for me to finish the basic daily quests for the zone.

It's worth noting that this is still EARLY in the expansion cycle. Many players are just hitting level 80 now. I would imagine that quite a few weren't seriously working on PVP until they got to the cap, especially since most of the rewards didn't roll out until yesterday (and some Wintergrasp specific rewards won't go live until 3.0.8 arrives). This could very quickly make Wintergrasp unplayable, especially when you consider that many gamers play WoW precisely BECAUSE their older machines can handle it.

Implications for non-instanced keep PVP
This problem is not unique to WoW. Warhammer has seen keep seiges bring down servers, and the performance issue is one of Mythic's top priorities.

I'm not sure which set of issues will ultimately prove more serious. Warhammer heavily bills their keep seiges as the pinnacle of endgame content, and also provides a bit more notice to help players determine what is under attack (at least, compared to Wintergrasp, which offers no advance notice unless you're in town or you actually go to the zone. In principle, Warhammer has three fronts for its Realm War, though I've heard that the Zone Control mechanic effectively dictates which Fortresses are vulnerable to attack at any given time. By contrast, PVP is a far less integral part of WoW, but there is only one Wintergrasp and it offers some very juicy rewards.

Despite the differences, the problems facing both are ultimately similar. The incentives direct all players to the same location at the same time (Wintergrasp's version is even - with some effort - a predictable time) for one great big slobberknocker of a brawl for the top slot. This may sound cool on paper, but putting that many players in a single location causes a lot of CPU stress for both the players and the server.

Can we tackle this problem with incentives?
I'd argue that this problem is where it is because the incentives favor a massive battle - you can't get any of the rewards if you don't show up. There's no incentive to stand and guard Warhammer's Battlefield Objectives, or WoW's Grizzly Hills World PVP zones. What if controlling these remote locations affected the big battle for the keep, and, more importantly, allowed players guarding the frontier to share in the rewards for the keep siege?

To use Wintergrasp as an example, imagine that controlling the lumber camps in Grizzly Hills allowed the forces in Wintergrasp access to Goblin Shredders (for those who don't know the lore, these are giant robots with saw blades) that can, well, shred enemy vehicles. Now say that players fighting for control of the lumber camps count as being in Wintergrasp for the purpose of bonus honor and marks of victory. Finally, make control of this location worth something to the players who are present in it to compensate them for not being in the thick of the keep siege. Perhaps there can be some task that can be repeated every hour or so for 100 honor, and maybe some daily quests for Stone Keeper's Shards.

None of these things will break the overall incentive scheme for Wintergrasp, or cause players to lose interest in fighting for the actual keep (which would still control the continent-wide buff). They would, however, provide an incentive to counteract the problem of encouraging everyone on the server to descend on the same location at the same time. Even if the result is a bit of inflation, the improved game experience for all concerned would be more than worthwhile.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Accessibility Versus Quality in Season 5 PVP Rewards

World of Warcraft's fifth Arena season kicked off yesterday, and WoWHead has a guide to the new rewards. A few thoughts:

Rewarding PVP versus stealing PVE's thunder
There's a delicate balance between offering good incentives for PVP and undermining the incentives elsewhere in the game. Sure, PVP gear typicaly includes a large amount of stamina and resilience, and these stats are generally not desired for PVE. Then again, they're not disadvantages either, other than that they occupy item budget space that could be spent on other stats - if two items offer the same overall effect on your DPS/healing but one comes with free stamina and resilience, that's not a bad deal.

The issue arises when the PVP rewards are arguably BETTER than their PVE counterparts. For example, many cloth reputation rewards try to fit all cloth specs at once by including spell power and spirit. Mages get very little benefit from spirit, which means that a DPS-focused PVP reward may actually offer a mage BETTER DPS stats than rare-quality rep rewards, in addition to superior survivability. Of course, grinding WoW PVP honor isn't always fun, but neitheer is hitting the same daily quests every day for progress towards a rep reward. If anything, honor is earned much faster at 80 than at 70, and the new honor rewards are actually easier to obtain than inferior rep rewards in many cases.

This is doubly true for the non-set PVP rewards, where the items that compliment the epic quality 10-man raid equivalent PVP sets are available for straight up honor (and, in fact, less honor than pieces of the lower quality heroic dungeon level blue PVP set for non-Arena players). The jump from rare to epic quality alone is enough to give these items a lot of room to grow above what 5-man dungeon rewards offer.

Dealing with separate gear tracks
Blizzard has set up varying tiers of PVP progression to shadow the tiers of PVE progression. The good news is that the system seems to be well designed with room for growth - there's a large amount of space between tiers for everyone to get upgrades over time. There are a few quirks, however.

Weapons are limited to only the highest arena rating set, primarily because this slot usually has the most effect on player stats, and therefore has always been the most cherry-picked. This means that players will have to do PVE content to obtain a non-PVP-focused weapon until they get to the top ranks of the arenas (if they ever get there). That would seem to harken back to the old days where PVP was ruled by players who had raided to outgear the players who had not. Then again, the new system doesn't really offer a direct path at the best quality armor to players without arena ratings either. I guess the compromise is for neither side to be happy.

What happened to Marks of Honor?
One interesting change is that the rewards no longer seem to require any marks of honor from participating in specific battlegrounds. This is a bit strange since battlegrounds continue to award marks as if these marks mattered. In principle, the only use for marks at level 80 is for the old PVP vanity mounts, and for a repeatable quest to cash in marks for honor points. (I can't confirm this because the questgivers in Northrend say I'm not eligible.) I'm not sure if I trust Blizzard not to change their minds on this one, though, so I'm not going to be rushing to cash in my marks just yet.

Meanwhile, there is some question of whether the Alterac Valley mark is now completely without purpose (again, beyond use for some old mounts). AV has always been a balance nightmare for Blizzard, ever since they made the fateful decision to mix PVP with PVE on an asymmetric map (which, predictably, dissatisfied BOTH sides and caused no end of balance squabbles). The solution appears to have been to punt on the problem by de-emphasizing the battleground altogether.

In many ways, Wintergrasp is a better designed and implemented version of what Blizzard may have hoped that AV would become, so it makes some sense to sunset AV. It just seems strange for one of the game's most popular (and controversial) battlegrounds to suddenly be reduced to irrelevance.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Daily Quest Burnout Sets In

Apparently, the three months or so that I spent farming the Outland daily cooking quest for the chocolate cake recipe earned me some rep with the random number generator, because I got the [Reins of the White Polar Bear] on my second day with access to the dailies. I am, of course, happy to have a nifty mount that was near the top of my shopping list for the expansion. Unfortunately, at the moment I might appreciate the fact that I get to cross two daily quests off my list almost as much as the mount.

I'm typically doing at least 10 daily quests per day these days, and I will usually end my day in the high teens. This is, in some ways, my own fault - I could chose to spend the time in game doing other things. Then again, the way that daily quest progress limits work, the system really encourages you to get your dailies (the ones you actually need, not the random ones for cash) in first, because there's no way to make up for lost/skipped time.

In the short term, I've made the executive decision to ignore the Sons of Hodir. I'm still sitting on some banked Arcane Runes, so I can get some of the old shoulder enchants from the Scryers, and I'm replacing gear (including shoulder pads) pretty frequently in any case. Next patch will supposedly let you buy your way out of part or all of this grind - even advancing to honored would help, because I would have access to more options. The three dailies available at friendly are very popular and thus annoying to complete. Dropping Hodir and the Hyldnir Spoils quests leaves me with a more manageable number of dailies. I'll be doing the Patrol, the three for Wyrmrest, and the 3 for the Oracles, plus Wintergrasp if the battle happens at a time I can participate.

That said, I also have to find an alternative use of my time. This can be hard because I play a mage - players debate whether the tank shortage is more severe than the healer shortage, but it's absolutely clear that there is no DPS shortage. What I really wanted to do last night was go get a winter hat for the Winter's Veil achievement, but there just weren't any groups to any of the three possible dungeons that needed a mage in either my guild or the LFG channel during the part of the evening I would have been able to do an instance. I did some PVP, including the new Strands of the Ancients battleground, but I'm still not the hugest fan of WoW's battlegrounds - SotA is similar to Wintergrasp, but I prefer Wintergrasp, so it suffers in my view by the comparison.

So, that just leaves the dwindling number of non-repeatable quests in Northrend, and going back to mop up some achievements. It's disappointing because there is stuff to do in Northrend at 80, it just feels like I'm hitting the wall where I finish my dailies and then have to play LFG lottery for the rest of the evening to see if anything interesting turns up.

Gnome-sized bear + not so gnome-sized disguise = an analogy for me struggling under the weight of daily quests.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Fighting RMT with inflation?

SOE CEO John Smedley gave an interview to Massively on SOE's new Station Cash system. On the topic of EQ2's new paid experience potions, Smedley says:
"I also believe firmly that this will eventually get rid of farming and those things. Or at least it will drastically decrease it. Here's a good example why: Instead of paying some power leveler, buying an experience potion lets you do it yourself a lot faster. Where's the harm in that? That's our thought on it."

Now this is certainly about 95% PR statement in defense of a move that has not been entirely popular. Still, let's take a closer look at that for a minute.

Paid exp inflation to combat power leveling
Presuming that you actually use the entire duration of the potions in question gaining exp, and ignore any increased rate of exp gain as a result of leveling up sooner and moving on to more challenging content, the three levels of exp potion in EQ2 are:
- 10% bonus, 4 hours, costs $1 (One bonus hour's worth of exp for 10 hours of play and $2.50, though you'd actually have to buy 3 potions and have half of the last potion still in effect)
- 25% bonus, 4 hours, costs $3 (One bonus hour's worth of exp for 4 hours of play and $3)
- 50% bonus, 2 hours, costs $10 (One bonus hour's worth of exp for 2 hours of play and $10)

It's striking how you can "pay" for your accelerated exp with some combination of cash and time. An extra $7 gets you the bonus exp 2 hours faster with the top end potion, compared to the middle tier, while $7.50 saves you 8 hours over the cheapest potions. I suppose the middle one is, in some ways, the best deal if you're looking to buy your way out of time spent /played.

Then again, for $10, you could probably bribe the neighborhood kids to go grind on your account for two hours, and get double the benefit of even the best potion. Somehow, I don't expect this to make a huge impact in the power leveling market.

Daily Quest Cash to fight Gold Sellers
I don't recall if Blizzard ever said anything quite so directly on the topic, but the thinking is that the massive amounts of money introduced into the game through daily quests are helping to decrease demand for gold bought with real money. At level 70, your daily quests were worth around 100G/hour, and it looks like the level 80 ones are worth double that. This has driven some inflation, but not nearly as much as I would have expected - gems, enchanting materials, etc, are all priced low enough that I don't even consider farming them myself when I can buy them for the gold from 1-2 daily quests.

Maybe the increased ease of obtaining gold is helping, but, overall, I suspect that Blizzard's efforts to combat sellers directly (and the increasingly bad reputation the latter are getting for obtaining all of their product via compromised player accounts) are doing more on this front than any decreased demand driven by daily quest cash. Then again, creating all these daily quests may actually be increasing the extent to which some players feel that earning gold is a grind that they would rather not be doing with their limited in-game time on.

Addressing Demand Is Good
I and others have long maintained that gold sellers, power levelers, etc, cannot be beaten by attacking the supply side alone. Companies that want to stop these transactions have to improve the respective grinds in their games so that players don't feel that they must get to the end of the road BEFORE they can do what they actually want to do in the game. Allowing various forms of inflation to the economy/exp curve is certainly a start, but it's going to take a lot more before the "report spam" button is no longer a mandatory feature for MMORPG clients.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Non-Currency Currencies

I wasn't sure what to expect from the abundance of various tokens in Wrath, but it turns out that all of the above are easier to get than I expected. After mere days at level 80, I'm at somewhere around 10-15% of the [Stone Keeper's Shard] total for my first account-bound Heirloom item. I'm also sitting on seven [Emblem of Heroism] for one run through the Heroic Daily quest and one zerg of 10-man Archavon, and Greenwiz even owns his very first 25-man "raid" kill (and two tokens) for the 25-man version of the Vault. Part of the difference for me is that I'm actually in a quality guild that runs (and, more importantly, can be TRUSTED to run) instances. Still, I'm making much faster progress than I expected.

Currencies and something for everyone
It does seem like in-game currencies are everywhere these days - EQ2's new expansion is centered around a currency called Void Shards (which has resulted in some interesting "uses" of the game's mentoring system) awarded through a daily/weekly quest mechanic. That said, Blizzard seems to have refined the system to a science.

With account-bound items, both the Heroic badges and the Wintergrasp shards (which are even available in non-heroic dungeons, if you're fortunate enough to be running one at a time when your faction controls Wintergrasp) can be used to buy items that you can mail to low level alts. As a result, even players with 25-man raid gear have at least some incentive to visit easier content. Wrath has also introduced a "championing" mechanic, which means that players can gain reputation with any of five separate factions while in Wrath 5-man dungeons. The latter is a large improvement over TBC, where players were forced to focus on specific dungeons if they wanted credit for a specific reputation - now you're free to run any dungeon and won't stop benefiting from rep until you've maxxed out all five factions.

Overall, the system is much better at providing incentives to use the content, which should greatly increase accessibility for everyone. (It also means that players with level 80 healers and tanks will probably have alts fully decked out with all manner of account-bound goodies in short enough order.) The developers even get a win here, because currencies, unlike reputations, are spent and must be replenished before you get your next goodie (instead of getting access to all the rewards at once from a faction vendor). This is one feature of Wrath that I hope more developers copy sooner rather than later.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Perils of Microtransactions, and the Wrath 3.0.8 PTR

UPDATE (3:10 PM EST): The line about DK appearences has been removed from the newer version of the notes, so there might NOT be any new textures beyond the ones introduced in the expansion launch. Take the relevant section of this post with a grain of salt.

Warhammer's getting a new patch today, and you know what that means: Breaking news from Blizzard! (This is why competition in the MMORPG marketplace is a good thing, even if you're never going to play another game beyond your own.) Some tidbits:

Paid Character Recustomization
The rumored paid character customization system was rolled out live with zero advance notice, perhaps figuring that any complaints would be lost in the storm over EQ2 exp potions. The changes are benign for the most part - $15 lets you change any portion of your character's appearance that does NOT affect gameplay, i.e. gender, face, skin color, name, etc. As Rohan notes, I don't expect there to be an Azeroth-shaking number of takers for this.

The only catch? The PTR patch notes are mentioning that:
Death Knights have access to unique death-knight only facial textures and skin tones. These can be selected at the character creation screen.
Ordinarily, I'm 100% behind companies raising a little revenue by offering cosmetic perks that don't affect gameplay. Catch is, Death Knights are one of the major features of the expansion, which is less than a month old.

Maybe there was no malicious intent, but it certainly looks suspicious to be adding in new appearances so soon after the expansion and charging a $15 fee to access them on existing characters. However, offering Death Knights a free do-over would set a precedent for future additions. This is exactly why adding microtransactions to an existing subscription game can be dangerous.

Fanservice from the PTR's
From the version of the PTR notes up on MMO Champion (I'm writing this off of the 15:30 CET update), there are some interesting tidbits about the new PTR, which is supposedly going up today (client is already out for download).

- I will be receiving the Loremaster of Kalimdor achievement retroactively, as they're cutting the quest requirement rather than taking the time to figure out what the problems are.

- Warlocks and Shadow Priests can rejoice, as DOT's and other debuffs will apparently tap enemies. I'm curious whether this means that every class will now have some form of instant-cast tapping spell.

- They've finally removed the race restrictions from mounts, so expect to see a bunch of Alliance on Mechanostriders and Tauren on, well, anything but a Kodo. This is one of those lore things that someone on the dev team apparently got worked up over late in the original beta, only to bend the rules for an increasing variety of rare mounts. I don't see why Blizzard would WANT to restrict players from timesinks, and apparently Blizzard finally agrees, four years later.

- That said, the racial mount change was almost certainly driven by the addition of new mount achievements. Basically, any mount achievement that a Tauren can manage is relatively easy for everyone else. There are new mount/minipet achievements up to 100 of each. I'm not sure that there even are 100 minipets in the game at the moment (Warcraft Pets lists 110, but that includes promotional pets that aren't even available anymore). After a skim through Warcraft Mounts, I'm pretty sure that 100 mounts will be similarly difficult/impossible without raid achievements, rare/raid drops, and possibly even the CCG mounts that cost real money. Expect many, many complaints on this front from the community if the version MMO-Champion is reporting is accurate. The reward here is not merely a different colored mount, but the elusive flying Dragonhawk mount used in the patch 2.4 dailies.

- There are a variety of interesting class changes. Slow Fall is now castable on other players, which opens the door for crazy mid-air battles. The confusing Feral Attack Power stat has been removed, with an overhaul to the underlying mechanics to get the same effect without having to create weapons that only one spec of one class wants. Fury Warriors get some buffs to Bloodthirst and Titan's Grip (no hit penalty!). Arcane mages are supposedly in for a bit of a revamp, as are hunters.

- Finally, MMO-Champion datamined a "pack mule" spell that summons a mule that lets you browse your bank. That's potentially pretty cool, if it isn't the reward for some insane combination of achievements or something.

Overall, nothing groundbreaking here that's really going to shake the post-80 game. Still, it looks like an interesting polish patch overall.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Setting Priorities Post-80

I will probably have more commentary to offer on the length of Wrath as an expansion, beyond my little tongue in cheek announcement from yesterday, at some point down the line. That aside, I'm not done with the expansion (yet), and there are some interesting decisions to be made on where to set my priorities. Here's what I'm thinking about the stuff that lies in front of me in the less-than-one-month-old Wrath era.

If only my Mirror images could split up and work on separate goals at once....

Reputation and Daily Quests
I made a deliberate decision while leveling to focus on daily quests as they were available, in order to get a head start on rep rewards. It has paid off to some extent - I'm exalted with the Kalu'ak, a day from revered with Wyrmrest (netting me a head enchant and a new pair of bracers), and close to revered with the Argent Crusade. There are definitely more things to work on here, both rare mounts from certain factions, and gear from others.
Priority: High.
Due to the limits of daily progress, daily quest progress is something you have to set at the top of your priorities. However, juggling too many dailies at once makes your gaming time seem like signing on to do the chores. There's a balance to be struck, leaving time for other things.

Unfinished Quests
Again, due to my focus on dailies, I have a relatively large number of unfinished quests, though some of these go pretty quickly at level 80 with an epic flying mount. I'm doing zones mostly in order, so there are a significant number of gear upgrades waiting for me in the Storm Peaks and Icecrown.
Priority: Low or High.
Finishing out the Borean Tundra for cash and achievement credit isn't that high on my list. Finishing quests that unlock daily quest lines, or contribute rep to factions I'm working on, are a much higher priority. Then again, all of this stuff will still be around tomorrow, and equally difficult (or easier) to accomplish.

Wintergrasp and PVP in general
Wintergrasp will be my main source for the coveted heirloom items - while there are some for PVE, I will probably want to save heroic badges for gear for my main. The other good news is that honor points that I earn while fighting in Wintergrasp are, in principle, good for upgrades for my main. In some ways, the enforced time limit in Wintergrasp is an improvement over regular battlegrounds - you're not going to spend any more than 45 minutes per match, and there's no re-queueing right after it ends, so you don't have the option of repeating it until you get frustrated.
Priority: Medium.
There is a daily quest factor to consider - I typically won't go to Wintergrasp unless I have BOTH the "kill 20 enemies" AND the "win the battle" dailies available, and it can be hard to even find out the battle is going. Additionally, the Season 5 arena/honor gear is not yet available, meaning that many players are wearing old level 70 stuff or non-PVP focused leveling gear. In a month or two, most of the competition may have outgeared me. (Also, playing in PUG's may get less pleasant when the season starts, as players with no interest in PVP swarm the battlegrounds for points toward loot.) That said, I will have to do some PVP next week for the Winter's Veil achievement.

I would definitely like to complete each 5-man dungeon at least once, just to see the sights. The level 80 versions also offer customizable reputation (wear a tabard to direct your rep gains to a specific faction), and there's the possibility of badges/shards if the Alliance holds Wintergrasp and/or I'm attempting Heroics.
Priority: Low.
I'm not worried enough about this to do PUG's at the moment. If my guild is going after something and I'm free, I will probably drop whatever else I'm doing to tag along. Still, there is plenty of time for 5-mans, which may actually get easier as people out-gear them. Also, I'm probably in for some Winter's Veil runs next week anyway.

This one is complicated because I'm considering dropping tailoring for jewelcrafting. I'm definitely working on enchanting - by and large, I've been able to level the profession by enchanting my own gear as I obtained quest upgrades (or non-upgrades that are good for dusting).
Priority: Very Low.
Prices on crafting materials will only drop over time.

I have various alts that I'm considering leveling at some point, notably my 70 Pally, a 58 DK, and a level 20 rogue.
Priority: Very Low.
While there is something to be said for taking time occasionally to burn rested exp, I'm not that worried about it. I'm working towards some heirloom items anyway, so I figure there's no harm in waiting until I have some. The main exception to this is that my wife is on semester break from grad school at the moment, so we might take a bit of time to dust off our old alts.

Misc Achievements and Cold Hard Cash
Just about everything is good for some misc Achievement or cash these days.
Priority: Very Low.
Since these things are everywhere, I'm not really focusing on them at the moment. I suppose that technically the achievements do carry the date they were completed, but I'd rather do things that actually affect gameplay before working on cosmetic stuff.

In some ways, that's a lot of stuff. In other ways, it isn't. We're a month into the expansion and I somehow found time to finish about half of the non-repeatable solo quests while juggling daily quests and leveling. I haven't even unlocked all of the reputations yet, but most of the ones currently in the game can be completed within a month or so. We'll see how long this list looks in mid-January.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Exp for Sale: Microtransactions invade Everquest/EQ2

Sony has apparently, with little to no advance warning, rolled out a microtransaction system for Everquest and EQ2. Clockwork Gamer has a writeup of the items and prices in EQ2.

Most of the items are cosmetic, such as cosmetic armor (EQ2 has cosmetic slots so you can hide the "hobo" appearence of the gear you're actually wearing), a minipet, and house items. The items go for a few dollars to as much as $10 for a full set of armor - the latter seems like a lot, but you don't outlevel cosmetic gear, so it's actually a permanent change of appearence for your character if desired. (Then again, you will be broadcasting to the world that you spend real money on your character, your social consequences may vary.)

The exception, which could have serious ramifications for subscription MMORPG's going forward, is EXP potions.

Selling exp for cash
EQ2 has a total of three separate forms of exp (adventuring - what other games would think of as normal exp - along with tradeskilling and alternate advancement). The new store allows you to purchase potions that boost the exp flavor of your choice. The potions are available in several flavors, including $1 for 4 hours of 10% bonus, $3 for 4 hours of 25% bonus, or $10 for 2 hours of 50% bonus.

EQ2 is not without other forms of bonus experience. The game has an equivalent of rested state exp, another bonus to your alts if you have a character at the level cap, and "veteran" awards that refill your rested state. Anecdotally, it sounds like recent changes have also drastically shortened the time it takes to level, so existing players have been leveling faster than ever in any case.

Technically speaking, the game isn't selling exp outright - you do still need to play the game to receive the extra exp. The fact is, though, that players who pay will advance faster than players who do not. Commenters on MMO Quests, where I first saw this story, are questioning the fairness of this bonus exp, especially in the context of the game's PVP servers. The move could also create pressure on players to pay for advancement or be left behind by their guilds.

Microtransactions and Double Dipping
The traditional concern about non-cosmetic microtransactions is that of "double dipping". In a subscription-based MMORPG, you're already paying to play the game. Lazy/greedy designers might be tempted to balance the game around the microtransaction items in order to boost revenue.

For example, the MMO Quests commenters were most concerned about the rate of alternate advancement experience. Sony now has a financial incentive not to make AA experience easier to obtain - doing so will literally hurt their sales. Instead, they could just say that players who are dissatisfied with the rate at which they gain AA's should pay an extra $5 per hour. How far that approach can go before players decide to abandon BOTH the microtransactions AND their game subscriptions is anyone's guess.

If nothing else, it's not encouraging that Sony literally rolled the system out onto their live servers before posting the information on what the service does. The perception is likely to be that they knew the changes would be unpopular, were not interested in the feedback, and decided to press on anyway. That could very easily backfire.

Going Forward
This move is obviously going to be watched very closely by the folks at Blizzard, Tubine, Mythic, et al. This may be good for Sony's bottom line (or may cost them subscriptions), but it's also opening a can of worms that most devs have been hesitant to open. Every single decision with any bearing on exp will, from this day forward, be colored by the reality that experience is now available for money. Making exp easier to earn in the future will literally devalue achievements previously purchased for cash. (In fact, Sony was deliberate to alter their TOS to make it extra clear that they believe they're allowed to do this.) Any achievement that is perceived as too difficult, such as, say, the exp curves for the next expansion, will be seen as an attempt to drive sales of exp potions.

My personal opinion is that the exp curve should be set at a level that makes playing the game enjoyable. If the game is well-served with a 50% increase to exp, then the devs should increase exp by 50% rather than charging $5 per hour for the best rate and leaving everyone else to progress at a slower, less fun, speed.

However, as I've explored here in the past, there is a strong demand to skip past old content in WoW - nearly half of my readers said that they would be willing to pay fo start a new character at level 55. Meanwhile, MMORPG's cost money to develop, and the studios that aren't Blizzard have to make money somehow. I suspect that most players would rather see an ill-thought-out microtransaction store than see their game closed down. Perhaps both groups can go home happy with relatively few ill-effects on the rest of the market.

To sum up, well, this post is a lot of words that add up to "I don't know what's going to happen". I doubt that anyone does. This might not even have major ramifications on any game outside of SOE - to my knowledge, no one has directly copied their Exchange Servers (with an official EBay-like "sell your characters/stuff for cash" interface) yet. Microtransactions are, in all liklihood, here to stay. I just hope, for all of our sakes, that they can be done without ruining the quality of the games for people who don't pony up.

On the length of the expansion

Dear Blizzard,

As you no doubt know if you've been reading this blog, I am primarily a solo PVE player, and I invest the vast majority of my time playing the game in my main, a gnome mage. Unfortunately, your most recent expansion, like TBC before it, was simply too short given the amount of time it took to release. Therefore, I am making a difficult decision. In protest, I have decided that I will not level Greenwiz any further until you get off your rear ends and release the next expansion.

Green Armadillo

P.S. Ding 80. ;)

Monday, December 8, 2008

Early Impressions of Lake Wintergrasp

My mage has finally gotten high enough to participate in the crown jewel of WoW's new emphasis on World PVP, Lake Wintergrasp. I wrote a bit about Wintergrasp Incentives previously, but now I can report on actually having played it.

The good news is that I don't have any pictures of myself in a gun turret, firing a cannon to try and destroy oncoming enemy seige engines. The battle is sufficiently heated that it doesn't occur to me that I should be taking pictures for my blog until the dust has settled. That said, there are some issues that may need attention.

When's the battle?
Eve Online has recently been the butt of some jokes following their request that players inform the devs of when and where their major invasions will occur, so the server team can prepare. This is, I suppose, the absurdity of scheduled invasions. Then again, Wintergrasp seems to go out of its way to make it hard for someone who WANTS to participate to figure out when the battle is happening.

I've been to Wintergrasp four times, but I have only participated in the battle twice. The other two times, the battle had ended before I was able to finish traveling to the zone.

To back up a step, the winners of the battle for Wintergrasp control the zone for 2.5 hours after the battle ends. The battle itself can last for up to 45 minutes - if it does, the defending side has won, while the side that does not have control of the keep wins if it captures the giant glowing orb before time expires. The result is that Wintergrasp is not on any fixed time schedule.

If you're physically in Wintergrasp, you can see a timer indicating when the next battle will begin. If you're not physically in Wintergrasp, you have to look at the continent map to see whether there is an Alliance or Horde Icon by the zone name (or you can watch for the previous winners to lose the continent-wide buff). Neither of these out-of-zone options will tell you how long until the battle will start or how close the battle is to concluding. There is a zone-wide announcement in Dalaran city before the conflict starts (and an hour beforehand). Still, in general, it's easy to accidentally miss the battle.

I suppose Blizzard doesn't want to encourage the "everyone on the server, go here NOW" effect that is giving Warhammer's keep sieges such a hard time with performance of late, but it is a bit irritating. (Maybe someone has coded a UI mod that informs you automatically when the zone changes control?) Depending on your exact hours, you might only have a single opportunity per night to take part in Wintergrasp, so it's a bit frustrating to miss out because the notification system deliberately fails to provide notice.

Tenacity and the numbers game
Wintergrasp has a stacking buff called "Tenacity" that is designed to even the odds when one side has superior numbers, so that the more populous faction doesn't simply control Wintergrasp 24/7. Players can get up to 300% health and damage, at which point enemy players may have more HP than your seige vehicles. In practice, the system works well - perhaps too well.

I was in a battle this morning defending against attackers with seven stacks of Tenacity. We were literally pushed back all the way into our keep, and I spent the last minute of the battle frantically spamming arcane explosion to interrupt capture attempts. As a cloth wearer, there's little scarier than an enemy with 50K HP, capable of killing you in 3-4 hits.

Do Incentives Overvalue Survival?
In the wake of spending much of the TBC era fighting an incentive system that encourages players to spend time AFK in battlegrounds, Blizzard was very concerned with keeping the incentives in Wintergrasp for actual participants in the battle. Blizzard did implement a [Wintergrasp Mark of Honor] that is only awarded to players who got some honorable kills during the battle, but, strangely enough, said marks aren't actually used for anything yet. Instead, the system uses the [Stone Keeper's Shard] as its main incentive currency.

There is a daily quest to win the battle, but it awards only a single shard. That's a pretty small number, especially since you can get multiple shards from a single instance run while your faction owns Wintergrasp. A better option is a daily quest that awards 3 shards for killing 20 enemy players. I'm not sure exactly how this quest works - I've obtained 20 HK's long before getting credit for 20 kills. My best guess is that players are actually considered tapped by a group for the purpose of kill credit, even though players in other groups can get a share of the honor. Since Wintergrasp does not force grouping, other players can, in principle, boot an AFK'er out of their group and thus deny them the rewards.

The catch, which you might have gathered from the previous section, is that you won't get credit if you're at the spirit healer waiting to be revived. This can be very frustrating for mages - and, I'd presume other classes with limited survivability. If an enemy is facing a 5 on 1 matchup, they're not going to pound away on a heavily armored Warrior or Death Knight. They're going to squash the mage. I haven't actually tested whether you still get kill credit if you don't release your spirit and wait for your party to kill the guy you were fighting - the right thing to do is release so you'll return to the battle sooner. The net result, though, is very slow progress at your kill quest.

This issue isn't at all new to Wintergrasp - it was also a major complaint I had about playing a healer in Warhammer. I'm not sure how exactly you balance low survivability with the need to limit rewards to actual participants. Perhaps Warhammer's approach, with tanks that directly reduce damage taken by squishies, is part of the solution. I just hope someone comes up with one before I feel compelled to level a low priority target of a plate wearer just to get shards at some reasonable pace.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Effect of Gem Inflation on Socketed Items

Which of the following cloth belts would you rather have?

Belt 1: 42 Stamina, 30 Intellect, 49 Spell Power
Belt 2: 9 Stamina, 39 Intellect, 50 Spell Power, 7 Mana Regen/5 seconds

Don't get me wrong, stamina is a useful stat, since a dead mage deals no damage. Then again, so is mana regeneration, and that's actually a decent chunk of mana regen on top of minor upgrades on the other two stats. For most cloth casters, I'd call belt number 2 the clear winner.

The catch? Belt number 1 is the [Path Cutter's Cord], an ilvl 154 green quest reward from a level 74 quest in the Grizzly Hills. Belt number 2? That's the ilvl 138 [Gholamcloth Wrap], socketed with the lowest quality, cheapest Northrend gems (a [Runed Bloodstone] and a [Glowing Shadow Crystal] - note that you could trade in the 9 stamina for 6 spirit or 2 mana/5 for swapping to a different purple gem, or you could ignore the socket bonus and gain an extra 3 spell power for using two bloodstones) from a level 71 quest in the Howling Fjord.

Gem Inflation and Northrend Items
Those of you who ever considered epic quality gems may have noticed that the Bloodstone is good for 14 damage, which is two MORE damage than the epic quality [Runed Crimson Spinel] that represented the top of the line a month ago. This is not an accident - Blizzard did not want players to feel obliged to farm Karazhan for badges to buy gems, so they just wiped the gem slate clean by making even the weakest level 80 cut better than the best level 70. Enchantments went through a similar process.

The difference with gems, however, is that not every item has sockets. Blizzard clearly has some value they're assigning in the item budget for giving an item a socket compared to some other stat (say, more spell power). Additionally, items that spend almost all of their budgets on a large value of a single statistic receive a penalty for doing so, while adding a socket does NOT seem to add such a penalty, even though players can and will ignore the suggested colors to stack the stat of their choice. (I only socketed my hypothetical case with a red and a purple because the socket bonus was for spell damage.) The result is the example I gave above - a substantially lower level item with sockets is better than a higher level item that does not have sockets.

Obviously, it's not breaking news that some quest rewards are better than others. Also, Blizzard claims to have made a conscious decision to avoid sockets in leveling items, since players will be replacing them over time. Still, I can't help but wonder whether they fully anticipated the effects of making socketed gems more powerful. People coveted items they could fill with red gems in TBC as well, but more powerful gems may exacerbate the problem. As it is, it looks like an item with more sockets will be better than a nominally more powerful item with fewer sockets for what - I'm guessing - may be longer than Blizzard has in mind.

Changing the profession landscape?
It will also be interesting, or perhaps alarming, to see what this change does to jewelcrafting. I previously discussed Wrath's changes to BoP profession perks. With an increased focus on sockets, the jewelcrafter-only gems may increase in value simply because everyone has some blue/yellow socket they're rather not have to fill with a purple/orange gem.

Case in point, the Mage forum at has a pair of threads going on in which disgruntled tailors are pondering the benefits of dropping tailoring. As a mage with tailoring, I have to admit that I'm at least considering Jewelcrafting (once I get my alts high enough to do my mining for me, I'm neither dropping enchanting nor buying literally all the minerals I'd need off the AH), and the need to fill sockets weighs heavily in that decision.