I’m really not one to complain about server downtime in World of Warcraft. I truly do understand and sympathize with the networking engineers at Blizzard, who are dealing with problems of a scale no one has ever had to deal with before, in terms of having millions and millions of concurrent users in a real-time virtual environment.

But.

For the past three weeks, my guildies and I have been trying to do raids during the middle of the week. And each week, our very limited playtime has been compromised by server instability and lag that the game hasn’t seen since the very bad old days of late 2005.

And none of us is leaving for another game.

Why? It’s pretty simple. There’s nothing better and more stable. And it really cheeses me off that Blizzard can know that it has all the time in the world to fix these kinds of problems, because they really aren’t going to lose customers to such an extent that quality of service becomes a priority for them.

I wish they wanted to be better, not just be the best.

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This is a spectacularly good post by Ixobelle, to which I will add only one thing.

A book I’m reading discusses the biology of the brain’s sensation of joy. It presents evidence that — like the joyful release at the end of a good joke, or a mystery novel — the brain requires suspense, even a bit of fear, in order to experience the release of joy. The formula is something like “familiar experience + unexpected suspense + overcoming challenge = joy.”

It’s why I enjoy unpredictable fights in World of Warcraft — including the new Faction Champions fight, one of my favorites — more than any other content.

Anyhow:  Ixobelle: Pattern Recognition in Humans (…with applications in MMOs).

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.

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.

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.

Keep track of everything.Raiding successfully in World of Warcraft, at the very highest end of the progression range, requires the use of mathematical skills many of us haven’t used since high school.

Then why can’t the makers of the game accept this and incorporate it better into the game?

To step back and explain:

Web sites, even open-source software, do a flourishing trade in parsing logs to show precisely who damaged what for how much, and who died from what, and when bosses cast what abilities to what effect.

If you’ve not raided in WoW, suffice it to say that the game, as shipped, is insufficient to complete the content contained therein. I’m not even talking about UI mods or boss timers. I mean strictly the external software that parses combat logs. In order to succeed at raid content, you’re virtually required to use software that is not in the box to even know what is going on in a given fight. Rog once referred to WoW raiding as World of Excelcraft. I wouldn’t go that far, but then again, I don’t mind spreadsheets.

I’m as guilty as anyone else; my raid group uses StasisCL parses, and they’re fantastic. But I actually _like_ combing through neatly ordered rows and columns of data to try to parse out a story. When I was a newspaper reporter, one of the best skills I had was being able to read a municipal budget and quickly figure out what the story to be told was.

But should a game that we pay money for require us to comb through spreadsheets like an accountant? Bliz has done a great job of incorporating popular UI mods into the default UI. The game now features a built in threat meter, quest helper mod (coming in 3.2) and raid warnings — none of which were available in the vanilla WoW UI.

It’s easy to say that encounter design shouldn’t tune encounters such that minute parsing of combat data is required. And with WoW’s current multi-mode raiding, where bosses have easy and hard modes, it often isn’t. But for the most challenging raid content, it still is, and I don’t see any way to tune encounters to multiple difficulties and be faced with players wanting as much data as possible at their command.

Shouldn’t the game provide a built-in combat log parser, too?

People are failing to grasp how revolutionary the change that Blizzard is putting in place with 3.2 instance timers for WoW is.

Read the text:

Unless you're fighting fascism, you're not in a hurry.

In the next patch a new feature will be become available that will give players the option to extend the instance lock, or instance ID of a raid or heroic dungeon.

It will be possible to extend an instance lock more than once and each extension will grant an additional amount of time equal to the duration of the original instance lock. In other words, you’d gain 24-hours if you chose to extend the instance lock of a heroic dungeon, whereas you’d gain 7-days by extending the lock on Ulduar. Additionally, extending an instance lock is a choice that’s solely up to each individual, and is not controlled by the group’s party or raid leader.

That means if your guild is working on, say, Yogg-Saron (as mine is, in point of fact), you can choose either to let the instance roll over and hit the farm bosses again the next week, or keep the timer alive and work on Yogg-Saron for as long as you want.

The difference between this and, say, Everquest 2’s system is that there is no forced reset. In the current PTR iteration, the instance can be prolonged indefinitely.

This effectively makes all farm content optional, at least until you’ve fully cleared the instance the first time. Raiders are now free to pursue progression at their own pace, without feeling time’s winged chariot at their heels.

Patch 3.2’s raid extension feature clarified.