Southern Barrens

Rather than blather on about Cataclysm things people have already read about a million times, I thought i’d tap on some things people may have missed about Cataclysm that should be bigger news:

1. Character health levels from gear will be largely normalized, irrespective of class. This means that your healer may have close to as much health as your tank (though your tank may have more because of talents). Changing this will allow Blizzard to move fights away from the tank-healer-DPS holy trinity that requires 1 high-health person to absorb most of the damage for the group. It also gives them the freedom to improve creature AI and make PvE play a bit more like PvP play.

Furthermore, it moves Bliz closer to its stated goal of changing healing to be less reliant on pumping out big heals fast, monitoring every cooldown, and more on healing the right player at the right time.

2. “Gated, not grindy” is the new “bring the player, not the class.” Developer Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street first used this phrase last week to describe the new Path of the Titans alternate advancement scheme. Blizzard, he said, decided against adding 10 experience levels in order to take part of the “leveling up” process out of the hands of players who, he said, were racing through content very fast compared to others.

Five experience levels will still be able to be ground out, he said, but the new Path of the Titans system is intended partly to replace the other 5 levels they didn’t add — and the system won’t be the kind that you can grind out easily. Rather, he said, you’ll likely advance along the Path at a pretty measured rate, with upper bounds on how far along the alternate advancement scheme you can move.

He contrasted it with reputation grinds and experience grinds — specifically the notoriously unfun Sons of Hodir chain in Wrath.

How will “G not G” work? Will it work? Can anything stop people who are bound and determined to maximize their toon’s advancement?

3. The expansion will add 7 new zones to the game. OK, so this has been reported, but the focus on the old world makeover has left a lot of forum rats complaining that Blizzard hasn’t added new places to visit, which patently isn’t true. Wrath added 8 new zones. A steep dropoff this isn’t. Seven new zones in addition to an entirely new leveling progression and more max-level content than vanilla, BC or Wrath launched with.

4. Blizzard is taking raiders at their word. The biggest valid complaint of raiders in the past 2 expansions has been the slowish rate at which Blizzard releases raid content. It’s launching this expansion with 4 complete raid zones. They’ve also said every encounter will have optional hard modes.

Basically, with 3 and 4, Blizz is acknowledging that the game most people are paying to play now is pretty dramatically bifurcated — there are endgame players and there are leveling players. This expansion pack is designed to funnel content to those two groups.

Overall, I’m pretty happy about what i’ve heard. I have some concerns about the new guild leveling system. Blizz has been pretty hands-off about how guilds work in their game, and that’s let me make a guild the way I like it. Now that Blizz is imposing a structure on my guild that I didn’t create, I’m wondering how it will square with my guys’ goals. We’ll see.

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swtor trooper

I think Star Wars: The Old Republic may possibly be coming up with the best solution to a problem that has plagued a lot of MMOs before: How do you get players to tank and heal, when most of them just want to do damage?

(This is  a function of the Holy Trinity of tanking, healing and DPS, around which most crappy MMO AI and encounters are built.)

Take a look at the Sith Warrior, the latest class unveiled by Bioware in its glacially slow rollout of information about the game. Now, on background — all of the previous classes they’ve introduced have been pretty clearly damage-dealing classes: the Trooper, which uses heavy guns and armor; the Smuggler, a sort of stealth / ranged type; and the Bounty Hunter, a ranged damage dealer.

Now they’ve announced the Sith Warrior (note the two-word construction; strong indication there are other Sith playables planned), a heavy armor-wearing melee class with what appear to be tanking skills and limited crowd control abilities.

So let’s just put some lego pieces together here:

1) No healers or tanks had been announced previously.

2) No Jedi or Sith had been announced previously.

3) Four of eight classes as yet unrevealed.

4) Hints at more than one kind of class for Jedi or Sith.

To me, it seems like Bioware is using the “everyone will want to be a Jedi/Sith” problem to solve the “nobody wants to be a tank or healer” problem. Make Jedi and Sith tanks and healers. It’s quite ingenious, if that’s what they’re at.

So it’s another patch day in WoW. I’ve faced these in LOTRO and EQ2 and DDO, too.

You wait hours and hours to get the game back up only to finally log in moments before you have to go to bed, or whatever.

Wouldn’t it be neat if, during patch days, MMO companies could incorporate a minigame into their loader software? Imagine — you launch the Turbine launcher, or the Blizzard launcher, or the SoE station launcher, and it launches a minigame that lets you win, I dunno, buff food or something in game while you’re waiting for servers to get back up. Think of something like Legends of Norrath, but it could be as simple as something like Peggle. Just something to let you feel like you were progressing your character while the servers were down.

Hell, it could even be something as different as a web-based game like Kingdom of Loathing or Legends of Zork that only ran during times the servers were down. Could even offer special vanity prizes or something that were only obtainable if you played the minigames while servers were down.

I think what frustrates people about patch days is the sense that they’re missing out on time that they had planned to use achieving goals in-game. A game-tied minigame could help that.

Darth Chauncey Gardener.SW:ToR is a cipher onto which more than a few people are projecting their hopes for a post-WoW MMO marketplace. Bioware’s Blizzard-esque closed-mouthedness about the game allows people to pin their expectations on the game because so little concrete gameplay information is out there.

Reading the SW:ToR forums is a hoot. Galaxies veterans hope the game is a return to open-ended, crafter-friendly community-building. Hardcore raiders want the game to out-poopsock WoW; nonraiders want the game to be less raidy than WoW. Both sides argue in a state of blissful ignorance of any details of the max-level game. Some PvP veterans want it to be Eve with lightsabers. Holy Trinity? Yes? No? Both?

What am I getting at?

Without details about max-level play — about which we have near-zero information — it’s simply impossible to evaluate SW:ToR as an MMO, rather than as as one developer called it, a set of stand-alone KOTOR sequels. Given the emphasis on henchmen and presumed phasing/instancing, the leveling experience is virtually guaranteed to be soloable from start to max level. We haven’t heard anything at all about the elements of massive games that fundamentally make them massive — crafting, pve raid content, pvp, exploration, guild-building — except for developers busting out the old Prego slogan.

It’s a savvy marketing move, I guess. But in the end, Bioware is allowing people to believe things about its game that it knows aren’t true because there’s no upside in disabusing people of false hopes. It’s certainly a savvier move than past MMO developers have made, by actively hyping expectations or by overpromising and underdelivering.

Bioware says it’s gonna be revealing more at some conventions / industry gatherings in the coming weeks. That’s good. At some point, expectations have to come back down to earth. At some point, Bioware has to paint a clear picture of what this game expects out of players after the leveling dust clears and the max-level MMO content begins.

And at some point, SW:ToR stops being a cipher and starts being a game.

Ever get sick in your game of choice?I’ve been quite under the weather for almost a week now with an ailment — kidney stones — that periodically lays me low. Unlke a lot of people with long-term ailments, mine comes and goes with little or no warning and has little effect on me when it’s not kicking my kidney into the ground.
I recognize that it kind of flies in the face of the empowerment fantasies that most of us seek in massive games, but are there any MMOs that really try to incorporate illness as a gameplay mechanism? I don’t mean something as simple as a buff/ debuff system. I mean something that actually takes illness and tries to address it through gameplay? Something along the lines of Psychonauts, maybe?

For something that is a part of so many peoples’ lives, massive titles really don’t, I think, have a history of looking at disability and illness as something other than a punishment for non-optimal gameplay.

SW:ToR. Taking aim at the market?

So I’ve had a few days to let the new SW:ToR video sink into my head.

Initial impressions of things I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere else.

1) The UI seems designed primarily for widescreen aspect ratios, which I guess is a safe assumption these days. I know this was something of a big deal when Pirates of the Burning Sea did it a few years ago, but I suppose since 16:9 is sort of de rigeur these days, it makes sense.

2)  The game will be using “ranked” abilities in the traditional spell rank model used by EQ2 and WoW, which seems to imply it won’t be a “use it to rank up” feat-type system employed by LOTRO and other games. How can you tell? Look at the dialog boxes that pop up when the abilities are moused over. They’re in yellow over on the right of the screen. “Force Choke (Rank 1)” is one of them.

3)  The game uses the global cooldown model that WoW uses so successfully to create its pseudo realtime combat. How can you tell? Watch the abilities gray out with a little clock-hand wipe for about a second after they’re used. I’m a fan of WoW’s combat, so I think this is probably a “good thing.” I tend to get frustrated with combat systems that involve queueing attacks up or mashing a button repeatedly until a slow attack is off cooldown.

4) The dialogue, while amazingly well recorded, doesn’t lend itself to repeatable content. Strictly speaking, Everquest 2 is a (nearly) fully voiced MMO (if you download the optional quest voiceovers), but honestly it becomes rather tedious to listen to a quest giver go on for a paragraph and a half every time you talk to them. I loved KOTOR, but after a while, I would skip the line readings and just scan the subtitled version, and I can’t imagine doing any different in an MMO. I like voice, and I think it adds immersion, but I’m worried it’s a lot of effort for something most people will skip most of the time.

5)  Targeting and ability use is also in the WoW / EQ model of tab it and fire an ability, and nothing revolutionary along the lines of Age of Conan’s swing system or Tabula Rasa’s pseudo-shooter combat. Again, fine by me, but I like a lot of WoW’s systems.

6)  Speaking of aping WoW, check this out. Near the end of the clip, there’s a Sith player character doing some combat against some Republic troopers. Now, in a previous IGN interview, SW:ToR developers have said that Sith and Jedi will use energy / combo point based systems, not unlike WoW rogues.  Well, check out the Sith player’s unit frame — a little slowly ticking upward energy / combo point bar, again strictly in keeping with WoW practices (though employed elsewhere, to be sure.)

What am I driving at with these observations? Simple — I think the Bioware folks have very deliberately tailored their game expecting WoW players to want to be comfortable. They appear to be gearing up for an Apple-style “switcher” campaign: Our game has everything you love about WoW, plus you can force choke.

I could be wrong, and I know that will peeve the hell out of some of the more virulently anti-WoW folks out there, but it really seems clear to me.

Ever wonder why players get mad at each other in raids? Melvin Konner’s book, “The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on Human Nature” gave me an idea.

A large number of experiments have shown that pain, irritation, frustration, and fear increase the likelihood of aggression in a wide variety of situations in animals and humans — confirmations of the “frustration-aggression hypothesis.” … For example, two rats are placed near each other on an electrified grid and shocked; one typical response is to attack each other, particularly if both are males. In other experiments, pain is not directly involved, but motivational behavior of various sorts is aroused in the animal and then deliberately frustrated. This situation also typically increases the likelihood of aggressive behavior.