Monday, November 26, 2012

Don't Mind Me, I'm Just Having Withdrawal Symptoms

Yes, I really do exist.

I dropped off the map last week due to the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, and in no small part to my (lack of) MMO experiences on a laptop.  

What I've done is cherry pick what I've put on the laptop so that there's a minimum of times where the thing is on and downloading a game throughout the night, so I've focused on installing the three big heavy hitters in our household:  WoW, TOR, and LOTRO.*

Ironically enough, I've had an easier time slipping back into TOR than WoW, but that's because I've also been running without my mods.  It's been since 2009 when I last ran WoW without any mods at all, and boy does it show.  

I know some purists prefer the default WoW interface, and I used to think that I didn't need it much at all either, but boy do I miss Deadly Boss Mods (among others).  I couldn't tell you the number of times I've been looking around for a timer in a BG only to remember that I don't have it installed.  I've also made the declaration several times that "I'm going to install DBM no matter what the time of night is", only to forget it once the WoW session is over.

You'd think that means that I really don't miss mods all that much if I don't bother to put them in, right?

Well, sort of.

I think that dealing with the TOR interface has helped me immeasurably for this sort of situation.  It's a flashback to the days when I was leveling Quintalan in Wrath:  I'd level without mods, would get into an instance, and then learned the boss fights by watching for the in-game cues.  DBM and the other mods were a godsend for the clueless** or people who were too busy watching their rotation.  You didn't have to rely upon memory at all, but watch for the "Phase 2" or the "*Soul Storm*" to get your butt into the correct position.  Knowing the position was up to you, of course, but it was easier to handle knowing the "when" to do it.

WoW sans mods is more than a mere throwback, it's also a rejection of the current state of the game.  No serious raiding team will take you on if you don't have a requisite list of mods, those mods are absolutely essential to improving your efficiency to a proper raiding/PvP level.  You can demonstrate your skill all you want, but nobody will believe that you have the commitment to be a "serious" raider without them.

I could survive without any mods, but I realize that I can't perform at peak efficiency without them.  Even WoW's game design has taken into account the variety of mods out there; do you honestly think that the Arthas and Deathwing fights were designed for a player without any mods at all?  Of course they weren't; they were designed as a challenge, and when all of the best raiders are running heavily modded interfaces, that has an impact on the boss fight.

It's perhaps a chicken and egg scenario, but in its present state WoW is a mod driven game.  Even the controversial mods, such as Healers Have to Die or GearPlayerScore, have pushed the game in different directions.  For example, Blizz has taken PlayerScore, simplified it into the current gear rating, and incorporated it heavily into the game.  The old "go to Dal Fountain for GS check" has been replaced with "minimum ### gear rating required".

If you could scan a prospective raiding partner for currently used mods, would you?  Perhaps you might say that's too much intrusion into a player's personal preferences.  Maybe you might say that it's not needed; "skill trumps gear" as the saying goes, and the same ought to go for mods.  But if you were a raid leader and you could, just how great would that temptation be?

And would you like what you saw, without having seen the player in action?

*And Civ IV and LEGO Star Wars III.  I pretty much had to install Civ IV Complete, and the kids like LEGO Star Wars III for the battleground games.

**You'd be a "noob no more" as Soul once put it.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Lurching Toward Civilization

I managed to get WoW running on the new laptop.

After having played for a couple of hours that way, I wonder how people can handle playing MMOs on a laptop long term.

I can't possibly be that old, but my hands were cramping after a pair of battlegrounds.  And if I didn't have a wireless mouse, I don't think I could have handled using the trackpad at all.

The minor annoyances of dealing with a new OS (Win 8 in this case) I can handle in stride.  After all, I work in IT, and I know a new OS means some bugs in the system as all of the other apps get stressed in ways that beta testers never seem to get around to.  You just check frequently for patches and move on.  Considering my wife isn't cursing up a blue streak like she does when she tries to use my work laptop, I'll take that as a sign of approval.

However, one minor annoyance that I did find was that when I installed WoW and logged in, it wouldn't let me jump to the server listings directly.  I had to first allow the game to select a server, and then I could back out and find my usual haunts.  It would seem to be a minor thing that on a new install the game would check to see if you already have toons available, and if so it would allow you to select the server.  I know it used to do that back when the old machine lost a drive and I had to replace all of my apps (that'd be late Wrath - early Cata), so Blizz must have made a conscious decision to change the opening sequence into this server-selection-on-rails system.

Still, it was good to be back.  I've got several days worth of downloads ahead of me, but at least I can lurk around Warsong Gulch once more.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Are You Ready for Some Football StarCraft?

So we now have a release date for SC2's expac, Heart of the Swarm.

However, unlike Blizzard release dates of years past, HotS* has been announced four months in advance, on March 12, 2013.  The typical Blizz release announcement is 1-2 months in advance, so more than doubling that is more than a bit unusual.

I don't think I can read too much into the release date --unless it's not quite stable enough and Blizz is confident they'll make the release date if they push it out far enough-- but what is likely is that Blizz took Christmas and sports into consideration when announcing the release date.  If HotS is ready for the traditional 2 month release date, a mid-January release date is too close to Christmas to attract attention from the casual player (who most likely got a stack of games for presents).  Mid-February is possible, but there's a little holiday called Valentine's Day out there that might provide some competition.**  Finally, mid-March is right in the middle of the men's and women's college basketball tournament, March Madness, and right after the NFL season concludes.

Okay, what's the big deal about sports, right?  Well....

I've noticed the past several Blizz releases are promoted heavily on U.S. sports broadcasts.  Cata, Mists, D3, and SC2 have all been promoted heavily on ESPN, FOX Sports, and regular network sports broadcasts.  Blizz would be crazy to not try to capitalize on the sporting events over January through March.  I've been seeing ads for Assassin's Creed III on baseball, the Olympics, and (American) football since the summer, and believe me, Blizz took notice.  They want that gamer demographic that sports broadcasts provides.

Which also begs the question:  why didn't other MMO game companies, such as Funcom, Bioware, or ArenaNet, go for the same advertising target as heavily?  Given the discussions in Gen Chat during the Olympics, you'd think that the sports viewer is a large part of the audience for TOR, Star Wars or no Star Wars.  And The Secret World would be perfect for that subset as well, particularly given all of the crime dramas that the CBS network promotes on their sports broadcasts.  It seems that these companies (as well as Turbine) relied more upon social media rather than going out and promoting their game in the same manner that Blizz does.  Social media is great, but it has to be one part of a more comprehensive advertising plan.

Well, here's to the next several months, and seeing a lot of Sarah Kerrigan on the small screen!

*Hots.  Yeah, that'll work for an acronym.

**I can see the YouTube video now:  going out with your S.O. on Valentine's Day, or playing a video game?  You decide!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Thank you, Sir! May I have another?!

I was going to write about how I have to shake off the cobwebs when I switch toons around, and how I have to make sure I have my buttons aligned up across toons (and potentially even MMOs), but technical difficulties got in the way.

This Saturday, I was down in the basement insulating the rim joists* when I heard an argument break out among the kids upstairs.  "Dad," one of them called, "come up and fix the computer!"

I shook off the foam insulation shavings on me and marched upstairs, expecting to have to power cycle a locked up computer.  The kids know all about the old three-finger salute, and can navigate the task manager to kill a hung program, so when I get called it's either for a) a password or b) to power cycle something.  When I arrived in front of the computer, however, I was confronted by a solid color screen.

"Uh oh," I said.  "What did you do?"

"I didn't do it, Steph did it!" my son replied.

"I didn't do anything!" she wailed.  "I was exiting LOTRO, and the screen came up!"

"Well," I said, reaching around the PC's case, "let me hard boot it."

After a hard boot, I got to the login screen only to have it disappear behind a solid tan color.

"Crap.  This isn't good."

"Can you fix it?"

"I can try.  Let me boot it into safe mode and make sure we don't have any disk trouble or malware.  But I think we lost a graphics card."

Several hours and many reboots later, I'm convinced that it's either the graphics card failing or the CPU overheating.  Once the second or third fan kicks in during the boot cycle, the video goes crazy.  I almost wished it was malware, because I can fix that more easily than a hardware problem.

Sighing, I got up and wandered over to where my youngest was sitting on the couch, wearing a melancholy expression on her face.  "It wasn't your fault," I told her.  "It's a hardware problem, and nothing you did caused that."

"Can I help?" she asked, brightening.

"No, I've got to figure out what to do."

Like Anna over at Too Many Annas, I'm confronted by a failing, aging PC with obsolete architecture.  In my case, 32-bit architecture, and if this is the graphics card, a replacement might require me to replace the power supply as well.  And if it's the CPU, finding a replacement motherboard might be more trouble than it's worth.  The PC is over five years old, and it was only a middle-of-the-pack machine back when I bought it.

Therefore, I guess that means it's time to replace the old warhorse.

As a corollary to this, it means I'm kind of out of an MMO machine for the time being.  I suppose I could install one of the MMOs that the kids and I both play on the new laptop I'd gotten for their schoolwork, but it's not an ideal situation.  Besides, I'd prefer keeping as many games off of a supposedly "work/school" machine as possible.  (Yeah, and maybe pigs will fly without the aid of a trebuchet.)

So, I guess I'm going to write about things that have already happened, as opposed to anything recent.  But really, I'm not a bleeding edge kind of guy.  The last time I did that with the PC industry was 1999, when I plunked down way too many dollars to get one of the first AMD Athlon machines, which then went for half of that price within six months.  And as for gaming, ever heard of the game Darklands?  That was the last time I got a game right as it came out and immediately dove into it, and ow were the bugs bad.**  Having learned my lesson, I merely aim for something reasonable and waiting patiently for any bugs to shake out.

*For the curious, here's a link from the online version of the Family Handyman.  And for the record, their estimate of "a day" for how long it takes doesn't take into account actually moving any crap in the basement around.  Depending on the amount of crap you have, it can take many days.....

**If you're remember, when Cata was released I didn't enter into any Cata zones until three months later, when the "I'm bored!" refrain was in full swing.  And yes, eventually Darklands got the bugs worked out and was an excellent game, but the damage had already been done to Microprose's reputation.  Even Sid Meier's Civ 2 and Colonization couldn't save the long decline of Microprose.

EtA:  Fixed an autocorrect error.  what IS it with those things anyway?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Anybody Remember Shorthand?

One thing that has always amazed me is the ability of some people to type messages on the fly while playing an MMO.

Perhaps I'm showing my age, but I have to stop what I'm doing and type with both hands in order to respond to something I'm watching.  If I'm in a BG and we get jumped by 4-5 people in Arathi Basin, I basically have to sacrifice myself in order to warn everyone else.*

All I can do is marvel at the people who raid and can type while they're casting or playing whack-a-boss.  I once carried on a conversation with a blogger friend while the blogger was in the middle of progression ICC.  When I mentioned that I'll let him do his job, he kind of laughed it off, saying it wasn't a big deal.

I suppose that's were a multi-button mouse (like the Razer Naga) comes in handy.  Of course, you still have to be able to type with one hand, and I'm kind of lousy at that.

What would be nice would be combining voice recognition software with an MMO, so that you can speak into a mic and have what you're saying pop up in typewritten chat.

Of course, I can see some readers saying "there's this thing called Mumble or Vent, and it really works!"  Yes, I know all about those, but when do you use that when you get into a random BG?  Or an instance pug without guildies (or any other guild to provide vent access)?  Last I checked, most non-raid pugs just roll with it and get going without much more than a "howdy!"  The thing is, the more you play, the more complex things are, the nicer it is to communicate without these artificial barriers.

For example, discussing which enemy to DPS down when confronting the opposing faction team in Mandalorian Raiders helps that encounter go much more smoothly.  Likewise, working out strategy in Gundrak helps make fighting Gal'Darah that much easier.  I've found that more wipes come from a lack of coherent strategy, such as in Halls of Reflections or Magister's Terrace, than the inability to get the job done. Perhaps the worst place for a strategy breakdown is in the long run to get away from Arthas in HoR, because if not everybody is on the same page, that increases the likelihood of a wipe exponentially.

That loops back to the need to communicate, and the disadvantages puggers have over guild runs.

I can type, and type quickly.  Not everybody can.  I can't type on the fly in the middle of a fight, while others can.  That means that other forms of communication --such as audio chat-- are superior, because people can communicate without changing what they're doing.  However, the current setup of using a third party tool --often paid for by a guild who would naturally be reluctant to share with a non-guildie-- is a barrier that ought to be examined.  Yes, I know about WoW's built in audio chat, but really, who does use that anyway?

Here is an opportunity for either an entrepreneur or an MMO company to fill in a communication gap and reap some nice profits.

*Well, unless I'm stealthed as a Rogue.  Even then, if I'm low enough level people will find me easily.

Friday, November 2, 2012

All Crossed Up

Maybe it's just me, but I'm starting to wonder how useful the cross server lowbie zones have been lately.

Sure, there are more people in the zones, but I've been surprised at how quickly the zone population plummeted a month after release.

I've been cruising the lowbie zones up through Arathi Highlands and Stonetalon Mountains, and if there have been more than ten other toons in a zone with me I'd be surprised.  And before you point out that I play at odd hours, I've also been on in the evening and midday this past week and found no difference to the zone population.  If anything, I've found more people on Darkshore in the early morning than in the evening (which is also typically raid time).  What bothers me is that I've seen even fewer Horde than Alliance in Ashenvale, and that used to never happen.

Why have I been out and about?  Leveling Skinning and Leatherworking to fill in the gaps in my gear.  Of course, leveling these professions means that I have to range far and wide to collect skins and/or leather, so I see a lot of the zones.  I've also seen my FPS drop as soon as I enter a new zone; not the official FPS, mind you, but there's a visible slowdown on screen on some zones* that I can only attribute to the cross-server manipulation.

I was hoping that the lack of toons in Darnassus was just a blip on the radar, but that seems to not be the case.

This whole cross-server change has made me wonder just how many servers they merge at one time in a zone, and whether this is dynamic or not.  While I do have to admit from a technical standpoint it's pretty impressive, I'm kind of disheartened by the knowledge that things would be even worse if Blizz wasn't performing their wizardry.

Let's call the cross-server zones what they really are:  Lowbie Server Merges.  They're indicative of an increasingly visible problem that WoW has:  most of the toons are at or close to max level, and there's a lack of new blood coming into the game.

Okay, now with that declaration there is a big caveat.  Blizz encourages new players to go to "New Player" servers.  A brand new player --not one invited to play by a current player-- will most likely end up there, meaning that those servers will have a disproportionate share of lowbie toons.  However, those "New Player" servers have a reputation for having such a small server population that they couldn't even rate "Low" on the activity listings.**

I've hashed all this before when the cross-server merges were first announced, but having seen the Mists wave come and go I think this discussion has to be reopened.

To fix this problem, I'd so something that for Blizz would be truly radical:  Make L1-L60 playable without a subscription.  That doesn't mean completely F2P, since you'd have to buy the game (+expacs if you want to play a Pandaren, Goblin, or Worgen), but after that purchase having the first 60 levels free would bring in a lot of activity to the game.  I'm also amenable to extending the Starter Edition to L60, which would get a player to Outland and just enough to whet their appetite for more.

Would Blizz lose money on this idea?  Maybe, maybe not.  It depends on how many people convert to a subscription, and how much money it would cost to handle the server load, versus how much technical expertise it would take to expand the lowbie zone merges seamlessly.  

Now, this might wreak havoc with the auction house, given that gold farmers will use this to flood the market with goods for sale, but you never know what might go down.  A subscriber won't necessarily need a separate account, but the subscriber's children or significant other might.  An occasional player who can't afford a sub can keep in touch with guildies.  The player who left and wants an extended test run can do so.  The Old Timer who grouses that the only way AQ40 should be run is at level can now do so.

And maybe it will make some of those old L55-60 zones more relevant again.  Okay, that's probably asking too much of Silithus, but the others....

*Ashenvale and Stonetalon are two of the worst.

**I overheard this one once in Gen Chat in the "yo mama" vein:  "Your server is so empty that it dreams of the day it can be classified as a New Player server."