Thursday, January 25, 2007

Burning Crusade Impressions Part II

It's been over a week now so I thought I should update my initial impressions of WoW's big expansion, The Burning Crusade.

First of, I discovered that the fel orc bombing run is repeatable just for fun!

Crafting is actually useful. Upon talking to the blacksmith in Thrallmar, I was immediately given several new recipes for items that some of my guildmates could use! You can actually make items for your level. In the old days of Azeroth, it was pretty much impossible to stay ahead of the curve for the various professions. I was always making items that were 5+ levels below me. Meanwhile in the Outlands, I have a recipe for several nice, level 65 weapons... and I'm only level 64.

I initially gave their big 'world PvP' feature a bad grade because the players were just running around trading towers rather than actually fighting over them (at least in Hellfire Penninsula). This still seems to be the norm for the most part, but if you can get a small group together and choose to defend or contest the alliance for control, there can be quite a bit of fun PvP. A few Shadowclan did just this over the weekend, and after a little over an hour, I had 80-something marks to spend and ~700 honor as well. You don't get experience or reputation, but it's a hell of a lot more fun! Not only did we control the Broken Hill tower for quite a bit, but we also exerted our dominance over the main Alliance road out of Honor Hold, annoying many Alliance players until we were finally overwhelmed. But still, this only happened because we decided to break the pattern that everyone else had settled into.

There is an odd sort of tension hanging over many of the hunting grounds, but for the most part, everyone levels peacefully together. Though sometimes, the tension can break out into battle at the flash of poorly-timed AoE, and then, just as quickly, return to a standoffish neutrality.

Quests are plentiful. I constantly have a full quest log and purposefully avoid some outposts so that I can stay focused in one area at a time. Unfortunately, the fun quick quests of Hellfire Penninsula seem to give way once you hit Zangamar. Then we're back to the same old random-drop collection quests and the chained, run-back-and-forth kill quests. But I do find the zone itself interesting, and the fact that I have four different towns to get jobs from should keep me busy for a while.

The graphics are just outstanding. Warcraft does such a great job of making everything colorful and larger than life. If you get a chance to stop for a moment and look around, do it. Coilfagn Reservoir looks very ominous when gazing at it from across the lake. And the streamer effects in the sky always make me stop and look twice.

I haven't done any Jewelcrafting, but I am interested in the whole socketing gems feature. Unfortunately, I've only acquired two items so far that have sockets (I had to sell one socketable helm because it looked so awful I would have been embarassed wearing it).

So I upgrade my initial grade to a A minus. I'm having fun so far, and am thoroughly enjoying my adventures and explanations of the new lands. I'm reminded of the first few months of WoW when it was originally released. Hellfire Penninsula was incredibly engaging those first few days. And I think a lot of that was due to the sheer number of players running around. There was an electricity in the air and it really felt like something big was happening. But already the veneer is beginning to wear a little thin. Everything is basically the same. Despite the sheer amount of combat involving Hellfire Citadel, the Hand of Kargath repeatedly spawns in the same spot to be repeatedly killed by the players. No excursions are ever sent out from the Citadel. Nothing really happens that lasts for more than a few moments. So I'm still holding onto my reservations about the end-game. I fear that once I hit 70, the game will return to what it was before the expansion release... little more than a repetitive honor and faction grind.

Friday, January 19, 2007

MMO Core Concept #1: Labor Points - Harvesting of a Different Color

What are labor points? Labor points are numbers that represent an individual character's ability to directly affect the game world. Players can use their labour points to contribute to the building of infrastructure, to assist in production and for destructive purposes as well. Each character starts with a certain number. Additional points are gained slowly over real-time, whether a character is logged in or not. The total number of points that can be accumulated is capped at some arbitrary number.

My overall concept for this system includes several other layers such as skills, hired NPCs, varied building sizes, trade routes and other good stuff that would interact with the Labor Points System in a meaningful way. But, in order to keep things simple and focused, I'll be foregoing discussion of those at this time to keep this essay as basic as I can.

Lets start with the first use for these points, building infrastructure. A player or guild decides to construct a harvesting building, a lumber camp for example. Using whatever method the game offers, they lay the unfinished camp down. Whether the building requires resources or not is irrelevant for this feature, so we'll assume that it doesn't, just to make things a little simpler. However, it does require labor to build. Players click on the unfinished building and choose how many of their available labour points they wish to contribute (I would also require a 'building' skill and have the skill level factor into how effective their labour points are for this task, but that idea is also unneccesary and adds another layer of complexity that I'll gloss over for now). Once the required number of labor points have been contributed, by any number of players, a timer starts. Once the timer is complete, the building is done and production can begin.

Now that the lumber mill is up and running players can choose to contribute their labor points to harvest raw materials, logs in this example. For each labor point, X number of logs are produced. Also, players can choose to contribute labor points to convert the logs into boards, which can then be taken to a carpentry shop and used in other buildings or projects. There would be a cap on the amount of logs that can be produced on a daily basis based on the number of trees in the general area (a lumber mill in the middle of an open plain would not be very productive).

On the opposite end of the spectrum, labor points are also used to destroy buildings. This may be players wanting to tear down their own buildings, or it may be a hostile act against an enemy. To prevent players from arriving at someone's town late at night and tearing everything down before the next morning, there would have to be some artificial limitations on how players use their labor points for destruction. Perhaps a heavy stamina penalty or a hard-coded limit on the amount of destruction a building can receive over time.

The reasoning behind using the labor points for two diametrically opposed actions should be relatively obvious. It's meant to force players to make a choice. They can either use their available labor to assist in building and growing their community, or they can use it for aggresion and destruction; or even some sort of combination of the two. But there will be decisions to make. And those choices have an effect on the world. If your guild is spending all of their labor on tearing down enemy fortifications, then production suffers and perhaps they won't have enough supplies or be able to replace broken items. If your town puts all of their labor into production and town growth, then perhaps a neighbour will start to encroach on your lands by building towers and other fortifications. If you don't take some effort away from production to tear down these intrusions, you might suddenly find that your borders have shrunk.

How will you deal with the issue of mule characters?
Thinking about this question, I would actually say that it's a non-issue. If players have characters whose sole purpose in life is to accumulate labor points, thats fine. The total amount that could be accumulated would be kept relatively small (perhaps a week's worth) and various mechanics could be put in to place to encourage players to skill-up these 'mule' characters so that they are more effective, at which point the line between played character and mule begins to blur. My initial thought would be to have character skills tie in to how effective their labor points are used. A character who is a Master Lumberjack would get more bang per labor point at a Lumber Mill than would a character who has little or no Lumberjacking skill.

In summary, this system is designed to allow players to harvest raw materials, but to also limit the amount of raw materials that can be produced in any given time. It shifts the focus of harvesting towards guilds and communities (since they will be more likely to have the available resources to build camps) while still allowing individual players to have an effect and be able to contribute directly in a meaningful way.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Burning Crusade: Initial Impressions

Like millions of other people around the world, I went out and bought World of Warcraft's expansion, The Burning Crusade and Tuesday and eagerly installed it, anxiously awaiting my chance to explore the Outlands. After four hours on Tuesday night and three hours last night, here are my initial impressions.

Getting into the Outlands is easy enough. Just go the the Blasted Lands and run through the portal (though be sure to grab the quest from the guy in the middle of the camp on the Azeroth-side beforehand). Once through, you're on the steps of a most impressive looking portal and down below, a continuous fight wages against very large demons. The flight master is right there and will fly you to the appropriate city where lots of quests and profession trainers await. I was a little annoyed that the guards in Thrallmar don’t give out directions around the town. Luckily, the place isn't that big. The lag outside of Thrallmar was horrendous that first night, but, to my surprise, the servers stayed up and once you got away from the mass numbers of players, it pretty much disappeared. Grade: B+

The quests are plentiful and relatively easy. And aside from the standard kill, collect, deliver fare, there is one particularly fun quest which has you fly bombing runs on a wyvern, destroying a large encampment of Fel orcs. I would redo that quest just for fun if I could! Faction and experience accumulate quickly. Without really focusing on advancement and spending some time just exploring, I'm 2/3 of the way to level 61 and about 1/4 of the way to being honored with Thrallmar (the first Horde city in the Outlands). The rewards are nice, and if I didn't already have a bunch of PvP epics, I would definitely be using some of the rewards as upgrades. Gold is also plentiful. I've made at least 50 gold already, and that includes spending over 20 gold to upgrade my professions. Grade: A

But one area that Blizzard seems to have failed miserably in again is world PvP. At least as far as Hellfire Peninsula is concerned. On paper, their plan looks great! The Horde and Alliance towns are just a stone's throw from each other. Both sides have quests to kill the orcs separating the two factions and both also have quests to cross to the other side and destroy siege engines owned by the opposition. Meanwhile, just a short ride away, lie three towers, all in close proximity to each other, that players can take control of, similar to the towers in the Eastern Plaguelands. However, it just doesn’t work. The Horde and Alliance pretty much ignore each other as both sides run around destroying each others catapults and cannons. The tower fights rarely involve an actual fight. For the most part, everyone runs around in one big group, taking control of each tower one at a time as their supposed foes do the same... but at different towers. The times where I've tried to engage the enemy resulted in my quick death at the hands of 10 allies while the rest of the Horde rides off to the next tower. And this is on a PvP server!

I think the main problem extends from the fact that holding a tower is worth nothing. Capturing it checks off one requirement for a repeatable quest that nets you tokens. These tokens are then used to buy various goodies. So there's really little point to fighting over control of a tower. You only get a bonus if your side controls all three, which rarely happens for any extended amount of time. The bonus is minimal, and the manpower required to maintain control of all three towers (the towers are relatively large and control switches quickly) is staggering! Good concepts in theory, but not enough thought was put into what the players would want (which is items). Controlling the towers or killing the enemy doesn't give any items. But running around like a herd of lemmings, avoiding any combat that’s not overwhelmingly in your favor does. Grade: D-

I didn't get much chance to explore any other zones, though I did make the run through the Marsh to Shattrath City. It proved to be an easy trek (as long as you stay on the roads), though I found that the Scryer Inn wasn't given me any rested state bonus. It looks like they have similar tower PvP objectives in every zone, and vendors that hand out items for collecting the appropriate tokens. I hope that PvP in the other zones is more engaging than Hellfire Peninsula. I also have only been in Hellfire Ramparts briefly (just long enough to make one attempt at each of the last two bosses), but it seems to have a nice layout and from what I understand, is a relatively quick instance. I look forward to trying it again soon.

Overall, the expansion has brought a much-needed breath of fresh air to WoW. The excitement that I had two years ago has returned and I'm looking forward to mining new and exotic minerals, discovering new and exotic place and killing new and exotic creatures! The PvP aspects have been less than adequate, but, I really shouldn't have expected much given WoW's history. New items are plentiful and most seem to have a lot of stat bonuses. I haven't had a chance to socket any gems, but I am eagerly eying the various options I see on the vendors.

Only time will tell if The Burning Crusade really changes the game, or, if ultimately, it's just variations on the same themes and grows stale quickly. But in the meantime, I'll be enjoying the time that everything is new and not worrying about rushing through the content or levels.

First Impressions Overall Grade: B+

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Vanguard Beta: Initial Thoughts

So I had the chance to check out the Vanguard: Saga of Heroes beta this weekend. I alloted myself 10 hours of /played time to get a feel for the game, and I wanted to check out the diplomacy and crafting features in particular.Here are my initial thoughts.

I began by choosing to play a Dark Elf Necromancer. Character customization options are very detailed. But, having 20 different sliders for facial features seems extraneous when you almost never see anyone's face closeup anyway. While it can be fun to completely customize a character down to the length of their eyebrows, this is not a selling point for me. In my mind, character customization should focus more on the larger look (City of Heroes did an excellent job on this part). And there are plenty of options for this as well such as altering height and body mass. But after some cursory poking around, I chose a name, made my character and jumped in-game.

First off, I immediately noticed that the graphics would be an issue. I dont have a top of the line system, but its more then enough for WoW with all the bells and whistles on. I turned the graphic settings down and still had a lot of video lag and stutter. Waving grass looks nice, but if it's slowing me down, I want to be able to turn it off. So I was a bit dissappointed with the video options. This alone would likely keep me from buying the game.

But, it was definitely playable, so I began my adventures with a quest to kill ten slaves. Adventuring seemed pretty standard. Quests were along the lines of kill, collect and deliver. Spells and attacks were also pretty standard fare. One interesting thing I did notice is that my pet (an abomination), had a button to let me manage it's 'grafts'. I never saw anything that explained what this is, but I assume that at some point I would be able to create specialized upgrades for him. Being able to customize your pets is always nice. I died a few times once I got to the tougher mobs, but I never had to do a corpse run (those dont start until level 7). I did hear from various players yelling across the zone that you can choose to pay money at an altar to have your corpse brought to you. Seems like a decent compromise to me.

I found the crafting interface and options interesting, but I couldnt figure out how to actually pursue a crafting profession that interested me. The Artifice trainer only offered me a total of 3 recipes at level 6 (and only listed a handful of others for higher levels), and of the various taskmasters, only one offered any tasks, and those were all about making wooden frames and oars other such stuff I had little interest in. I dont know what these things are used for or why I'm making them. Initial skill gains were quick, but, by the time I hit crafting level 5, it felt like a grind with nothing interesting to work on and no signs of it getting any more interesting in the near future. I also noticed on the crafting supply vendor that there were a number of tools that I couldnt use, but could find no explanation as to why I wasnt able to use them. I managed to get the necessary raw materials to make 2 out of 3 of my personal recipes, but, after one succesful attempt, I was proclaimed 'master' of that recipe and could no longer learn from it. I found this a little frustrating as I was a bit tired of making wooden frames and had purposefully gone out to gather materials that I could craft with. And also, there was no indication in my recipe list that these recipes had been 'mastered'. So I was left with the choice of continuing to make quartz gems that gave no skill gain and for which I had no use, or continuing to do a series of endlessly repeating tasks to gain skill. Not very encouraging.

The little random events that can happen during the crafting process are a nifty addition, but they also tend to get repetitive rather quickly. And crafting is not for those who are worried about carpal tunnel syndrome. Each item crafted took a good 30-40 clicks to make! Considering that the work orders with the best rewards ask for 5 of an item... thats a lot of mouse clicking for a few copper! It wouldn't be a big deal if each and every crafted item were important. But work order items simply vanish into the void and I didnt really get the feeling that personally crafted items will be that important either (but I could be wrong since I haven't been given the opportunity to really make much of anything). I love that they've gone beyond the simple-minded concept of 'collect ingredients, push create button' style of crafting. But overall, I think that the system doesnt go far enough to make crafting fun or interesting over the long-term. Perhaps if I was able to move on to a larger town more options would open up, but at crafting and adventuring level six, I have no breadcrumbs to lead me anywhere else, and doing more taskmaster work orders is much more of a grind that I'm willing to pursue at the moment.

Diplomacy is one of their more innovative features. It's basically a little mini-game within the game. Kind of like a Collectible Card Game in many ways. You collect various abilities (cards), build your strategy (deck) using 5 of those abilities and then match your strategy against your opponent, choosing when to play abiliites. Each ability you play has effects on your various point pools, which then allows you to play more useful cards. The first diplomacy encounters are pretty easy, but as you progress it does require some strategy and forethought. I found that I would often have to change my available abilities for each match, which required some tactical planning. But the interface was a bit awkward. I couldnt close my deck without opening my abilities book for some reason. Often, as I tried to drag an ability from my strategy deck I would end up dragging the whole deck instead, and dropping abiliites onto the deck usually required two attempts (this may be an additional issue with the lack of mouse sensitivity). The diplomacy quests felt very linear, and after the 3rd or 4th one, I simply stopped reading the text beyond finding out who I had to talk to next. I had hoped that I would have some choices in how I dealt with my diplomacy options that actually had an effect on the quest results. No such luck. So while it's fun and different, I still feel like I'm on an amusement park ride, just going with the flow and unable to make any signifigant choices.

Bugs were a problem. I had several weird interface issues that basically forced me to logout and back in to keep playing. And sometimes I would find my view forced to first person suddenly and I would have to struggle to get it back to 3rd person. But, the worst one came last night. I had finally managed to get the two harvesting skills I wanted (you have one primary and one secondary, but nowhere could I tell which was which so I accidentally replaced the wrong one twice before I figured out what was going on) and I went out to gather some plants and rocks. However, out of the blue, for no apparent reason, all of my harvesting gear suddenly turned red (meaning that I cant use it) and I could no longer do any harvesting! Logging out and quitting the game had no effect. I paged a GM who responded promptly. Unfortunately, he said he didnt know why it was happening and he also had no tools to try and attempt to fix the problem. So i guess this character will just be unable to harvest. :{

Mouselook was very kludgy. I couldnt turn the camera more than 90 degrees without lifting my mouse off the pad, even with mouse sensitivity turned all the way to max. I find this particularly frustrating, as the lack of peripheral vision in MMOs always bothers me, so I like to be able to quickly and easily look around me.

And finally, as Lifebane said, the timing of their release just seems an odd decision. Attempting to go head-to-head with the Burning Crusade is just a recipe for low sales. Especially given how much press BC has been getting (it was Yahoo's headline story on Sunday, and I also noticed that Best Buy had a huge ad for it in their advertisement in the paper). Vanguard has some interesting features, but seems to lack polish (especially on the various interfaces) and is not newbie-friendly at all. I consider myself a serious gamer and a veteran MMO player, but the explanation of the diplomacy and crafting interfaces was confusing and seemed to not proceed in a logical manner to me. I ended up just kind of muddling my way through it.

Final totals for this character: level 6 Necromancer, level 6 crafter, 26 skill in diplomacy and 30-something skill in harvesting.

I know it's been the trend for a long time to release MMOs well before they are ready for mass consumption, but one day, some company somewhere will learn from past mistakes others have made. Apparently Sigil is not that one.

At some point before the open beta ends, I will likely try to create an Orc Warrior/Smith (same as the character I play in WoW), skipping the diplomacy game completely, and see if my experience varies with my newfound knowledge of the basics of gameplay.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

MMOs for the New Year

It's the beginning of a new year, I havent posted anything new here in a couple of weeks, and though I have lots of fragments floating around, nothing coherent is ready. So, to keep some fresh content flowing without devolving into commenting on my
personal life, I've decided to make a brief list of upcoming MMOs that I hope to see this year.

Darkfall - This one is at the top of my list because their goals and ideas pretty closely mirror a lot of the core concepts I'm interested in seeing in an MMO. Player-owned towns, open PvP, skill-based system,
playable orcs, no floating names, just to name a few. Unfortunately, this game has been in development for quite some time. Many people seem to think that this automatically makes it vaporware, but to me, it means they're taking times to do things right. When, if ever, this game is released is unknown, but I'm hoping that it at least starts up a serious beta test sometime this year.

Warhammer Online - This will be a definite WoW replacement for me (though hopefully I won't still be playing WoW by the time this game makes it to the shelves). WoW-type interface with a PvP focus. Sounds good to me! And Warhammer's history is so rich and interesting. I hope they can infuse the game with some of that backstory and character. But at the very least, I'm definitely looking forward to bashing in some stuntie heads, cutting off their beards and sacking their cities!

Pirates of the Burning Sea - Ship to ship combat. Full player crafting. Town ownership. All set amidst the turbluent seas. This game has the potential to be the Eve Online of the pirate era.

Age of Conan - I'm a little leary of the twitch-oriented combat. Lag already causes enough issues with the standard MMO combat model and I'm scared to see how it affects combat in Conan. I've only been following this peripherally, so I dont know a lot of details, but I do remember reading something about keep ownership and sieges along with some other interesting goodies (bar brawls!)

That's all that I can think of offhand without looking up a list of upcoming games. Which ones catch your attention and why?