Gotta catch them all

A while back, Pike had a nice thoughtful post up about encountering genuinely new players when you’re busy on an alt (or a main visiting the old world areas during things like Hallow’s End). Unless they’re obviously sporting Heirlooms or twink gear, I tend to treat everyone as if they are a Stranger in a Strange Land, helping out and assuming they know as much as I did when starting out (i.e. nothing – being absorbed in Civ4 at the time, I spent 5 minutes trying to make my very first Dwarf Hunter move forward by right clicking where I wanted him to go. WASD didn’t even enter my head until my friend /whispered me to ask why I was still standing on the spawn spot).

Even if they don’t have the gear it’s easy to get fooled – I was tooling around Mulgore in my Heirloom Shoulders and someone asked where I got them, how you get them, etc. I was dutifully explaining that when you get to 80 you can earn tokens, which you can use to buy Heirlooms, etc. He then challenged me to a duel, at the same time as insta-swapping into his full Heirloom/Twink gear set…ouch.

It is nice when you do encounter someone who really is new to the game, and you can help out in some way. I still remember the total awe I felt when first approaching Bloodhoof village, seeing a high level toon offering free bags to the first 5 people to visit him in the Inn. Or encountering a level 70 running wild in Gol’Bolar Quarry in Dun Morogh on that same 2nd level Dwarf Hunter. I asked him why he was doing it, and he said he just wanted to come back to where it all started end exact some revenge on those tricky early mobs.

The other question Pike asks in her article is whether Blizzard have effectively closed off older end-game content (e.g. Naxx) by making the rewards from newer areas (e.g. ToC) so much better.

I think there’s some truth in that – but only for those where Progression/Gear is the goal. If you’re playing to have the best gear, and see the latest content, then sure, you will bypass Ulduar by simply buying Tier 9 epics so you can dominate Icecrown.

But if you’re playing to enjoy the content, to “see it all”, to experience the thrill of downing your first Ulduar boss, these days there’s not much stopping you. With the new LFD system, you should at least be able to easily see every five man, and if you can find a Guild that isn’t in it for the Progression, and you should be fine with the 10’s too. With the massive success of 3.3 LFD, it can’t be long before Blizzard extends that to 10 man raids too.

My old guild didn’t reach Kara until just before WotLK was released, but that didn’t stop us having a ball in there, spending hours slowly working through the bosses and honing our tactics. Maiden stalled us for weeks, but the hoots when we beat her, and the way each week we got better until she was just traffic, was brilliant.

Salty #1

Salty. The one Achievement (and title) I really want.

For inexplicable reasons I love WoW fishing. It’s medatative, can be profitable, and every cast is a surprise. Levelling fishing through the skill zones where you need 7+ catches for each skill point was mind numbingly slow, but then numbing your mind is almost the point of fishing.

Right now I have every fishing Achievement needed for Salty but two. One is to win one of the two weekly fishing comps. Despite many attempts, including the latest this morning, I’m still waiting. If you think about the odds, only 104 players per server can win the comp each year and hence get the title. Before the added the Kalu’ak Derby in patch 3.3, it was only 52 players. Ouch. Unfortunately I’m on a US server, so the Stranglethorn Extravaganza is pretty much inaccessible, being a 9AM on a Monday morning.

The other missing Achievement is the One That Didn’t Get Away, the goal of which is to catch one of ten possible rare fish. As of this morning, I’ve hooked 4302 fish, out of a total 6534 casts, and have yet to get one of those ten.

But then that’s the great thing about fishing. Your very next cast could be the one you’ve been waiting for.

This sporting life

Despite being in Australia, I’ve managed to catch a fair amount of NFL action this year (the new free-to-air sports-only Channel One is brilliant). Gridiron has always fascinated me – what other sport has people wearing full body armour and helmets?

The coverage, presentation, amazing camera work (they seem to have one HD camera for each player, for every game), and deeply knowledgeable commentators make it a real spectacle. The way it is hyped is amazing, making every game (or at least the Sunday Night/Monday Night games) seem like an epic battle of the utmost importance. It’s a unique insight into American culture.

Watching this year has made me realise just how much the military is a day-to-day part of American life. Every game seems to have an airforce fly-by, or military marching band, or tribute to the fallen, or gigantic American flag being unveiled & folded with military precision. The zenith was during Veterans Day, when they went as far as flying some of the commentators and coaches to Afghanistan to bond with the troops, who then rhapsodised on air about how much they missed those times with ‘the boys’. As if they too were ‘in the fight’. Truly strange stuff.

A group of friends used to run a virtual Madden NFL season, getting together each week to try out our tactics and seek PC domination. It was great fun until one of our more obsessive players, and the one with the most time on his hands, worked out how to ‘break’ the game via an undefendable play that would have been impossible in the real game. Or so we thought.

One of the most interesting things watching the actual NFL this year has been the emergence of the “Wildcat” formation. This is where the regular quarterback is replaced instead by someone who can run, pass, fake, kick, do magic tricks, and cartwheel. The unpredictable nature of this player means the defence is often completely confused, which is the general idea. Do they set-up for a pass? For a run? A punt? It’s fun to watch as the D scrambles to make sense of what is about to happen.

Miami seems to have been the first to popularise it in the NFL, though apparently it’s long been a staple of College football. But it’s now spread to many teams, and in many variations. In the last game of the regular season, the New York Jets created the most bizarre formation I’d seen where the regular quarterback lined up several times as a Wide Receiver. I had no idea what he was doing out there, nor did the commentators. It was so strange, and you could see the defence just didn’t know how to deal with it. A Miami game earlier in the season had a fake punt, that turned into a run, and then a pass, for a touchdown. All in the same play.

I’ve been amazed that at times this season it seems like the NFL has been influenced by the Madden computer game. Madden encourages you to try different formations, do some insane stuff that the other player won’t be prepared for. Just like my friend, the NFL coaching staff have come up with something unpredictable that changes the game. They haven’t broken the NFL like you could the computer version, but they’ve sure made it more entertaining.

Who knows, thanks to Madden, we may see the old under-the-jumper statue-of-liberty 70 yard hoike in the NFL after all.

Toruk Makto

http://richi89.deviantart.com/art/Toruk-147875360Just saw Avatar, again. And was again amazed by the reality of the world James Cameron created. You no longer need to suspend your disbelief – it is real.

It also again struck me the influence WoW (amongst other video games) must have had on some of the designers. There are many moments that recall Warcraft, from the critters that roam Pandora’s forests, to the no agro radius wildlife, to the epic ground mounts.

The scene when the Na’vi warriors scale the Hallelujah Mountains to the Banshee nests is my favourite sequence, the moment when the wonder of Pandora really sinks in. And the Banshee are the strongest WoW reminder of all. Those things are Proto-Drakes through and through. Jake & Neytiri’s flying cliff dive is almost enough to make you want to go B.A.S.E jumping to experience what they do, or failing that to hop on a WoW dragon and wish for some VR goggles.

It’s a great film. When I finally finish What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been, I want a Toruk instead of the Violet Drake 🙂

Not that kind of Ironman

Achievements have been a huge success in WoW, obviously. Some love them (two of my guildmates are engaged in a daily see-sawing battle to stay 5 achievement points ahead of each other), some not so much (though even an admitted anti-achiever admits so wanting some of them). But they’re a nice mixture of fun and serious, and players are free to follow the achievement paths that interest them most.

One Achievement that’s missing and I’d love to see is some kind of Ironman recognition. What’s Ironman? It’s not dying. Ever. For anything – Murlocs are no excuse, nor Rocket Boots or falling off the Thunder Bluff elevator. A friend and I have started playing this way a few times: roll up a toon, start playing, and survive. If you die, by any means, you have to delete the toon.

It’s obviously insane, and easier for some classes than others – I got a Hunter to about 28 no problems until relaxing too much cleaning up Quillboars in The Barrens. And a Druid to mid 30s before getting overconfident on, you guessed it, Murlocs.

There is at least one WoW player who has actually accomplished this, a Warrior (yes!), which is all the more impressive for having no self-heals to speak of. And with a name like Cautious, she obviously set out to do this.

The PC adaption of the DnD “Temple of Elemental Evil” implemented Ironman as the ultimate hard mode, a no save option meaning if you die, you die. I’m not sure that any MMO has done so yet, the psychological damage to the player might be too great.

But it would be great if there was an Achievement that tracked this, including the progress. Maybe every 10 levels without dying you ding an Achievement, something that can stay on your permanent record. And if you reach 80 – “Ironman Banehammer” has an impressive ring to it.

Outlandish

outland trading cardsThe reinvention of ye olde Azeroth in Cataclysm is a stroke of genius by Blizzard. It’s revitalised interest in the game, and created a “one last time” levelling community who want to experience the original content before it’s rent asunder. So unlike many expansion or patch announcements which end up reducing the player base while bored end game players tap their fingers and wait, Cataclysm has probably increased the active player numbers.

But there’s one problem with the plan: Outland is immune to the pending events.

Outland is…annoying. I’ve read any number of bloggers who reach Outland and really struggle to get motivated to move through it. My level 60 Hunter is in this exact position. For whatever reason, it seems like a hard slog and a bit of a grind, especially when compared to the 1-60 experience. Hellfire Peninsula comes under a fair amount of criticism – it’s a visually harsh, unfriendly environment and tends to be a brick wall of sorts. Similarly Shadowmoon Valley and Netherstorm seem to rub people the wrong way.

In fact the only Outland zone that people seem to actively enjoy is Nagrand. The common description is “relaxing”. I suspect that is largely due to it’s visual appeal – it’s a lush, living environment teeming with wildlife that doesn’t just attack on sight. One zone out of seven isn’t a winning formula, and probably goes a way to explaining the Outland hump.

So what could be done?

Blizz managed to make the earlier levels fly by far quicker, by a combination of earlier mounts, heirlooms, more powerful talents, and nerfing instances. Outland was also modified, but another refresh might be needed – increase the XP gains again, or drop the average mob health to make quest grinding quicker. The LFD system has obviously helped too – many are levelling through Outland via Dungeon runs alone.

For the Recruit-a-friend brigade, one simple thing would be to continue the triple XP to level 70. At the moment it stops at 60, just when you’re ready to take the deep Hellfire breath. Given the pending 85 cap, why not keep the XP bonus through to Northrend. RaF users are a minority group though, so this would only solve the problem for some.

The biggest improvement would be to make Cataclysm hit Outland. Change the environment, make it a new experience, give Hellfire a fertile rainforest heart, flood Dragonblight like Thousand Needles will be, bring Zangarmarsh some sunshine. Of course this would be a huge undertaking, similar to Azeroth in scope, but Outland totally escaping the coming of Deathwing is a bit of a cop out.

Blizzard have cried resources when explaining why Outland isn’t being impacted, despite it being the zone that most needs work to make it more appealing. No-one wants to spend time there any longer, Shattrath is a ghost town, and there’s nothing much to farm. So make it quicker, or make it more interesting.

Oh, and leave Nagrand alone 🙂

Influence

A commentator on Syp’s always entertaining blog Bio Break took him gently to task for sometimes dwelling negatively on MMOs that he has abandoned. Syp rightly defends his approach on the grounds that it would be dishonest to say otherwise, though he agrees that letting go is eventually appropriate.

It’s an interesting dilemna, one faced by critics of all forms of entertainment. Critics have such a huge influence on the success or failure of a venture that it must sometimes seem overwhelming – some recipients of bad reviews have even turned to the courts to seek recompense. I remember talking to a record store owner who knew the music reviewer at the Sydney Morning Herald. This reviewer had made a conscious decision to only review music he liked, perhaps as a response to being sampled by The Necks apologising profusely for a bad review he’d given them. That’s obviously an extreme reaction, but on the other hand, why waste time dissing something when there is so much good stuff out there.

Now independent blogs are obviously a different order of influence magnitude to a old school broadsheet newspaper, but the influence is still there.

Despite blogs being a free-for-all, people are impacted by blogger opinions and thoughts, especially when the blogger is as well known and prolific as the bio-breaking one. We can’t help but want our choice of MMO to be ‘right’, and for that decision to be reinforced by the community at large. I remember the great disturbance in the force when BRK stepped down – it actually made WoW feel less fun for a while. I (and many others) still keep an half an eye on his personal blog, just in case he comes back – wishful thinking I fear, but he added so much life to the WoW community, and hence to my enjoyment of the game.

If I read someone praising WoW – as everyone is doing at the moment due to the new LFD tool – I feel justified in my investment in the game. If someone attacks or criticises, I want to turn a blind eye (if it’s justified criticism) or argue back (if it’s unfounded or irrational).

The complusively-readable-despite-the-horror Goblin would call this hopelessly “social” behaviour, but I’m sure even he enjoys his popularity. As Tobold pointed out, “if Gevlon would be honest to himself, he’d realize that writing a not-for-profit blog is an extremely social act”. If even Gevlon can be partly socialised by popularity and influence, what hope do the rest of us have?!

(Non) fatal flaw

When discussing how to approach new bosses in WotLK, one of my Guildmates proposed that we run them unresearched. In other words, no pre knowledge of the instance, mobs, or bosses: “I like puzzle solving in games – so ultimately for me, our instance attempts would be true explorations without fore knowledge of the map/bosses/phases etc”.

Now this sounds great – in theory. I’ve had similar discussions with others – let’s go into Icecrown with just our skills and experience, and see how we go. After all that’s how we play every other computer game, right? You don’t research the bosses in HL2, Gears, Ico, or Advance Wars. In fact going to a resource like gamefaqs is somewhat frowned upon – it’s a last resort for when you are just plain stuck.

(Though having said that, these days I find it hard not to meta game everything. Warcraft has driven the “research first” mentality into me so hard, that I had to fight hard to resist the urge to min-max when first starting Dragon Age or even when revisiting KoTOR. Spinks has a great article about the MMO influence on solo gaming.)

WoW is a different kettle of fish. It’s expected that you will do your research before you zone in. You, or someone in the party, needs to know that Netherspite’s red beam is for agro and the green beam heals, or that Prince will enfeeble you. Or that dropping Herod will spawn 20 take-you-by-surprise revenge-seeking trash mobs.

But is this a good thing? I’m starting to think it’s a flaw, though obviously not a fatal one.

Due to the way the game is designed, it’s often unrealistic to spend the time trying to solve a boss puzzle. This is often due to respawns – if you haven’t downed the boss within 10-15 minutes, you’re faced with grinding your way all the way through it’s minions again. And for some instances, like Kara, it’s a 5 minute run back to the boss to even try a 2nd time.

This is a bit of a bummer really, because it really would be fun to try and unravel boss encounters on the fly. I am in awe of the guys who do world firsts. Working out a fight like Netherspite must have taken hours and hours and hours of wiping and mob clearing and wiping etc.

But that kind of research is beyond mere mortal players, even on small things like the Scarlet Monastery. Which is kind of a shame, and something that maybe future MMO’s could address through less punishment for wipes, and certainly no respawn timers to slow things down.

In game tools to analyse what just happened might be a good idea – something to let you replay the encounter as a group, and plan how to tackle it next time. Add-ons like BigWigs obviously help enormously, and could potentially allow you to give it a crack sight-unseen.

But maybe the game itself needs to start providing enough feedback to allow and encourage reaction based fights, rather than researched.

Please welcome to the stage

Stranglethorn ValeI guess it’s worth introducing my WoW characters, to give a feel for who and what I’ll be talking about.

You’ll note that they’re all melee or ranged DPS. I’ve never managed to successfully play a magic based class, be it in D&D or a long history of PC based RPGs. Something felt right about standing back, waving my hands about, and hoping something would happen. I wanted to be in there, doing something physical. In the immortal words of Michael Moorcock, “Treasures are not won by care and forethought but by swift slaying and reckless attack.”

My (currently idle) main is Banehammer, a Tauren Warrior. The reason he’s idle is complicated, but mainly due to a great sundering in Real Life, which meant a large group of us parked our mains and rerolled. But Bane is my main guy, I love him, so he currently noodles about completing the seasonal achivements, doing his Fishing dailies, and I’m considering getting him a Netherwing Drake, easily the most beautiful mount in the game.

The toon seeing the most action is Archammer, Bane’s younger brother, this time a Tauren Druid. He’s the Guild Leader of the Kezan Cartel, which is populated by the rerollers mentioned above. Inspired by the coming Cataclysm, we’re rolling through the old content dungeon by dungeon, and Arc is one of two tanks in the group.

Also spending her time idly in Silverpine Forest farming Black Tabby’s is Stroeb, Undead Rogue and the first toon I levelled to 70. She’s a Kara vet, I loved playing her too, and only switched away once it became clear our guild needed a tank. She’s more honourary than anything at this stage, but I still admire her backstabbing skills.

Rounding out the semi-active list is Auarra, Tauren Hunter. The first thing I ever rolled was actually a Dwarven Hunter, which I loved (largely due to the epic WoW cinematic and a history of Dwarven DnD characters) until I realised that The Alliance were a bunch of flag waving bores. So a Tauren Hunter was the natural replacement, though I’m struggling to get motivated to move her through Outland. And when I’m feeling nostalgic, I have been known to roll up a Dwarf and enjoy that snowy start for a few hours…

So there you have the toons, and a small history, so you’ll know who I’m talking about.