Tuesday, February 26, 2013

I Don't Believe it! We Have a New Champion of Anguish!

Among my friends, I've been known as being a bit obsessive about winning from time to time.

There was one (in)famous time where I hadn't won a game of Settlers of the Stone Age all evening, and I kept my wife and another friend playing the same game until 3 AM when I finally was able to pull out a victory.  Back in the days of the original Sid Meier's Civilization, I once played three full games back-to-back because I'd lost at the last second twice in a row.  I may be older (and, theoretically, wiser), but there are times when thoughts of 'winning' cloud my brain.

Of course, 'winning' in an MMO means different things to different people.

The PvP oriented may focus on being an Arena Master or winning Rated BGs.  (Or even winning regular BGs as much as possible.)  The PvE people may focus on raiding or pet battles or dominating the Auction House.

But what do you do when you've got limited time to play and you get that itch to 'win'?

Sometimes, that urge gets channeled into something like dailies or reputation.*  Or maybe you become a completionist, hunting down and finishing every last quest --group quest or otherwise-- that you can find.  In the pre-Cata days, you had to use a third party app to try to find those last weird quests out in the middle of nowhere in the Azerothian Old World.  TOR makes the completionists go crazy when they stick area quests on a planet, so you end up cruising all over, say, Alderaan trying to find the one zone you might have missed. LOTRO has taken that idea and run with it in their recent revision to the Moria expac, and Age of Conan sticks individual quests in the middle of group quest areas, leaving you to fight your way through just to collect that extra quest for another zone**.

Or maybe you just content yourself with following the story to the end --sans raiding, of course.

To get that last one, you don't have to be a completionist.  After all, just how many side quests are out there in an MMO these days?  But finishing a story can become a Civ-like obsession:  "just one more quest!"***  While WoW has all but eliminated the old class stories from the game, there still are two faction questlines to progress through.  Star Trek Online seems to follow the WoW pattern of having a set story for each faction, but I've not gotten anywhere deep enough to confirm this.****  LOTRO has only one questline track (but two different starting zones, so that provides some variety).  AoC has one real story line, but each zone has it's own set of stories to follow; they're almost like side quests in a way, but the real story line's quests show up once you reach a certain threshold level:  L30, L50, etc.

TOR, however, is a different animal, with questlines for each class from L1 through L50.  And then there are the companion quests, the zone quests, and... You get the idea.  A story freak can take months --years even-- exploring every aspect of a game like TOR.


The obsession with "winning" an MMO can drive self destructive behaviors.

Just like a gambler has issues with getting up from the poker table, an MMO player can spend way too much time in game, seeking that rush of victory and, more importantly, validation.  Think of the money spent on gear to get an extra edge, whether it be a bigger screen, faster CPU, or that awesome keyboard (want!).  Also, consider the cost of extra purchases via a cash shop (whether you play a F2P game or not, the cash shop is still there) to give yourself an edge in some aspect of the game.  All of that money adds up, and the urge to overspend just to "win the game" can be very seductive.

When American sports fans talk about destructive behavior, the name Art Schlichter often pops up.  Art's compulsive gambling ruined his pro career and led to jail and drugs, and yet Art still can't stop.  This is a direct parallel to the board gamer who can't stop buying new board games, or the video gamer who will spend every waking moment playing to the chagrin of coworkers, family, and friends.

I've never crossed that line, but I understand its appeal.  I also understand how it impacts others playing the game:  the people who sit around and complain in Gen Chat that they "finished" the game and now "there's nothing to do, this game sucks", the people who refuse to play nice because they want to "just win, baby!", and the player who thinks nothing about being a ninja looter or griefer because it's all about them.

That inevitably begs the question as to what do these people get out of this behavior?  While that sort of thing might work for a while, eventually it catches up to you.  Turn off enough people, and they isolate you.  You start to live in an echo chamber, where everybody thinks the same thing as you, behaves the same as you, and validates the way you do things.  The trouble is that we don't live in an echo chamber, but in the real world, where people don't think and act like this.


I've kind of wandered a bit far afield when I started this post (shades of Cynwise's old Field Manual posts, I suppose), but obsession and addiction are but one output of the need to "win the game".  Competition can be good, if channeled well and doesn't venture into that morally grey territory.  I play MMOs to enjoy myself and explore a good story, and I try to avoid obsessive behavior as much as I can.  I understand my limits, which is part of the reason why I don't try too hard to raid.  But I have become acquainted with obsession, and I'd rather not try to get to know it any more than that.

*"I will finish all of the dailies I can find and I will reach Exalted!"  Not that I've ever said that.  Okay, I did, once, back in Wrath days.  At least at the time, it seemed achievable, which is why I kept slogging through the Crusader dailies.

**There's one in Conall's Valley that sends you in the direction of the true end boss right when you think you've slain the end boss of the region.  For the record, it takes a player of about L50 or higher to bring down the pseudo-end boss who is L30.  Yes, the AoC elite bosses are THAT tough.

***Sid Meier memorialized this urge for "just one more turn!" by building that quip into later editions of Civ.

****Oh, did I mention I've begun tinkering with STO?  I like it much better than Aion, and while I can see what some people complain about with you becoming your starship, I don't mind.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Thoughts on an Icy Friday

I was on TOR the other day when someone asked a question in Gen Chat:  do the planets ever change their background due to time of day?

No, was the instant response, but it'd be cool if they did.

While I'd be the first one to think that the planets with an outside would look cool if they did change with the time of day, I realize that TOR has bigger issues to worry about at the moment than background.  Or weather, for that matter.

But something about that question did get me to thinking.  Why is it that weather and times of day are simply bolt-ons to most MMOs?  I say most, because the Tortage-at-night solo portion of the intro zone in Age of Conan does take advantage of the darkness to make it easier to hide, and that does carry over to the regular game.  

Think of it this way:  when was the last time that sneaking around in WoW was made easier due to cover or darkness?  Shouldn't there --at the very least-- be a debuff or two associated with bad weather?  I know I don't operate at peak performance in the rain, and there's the constant threat of hypothermia, so why doesn't your toon feel it?  Shouldn't it take longer to trudge through a snowstorm or thunderstorm?  If there can be a visible reaction to and a game changing debuffs associated with drinking to excess, why not with weather?  Having a snowstorm or blizzard whip up, leaving your toon disoriented and weakened, would have an impact on whether you're actually out and about when the skies turn crappy.  Hell, I'd have a harder time imagining that wandering monsters and intelligent opponents would be out in a downpour; you'd think that they'd confine themselves to shelter --makeshift or otherwise-- to wait out the bad weather.

Perhaps I'm taking realism a bit far, but I think it would make the sense of immersion that much more satisfying.  In Ultima V, you could watch the shop keepers move around and back to their homes when night fell, so if a game from 1988 could figure such basic things as this out with the changing of the hours, then why can't an MMO do it?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

And You Thought the Brawlers' Club Was the Seedy Underbelly of MMOs

One day last year, I was goofing off in Ratchet while waiting for the BG queue to pop.  Every so often I get the urge to check out the Steamwheedle Cartel's Auction House and see what items people are trying to sneak across the Faction DMZ.  Most of the time they are pets, but once in a while you see some low-priced raw materials or a nice piece of gear go through the WoW Black Market.

Anyway, I'd been perusing the miscellaneous items for a minute or so when I got a whisper from someone.

"Hey, what are you doing here?"

Whatever.  Since I've been known to drop in on low level zones on my max level toons from time to time, I've grown accustomed to such questions.  Some people seem genuinely perplexed that I'd not be spending all of my time in the Firelands or Icecrown Citadel, I suppose.

"Just loitering around, waiting on a BG."


After a few moments longer, I closed the AH window.

"Yr not waiting on a delivery, are u?"

I blinked.  "No," I replied.  "I'm good."

"U sure?  I've got some gold here for u."

"Yeah, I'm sure."  I then took a flight path to Org and marked the toon as a gold seller while on the way.


About a little over a year ago on Age of Conan, I spent a couple of hours teamed up with a pair of players, a Guardian and another Barbarian, while working our way through Conall's Valley.  There are quite a few stretches of the valley where safety in numbers is essential, and I was grateful for the company.  The conversation was good, and we had fun really sticking it to the Vanir.  Over the next couple of weeks, when I'd login to Age of Conan I'd find one or both of them online, and we'd group up and chat.

Then, for a few weeks there was silence, but that didn't surprise me much since the three of us had families and jobs.  I never saw the Barbarian again, but one Friday I logged in and saw the Guardian and whispered a hello.

I was ignored.

Puzzled, I whispered a hello again, and then I saw it.

The account started spewing Gen Chat with gold farmer spam.


What exactly is the amount of money that the gold farming industry makes?

Back in 2006, the BBC estimated that the industry made $900 million, but that was well before WoW's current popularity.  I'm not exactly sure whether you can directly translate the increase in WoW subs from 2006 to 2013 to corresponding increase in gold farming, but it seems reasonable to say that MMO gold farming is at least a billion dollar business.

While that's not iPad dollars, it's still a big chunk of change, in the realm of such non-IT brands as Heinz ketchup.  Think about that the next time when you see gold farmer spam in Gen Chat:  gold farming is big business, and people are willing to skirt the law for it.

But at what cost?

Everybody knows somebody who has had a hacked account.  Sure, you may get your virtual stuff back, but you really never get over the sense of violation.  And the company involved has to spend time and money in getting your stuff restored, never mind attempting to prevent it in the first place.

All of that costs money, and affects a company's bottom line.  Security one of those hidden costs that you never see in a company's balance sheet --the lengths a company goes to protect itself from the Black Hats, and the costs involved in successful hacking attempts, user accounts or otherwise-- but it does exist.

MMOs are a game, but you can't say that they are just a game.  That's like saying that the New York Yankees or Manchester United aren't worth much because they both are organizations that play kids' games.  Good luck trying to say that to a sports fan.


I suppose I ought to explain the trigger for this post.

A few weeks ago, a dormant account from a fellow WoW guildie who'd passed away from an illness over a year ago suddenly became active and refused to respond to tells.  An alert guildie informed Blizz, who quickly shut the account back down, but the sheer brazenness about it still sticks in my craw.  The Black Hat had to find out about and hack the account, reactivate it with (most likely) a stolen credit card, probably upgrade the account with the same, and only then could they go on their merry way.

Just a game, right?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

They Say Memory is the First Thing to Go

I don't know how altoholics do it.


Just how do they keep track of all of their toons, and more importantly, what abilities their toons have?

I logged into Neve for the first time in what felt like ages, and tried zapping a few assorted beasties in Icecrown.

Tried being the operative word.

After I finally stopped hitting keys for abilities that hadn't procced yet, I finally started spamming Frostbolt, because at least I remembered where that was.  I froze myself in ice at least twice before I successfully killed my first mob, and yes, it really did take me that long.

I stared at my empty glass by the computer, and sighed.  "I'm going to need another beer if this keeps up," I mumbled and switched to Quintalan.  Surely I couldn't have forgotten how to play Ret, not after years of play beforehand.  But a short glimpse of the main bar later, I decided to just switch back to my Rogue and queue for a battleground.

Surely, I thought, it must be better on The Old Republic, where I'd gotten used to playing different classes on a regular basis.

Um, no.

After spending the end of Chapter One on my Sith Inquisitor, I switched back to my Commando and quickly found myself in a 4-man Heroic on Alderaan.  On the first pull the Shadow cc-ed an elite and I readied a Concussion Shot on another.  I hit the button and...

"Dammit, Ki!  What are you doing?"

Oops.  I'd hit Explosive Round by mistake, which had the side effect of undazing that elite.

We managed to DPS down everything, and I apologized to the group.  While they were accepted, I still smarted from my screw up.  This was something that I prided myself on not doing.

Clearly, a better method than "I think I remember where everything is" was needed.


Way back in her Pugging Pally days, Vidyala of Manalicious posted a chart she used to keep track of all of her Draenei alts' hair style and design.  While it served her purpose, I've begun working on my own version of her chart to keep track of keystrokes on differing alts.

Since I play more alts on TOR, I figured I'd start there first.

Ironically enough, one of the things that people complain about with TOR --the similarity between different classes on knockbacks and whatnot-- is perfect for my work.  Setting up my alts so that similar abilities are always on the same keystrokes will make it easier to slip into gear in each class.  Knowing that a toon's main attack is on button #2, the incapacitated attack (if any) is on button #4, and the knockback is on button #5 makes my life a lot easier.  While the details on the lesser abilities are different from toon to toon, the main rotation can be reduced to a level I can easily use to slip into and out of while playing.  Keeping certain abilities grouped together, like the Commando's various grenades or the various heals of a particular toon, make for good common sense.  It also makes for good common sense to keep them out of easy finger range, so that in the heat of battle you don't accidentally hit the wrong button and cause a wipe.

But for a game like WoW, where the abilities and rotations are so different from class to class, the challenge is much greater.  Throw in the transition from PvE to PvP, and the organization becomes much harder.

The way I attempted to organize my Cata-era Affliction Warlock --attacks on one row, DoTs on another, and interrupts on a third-- don't necessarily work for a Pally or Mage which are DoT-less.  Also, you have to remember the more obscure abilities in your class, because what isn't important in PvE suddenly becomes critical in PvP.  How many times have you had a Lock just get going on DoTs in a fight, only to have the mob and/or boss die on you?  Well, that inability to use DoTs effectively in an instance suddenly doesn't matter in PvP, because laying down DoTs is one of the primary ways a Lock can kill you.  A Rogue doesn't try to out tough a Warrior, it tries to surprise, stun and slash.  Doing that in a boss fight is suicide, because the last thing a Rogue needs is aggro when a boss is bringing the hammer down.

Therefore, I've kind of thrown in the towel a bit on WoW alts, and have been reduced to generalities.  I don't know what might be most important at a particular time, but I can guess.  It's just like switching poisons around; if you've got the time and you're closing in on a caster, get the one that zaps their spellcasting speed. Otherwise, go for the slow poison which works on everyone.  The spellcasting poison is a specialist ability, so it goes behind the more general slow poison.  Ordering up the finishing strokes is important too; you want ones that will give you the best bang for the buck to be the ones easiest to reach for, while others that work better on extended raid boss fights should be placed farther away.   But hey, if the Warrior you're sneaking up behind is focusing on another team member, use the DoT finishing stroke and then Vanish to reset yourself for another strike.


One drawback to reorganizing everything is that it takes time.

Yes, I know there will be the reward of getting everything set up is that I can more easily transition between toons, but when you're looking at the tinkering involved that's not much comfort.  And when you throw in customization options, you could easily spend days of game time merely fooling around with your UI.

At times like this, WoW's customization becomes more a curse than a blessing.

If you've ever heard of the theory that with more options the more unable you are to make a decision, then you've got the idea of what I'm getting at.  With so many third party add-ons and scripts to choose from, a player can become paralyzed trying to decide how to set up their keys and/or macros.*  When all you really want to do is make it easier on yourself to play, it seems counterintuitive to spend all of your time tweaking your key bindings and setting up macros.

However, if you're expecting me to say that The Old Republic has it better, well....  Maybe, maybe not.

No, there aren't any third party UI tools available.  Yes, if you subscribe, you have full UI customization access --the same as every other subscriber-- so everyone (theoretically) has the same starting point.

But you still have to configure the UI to your liking.  And that takes time, and tinkering.  Lots of tinkering.

And each time you train, you may gain access to a new favorite ability, causing you to curse under your breath and try to figure out where to shoehorn that new! cool! awesome! ability into your bars.


Layers, Shrek once said.  Ogres have layers.  But he could have also been talking about tweaking the UI and keybindings in an MMO.

And I still don't know how a true altoholic can do all of this, keep it all straight, and be able to play well.

*Which is why Elitist Jerks and other sites are so popular; they take the difficult part of the decision process away.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Well, That Explains a Lot

Activision/Blizzard released their earnings today, and while they did make record profits, the surprise for me was that WoW subs dropped back to close to the pre-Mists release levels, with only 9.6 million active subs.

Now I know the true reason behind all the sales and enticement; Mists wasn't able to bring the WoW subs back to the heights of Cata.  In fact, Mists wasn't even able to sustain the release bump that they got.

That explains why it felt like the Ysera server was so empty, and even the CRZ often felt devoid of people.

To be fair, 9.6 million subs is probably more than the #2-#6 other MMOs combined.  Still, it looks like the Mists experiment hasn't quite panned out as hoped.  I doubt that means that Blizz will suddenly switch to a F2P format, since they're practically printing money with WoW, but I do think that it means Titan will move up to the front of the development lists.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The View from the Halfway Point

While it seems that everybody else on WoW already has multiple toons at L90 --their main, their primary alt, their secondary alt, their cross-faction alt, and their bank alt-- my main for this expac just dinged L45 somewhere in the middle of an Arathi Basin fight.

I've been steadily moving along, splitting time between battlegrounds and skinning, and playing about 3 days a week or so.  There have been many waves of players passing through BGs on new Pandaren toons, and we're now down to seeing more traditional BG compositions --with a few sprinkling of Monks, that is.

Once I reached the mid-30s on my Rogue, BG leveling slowed to a crawl and is only now starting to pick up with the unlocking of Alterac Valley.  I don't think this is by design, because leveling via BGs is heavily dependent upon your side's ability to grind out wins.  And since the Alliance has had very few healers in the mid-30s to early 40s BGs, the wins have been hard to come by.

The bots are in vogue too, I see.

Eye of the Storm seems to be the biggest place where you'll find bots, because their behavior is so obvious.  When a toon repeatedly:

  • pops from a graveyard
  • runs up to the nearest base
  • pivots where the buff would ordinarily be (but isn't because it was freaking used already)
  • races to the mid
you know you've got a bot on your hands.

I'd like to see Blizz be a bit more proactive in zapping bots, since they can't really be gotten rid of from a BG except by being marked as away, but I guess that's something they're going to have to come up with.  Making it easier to kick people from BGs could turn out to be a double edged sword, because people could simply vote-kick players who are on the low end of the level range just because they're on the low end of the level range.  I'm not sure Blizz wants to pay enough devs support staff to watch enough BGs to make sure everybody is playing nicely, either.  It's a conundrum that I don't have a good answer to.


Since I've got 40 levels to go before I really purchase Mists, I've found it interesting watching the lures the Blizzard has been dangling out in the internet.  The free week in Pandaria, the Christmas sales, the recruit a friend, they're all out in force.  I have no idea how well the bait has been working, but the fact that Blizz hasn't stopped them yet is an indicator that they're fighting hard to get all of their lost subs back.  Or, perhaps, just to stay even with what they've got.

My own guild, however, hasn't recovered from Cataclysm.  In fact, while some people returned for Mists, others came back and have since disappeared.  Still others left the guild for other, more active raiding guilds before Mists dropped.  And there have been those who came back but not because of Mists, but because their work/life/whatever has finally allowed them the free time to resub.  But from the high point in Wrath where the guild was pulling in enough people to run 25s on a once-in-a-while basis, I've yet to see 10 people logged in at one time on any consistent basis, let alone raid.  There have been a lot of evenings when I've been the only one logged in.

"This server's dead," I saw someone type recently in Gen Chat.  Given that the crowds in Stormwind aren't very impressive --still averaging in the 50s on a given night-- I suspect that there's more truth to that than meets the eye.


Still, the game seems to be doing fairly well for itself.

Judging by the blogs I read (a subset of which is listed on our site), the most popular parts of WoW in its current state are a) Transmogs, b) Pet Battles, and c) Pandas.  Raiding, instances, PvP in its various forms, and the ongoing expac story haven't been very active topics in Mists.  Now, while people write a lot about Dailies, I can say that while the topic is popular, the activity is not.

I think it is safe to say that if Transmogs and Pet Battles didn't exist, then there wouldn't be nearly as many people excited about Mists as they seem to be.  I'm not sure about the staying power of either through the entire expac, but Transmogs at least seems to scratch the itch of a subset of WoW players well enough to last long term.  Of course, it also takes some pressure off of the Blizz art team to not repeat the BC clown gear, since people will merely transmog any "ugly" gear into something they like.

I'm not quite sure what to make about Pet Battles.  Judging by bloggers alone it seems wildly popular, yet ragging on Pet Battles is a popular topic in low level BGs.  I suspect that Pet Battles falls squarely into the love-it-or-hate-it category, with the people who don't really give a damn (like me) few and far between.  I suspect the Pet Battle mojo will last a lot longer --more than I anticipated, anyway-- by simply creating new pets as part of upcoming patches.  Pets are easier to design than raid or instance bosses, and don't need backstory like questlines, so they're incredibly easy to drop into a story as a carrot-on-a-stick for the aficionados.  "Run enough dailies, get a pet!"  "Go through this side questline, get a pet!"  This isn't exactly new*, but Pet Battles ratchets the desire up to another level entirely.

Whether that desire will flame out is the million dollar question, and I don't have an answer for that.  After all, I still can't explain the continuing fascination with Justin Bieber, and I have middle school kids in the house.

*The Miniwing quest reward in Terokkar Forest, for example.

EtA:  I thought "support staff" and typed "devs".  Sigh.