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And on the WoW Front

There were two rather important items I would absolutely have been talking about by now, if I was still playing WoW.

First, guild levels are being removed in Warlords.

Since the introduction of the guild system in Cataclysm, the nature of guild leveling and guild perks has shifted from being a reward for dedication and collective effort, to effectively being a penalty and barrier to entry for new guilds.

To be quite frank, there was never any shift; guild leveling has always been a penalty/barrier to new guild creation. You could trace the exact moment when my old guild (Invictus) was on its way out: the night when we no longer reached the daily Guild XP cap. Everyone knew people weren’t logging on as much anymore, but that shaded bar in its purple crassness had a way about it that pierced all illusions. Not only did we understood that the guild was dying, we became acutely aware that we were falling behind. And yet, in a cruel twist, you also didn’t want to leave either. Sure, you could join a more active, new guild… and lose all the bonus Honor/Justice Points/goodies in the meantime.

I am not entirely sure whether any particular MMO has gotten guilds “right.” By that I mean crafting a system that both encourages social activity and doesn’t encourage abuse of its own systems, e.g. in zerg guilds. The most we seem to be able to hope for is for guild systems to get out of the way. Anyone have examples of where guilds were done particularly well?

Second news items is the merging of Alliance/Horde AHs on each server.

This is certainly an interesting decision for Blizzard to make. Some of the detractors focus on their lost gold-making opportunities, while still others take offense on an almost RP angle. My own opinion on large AHs have shifted considerably over the years. While it is always fun to play the big fish in a small pond, small ponds tend to dry out and kill all the fish. There is perhaps nothing as discouraging as seeing a barren AH, as that wipes out entire swaths of gameplay: the AH baron, the farmer, the crafter, the guild selling BoE raid epics to fund guild repairs, and so on. In this sense, I believe it’s a good idea.

On the other hand, something I have found equally (if not moreso) discouraging is seeing the effect of a vendor+1c economy. Guild Wars 2 was my first experience with this phenomenon, but Wildstar has creeping elements of the same thing. The cause is rather simple: bot farmers dumping mats.¹ While even the tiny Auchindoun-US had its share of bots, it was clearly more profitable to peddle their vendor-for-a-profit wares on the bigger servers. In a centralized marketplace, all it takes is one bot to ruin everyone’s day.

In any case, what is somewhat amusing is remembering back to my WoW days and how I very nearly kept a second account running purely for the cross-faction arbitrage possibilities (even on Auchendoun-US!). I have to assume things like the faction-specific mounts will remain faction-specific, but I imagine those hedge market items like green-colored Winter Clothes and such will tank. Meanwhile, I wonder what they intend to do with the goblin AHs…

¹ In fairness, there are likely several other things going on simultaneously. For example, making mats too plentiful, not having enough sinks, having crafting systems that encourage the pumping out of hundreds of identical goods, and so on. Bots will still ruin your day though.

(Virtual) Friends

Zubon has a post up musing on Time to Effectiveness, in regards to how long it takes between starting the game and being at the point where your bullet hits for as much damage as a veteran’s bullet. You can contribute in EVE on Day 1 whereas a level 1 WoW character would be worse than useless in a raid of a capital city (via guard aggro).

The thing that interested me the most was when Zubon mentioned this:

For MMOs, this is indicative of the larger problem that you need to grind to play with your friends. MMOs are bad for playing with your friends. Their character advancement systems make it difficult to find a span within which you can bring veterans, newbies, alts, etc. together, and it only gets worse over time as the power differential between day one and the level cap grows. I played a bit of World of Warcraft but it never really caught me because I spent almost my entire time in that vast, lonely wasteland between level 1 and the cap.

If I play these games to play with my friends, I want to play with my friends. If I play these games to compete with other people, I want to compete on a level playing field.

I would immediately agree that playing progression-based games is difficult with your friends, even if you happen to live in the same house as them. Everyone has their different schedules and obligations; sometimes you feel like watching Game of Thrones instead of running another dungeon tonight, or whatever. Even if you have specific characters you use when in a group, you are essentially committing to leveling up twice, and basically consigning that friend-alt to progression limbo.

But do you know who it’s pretty easy to play with? “Friends,” i.e. the people you befriend in-game. I have been talking with the same handful of people I “met” in WoW pretty consistently for the last five years. And why would that be surprising? We all were playing the same MMO on basically the same schedule in the same manner, which is how we met in the first place; you couldn’t design a better friend/compatible person-sorting algorithm if you tried. Meanwhile, I only ever talk with my best friend IRL every few months. I met that best friend in Middle School by complete coincidence, and even though we are supremely compatible personality-wise, he just isn’t into PC gaming. With that plus distance plus schedules, the opportunities to play together would be pretty low.

All of which makes for rather conflicting design structures in many games. Friends and guilds are the social glue that keeps people playing games long after the novelty has worn out. If you start playing a game with friends, you might end up overlooking the deal-breakers that would otherwise cause you to abandon a game before the social hooks had time to sink in. On the other hand, the opposite problem can occur: if your friends don’t like the game but you do, you might end up either spending less time playing with them or quit the game to play whatever they’re playing.

So, objectively, the best outcome is quite possibly coming into the game with no friends and making some in-game instead. That way, the friends you are playing with are tailor-made to correspond with your playstyle, level of interest, and long-term goals. Plus, there is the added bonus of this particular game being “sticky,” insofar as it might be the only context in which you will get to enjoy your new friends’ company. Although I still talk with my former WoW guildmates, we really don’t have many other game preferences in common; the desire to re-subscribe to WoW to spend some non-Vent time with them is pretty strong.

In any case, as I have argued in the comments to Zubon’s post, this is pretty much a systemic problem inherent to RPGs and other games with character progression. The moment you commit to XP and levels is pretty much the same moment you commit to stratification, which by definition drives wedges between players. Unless, of course, you go ahead and make friends with those you find in your strata.

Fake Edit: Zubon and a few others have pointed out that other MMORPGs have solved this issue with scaling levels. The examples used were GW2, EVE, and City of Heroes. While I agree that the first two allow you to play together, they do not allow you to play together on the same level. Your Day 1 friend can tackle spaceships, but he/she is still stuck in a frigate while you’re flying around a supercarrier. It’s perfectly true that two friends can play the GW2 equivalent of BGs together (instant cap, full gear), but I really consider GW2’s sPvP system to be a completely separate game tacked on; it’s entirely possibly it’s changed in the last year, but unless there’s overlap between the two systems (e.g. you get XP/etc for doing sPvP) then I don’t see that as a solution. Chances are good that you bought GW2 in the first place to play the “real” game, e.g. the ones with levels and XP and such.

As for City of Heroes, I’ll have to take your word on it that there was meaningful character progression in an environment that perfectly scaled up and down. Because honestly that sounds like a complete contradiction in terms.

All of this is somewhat besides the point of this post though. It kinda doesn’t matter if you can play with the friends you brought into a game in a perfectly scaled environment, if they don’t match your own playing habits and level of interest in the new game. If you like City of Heroes and they don’t, then it really doesn’t matter how good the game is – your options are basically to quit, divide your time, or make new friends. Stratification makes the situation worse, of course, but it’s more of a symptom of a larger problem IMO.

Unannounced WoW Feature Announced

Coming in 5.4: Flexible Raid sizes.

While it’s impossible to fit every player into a neat, tidy archetype, we recognize that we could be providing a better experience to one broad category of raider: social groups comprised predominantly of friends and family, and smaller guilds that do their best to include as many members in their Raid outings possible. […]

To fill this void, we’re in the process of developing a new Flexible Raid system, which includes a new difficulty that sits between Raid Finder and Normal difficulty, while still allowing friends, family, or pick-up groups to play together. This difficulty will be available for premade groups of 10–25 players, including any number in between. That means whether you have 11, 14, or 23 friends available for a Raid, they’ll all be able to participate.

The Flexible Raid system is designed so that the challenge level will scale depending on how many players you have in the Raid. So if you switch between 14 players one week and 22 the next, the difficulty will adjust automatically.

Technically, this isn’t confirmed as the “unannounced new feature,” but I have a hard time believing that there could be something else to top this game-changer.

…or does this change much at all?

I mean, yes, I have little doubt that this will improve the quality of life for a lot of friends & family guilds out there. Back in Wrath, my guild constantly had the inevitably poisonous problem of having 11-12 people show up on raid nights, and having to pick who sits out. Something like this feature would have made the issue moot, as we could grab everyone who showed up and did something fun as a guild. Even better, the difficulty is supposed to be pegged between LFR and Normal, which would perhaps mean taking that charming guildie who improves the general social atmosphere – albeit at a DPS loss – is no longer such a vexing decision.

On the other hand, this would do nothing to guilds like mine that were unable to field even a full 10m by the end. Maybe this could have incentivised our (failed) raiding partnership with a sister guild, but I don’t find that particularly likely.

You know what though? My mind is actually racing about this feature. Part of the reason why our raiding partnership failed was because the people we were bringing weren’t quite matching up to the skill level the content required. With this feature, if your guild found 10m Normal raids too difficult, you could down-shift to Flexible and still bring 10 people.

On top of that, this could be a massive coup for the Trade chat pugs of the world. I am sure there will still be stubborn raid leaders out there spamming “LF6M 25m” for hours, but as long as they had the basic roles covered, they could have everyone zone in with just the 19 they had. And on top of that, there is the news that Flexible mode has its own, separate lockout. That is huge. Go raid with your hardcore guild on Thursday, and then kick back with your friends/family on Friday, all while still getting (off-spec, perhaps) gear.

In another life, I might have been more concerned with how popular the feature would be, given the ilevel rewards would be lower than Normal mode. But looking at how LFR turned out, it is pretty clear that that sort of nonsense rarely matters except in the minds of a few. In fact, I’d almost be more worried that Flexible mode will further erode the entire raiding model, doing to 10m what LFR did to 25m.

In any event, it looks like we’re seeing the fruits of those minds diverted from the Titan project already. Now if only they could focus their efforts on, say, actual server merges instead of this 50% off highway robbery bullshit, I might actually reach for the resubscribe button again.

Well, probably not this expansion, but they are damn closer than they were yesterday.

Cheesing Alts

Guild wars 2 is remarkably unfriendly to guilds. The fundamental component of such a collaboration, in my opinion, is the guild bank… something that is sequestered behind a 2500 Influence timewall. After a week and a half, my small guild of WoW expats have just gotten halfway there.

But I get it, I get it. Can’t expect ArenaNet to sell $7.50 bank extensions if just anyone could create a guild and get 50-slots “for free,” small guilds be damned.

The good news for smaller guilds is that you can cheese the Influence system a bit with alts. A guild generally gets 10 Influence for each member that logs in each day. Each of your alts counts as a unique member. Ergo, if you log onto all five characters every day, your guild should get 50 Influence points during the “Attendance Checks.” You do not even have to do anything on that alt; just log on, and then go back to the character selection screen. Done.¹

Now, 50 Influence might not seem like a lot, especially in terms of guild groups rolling through Events – but that is 50 quick Influence points per account per day. Get five friends doing that everyday for 10 days and you got your bank. If you want your own personal guild bank extension, that is a mere 50 days of solo log-ins.

By the way, know what else is counted on a per-character basis? Resource nodes and chests.

Why log-in on unused alt accounts in the middle of a city when you could do so standing next to a Rich Copper Node (etc)? Personally, I have two level 12 alts parked in the Shamans’ Rookery area I talked about last time, such that when I give my guild its daily 10 Influence, I snag 2 silver worth of Copper Ore and then spend 2-3 minutes snagging a Splendid Chest to boot. And then I do it again.

If I was really feeling cheeky, I could go outside and farm the Potato… farm just south of there, snagging the normal chest along the way. Since this is the Norn starting area, chances are good you will get pushed into the Overflow server, which has its own version of resource nodes too. From my testing, it looks like ArenaNet closed the loophole that would allow you to gather from both the normal and Overflow farms. However, these farms are also character-specific, which means any alts parked nearby can loot it individually.

¹ It is entirely possible ArenaNet fixed this. I tried testing today, and it did not appear multiple log-ins caused the counter to increase immediately, like it did previously. Still, I have have a screenshot of our six-person guild’s Influence History tab which shows “7 members logged on for 70 Influence.” I’ll try and do additional testing in the next few days. The resource node/chest thing is 100% legit though.