Loremaster Insanity

Now that I’m Netherdraked, I’m pondering what the next goal for Bane should be. And for reasons probably best left unexplored (but where’s the fun in that?) Loremaster is calling.

Loremaster is insane. Not as insane as Insane in the Membrane, but insane nevertheless. Who in their right mind wants to complete 2700+ quests, spreadeagled all over every continent, with the reward being a nice title and funny meta-tabard? A lot of people apparently!

There’s been a lot of discussion about the worth/value/fun of Achievements, and plenty of gentle mocking and evil marketing plans, but there’s no question they’ve extended the longevity and appeal of WoW. Loremaster is the kind of thing that no-one would have attempted before Achievements were created, because no-one even knew it was a ‘thing’. By exposing the mechanical statistical details behind the game, Blizz opened up a whole new source of obsession and compulsion.

I haven’t seen a satisfactory answer to why Achievements are so successful, whether it be WoW, MW2, or foursquare. Chris Hecker posited that Achievements are harmful, in response to Jesse Schell wanting to make brushing your teeth an Achievement. Do we need Achievements to play a game these days, or should story and gameplay be enough?

There’s always been the obsessive collectors, and the hoarders, and the trainspotting brigade. Pokemon was probably the first game to really tap into and nail the collecting mentality, and Edge Magazine recently declared the unexpected success of Crackdown was due to the uncontrollable drive it created to collect all 500 Agility Orbs.

People like being rewarded. Sid Meier described how Civilization was originally going to have Dark Ages, to mimic the peaks and troughs of human society. But people would abandon their game and start a new one whenever the pits occured in game. His solutions: Golden Ages instead. Like Blizzard decided with WoW, make everything epic, and people will enjoy themselves more.

Achievements are like that: they give people small incremental rewards for doing ‘stuff’. Some are silly and fun, some are the result of hours of hard work, and some happen by accident. But they all deliver a pat on the back and a reward for simply playing. It’s easier than achieving in the real world, they’re measureable and you know you can get most of them.

So I’m thinking about Loremaster. Either that or level another alt :-). Maybe a BElf pally who I can switch to Tauren the minute Cat launches. Sheesh talk about busy work, shouldn’t I be writing a comic or cooking some tofu or creating an iphone app or something? Nah.

Mass Effected

I played the opening chapter of Mass Effect the other night, and it was superb. Terrific voice acting, nice cut scenes and story development, and an interesting plot. The NPCs are well designed, adhering to stereotypes but not in a /facepalm way. Channelling Helen Mirren as the ship Medic is a nice touch 🙂

The voice acting was the most surprising thing. Whenever I start a game I always turn subtitles on (in case of interruption or distraction) and normally end up turning down the voices in a game, but this was so well done that I listened to every word. The dialogue trees in particular are fun to explore – the choices you are given are more about the “feel” of your reply than the actual words. So for example the tree option will read “Do you agree Captain?”, but what you actually say will be more detailed, with interesting intonation and sometimes surprising emphasis. Which is far more satisfying than just hearing the avatar speak the exact words you just chose.

All of which gives me sudden new hope for the “all spoken dialogue all the time” approach that Star Wars: The Old Republic is taking. I had thought that this would be impossibly dull, and would instead become an “all skipping all the time” system. But if they can make it as interesting and well acted as ME, then maybe it will work. At least for the first toon 🙂

The combat was a bit chaotic to begin with, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was doing with the various weapon options. I ramped the difficulty down (is “ramping down” even a legitimate concept?) as I am more interested in the unfolding story than struggling with a 3rd person shooter. I even almost let go of the instinctive mix-max character levelling process, setting my squad to “auto-level”, and generally letting the game recommend my skill upgrades. I don’t think that will last (I want to max out my “charisma” settings to open up more dialogue trees for example), but it makes for a more relaxing game experience. No meta-gaming, no Gamefaqs, and the game is still entirely playable and enjoyable.

The huge advantage a single player game has over the MMO is that the designers have total control over the plot. Cut scenes and dialogue choices force you to pay attention and make decisions. The downfall can be that if those scenes and choices are poorly implemented, you’ll lose interest in the game pretty quickly. That’s definitely not the case with ME.

Compare this to Warcraft, where no matter how often I vow to read the quest text, it very rarely happens. The advent of TourGuide and the like means it’s more zen to just click accept, follow the TomTom arrow, stomp something, and hand in. Blizz’s own improved quest tracking only reinforces the “a-b-c” approach to levelling. The only time I stop and pay attention is if something about the quest is particularly lore relevant (Wrathgate being the obvious example), but even then I often miss it due to the incredible complexity of the WoW backstory. There’s very few quest chains I can recall with fondness, despite levelling many-a-toon. Mulgore is the only exception, because, well, it’s Mulgore.

ME is compelling, good looking, interesting to watch, with some nice direction and the feeling that the game universe is super solid. Being in space after spending all that Warcraft fantasy time is refreshing to say the least – Outland notwithstanding 😉

Endgame freedom?

Spinks the Wise has a nice rambling post up about hitting the level cap in LotRO, which reaches a surprising but very insightful conclusion: “It’s amazing how free you feel once you decide that you don’t want to get tied into the endgame grind.”

That made me rock back in my chair a little. What a concept: reaching the endgame and then…  enjoying the world. No badge grinds for gear, stat upgrades, LFD or PUG raiding.  Just fishing, crafting, noodling around.

For this approach to work, the game has to support that kind of play. And it sounds like LotRO does exactly that, with a combination of epic lore based book quests, virtues and deeds, and the well received skirmish system (that scales the same content from solo to raid groups).

“Go play a single player game” you might argue. But one of the attractions of an MMO is chatting away to friends online whilst you noodle. And MMOs have the huge advantage of being an ever (slowly) changing landscape – each new addition to the game gives new content to explore and share. This is especially true in LotRO, where the new content advances the Fellowship storyline.

If you’re not tied up in endgame progression and ‘keeping up’, MMOs allow you to  park your toon for a while then come back when some new content is offered up. DLC can offer some of that for single player games, but the sharing and social aspects aren’t there.

Between Spinks’ post and Syp’s re-entry into Middle Earth, LotRO sounds very tempting. My gamer group tried it briefly once, but quickly retreated back to Warcraft, mainly due to not having the energy to reinvest in a new MMO. But the Spinks perspective is enough to make me consider rolling around Hobbiton solo-MMO style. If it was free-to-play I’d be in there now, but committing to a sub takes a bit more consideration – and I can’t turn off WoW, I’ve got to keep up 😉

Numbers or Names?

Does anyone else find having a goal of reaching 542 defence rating less interesting than a goal of obtaining gear such that you become The Uncrittable? Or obsessing over a 164 Expertise rating instead of being The Finisher? I know I’d rather be aiming for an Undeniable set bonus than two pieces of something rated 264.

Surely it would be possible to design a game so that the numbers are more hidden, at least to the casual masses. EJs will still want to min-max based on figures, but I’d be surprised if the majority wouldn’t prefer titles or visual indicators once they reached certain milestones.

Achievements allow that in a way. You can see each step to Epic for example, so why not also have some non-numeric means of letting people see their progress toward key statistical milestones.

It could be something like the paper doll that shows when your gear is broken – but instead of showing damage, it shows how close each piece is to the magical goals. It would get pretty complicated with all the myriad stats, but with the coming Cataclysm stat simplification, surely it would be possible.

I’d bet the vast majority of the player base would have no idea that their are certain numeric goals for each stat. Which leads to fail PUGs and finger pointing. But if you could work it so that it was more obvious, and more intuitive, then more players would be at least equipped well enough to hold their own.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy crunching spreadsheets, working out gear rankings, and planning upgrades. But all of that work is a meta-game, and it’s all for the minority of players. Better to put the basics in game,  make it visual so people can see what they’re aiming for, and reward players for reaching those goals.

MMO Exclusivity

Since I started playing Warcraft, I don’t think I’ve played any other game in anger. Any. That is bizarre, given it’s been 2 years or so. Before WoW (WoW-BC) I would play games like NWN, KotoR, HL2, etc. Post WoW (WoW-AD) those kind of games are all languishing in my Steam queue unplayed. I still buy the occasional game (hello Dragon Age) with the intent to play them, but never seem to get around to it – the siren call of WoW always wins.

This is probably not a good thing.

And yet I can’t seem to find the time required to invest in a new game (which is not an FPS or something of similar pick-up-and-play simplicity) and also keep Warcraft chugging along. The only other game I play regularly is Civ4, and that is only as a participant in a PBEM game with a few friends – in other words, about 1 minute of play every few days.

This kind of MMO-obsession, or MMO-exclusivity, is nothing new. It’s probably even an official affliction these days, like being Tiger Woods. It is strange however that one game can absorb all your gaming time and needs. Sometimes I resent it, which is also not a good thing.

I’m not sure what the conclusion here is, and maybe one game is enough. But I can’t help feeling like I’m missing out on all that other gaming action that people rave about – Mass Effect 2 being the latest.

In fact, I’m going to fire up Steam right now, and download Mass Effect 1 (I’m a series completionist at heart). And I’m determined to actually play it. Lok’tar!

Old skool PVP

There’s an interesting thread over at slashdot asking where are the Ultima Online style MMOs. Whilst the question is broad, the discussion revolves around the pros and cons of the Player Killer, aka PVP.

In UO, it sounds like everywhere was a PVP zone, other than the cities. So the minute you stepped outside a city, you were a target. That is pretty hardcore, and no doubt led to a lot of rage quitting by the more PVE oriented crowd before the non PK shard was created. There was even a feature which was meant to discourage PKers by eventually giving them a title so all could see what a horrible ganker they were. Which of course failed miserably as a discouragement, as what PKer wouldn’t want to the world to know just how nasty they are??

I played most of my WoW career on a PVP server (Barthilas), before transferring to Feathermoon (RP-PVE). I’m a poor excuse for a PVP player, and would just sit and take it when being ripped apart in Ganklethorn Vale or mining in Sholazar. Meeting outside dungeons was always a fraught experience, with places like Nexus and UK often dissolving into a PVP battle just to get in the door. Even after a 9 months on Feathermoon, I’m still surprised when I can compete in the STV fishing comp and not need a guild escort to keep the gankers away.

And whilst I never really participated in that kind of world PVP, it’s funny how I kind of miss it. It added an edge to the game that PVE realms simply don’t have. You never quite felt safe, and the cries for help on chat were often met with swift main-swapping to rid The Barrens of an Alliance camper destroying baby Horde toons. And of course you occasionally encountered famous gankers, who would always demand your immediate attention – one tormentor of our guild, who went by the handle lolpewpew (the name alone tells the story!) still has a standing kill order despite being on another realm 🙂

PVP realms are the minority, partly due to the Sheep/Wolf ratio discussed at Slashdot, and partly due to the almost guaranteed gear level difference in random PVP which means the target of the attack will most likely not be in a position to fight back. Even in gear-balanced controlled-duel environments such as RogueRogue sets up, it is very difficult for the non-fight-opener to recover for a victory.

Despite all of the balance issues and a general lack of PVP skill, most of our guild members sound almost wistful when they reflect on our days on Barthilas. It wasn’t the PVP itself, or the victory rush or red rage, it was the edge given by unpredictability – and unpredictability is something to be treasured in an MMO world which is otherwise so tightly controlled.

Achievement metagaming

I’m plodding around Azeroth on Kodo in pursuit of my Elder title, visiting all sorts of far flung places with nary a soul around. Other than other Achievement seekers, of course. Which is kind of sad – Ashzara for example is a beautiful zone, populated by precisely no-one, all the lonely NPCs in tears waiting for someone to kill or appreciate them. Thankfully Cataclysm brings the Bilgewater Cartel goblins to Ashzara, who make their home there.

In any case, the Lunar Festival is a nice leisurely journey, and it certainly brings home the ginormous size of the world. It also illustrates one of the fundamentals of playing: the metagame. The idea of attempting the Lunar or any other festival without resources like wow.com or Wowhead is frankly unimaginable:

Bane: Hey there, guy-with-a-great-huge-halo-shooting-up-in-the-sky, how you doing?

GWAGHHSUITS: *spinning around with enthusiasm* Hail oh great PC! Thanks for visiting me. In fact, you know what – have this artfully crafted coin!

Bane: Whoa, thanks old guy! Hey – are there more of you ‘Elders’ around?

GWAGHHSUITS: Sure are – and they’ll give you free stuff too!

Bane: Great! I should go visit them. Um, where are they?

GWAGHHSUITS: There’s one somewhere in a dungeon somewhere. And another in a place you’ve never heard of. Just nearby. Kind of. *looks shiftily around while scuffing the ground with his worn leather boots*

Bane: Ummm, can you be more specific?

GWAGHHSUITS: Nope! Good luck! /ignore*quickly turns his back on the annoying PC*

Bane: …

Of course it would be possible to find all the Elders, but it would be a royal pain too.  I guess someone once did it da solo, and more power to them, but players with that much perseverance are few and far between.

Whilst you could argue this means the game isn’t complete somehow, it seems more likely that this enormous community pool of knowledge that has formed around Warcraft is one of the things that makes the game, as BigBearButt observed. It’s social networking, and it’s been around since before that term became the property of Big Business™.

The amount of free info and time that people have committed to Wowhead and Wowwiki is phenomenal. It’s created a community of contributers, bloggers, editors, Auctioneers and passionate players. I barely move in game before referring to LightHeaded, zooming off as directed via TomTom, or using the Lunar Festival pack for TourGuide.

In many other games this would be cheating. And maybe the boss encounters suffer a bit from needing guides rather than teaching. But I’d argue that overall, the metagame makes WoW miles more fun – it doesn’t reduce the challenge, just the frustration.

Normality

Last night a group of Guildies attempted the SFK VD Bosses (with many a double entendre in trade chat trying to find a VD healer…). We failed pretty decisively, not quite having the HP nor healing gear to get through the perfumed chaos. Having both the green & purple debuffs on seemed a killer – I’d pugged it the night before with an offtank which meant you could keep the one Neutralizer up depending on who was targetting you. An OT for a 5 man! Not something our guild has quite yet, so no Love Rocket for us.

Refusing to learn our lesson, we thought we’d make our Forge of Souls debut – on normal mode. I was properly tanking for the first time in a long time on Banehammer, and my muscle memory was all for my Druid tank. So I was pretty rusty on the key mappings and priority rotation (where’s Heroic Throw gone? Where’s taunt!?). Luckily I’d mapped  abilities pretty consistently across toons, so I unrusted relatively quickly.

We wiped on the second trash pull, mainly due to me not grabbing agro on all five quickly enough, and not being able to resist the AoE power of our much better geared ‘lock ‘n’ Mage combo. But there was an inkling of success there – our Rogue suggested we changed strategy to a mark-up/burn-down single target approach, which worked a treat and we proceeded to march all the way to the first boss, James Brown (the trash even dropped a 1% chance waist upgrade for me).

I hadn’t tanked this before, and our off spec Shaman Healer hadn’t healed it. But after quick debrief from the experts, we managed to one shot the Hardest Working Man in Showbiz, and I picked up a stonking big mace (and a New Bag).

The Devourer of Souls awaited, and having experienced this from a Rogue melee DPS vantage point, I didn’t like my chances of moving him around correctly, and living through the various don’t-argues this guy delivers.

We wiped on our first attempt, but weren’t discouraged. I found that the tanking vantage point was actually a bit easier than DPS – at least I knew when the guy was facing me, something I found confusing when slice ‘n’ dicing him due his multi-faceted face.

Our second attempt went much better, and we managed to down him (but barely!). I’d blown every single cooldown, and our Shaman was down to 4% mana when our foe dropped. The hoots could be heard all the way to the Halls of Relection, two instances hence.

It’s fair to say that this was thrilling stuff. It felt great to be working as a Guild team, on the edge of our ability/gear.

What was really interesting to me was that this was all in normal 5-man mode. There’s obviously recognition and challenge for world firsts (both alleged and legit) and 25 man hard modes, but for the  ‘hard core casuals’ (otherwise known as the majority), I’d suggest that taking on the normal mode progression is just as rewarding. You still see all the content, still get epic upgrades, still have a huge challenge and still have to work hard on your tactics and awareness. Plus if you clear all the normal modes, there’s no doubt you’ll be ready for 10 man’s next.

There’s a tendancy to think that if you’re not running at least Heroics, you’re not really playing. Which is just plain wrong – if normal mode is hard for your group, normal mode is the right level to be playing at and more importantly, enjoying. Throw yourself into the deep end of normal mode ICC. It may not be Ensidia depth, but it’s still pretty deep!

Every game needs Tauren

A friend recently decided to (re)start a Dungeon & Dragons group (using the Pathfinder ruleset). Having had a fairly lengthy break from roleplaying, it’s refreshing and inspiring to read through the core rulebook and dream up characters and classes. Should I play a straight-up Fighter? Or mix it up with a little Barbarian action? Or maybe stretch out and introduce the religious power of the Paladin or Cleric. Can the basic Fighter class really be balanced when compared to all the extra goodies the other melee roles bring?

Good stuff. But there was one problem: you can’t play a Tauren.

Humans, pah. Half-orcs, elves, halflings, gnomes, zzzz. A dwarven warrior, hmm, maybe. But what I really wanted was a Tauren. Blizzard absolutely nailed it when they designed the mighty hooved ones, creating an iconic and emotionally involving new race. And one that doesn’t have it roots in the brilliant but saturated Tolkein racial templates.

Their homeland of Mulgore is beautiful, and perfectly fits the spiritual and ethical nature of the Tauren philosophy. Rolling plains filled with roaming wildlife and epic sunsets over towering cliffs.  And Thunder Bluff, standing tall in the midst of the plains of Mulgore, is a unique and special place, certainly the most racially ‘right’ city (with the possible exception of Ironforge).

RPing a Tauren is a dream, as it is so easy to bond with the race, with the history, the leaders, and the aesthetic. Creating a toon that has only a Kodo to ride, a prairie dog non-combat pet, and (if you’re a Hunter) Mazzranache as a pet instantly makes you part of the rich Tauren history.

In fact the only thing Blizzard did wrong was remove the fabled Plainsrunning racial from the Tauren, which sounds like it would have been the icing on an already delicious cake.

The Panzercow clearly thinks the same – he’s trying to work out how to make a Tauren Trekkie. Alas for Pathfinder, I guess a Dwarf will have to do. Unless I can convince the GM to let me roll up a Minotaur…

Kings of Dire Maul

Last weeks’ level 60 Guild run saw us challenge the Ogres of Dire Maul, a 3 wing zone in mid Feralas.

We’ve all turned off our XP, so we’re running vaguely on level and as designed, albeit with all the player buffs and instance nerfs in play. It was fun having to be a little cautious on our pulls, as the big Ogre guards hit like trucks. Not that we never looked like wiping, even on an accidental fear pull, but still.

Dire Maul has one brilliant design feature – the Tribute Run.

The idea is to work your way through the North zone without killing any of the named mobs – completely contrary to instinct. Once you defeat the final boss, hence becoming the King of Dire Maul, each mob you left standing pays loot tribute to their new King – i.e. you!

This means all sorts of neat tricks as you move through the instance. There is a trap you set to freeze one boss in a block of ice, you can craft an Ogre suit mid instance to fool another, we used Seaforium Charges to blow up doors rather than killing bosses for the keys, and stealth to loot keys from chests under the bosses nose. We had to vamoosh out of the instance several times after accidentally agroing a named mob or two (Guard Fengus was particularly tricky to avoid) to keep the Tribute alive.

It’s a great little twist from Blizzard, and definitely worth running if you have a level 60 group available.