Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Resolutions for 2012

Having detailed what I did (and what it cost) for last year, it's once again time to look ahead to the new year.  The year ahead has a blessing and a curse; there are many games I would like to play, and I can already tell that there won't be time for all of them. 

WoW (Pre-Pandaria)
  • Complete quests of Cataclysm: I'm still not finished with Hyjal, Twilight Highlands, or Firelands on my main - I tend to work on dailies first, and there are enough dailies that I haven't gotten around to these.
  • Finish out armor set from 4.3 heroics
  • Use the raid finder to kill Deathwing
  • Cap out TBC-era dungeon reputations: Most of these rep's stalled out at Revered when the content was new.  Two expansions later, these heroics are quick and easy rep farming.
The picture with Pandaria will depend a bit on how it shapes up and when it arrives.  I will very likely level my main to the new cap and complete the new dungeons the requisite once each.  I will also likely level the requisite Pandaren Monk through the newbie zone, but I haven't felt any pressing unmet need for more WoW alts and I don't know that the newest additions will change that.  If Pandaria arrives before my annual pass runs out in October, I may do more work on the new expansion's endgame.

  • Reach the new level cap on my main (currently 67 of 75)
  • Don't feel obliged to "save" content for future level cap increases
I had a bad experience with LOTRO's original launch - though it took me several months to get into the 40's, it took Turbine about a year to produce enough content to make leveling to the original cap a pleasant experience for solo players.  Since then, I've been very nervous about completing content at the level cap, for fear that the next expansion would be similarly lacking in sources of exp.

Fortunately, Turbine's actions since have proved my fears unfounded - even if some future expansion does launch without enough solo quests, there are now enough forms of repeatable content, such as daily quests and skirmishes, to make up the missing exp if needed.

  • Finally reach the level cap
  • Investigate the endgame
Rift spent most of 2011 as the best MMO that just never reached the top of my to-do list month after month.  While I respect the reasoning behind Trion's pro-subscription stance, the need to set aside a month at a time to focus on this game like it was still 2010 is definitely hurting this game's appeal in the crowded marketplace.  I would gladly pay by the day or the week, but this game is not sufficiently better than its competition for me to be excited about setting aside an entire month to play it.

In any case, Trion is supposedly going to give me 3 days of game time as compensation for their servers being hacked, which will get me to the game's level cap.  From there, it will be a question of how much I like what I see.

  • Enjoy world events on my main without having to subscribe
  • Try to complete current dungeon content
  • Betray to the evil side to see content, collect houses, perhaps try the Troubadour
The good news is that I no longer need to use a throw-away EQ2X alt to see holiday and world event content in this game, now that I can have year around access to my main. The bad news is that my progress kind of screeched to a halt due to Velious' highly regimented dungeon progression, and attempting to deal with the plat cap for non-subscribers is not going to make this easier.   

Will new dungeons continue to ramp up in difficulty, even though the current ones are already unpopular for PUG's?  Will there be new solo content?  Or will they tune all future content to require the use of NPC mercenaries, and thus the purchase of the AOD expansion, much as all solo quest rewards are now "legendary" quality to require the purchase of gear unlock tokens? 

One project that I am seriously considering is taking my main and having her betray over to the evil faction to see the revised Freeport content, collect some houses in the evil cities (you don't lose houses when you switch sides, though you will be kill-on-sight with the local guards as appropriate), etc.  This might also be an opportunity to take the Troubadour class for a spin, though doing so may or may not require a paid class unlock.  I've never been interested in sticking with alts in EQ2 to date, so I might as well take my main over to see what the rest of the content looks like. 

  • Gear my main up for DLC content
  • Work on one or more alts to see the other storylines
Ironically, my challenges with DCUO are similar to what I'm facing in EQ2.  The currency cap is not friendly to non-subscribers, and will likely keep me out of the game's more challenging content.  This, in turn, affects my ability to gear up to qualify for the content that I actually am willing/able to run (and pay for).

  • Play one or more storylines
So, I hear there's some game that's like an MMO about Star Wars or something?  :)

Seriously, my current computer situation (more on this in a minute) has me holding off on SWTOR, but I fully expect to pick up this game and spend some time working on the various storylines in 2012. I had originally figured that I would play a Sith Inquisitor based on the theory that I can play a guy with a gun in any number of other gameworlds.  However, I ended up really liking both the personalities and the gameplay for both the Smuggler and the Imperial Agent.

Other MMO's
So now I'm on my seventh subheading without having covered DDO or Runes of Magic (both of which I have spent money on in the past).  Lineage 2 just went free to play in North America, and Aion became the first major MMO I'm aware of in which the European market beat the North American to a non-subscription switch (which I assume will force the US servers to follow suit, if that was not already planned).  By the time the dust settles, there will probably be at least a dozen major MMO's I haven't played that originally launched as subscription games - I could literally try a different one every month for 2012.

I don't think I'm going to go to that extreme, but it raises a point about how tough the current marketplace is for new entrants. Not only must version 1 of your new game be competitive with version 7 of the competition's, but your game has a $50 buy in and a subscription while their's has no buy-in.  In my case, even the time to download the client (and the hard drive space to store yet another one!) and try a new game for a night or two is starting to approach prohibitive. 

Games on my Christmas loot haul include Uncharted 3, Arkham City, and the Metal Gear Solid trilogy.  I have yet to finish Assassin's Creed 2, and it has two sequels out that will be somewhere on my playlist.  Other games on my wish list include Infamous 2, Tomb Raider Trilogy (and the new one if/when it arrives), and possibly FFXIII-2.  The discerning reader will note that only two of those are not currently released - my time crunch on the console is as bad as on the PC (though at least on the console showing up a year or three late means paying dramatically less for the games).

Computer Building
I am thoroughly dissatisfied with my Alienware M11x (original revision), which has had a number of problems.
  • First, the hinge broke when the machine was less than three months old - Dell replaced this because it was a well-documented issue, but it was an inconvenient situation for a week or two until this could be resolved.  
  • Then the power cord plug started slipping out of the back of the system, which left the machine unexpectedly shutting down for lack of power when I thought it was plugged in.  
  • Then the battery, which has a 12-month warranty - went completely dead at the 14 month mark.  (This is also a commonly reported issue with the machine.)  Now I own a "portable" 11 inch laptop that has to be tethered to an outlet, unless I want to throw good money after bad by spending $200-300 on a new battery for a $700 machine.   
  • On top of all of that, I apparently did not comprehend exactly how slow the processor was in all the hype about how the machine would run this that and the other thing - even overclocked (which Dell will not guarantee will work) the specs are below the minimums for Rift and SWTOR. 
Anyway, it's time for a new machine, and I'm finally steeling myself up to build a computer.  I find the first step or so - the one where you can physically ruin a $300 processor - intimidating, but the difference in cost and quality makes this a skill I really should have in the long run.  I will most likely build something in the $800-1000 range with an i5 and a single graphics card (possibly a cheaper placeholder so I can spend more on components that are harder to replace later).  I'd love to have an SSD, and it seems like there is something to be said for avoiding current hard drive shortages, but I do need a fair amount of storage due to the number of games I play.

In any case, I'm sure I'll be writing more about this topic once I actually go through the process.

The Blog
This will be post number 185 for the year, which is the lowest postcount I've had since I started the blog partway through 2008.  There are several drivers for this - I'm doing less work on the blog over the weekends, I'm writing longer posts, and I'm not feeling obliged to post something just to bump the update time on the RSS feed.  Overall, though, the current schedule - where I do 2-3 posts during the week and maybe a post on the weekend - seems to be working.
In any case, there's going to be plenty to do - and write about - in the coming year.  Happy New Year, and I look forward to hearing from all of you in 2012!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 MMO Expenditures and Accomplishments

I'm never quite sure how to handle my New Year's/Canada Day resolution wrap-up for the year - realistically most of them are blown by July in any case, and the discussion invariably bleeds into what I'm planning for next year.  This year I'm going to try something different and focus solely on the past; what I spent on each title I played, and what I got for my money.  

For the sake of my sanity, I have chosen to bill content/currency purchases (expansions or free to play content packs) in the year that I actually paid for them (even though I may continue to consume it in future years), and to track subscription time in the year it was actually used (rather than paid for).  Games are listed in the order in which the accomplishments appeared in my twitter feed.  

WoW: $54.40
  • Completed a tour of the newbie zones post-Cataclysm
  • Advanced my mage the last level to 85, completed all Heroic dungeons (both Cataclysm launch and patch additions) at least once, still working on rep and gear but qualified for the looking for raid finder.
  • Advanced warrior from level 82 to level 85, completed all of the holidays through mid-summer to obtain my second violet protodrake
  • Actually healed some PUG 5-mans on a mid-level priest alt.
With Cataclysm launching in December 2010, I had just paid for the expansion and was on the tail end of a 90 day subscription at the beginning of January (approx $8.40 for 18 days).  I paid $30 for two months of time (around world events in late April and late June).

I signed up for the annual pass in late October - I'm choosing to account this as $16 for two months this year, with $60 for DIII and $80 for 10 months both applied to next year's budget.  This will either be a bargain or a budget buster depending on how much use I get out of it.  So far, I'm not spending nearly as much time per month under the discounted annual plan as I was when it was costing me $15, but I'm enjoying that time more because I don't feel that I have to force myself to grind day in and day out to maximize the value of the $15 one-month subscription. 

Rift: $48
  • Playtested a bunch of alts during the paid beta phases
  • Settled on Cleric, leveled from 1 to 48 (and 3/4).  
  • Leveled alts to the 10-19 range on the other three callings.
  • Actually healed some PUG's using the dungeon finder
I paid $48 for a digital collector's edition back in January, and have not paid since.  Note that this included access to the paid portions of the "closed" beta, as well as three extended retrial weekends.  

LOTRO: $20 in cash and $10 in gift card (which I value less than cash)
  • Comleted solo-ified Volume II
  • Currently working on Enedwaith and associated book of Volume III
I paid $20 for the Black Friday sale Isengard bundle, which came with 1000 TP's.   I wouldn't have paid $10 for 1000 TP's and a cosmetic outfit, but the half off sale made this a $5 upgrade.  I also turned a $10 gift card at a brick and mortar store into a 750 TP card (which is a terrible exchange rate, but the store had nothing else I wanted for $10).  I've used some of the TP for the Enedwaith quest pack, a second milestone destination, and the 30 minute milestone cooldown reduction for my main, which are collectively definitely worth the price of the points I paid for them.    

My remaining LOTRO playtime was in content that I paid to unlock via expansion purchases in 2009.

EQ2: $85
  • Completed Lyriana's enervated mythical
  • Advanced from 191 AA's to 267
  • Beat first seven dungeons in the Velious progression, obtained about half of my T2 armor   
I paid $45 for three months of game time, and $40 for the DOV expansion.  I also received 45 days of compensation time for the hacking debacle (cost: my identify, dun dun dun).  Up until December, I occasionally used a silver EQ2X account (purchased last year with promotional Station Cash balances that I didn't pay for) that I occasionally used for world events or limited-time quests.

I was expecting to spend about $20+ to unlock my character after the free to play switchover, but SOE's decision to grandfather in existing characters meant that I only had to pay to unlock my current gear, which I was able to do out of my remaining promotional SC balance.  That said, I did decline to purchase the year's second expansion box, along with the $20 paid add-on race that arrived with Velious.  This game would have been exceptionally expensive for someone who actually stayed with it the full time and paid full price for stuff as it was released, were it not for all the freebies for being hacked and for changing the business model.. 
Runes of Magic: $15
  • Advanced from 30 Druid/30 Rogue to 57 Druid/53 Warden/50 Rogue
  • Test drove a bunch of alts into the 20/20/20 range
I spent $15 on diamond currency.  I purchased a mount and some daily quest tickets, and I have just over $5 left. 

Vanguard: $5
  • Escaped the generic Isle of Dawn
  • Leveled character to 11 Disciple/10 crafter/12 Diplomat
Spent $5 to upgrade my EQ2 subscription to Station Access for one month so I could extend my Vanguard free trial by a bit. 

DCUO: $10
  • Reached level 30 on a hero, completed solo campaign
  • Experimented with some alts on both factions, platforms 
I spent $10 in the December's triple Station Cash sale for 3000 SC and immediately spent 999 SC on the Lightning Strikes DLC pack, which unlocked the new powerset and upgraded my account to Premium.  I'd been considering paying the full $10 for the pack anyway, so it became an absolute no-brainer with an extra 2000 SC.

Note that some of this balance may eventually get spent on EQ2 instead of DCUO, such is the perk of SOE's unified account system.  I will also tip my hat to SOE for allowing players to purchase currency in any increment of $5, without getting hit with funky/punitive exchange rates. 

DDO: $0
No additional expenditures this year.  I spent $100 in 2010, and spent about $70 of that on unlocking the content and character options I continue to use sporadically.
Kingdom of Loathing: $0
No additional money spent, I did sink something like $20-30 in this game back in 2007-2008 or so.

  • Beat Portal 2 ($35)
  • Beat Infamous 1 (PSN hacking debacle freebie)
  • Beat Uncharted 1 (Christmas present in 2010)
  • Currently working on Assassin's Creed 2 ($10)
  • Currently working on Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep (PSP, Christmas 2011 present)
These obviously really MMO purchases, and aren't included in the totals below, I just record them for the sake of perspective. 

Grand Total

All told, I spent basically $240, not counting the $10 gift card, the PS3 games or the $140 committed to Blizzard products next year.  (Nor, I suppose, do I count the amount of patience and attention it takes to await and grab some of the more substantial deals I got this year.)  When you consider that a single subscription MMO with a $40 expansion box and $15 in monthly fees will run you $220 annually, that's really not bad for what I'm getting for my money.

Speaking more generally, 2011 was the year when I actually learned to take advantage of non-subscription gaming models.  I spent a fair amount of time in non-subscription games in 2010, but I continued to play them the way I would approach a subscription game - focusing on one game at a time, playing it until I had completed everything I was aiming for and moving on.  As increasing numbers of games that I wanted to play anyway are offering more flexible options, I'm routinely logging into 3-5 games per week, and on rare occasions even per day.

Ironically, this hasn't blown my costs through the roof the way I wondered that it might when I started tracking what I was spending this year.  The "all-inclusive" subscription model has never included either the initial account nor the paid expansion boxes.  I'm definitely spending more on content than I was - and sometimes I'm putting up with irritating restrictions because I don't feel like paying to remove them - but I'm not then turning around and paying again to continue accessing the content I have paid to unlock.  I may or may not be paying more, but I'm certainly getting a lot more.

Looking ahead to next year, my totals will almost certainly be higher - if you budget the payments to Blizzard and likely boxes for both SWTOR and Pandaria, I already have about as much in total MMO expenses for next year as I did for this year.  Several of the non-subscription games I paid into this year may not require additional funds next year (in particular, EQ2 should be way down), but the fact that I'm already down for $60 on DIII - more than I spent on all but one MMO I played this year - is already looming as the potential difference between the budgets.  Guess we'll find out how this goes next year.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Incentive Design from the Mouths of Babes

We're visiting this week with a niece who just turned two, and my wife downloaded the top-rated toddler app for her iPad.  In the game, a cartoon monkey does a somersault and makes a happy monkey noise when the player succeeds at various tasks, like touching the green fruit, re-assembling a small puzzle, etc.    Most of the minigames can be solved by tapping the screen repeatedly and yelling "yay, monkey".  It was only when this approach did not work that the niece actually attempts to think about the puzzle, and I found the results surprising.  
  • She can't read the instructions to "touch the purple fruit", and she may not yet know what the word purple means, but when I pointed to the word purple (which was colored purple), she immediately hit the purple plum.  
  • She doesn't appear to have the fine motor skills to drag and drop the pieces of fruit for the reassembly puzzle, but her hand motions make it clear that she knows what she needs to do.  
  • On paper, the concentration game (eight face-down cards consisting of four pairs that you can flip over two at a time) is the hardest of the games, but she's definitely got the concept of this game (if, perhaps, not the attention span needed to deal with all eight cards - or perhaps getting an adult to take 2-4 of the cards off the board for her is also part of her strategy).  
Overall, this game raises incentive design questions.  Is the little girl an MMO player in the making, already able to skip past the educational content much as we don't read quest text?  Is it part of the game designer's strategy to have most of the puzzles be easy as a way to lure players into the game where they may eventually learn from the content they're being exposed to as they go?  Do the designers actually care whether anyone learns anything, as long as the product is fun for the kids, looks educational for the parents, and therefore can go on to be a best-seller?  And, perhaps most importantly, where are the videos of two-year-olds on voice chat planning their approach to the latest monkey puzzle? 

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Niche For Single Player Games

One of my Christmas presents was a copy of the old PSP game Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep (when will they start making titles that make sense in English?).  I immediately set the game to "proud mode", the third out of four difficulty settings, because I have played some of these games before and because the title screen informs the player that the "secret" ending is much easier to unlock at higher difficulties. 

The result has been an experience that we don't often get in MMO's - the content starts out tuned significantly above the player's head.  However, the power curve is intentionally set in a way where going off to farm up even one or two additional levels will allow the player to overcome a previously tough challenge.  My experience with MMO's of late has been that the content starts out at "too easy", but the power curve tends to be flatter - if you actually are stuck on something, one or two levels aren't going to help, and you're probably going to have to come back when it's grey (or with a better dungeon PUG, if that's the problem). 

Overall, it's an odd challenge that MMO's face as developers aim a larger portion of leveling content as solo players, but that content continues to be the prerequisite for endgame grouping.  It's hard to balance one set of content for two very different demographics, and much easier to accidentally end up with a situation where the solo player feels like Werit "drinking from the XP fire hose" as the devs struggle to find the balance with not forcing the poor aspiring group player to endure every last solo quest in the game.  I suppose this is the remaining niche for the single player game, until someone comes up with a better solution.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Beating DCUO

Yesterday, I beat what could be considered the single player portion of DCUO - the Green Armadillo has now completed every story mission from the launch game up to the end of Batman's story arc, all six original "challenge mode" versions of leveling dungeons, and the Catwoman Challenge Mode dungeon that was added in one of the game's few pre-F2P patch updates. 

The World's Greatest Detective checks his notes to make sure that yes, I really did just qualify for membership in the Justice League, while Superman appears to be pondering my death behind my back, perhaps because I made fun of his half of the story content.

I hit "cooperative" reputation with two of the game's three factions, allowing me to purchase entry level gear (blue quality item level 34) that was more than enough to get me through the finale of the Batman missions.  There's one more solo challenge mode zone, where I would face off against The Penguin (though this zone is notoriously difficult, to the point where I gave up after a few attempts), and then it's on to (or to attempt to get to) the DLC.  To borrow the analogy that Tobold dug out of his archives today, I have finished the content and am largely left with the gameplay.  As I wrote last week, that's not necessarily all bad, to the extent that DCUO's combat is fun (and different from your average MMO).  At the same time, as Tobold suggests, new story content is a part of the deal, and that particular part is largely over. 

So, about that DLC that you thought you purchased...
Speaking of the DLC, I did decide to pull the trigger on the new "Lightning Strikes" content when the triple exp sale rolled around last weekend.  This does immediately grant access to the new powerset, which I'm test-driving on a new Villain character.  It also, in principle, contains content.  The catch is that players aren't even allowed in the new zone until they hit a Combat Rating - DCUO's version of the gearscore - of 53. 

Again, my gear right now is sitting at a 34.  To put this number in perspective based on info from the guide forum, the best items that drop outright in hard mode T2 alert content (the best non-raid drops in the game) are item level 52.  The T2 vendor armor is item level 56, but a full set of this requires around 400 T2 "marks of distinction".  These marks aren't available in solo content - I can get one daily from the daily "duo", two more from the daily T1 hard mode alert, and around four per hard mode T2 alert (which themselves require a combat rating of 43 to access).  While it's theoretically possible to meet this bar inside of two weeks, it's likely to take far longer due to the extremely low liklihood that I am going to complete seven T2 alerts and a T2 duo each and every day. 

Prices on the T1 vendor also call for about 400 marks, but these are much easier to obtain - even solo players can obtain a dozen or so per day, and these also drop in greater numbers in small group content.
Two additional quirks:
  • The entry level reputation gear I currently own is geared for DPS.  I have a few drops for healing, but I would need a separate set of Healer-role gear if I wanted to pursue that route, and the need for an additional 400 marks to obtain this set makes that outcome extremely unlikely. 
  • The business model as currently designed makes it extremely challenging for non-subscribers to run content that actually incurs significant costs (either repair bills for wipes or - especially for healers - "soda" potions to restore health and power).  I spent nearly $1000 on a less than full repair after failing to clear the Penguin challenge mode.  I cannot have more than $2000 on my character ($1500 before I spent enough money to flag for premium). 

    I generally keep my bags at least partially full of sell-able items to restore my cash supply after taking this kind of hit to the wallet, but raiding is out of the question and even the hard mode 4-player content may be limited.  In principle, I can pay 200 SC ($2 if there's no sale going) to withdraw $10,000 from my escrow balance (if I actually had the $10K, currently I spend the excess money on cosmetic armor skins to try and avoid ever sending money to escrow), but this is both costly and not a fun thing to spend money on.  Realistically, it's easier to just pass on content that my account level does not support. 
The escrow withdrawal purchase
Overall, my experience is still generally more positive than negative, but it appears that accessing the new content I paid for is going to be a long term goal indeed.  I don't entirely regret the one DLC purchase because I am using the new powerset on an alt, and the purchase did upgrade my account to premium status, but at this rate I'm unlikely to qualify for future content updates if I did want to pay for them. 

In the mean time, I do have the option of replaying the game as a Villain.  There are three story missions that are unique to each of the six hero/villain mentors.  That said, the challenge of leaning heavily on storytelling is that you have to enjoy the story that's being told.  DCUO's take on the Villains of the DC Universe feels a bit less nuanced than I'm used to from the Batman comics - there's a lot of sucking the souls out of the innocent to summon demons into the world and testing mutagens on innocent college kids by the Villains who populate Metropolis.  Then again, at no additional charge I suppose I have nothing to complain about. 

Soonspeeder, my new Electricity/Superspeed Villain, arrives sooner than any MMO patch.  Also, she probably needs to set more ambitious goals for herself.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Population Distribution Impact of SWTOR Staggered Access

I was debating whether or not to post about the SWTOR staggered launch plan, since I personally chose to sit this one out due to computer performance issues (more my fault than Bioware's).  MMO-Gamer Chick's questions convinced me to go ahead and post anyway, mostly because the comment I was writing on her blog was starting to look more like a blog post. 

To lead off with my main point, I wonder if Bioware has taken a long-term risk to alleviate a short term problem. 

The Background
For any readers who have not heard about this controversy, Bioware elected to admit players into the "head start" based on when they pre-ordered the game.  Historically, MMO's have gotten absolutely hammered on launch day when everyone shows up at once, and I suppose that dedication to the game - as demonstrated by pre-ordering early - is as good a criteria as any if you are going to limit access in the hopes of improving the experience. 

(It's entirely possible that they intentionally did not go out of their way to let "late" pre-orders know that they might be sitting out the better part of the week, but I don't know that this diminishes the fairness of the system.) 

One consistent complaint players have expressed was the uncertainty about when in the week of head-start time their personal invite would arrive.  To ensure maximum flexibility to adjust the rate of invites based on server performance, players had very little indication on when they could plan to start playing.  Personally, my guess is that people were more displeased that they personally weren't in the earliest invite cohorts than about the uncertainty - how many folks really would have been happy if Bioware had said on day 1 "fine, you're not getting in til day 5 of 7, but here's the precise time your invite will arrive"? 

Population balance going forward
All of that said, I don't think that any of the above will matter in a week, and I'm already seeing people who were very displeased with the roll-out while they were awaiting their invite happily posting about the game.  (Indeed, reaction amongst people who were on the fence about the game, myself included, who actually tried it has been almost universally pleasantly surprised.)  The real issue which addresses MMOGC's question about whether other companies will attempt the same approach is the effect on populations going forward.

Figuring out how many servers to offer at launch is probably the biggest challenge a MMO studio has at launch.  Launch with too many servers and you will end up with low populations, potentially forcing server merges (which are nigh universally regarded as a devastating vote of non-confidence for a new game).  The opposite issue is less obvious but harder to fix.  Because MMO's are social games, many players don't want any random server (and the ones who do are less likely to have social ties that will keep them around longterm to form a community).  Players want to be on the server their friends are already playing on, and no amount of additional servers added after launch can fix that population issue if the game launched with too few servers. 

In some ways, Bioware seems well prepared to know what to expect - the aggressive push for pre-orders, combined with a social networking guild setup system, gave Bioware some numbers. However, I wonder if the staggered access cut them off from the real-time data about how many people who for whatever reason did not pre-register with a guild were eventually going to join up with that guild once they got in.  Under a free-for-all system, Bioware might have seen on day 1 that certain servers would have been a problem.  Because of the staggering, it might not have been apparent until day 4-5 that specific servers were overcrowded.

As of this writing, the official server list has 72 US (EST/PST) servers that are not labeled "new" and 51 servers that are labeled "new" as of either 12/16 or 12/20.  And, sure enough, we have dire warnings that just a handful of servers are so overcrowded that players can expect queues for the indefinite future.  Unlike the pre-order access, which is already old news, this balance issue may remain with the game for months or even years to come (much as it did on my WoW server, which was one of the original 40 pre-announced for WoW's launch day and which ended up needing almost three years to recover).  Other studios will be watching, and their conclusion may be that it's better to have some short term pain. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Crafting a Role for Crafting

Through the wonders of Archeology, I can actually make my gnome smaller (as well as trapped in the block of Amber for 5 minutes, or until I click off the buff).
The Winter Veil holiday got me to take another look at Cataclysm's new archeology profession.  Effectively, it's a means of turning time into cash, a snippet of lore,  and the occasional unique cosmetic item as you travel the world. 

Archeology is an odd gathering profession where very little of what you gather can actually be sold to anyone - you will sometimes harvest tradeable "keystones" that allow you to spend fewer of your soulbound fragments on soulbound (or sometimes account bound) items.  For the most part, though, it's a crafting profession without either the crafting (there are no choices, your fragments can only turn into the next item the RNG offers you) or the profession (due to the lack of stuff to sell). 

Today, I get to use my fragments on a "rare" item.  Note the option to use up to three keystones to remove the need for 12 fragments (1-2 harvests, with three harvests per node) each.
In some ways, that doesn't make it especially unusual in the modern World of Warcraft.  The two actual tradeskills on my character at the moment are tailoring - whereby I turn valuable cloth into junk that I immediately disenchant in exchange for a cloak enchant and discounted leg enchant - and enchanting (which gives me ring enchants, the ability to disenchant my old soulbound gear rather than vendor it, and the right to spend a lot of money on enchant recipes that I will likely only use once or twice more this expansion depending on how much loot I get.

Overall, my LOTRO character is looking much smarter.  Allarond has been an avid crafter, mining various metals, placing them on the auction house, and turning the resulting gold into a wider variety of items than he could possibly craft for himself.  There are some games where at least we see quest storylines that can be solved via crafting - EQ2 and maybe Vanguard probably take the top honors in this genre.  SWTOR has tried to spice it up a bit by outsourcing your crafitng labor to your NPC companions, which I suppose at least puts some story behind the endeavor. 

As is, I suppose the modern crafting system is something of a form of alternate advancement, whether actually tied to stats (as in WoW), content (as in EQ2), ways to counter the random number generator (as in DDO), or acquiring achievements/deeds/etc (all of the above).  Sometimes (again, as in EQ2) a game will physically force players to seek out crafter intervention in the course of obtaining an item, but this just gives the crafter a cut of the economy, which has little to nothing to do with the actual crafting of stuff. 

Overall, it feels like MMO crafting systems could stand to craft themselves a better role in their games.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Returning to the Open World (of Warcraft)?

WoW's Winter's Veil holiday is up and running with one minor but interesting change from last year.  Two years after introducing a dungeon finder and allowing most players to spend all their time in cities, Blizzard is actually trying to move things back into the open world.

Blizzard has turned the Abominable Greench into a daily boss mob, complete with the obligatory daily loot box containing 24 Justice Points, previously retired presents from previous years' events, and the possibility of a new holiday minipet (a rock elemental representing a lump of coal).  Unlike the revamps they just finished applying to all of the other holidays in WoW's calendar, however, this new event is not run using the dungeon finder.  Instead, you have to physically fly to Hillsbrad - yes, in the actual open world - and wait for a tank and a healer to arrive. 

The fight itself is intentionally easy; any tank and healer combination can probably duo the boss if necessary, but you won't have to.  So far, I've had suitable "groups" form in under 10 minutes every day, morning or night, that I've attempted the event.  I use quotes because you don't actually need to be grouped - all players in the area during the fight, or who show up for a minute or two after, can get credit, even if they are not grouped with the player(s) who killed the mob.  It's even a rare occasion for cross-faction cooperation - the healer needs to be the same faction as the tank because you can't heal hostile players, but DPS from both sides are free to pitch in. 

Towards Pandaria
Given that the event only drops cosmetic items - other holiday bosses also have loot - its popularity is probably a minor success.  I'm even working on Archeology, since I'm flying by zones that have relics in them anyway.  That said, it's possible that Blizzard is using this as a trial run for promised open world content in Pandaria. 

If so, the real question is whether players are willing to accept being forced to go back out into a world that so many have been so quick to abandon since the Dungeon Finder arrived.  Blizzard's lack of success with selling players on the concept of challenging 5-man dungeons in Cataclysm, after the easy zergs of Wrath, may bode poorly for the popularity of extending this trend from optional holidays to WoW's core gameplay.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Answer to an EQ(2)-uestion

On Tuesday, I questioned whether SOE could afford to offer double or triple Station Cash sales now that these deals also slash the subscription price. A mere three days later, I have an answer, with a one-day triple station cash sale.  Not only is the studio apparently unconcerned about the reduced subscription rate, they're also unconcerned that players who paid $40 less than two weeks ago for an expansion that will now be on sale for under $15 will take that personally.

(If this move surprises you in any way, you haven't been paying attention for the last year.  To quote what I wrote in April when they did something similar after the Velious launch: "There's a line between smart price discrimination and making your existing customers feel that you value potential customers over current ones, and repeated incidents like this over the past year have left many current players feeling that the line has been crossed.")

If there's one thing I've learned about being a consumer of non-subscription games, it's that the size of the discount matters not if you buy something on sale that you don't end up using.  My level of interest in the Age of Discovery expansion is so low that I'm willing to take the chance that I will eventually pay more for it later.  The increased AA cap is the only thing I see as must-have in the package, but I'm still 40+ AA's shy of the Velious cap, so I'm not likely to need this increase for a while.  Besides, double and triple SC weekends have come around several times per year, and now that I know they're not gone, there's no reason to think that I can't wait for the next one. 

I will definitely put some money into this promotion - the new Electricity powerset, paired with a permanent upgrade to Premium account status and incidentally some additional content was already on my shopping list for DCUO at the $10 price, so it's a slam dunk at $5 with 500 SC left over.  I'm tempted to go a bit higher than that - $10 would give me the SC to purchase the Green Lantern DLC as well (while I'm less interested in playing a Lantern, the actual content comes before the Flash stuff in progression).  The only way I'd go to $15 would probably be if I found myself near a Walmart and was able to pick up one of their extra bonus SC cards - 2000 SC for $15, which would then be tripled, would leave me set for a long while... but might also be the trap of paying now for points I'm unlikely to use until later.  Guess we'll see how my mood is running tomorrow.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

DCUO Holidays And Endgame

This week's patch introduced DCUO's Christmas event. 

The event is not especially deep - the heroes must literally Save Christmas (tm) from the greedy Orange Lanterns, who want to steal all the presents and trees from the decorated cities of Gotham and Metropolis.  In exchange, you get three holly leaves per day for your currency tab.  Leaves can be used to purchase the eight pieces of a Holiday Elf outfit, cosmetic weapons named for candy canes, rings (which actually have stats), and some consumables.   What is interesting is how it fits in DCUO's endgame.

DCUO uses its feat system - similar to achievements, deeds, and similar systems in other games - to dole out skill points.  These are used to unlock special attacks, additional weapon types, and stat bonuses.  The stats aren't that high - I have around 950 Might in basically the gear I had on when I dinged 30, and might get as much as 20 Might from an additional skill point - but they can eventually add up.  The raider who skips PVP, outdoor race courses, collecting cosmetic armor, and, yes, holiday achievements will eventually fall behind the player who does everything.

Meanwhile, DCUO also has a relatively linear gear progression.  A new stat called "combat rating" is effectively your gearscore in other games, determined by the average level of your gear and used to determine entry into content (including the new DLC).  Once I complete the last few normal quests, I am expected to move on to solo "challenges" (effectively heroic versions of solo dungeons), followed by 2-player duos (with auto-grouping), 4-player alerts, some combination of "hard T1/T2" versions of the above, and eventually raids, each with its own CR requirement. 

In other words, a holiday event that sounds repetitive is, for better or worse, what this game is about once you reach the level cap.  The system tells you where you can go, you go there and get tokens, you buy stuff from the vendor, and eventually you unlock new skill points and new things to work on. 

It sounds bad, and I suppose it is if that's not what you're looking for.  Then again, DCUO is ultimately as much about the fast-paced action combat as the story behind why established heroes need your help. It's good to have the occasional change of scenery and tactics, but they seem to know what their core game is and they're sticking to it. 

Meanwhile, the game has quietly rolled out its second new DLC in three months, with another new powerset - lightning powers with a ward-based healing option that sounds intriguing.  For the first time I'm starting to see something that resembles a reasonable path where I might eventually contribute to the upkeep of this product.  I won't be playing this thing each and every day to grind out tokens or buying every powerset just to see what it does.  Still, $10 per DLC and maybe $5 for a character slot once I run out is not a bad price for a new powerset and a slightly different path from 1-30 under a different mentor.  I still think this game has a tough path, but perhaps they at least have an idea of how to approach that challenge today. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Features of LOTRO's Update 5

LOTRO's Update 5 rolled out this week, containing a number of new features and the new group content for the expansion (which was technically launched in September).  The update reminded me that I haven't been in to check out the new Enedwaith and Isengard content I picked up on super-sale for Black Friday, and I'm been impressed with what I've run into so far.

The big feature is the new instance group finder, which does approximately what we've come to expect out of this feature.  Probably the biggest innovation in the system is the decision to include solo skirmishes in the queue.  This may seem funny - you get the message that you have entered the queue and then are presented with a ready check to jump into a solo skirmish you could have started yourself - but it's actually really clever. 

Because content for larger groups award more marks, I might be tempted to click the higher group size buttons.  If there's no tanks or healers available, no harm, it can just dump me in the solo skirmish I would have done anyway.  If it happens that there are players available, it's an easy way to lure solo players into group content, in a game where frankly I've done very little group content.  Not a bad trade in exchange for using this system to mediate the old daily rewards for running skirmishes. 

Fourteen different rep items that had been cluttering my bank
Elsewhere, the update features good quality of life improvements.  Items whose sole purpose was to collect 10 and turn in to an NPC for reputation have been changed into consumables so you can use them immediately to get the appropriate amount of rep (e.g. 30 rep for an item that used to give 300 for a stack of 10).  This allowed me to clear 14 different types of tokens out of my bank, all of which were there because I either needed more for a complete turnin or did not want to travel back to the NPC who wanted them.  LOTRO still has way too many currencies that don't go in the currency tab - e.g. tokens for Lothlorien, the Malledhrim, the Grey Company, and probably more in Isengard - but at least this is one type of item that's not taking up space. 

In another change that Doc Holiday posted, old Moria class quests that required group content no one does anymore are now optional.  Previously, you had to run a dungeon or do without the capstone class trait for your class.  Now, the trait is automatically granted for the second to last stage of the quest (the final solo step), and I immediately received 20 TP for the deed upon login. 

One unfortunate Uruk got stuck between my Champion and most of the Grey Company
These changes aside, I've been forging into the content of Enedwaith - a zone added during the free to play rollout last year which I declined to purchase at the time because I was already level capped.  I definitely do not need this content for the exp - I'm already level 67 having barely started the zone - but I'm glad I decided not to skip it (as I was considering).  I play LOTRO for the story, not necessarily for pushing the envelope on gameplay difficulty (though LOTRO supports that too, with the option to scale Skirmishes up above your level).  I've been enjoying the content greatly, and it would have been a shame in hindsight to waste it.  Meanwhile, I'm also likely to complete a few deeds for TP and traits while working on the epic storyline in the zone, and I would not have received credit if I had not purchased the content pack. 

In any case, things in Middle Earth seem to be going pretty well.  There is an argument to be made that they should have held the expansion until this update was ready, but it does seem that longtime players have gotten good use out of the portions of the expansion that were done in the mean time.  This game has never been especially competitive on quantity and that does not look to change, but the quality remains superb.  If they can keep making small but steady improvements to quality of life, coupled with the superb storytelling the game is known for, LOTRO will likely continue to hold down a niche for a while to come. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

EQ2 Subscription Strategy

Edit: The All-Access pass may or may not grant grant SC to its multi-game subscribers and there are also some potentially complicated questions regarding multi-month subscriptions.

This post is a companion to my full rundown of the new EQ2 model.  That post was already way too long without discussion of the surprisingly complicated question of whether, how, and why to subscribe to the newly free to play game.  Apologies to those of you who don't care, tl;dr this post and I promise I'll post about something else later this week.

Why Subscribe
There are a few reasons why someone who generally intends to play as a non-subscriber (see the previous post) might want to subscribe occasionally.  You can stash massive amounts of stuff for longterm storage in subscriber-only storage space.  You can also post as many items as you want to the broker, and should be able to claim at least two free Master spell upgrades per character from the research tab during that time.  If you're looking to test drive some races/classes for alts, rental access to all the options, plus temporary access to three extra character slots, may be worth your while.

(I'm not sure how Legends of Norrath currently works.  At one point, subscribers got five free booster packs per month, with a chance of getting loot cards.  I had a bunch of these sitting in my LON tab even though I wasn't paying for a subscription during that time, and I don't know whether these are now free for everyone.)

This vendor wants over 15 plat to trade in dungeon drops for loot.
That said, the other big one is the currency cap.  While there are workarounds, there are definitely places where the game assumes that the player is carrying more than 18 plat on their person.  I played for about 30 minutes last night and was not allowed to loot approximately 2 plat because I was capped.  It's hard to overstate exactly how unexcited I am at the concept of paying $15 to be allowed to replenish my coffers, but this may be the only option.  Depending on your spending habits, it might be possible to subscribe once or maybe twice a year, cash in every last bit of vendor trash and broker listings, and then spend the rest of the time trying not to think of all the money you're not being allowed to loot. 
Payment Methods
One of the less well documented changes in the F2P rollout was a pair of changes to the payment system.  Subscriptions that are paid for with a credit card now grant 500 Station Cash per month.  This may not sound especially unusual for a non-subscription game with an optional subscription, but SOE will now take Station Cash as a non-recurring form of payment for your EQ2 subscription.

This means that EQ2 subscriptions - even if you pay one month at a time and allow them to lapse - are now effectively buy three months, get one free.  Lots of games, EQ2 included, offer discounts for multi-month subscriptions, typically in the $13-14/month range for 90 day subscriptions.  With this plan, you can have four months for an effective rate of $11.25/month and you do not need to take the four months consecutively to qualify.

Alternately, you can apply the Station Cash towards other things, like expansions or other premium features (e.g. the $20 Freeblood race).  Unlike some other companies (e.g. Turbine, where Turbine points are not shared between LOTRO and DDO), you can even take the 500 SC to other SOE games, like DCUO.

The All-Access Pass
Speaking of other games, the All-Access/Station Passes may or may not get the 500 SC. supposedly qualify for the 500 SC, because these are paid with a credit card.  It's not possible to pay for these passes with SC, though, so you won't be able to do the trick where you cancel every three months to pay for a month with your earnings.

If you for some reason are an All-Access Pass-holder who has never played EQ2, I'd make a point of logging in once just to make sure that the EQ2 sub gets credited to your account.  (The same also goes for DCUO - if you ever log in while you have a valid All-Access Pass, you will be permanently flagged as having spent enough money to upgrade your account in that game to Premium Status.)  This deal is also attractive if you play EQ1, Vanguard, and/or Planetside, since these are all still subscription-only. 

The Sale Factor
There's one big X-Factor - the sale.  Historically, SOE has offered double and even triple Station Cash sales a couple times per year.  Sometimes these only include game cards from stores (note that Walmart gets a preferential bonus compared to all other retailers) and sometimes credit card purchases are allowed.  Now that EQ2 takes SC for subscriptions, such a promotion would effectively be half off the subscription, even after you account for not getting the 500 SC because your subscription was not recurring. 

It remains to be seen whether SOE will - or can afford to - offer these deals again.  It's one thing to offer half off cosmetic items or to allow players to pay now for a discount on an expansion that might be months away.  A double SC sale would likely bring in a ton of money that weekend, but it could be a longterm loss if the majority of subscribers switch to this model.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

New EQ2 For The Non-Subscriber

Looking back at the EQ2X rollout as announced back in August 2010, it's striking how much things have changed.  At the time, playing the game without a subscription was effectively the longest free trial in the business - you could play the solo content all the way to the cap without ever paying a dime, but restrictions that could not be bought out for any price effectively locked non-subscribers out from group content, the economy, and even most higher level solo quest/rep rewards.

Today's version of the model is significantly different, and far friendlier to players who came to a non-subscription game because they did not want to pay a subscription.  However, while most absolutely critical restrictions are lifted, there are remaining restrictions that make the game inconvenient or otherwise non-fun for non-subscribers.  If you're wondering what you're in for, this post may help you out.

Account Levels
The game's three account levels are now called "free", "silver", and "gold".  Free is obtained by signing up if you have never played previously.  Silver, which I would suggest that basically all non-subscription players will want to take, is a one-time upgrade that replaces your free status with better privileges.  Silver is obtained by paying $5, and was also granted to anyone who paid for Silver in EQ2X (where it cost $10) and anyone who ever made a character in EQ2Live - I have an old trial account that I never paid a dime for that was reactivated in the F2P switch and upgraded to silver status.

Gold is obtained by subscribing, and temporarily overwrites your free/silver status until the subscription runs out.  This is why some subscribers received emails that they had upgraded to silver during the transition - they remain gold, but their baseline was upgraded to silver.  I'm going to do a separate article on payment methods/strategies for gold, because this is more complicated than you might expect.

My comments here are based on two accounts - my main account, with paid silver status and characters on both live and extended, and an old EQ2 trial account (which was flagged for silver and had no EQ2X characters).  My knowledge of the free level is limited to the game's official matrix, which contains inaccurate information, and I personally have no idea how my account arrived at its current number of character slots, so take with a grain of salt and ask customer service if you have questions.
  • Character Slots: New players from now on, or those who only played either extended or live, have 2 slots as Free (EQ2X only, since all Live accounts are now Silver), 4 slots as Silver, a temporary upgrade to 7 while Gold (i.e. renting 5 or 3 slots depending on where you were starting from), and as many additional permanent slots as you want for $10 each.  Note that when your gold sub expires, the slots you temporarily lose access to are determined in the order of least recent login.  Supposedly customer service can re-arrange your character list for you if your primary character happened to be at the back of the line the day your sub ran out.

    If you had characters on both services, things get complicated.  My understanding of the intent was that players would be given enough slots to play all their characters while subscribed.  I had 7 characters on live and 4 on extended, and therefore expected to have 8 after the rollover - enough so the three rental slots if I went to Gold would let me access all 11 characters.  Instead, I have 10 slots, and I have no idea how they arrived at that number.  (There was an additional wrinkle that people who had unfilled paid slots had those empty slots treated as occupied and preserved in the rollover, but this wasn't me unless I was granted slots in a promo I never heard about or something.)  Bottom line?  If this is you and you are unhappy with your outcome, you can try contacting customer service.
  • Races/Classes: Everyone has to pay for the new expansion to get Beastlords, and almost everyone has to pay extra for the Freeblood Vampire race (a $20 charge in addition to the two expansion boxes this year, though some subscribers got this in a promo with the Velious launch).  Other than these two 2011 additions, all of the races and classes that were in the game prior to 2011 are included in the Gold Subscription.  (This is an upgrade for EQ2X subscribers - races were the only thing that EQ2X subscribers had to pay for even though live subscribers did not.) 
    The race packs
    There are 4 races and 8 classes included for free or silver players.  The remaining 15 races can be permanently unlocked for your account through purchases of race packs ($7.50 for three races, which generally bundle popular options with ones no one wants).  The remaining 16 classes can be unlocked account-wide for $7.50 each.  These are the restrictions that SOE relaxed for returning players, flagging all characters from Live servers prior to the transition for per-character access to their race/class.  Note that you can (and sometimes have to) change your class when your character betrays to the other faction, and that opposite subclass for your character is not included.  I have no idea what happens when a character who was grandfathered in for their class betrays.
Overall, this situation is greatly improved from the early days of EQ2X, when even EQ2X subscribers had to pay for races and non-subscribers could not access the restricted classes for any price.  However, there are still some unfortunate side-effects to this model.  The reason I have two EQ2 trial accounts is that it actually took me a dozen tries to find a class I liked.  This cost is mildly prohibitive for players who want to try the premium classes.  Meanwhile, in the long run we would expect the population of new characters created to skew towards the free classes, which could leave populations short on important classes like enchanters, bards, and non-plate healers.  It's possible that the mass-grandfathering will blunt this effect, especially for the former Live servers (which never had these restrictions previously), time will tell.

Nothing about the content model for EQ2 changes with the re-launch. 

Everything up to and including 2010's Sentinel's Fate expansion is now free for all accounts, which also includes the current level cap (90).  Destiny of Velious, 2011's first $40 paid expansion, includes an increased AA cap from 250 to 300, and all of the high level content that is planned for 2012.  (The just-released revamp to Freeport, and I believe the planned revamp of Qeynos next year, are free for all players.)  Age of Discovery, 2011's second $40 paid expansion, includes no content, a bunch of features I don't care about, and an increase in the AA cap from 300 to 320 (dunno what happens if you buy this before DOV) that I would argue makes the "optional" expansion much less optional. 

As noted above, there was also a new race added for $20, not counting its optional cosmetic add-ons, on top of the two expansion fees, in late 2010.  Given this track record, I would be surprised if we did not see another paid $40 package in 2012.

Gear and Spells
When EQ2X launched, non-subscribers could not use Master level spells or Legendary/Fabled/Mythical gear for any price.  The gear restrictions effectively made it impossible ever do dungeons added to the game from 2009 on, and also meant that solo quests starting in the 70's (and even holiday events) routinely awarded gear players could not equip. 
Since then, SOE has added unlock tokens, currently sold for $1.50 per pack of 5 to allow players to work around these restrictions.  In what is surely no coincidence, there is no longer any such thing as sub-legendary quality gear in current expansion content.  You might be able to limp through the solo content in Velious using treasured gear from the previous expansion, but dungeons are out of the question without unlocking gear to meet the required stat values. 

While this expense is non-optional, it is far lower than a subscription fee - at 30 cents per item (down from 50 cents when the unlocks first arrived), you can replace every piece of gear you own twice per month and still come in under $15.  The one unfortunate part about this setup is that it creates a financial disincentive to equipping minor upgrades, but I suppose that's more a problem with itemization design than business model. 

Spell ranks mean approximately 10% bonuses to the base numbers for each spell (which are then modified by your stats etc, so the jump isn't as large as it sounds).  Free accounts get apprentice, journeyman, and adept ranks, and there's no reason to ever pay for more tokens before upgrading to silver.  Silver players can add expert ranks (the highest player-crafted level), leaving only the master level (found as rare loot or researched once per month by the spell research tab) locked behind the 30 cent fees.  Moreover, unlike locked gear (which is unequipped when your subscription runs out), spells remain in your spellbook after your subscription lapses.  Many longtime players, myself included, have already mastered our most important spells as the game goes on two years since the last increase in the level cap, and I do not expect to pay for any of these tokens.

Storage is an area where there are subscriber only restrictions, but the overall amount of storage in this game has always been excessive.  Cheap, player-crafted bags have 40 slots and even free players have a ton of slots, so I don't consider this a major issue.  

According to the grid, free players still have 2 bagslots on their character and no access to the account-wide shared bank.  I'm pretty sure that they still have 2 slots in their personal banks, 6 slots in their house vault, and 6 broker slots (more on this later).  Note that you also can store an effectively infinite number of housing furniture items by packing them into a moving crate, which does not count as a bag.

Silver players upgrade to 4 bagslots on their character, 3 in their personal bank, and 2 shared bankslots (which are the only way to transfer heirloom items), along with the 6 house vault and 6 broker slots.  Players can also purchase the two locked slots on their character for $1.50 per slot per character.  (Free players can presumably also do this, but there's no reason to pay for this before paying the $5 to upgrade to Silver.) 

Gold players have temporary access to all 6 bagslots, the full 16 slots in their personal bank, and the full 8 slots in their shared bank.  When your subscription lapses, the extra slots become withdraw-only, but there's nothing forcing you to actually remove items from them until you need those items. 

The original version of EQ2X seriously restricted player access to the economy, but the model has since opened up considerably.  All players can now open the broker and purchase stuff listed by other players.  All players also have the six broker slots, which will accept containers that can contain 40+ items each. 

Gold subscribers can place as much stuff as will fit in their broker containers.  Free and silver players must use a broker token, sold in packs of 10 for 50 cents (i.e. 5 cents per token).  One token allows you to deposit a stack of items into your broker slots. Once the item is in your slots, regardless of whether your gold status remains active, you are free to choose whether to actually list the item for sale, change the price, take the item back out, or attempt to claim your earnings.

I say "attempt to" because here is where we run into probably the single largest non-negotiable restriction on non-subscription accounts.  Non-subscribers are capped on how much currency they can own - 5 gold per level for free accounts and 20 gold per level for silver.  A level 90 character on a silver account is capped at 18 plat.  For reference, I have tipped crafters almost that much for making stuff with my materials.  Turning in your dungeon shards for adornments requires approximately 5 plat, and some items on vendors cost even more.  Stacks of food and drink will also cost you a plat or three.  The new mercenaries (for people who paid for AOD) reportedly cost 5 plat to hire and an additional 1 plat per 2 hours of playtime to use.  In my view, 18 plat is not a lot of money.

There are some workarounds.  Guild banks have no limit, so you can make a guild for your bank alts and stash your currency in there.  Crafting fuel can be sold back to vendors at the cost you paid for it, so you can attempt to turn all your wealth into crafting fuel until you get your cash supply back under the cap.  (I'm told that EQ2X players actually accept stacks of fuel as payment, but NPC vendors, mercenaries, and the broker are not so forgiving.)  When your gold subscription lapses, all the currency in your wallet remains there, so you can carry on as normal with the caveat that you can't earn any more until you are almost broke.  Even so, this is the one area where the absence of a way for non-subscribers to pay to alleviate the restrictions is a serious impediment to being able to play the game. 

Other Quality of Life Issues
There are a few other restrictions, but none I consider hugely significant.  Free players cannot use global chat or create guilds (both of which are lifted at Silver).  Neither free nor silver players can send in-game mail for any price.  Both account types are subject to a pop-up ad encouraging them to subscribe, typically around 5 minutes into your playsession, and both will force your web browser to launch and view the official EQ2 page when you close the game. 
Note that the ad text currently contains several pieces of inaccurate information - you only get 3 more character slots and two more bagslots because Silver accounts were allowed one more of each since this text was written.
There is also a reduced quest log - free players can have only 20 quests and silver can have only 40, compared to 75 for subscribers.  EQ2 hands out a lot of quests, some of which sit in your quest log for a long time by design.  The 20 quest limit is a bit low, but 40 is tolerable.  (Quests in progress are not lost when your gold status lapses, you just can't take anymore until you get below your limit.)  I would pay money to raise the quest limit further, but the limit as it stands isn't bad enough to affect my purchasing decisions.

Until this month, EQ2 was actually triple-dipping into player wallets, with the full priced subscription fee, full-priced expansion boxes that contain less and less content for the money, and a cash shop that gets items as significant as playable races for an additional fee.  As someone who plays a lot of different non-subscription MMO's, I believe the remaining restrictions that SOE will not accept money to remove demonstrate continued reluctance to allow players to ditch the monthly fee.  What has changed in the last year is an increasing willingness, however begrudging, to offer an experience at the non-subscription level that is attractive enough to be worth paying for.

As a former subscriber with enough plat on hand to last for a while before the plat cap becomes a pressing issue, I will likely sink about $15 worth of Station Cash into EQ2 for gear and bagslot unlocks over the next few months.  This is, as SOE fears, less than it would cost to subscribe for that much time, but more than I otherwise would have spent.  Moreover, this is a model in which what I spend depends on how much I play - if I started running dungeons every night or running multiple high level alts (especially if this included new alts that require unlocks) the numbers would increase. 

That is where SOE could come out ahead - if they can provide a quality, fun experience, I will be happy to pay for that product.  By not charging an entrance fee, SOE allows players to stick around to see what they're missing. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Darkmoon Faire Wrap-Up

The first month of the revised Darkmoon Faire is in the books, and my mage has snagged a total of 75 tickets.  The breakdown here was 20 tickets for six tradeskill quests (once per month, also good for five free skill points in the related skills), 10 for the general kill quest, 35 for doing five carnival game dailies every day for seven days, and 10 from a dungeon drop - I won one of only two I saw drop during the week.

By my standards, I played WoW pretty heavily this week to get even that many tickets.  According to Blizzard's post on the topic, I earned less than half of what is theoretically possible in a month, but they claim that the half I missed will be easier to gain in future iterations because you can get the random dungeon drops anytime, not just when the Faire is active.  If what I got this month is representative of what I'm going to get normally, I would have to repeat what I did this week every month for twelve months just to get the minipets and mounts currently on the vendor.

Six pets at 90 tickets and 2 mounts, at 180 tickets

On some level, these are all cosmetic rewards, and it therefore doesn't "matter" if I obtain them all.  (The six minipets do represent by far the largest trove of pets that I don't own that can be easily obtained, but we also can't be sure that these won't be account-wide when Pandaria hits - being able to farm them on alts would dramatically speed this time.)  There are a lot of tents in the Faire that are closed for "construction", raising the possibility that more ticket-earning activities will be possible in future years.  (Note: I meant to write "patches" instead of years, but the Freudian slip seems appropriate given Blizzard's patch cycle.)  For that matter, there's an argument to be made that a Veteran reward that actually requires in-game activity is more interesting than one that you get just for paying up, with the caveat that players would need to be available the week the Faire is open to get their tickets for that month.

That said, the fact remains that this is a game that charges a monthly fee.  I would have no complaint if this event was open year-round so I could work on it at my leisure.  Having an event that requires me to drop what I'm doing and work on it for the first week of every month, at the risk of losing my monthly token allowance, does not strike me as especially fun.

Consolation prize: a bunch of easy achievements

Thursday, December 8, 2011

SOE's EQ2 Generosity

Big news on the EQ2 forums today - all EQ2-Live characters created prior to the free-to-play conversion will be grandfathered in for non-subscription access to their race/class.  Players who purchased access to these options after the relaunch will have their Station Cash refunded, as you will now only need to unlock the race/class if you intend to make additional characters using that option. 

Lots of locks, all going away tomorrow

Personally, all seven of my seven EQ2 Live characters are currently locked - all seven are premium races and six of the seven are premium classes.  I had resigned myself to paying to unlock Lyriana and never touching the other six characters again.  Now, I will have permanent access to all of them, and I was even granted enough character slots to use all of them without re-subscribing because I filled all my slots on EQ2X with placeholders to save names in case I ever copied Lyriana over. 

I don't agree with a number of decisions the EQ2 team has made in the last year, especially on the business model, but I have to tip my cap on this unexpected and generous move.  In fairness, SOE will make some money off this deal - I personally will immediately use my Station Cash balance (albeit unpaid, from various promos over the years) to purchase gear unlocks and bag slot unlocks (I don't remember when these went into EQ2X, but I'm shocked that you can expand your inventory back up to the full six bagslots for only $3).  Even so, I think they're leaving a significant amount of money on the table to make sure that they're doing right by former players, in a situation where I don't think they were in the wrong to begin with. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Followup on 4.3 Heroics

As of Sunday night, my first impression of the new heroics of patch 4.3 was that they were a gamble - super easy content in the old dungeons versus higher gear rewards in the new stuff.  After doing half a dozen random runs to gear up in the new material, I'm coming around to the viewpoint of some of my commenters.  The new content seems surprisingly easy.

My new weapon appears to be an Eye of Sauron on a stick.

All told, I've done about 10 partial or full runs through the new content.  All ten successfully completed the zone.  Individual players wordlessly dropping group for unspecified reasons (presumably displeasure with their random selection) are pretty common.  Wipes happen occasionally, and have always been attributable to either the tank or the healer.  (Sorry, guys, I just haven't seen that there are any DPS checks to fail in this content, especially since we're all baselined in by gear.  If it makes you feel any better, the offenders probably aren't real tanks/healers, just DPS trying to get better queues.) 

More interestingly, these nigh guaranteed wins are also quick - maybe one of these ten runs went over 30 minutes.  It's possible that the recent introduction of new gear is driving more skilled players into the dungeons in their first week than we'll see in the future.  In the mean time, this isn't looking like much of a gamble at all - I'm clearing the 4.3 heroics in PUG's as fast as it's possible to clear the old content, even if you ignore the possibility of getting stuck with a more time-consuming Troll instance. 

If this trend holds up, it's potentially unfortunate.  The new zones have the kind of extended NPC dialog that gets old after you've done it 3+ times each, to say nothing of 7 times per week.  Likewise, rehashing such a small number of zones so many times is a common flaw to the daily dungeon model (including its implementation in other games).  Meanwhile, in about a week I have gone from gear that was not yet the level of Cataclysm's launch heroics straight to the entry level for the current raid tier.  This is a good deal if I was looking to get that over with, and a bad deal to the extent that the experience might otherwise have been enjoyable enough to spend more than a week on. 

Don't get me wrong, entry barriers are a tough problem that no one has adequately solved, and the new content is definitely high quality and fun to complete a few times.  It's just a bit unfortunate that longstanding flaws in the incentives may overshadow that accomplishment.

Under that ball of felfire is a gnome, who is also glowing bright blue with corrupted energy.
P.S. One of my new pieces of loot is a demon themed trinket that turns me blue and, on use, also sets me on fire.  This looks very cool but is somewhat problematic in a high end game that consists primarily of moving your character when you find yourself standing in fire. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Time Gamble for 4.3 Heroic Valor

I've had a bit of time to play around with the dungeon finder, where I've noticed something unusual about the new Heroic dungeons. 

When patch 4.1 added the two troll instances to WoW's heroic pool, the newer, more challenging instances were separated in a different tier, with separate Valor point awards (much to the chagrin of people who wanted to get their weekly valor cap but who got tired of running those two zones repeatedly).  Patch 4.3 adds three new instances, and these are indeed available as a separate category in the dungeon finder.  What is gone is the additional Valor award.

You can now get seven VP grants per week (the last of which will be reduced from 150 to 100 due to the weekly cap), regardless of whether you take the option that only includes the new zones, or the other option (which includes all of the Cataclysm heroics you are eligible for, including the 4.1 and 4.3 instances).  This makes for an interesting gamble on players' time versus reward ratios. 
  • The newer zones seem to be reasonably quick, drop better loot (until you have something better yet anyway) and have a higher starting item level requirement, which means that you're not going to be added to a group with people who have not done at least some dungeons in Cataclysm.  However, the 4.3 zones are still a bit tougher than what you see in the old zones, so the chances - or at least the fear - of failure is potentially higher.  
  • If you go the unrestricted random route, the basic Cataclysm Heroics are going to be even quicker because players grossly outgear them, resulting in a high speed, low risk clear if those are chosen.  However, you run the risk of drawing one of the new zones, or, worst of all, one of the time consuming and challenging troll heroics, which now no longer has any additional reward.  I've seen a lot of people immediately drop groups upon zone-in, and I assume these folks were hoping for the easy win.  
I suppose it's a good compromise solution - players like myself who are behind the gear curve looking to meet the requirements for the EZ-auto-raid-finder mode of Deathwing can self-select into the new content without losing the weekly VP bonuses.  Other players are available to fill in groups for anything, even the rare person (like myself, having not had a subscription for most of the time since 4.1) who actually still wanted to sightsee in the old zones.

This is one of those times when I wish we could actually see the numbers.  It would be fascinating to see which of the options players end up picking. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Triumph of the Loyalty Reward Mount

Of the reasons why I signed up for WoW's annual pass, the Tyrael's Charger mount was pretty much negligable.  That said, the mount arrived with this week's patch 4.3, so I suppose you can make an argument that I now own a mount that I obtained with real money. 

Visually, it's a very nice mount - typical horse but the ethereal wings/tail are striking and unique (not entirely so, obviously, but far less common than the original sparkle pony was in my limited experience).  On the downside, I'm not entirely thrilled with the flight animation.  Viewed from the side or the front it looks fine, but from behind (which is the default perspective after all) the horse moves his legs as if he were pushing off against the ground.  It looks a bit odd in mid-air, in a way that the Headless Horseman's flying horse did not.  

Like all other mounts, the horse requires the appropriate level and riding skill to use - my level 5 bank alt can loot the mount from her mail but cannot use it.  The two perks this mount does get (which have been on previous cash store mounts) are the ability to scale to player riding skill level and the ability to make a seamless transition from flight to ground travel if you enter a no-fly zone. 

I'm not sure exactly what the rules for this are anymore now that so much of the world is flyable - I have seen people riding on gryphons on the ground - but I was able to fly the charger into the cave for the Pebble daily quests and continue on the ground, where a traditional flying mount kicked me off when I tried this last week.  This air to ground ability is not common - as far as I'm aware, there are only two mounts (the horseman from the Halloween event and the Valentine's rocket) with this capability that can be obtained through normal in-game means.  It's not a must have and I wouldn't pay $25 for it (the going rate for mounts in WoW's cash shop), but it's a nice account-wide perk.

Meanwhile, because my luck runs that way sometimes, my egg from the Oracles finally hatched into a Green Proto-Drake when I logged into game to pick up the new mount from the mailbox.  Go figure.