Friday, August 19, 2011

No heals for you

So, last post about Guild Wars, I said I'd write about some of the reasons I'm hanging out for Guild Wars 2.

I'll start with a link to an article ArenaNet published about a year ago: "A New Way of Looking at Healing and Death". This, probably more than anything else, was instrumental to capturing my interest (bearing in mind that when I first read this, I had never played Guild Wars). In particular, the second half, where designer Jon Peters explains why GW2 does not feature the dedicated healing and tanking classes of the traditional MMORPG trinity.

Now, let me preface this by saying that I played a healer for years in WoW, and loved it. During Burning Crusade, I decided to switch mains from my original rogue (created on release day) to my priest, and I never looked back. Peters gives an interesting description of the appeal of heals:

"It's not about clicking on a health bar and watching it go up, it's about being there for your friends when they need you"

That's what I was after. Having raided as a rogue for a couple of years, I yearned for a position of responsibility. I wanted to feel that I could make the difference between success and failure. Between the group wiping and me keeping them alive. Not between the group doing x dps and doing x+1000 dps.

Peters says "we don't like sitting around spamming 'looking for healer' to global chat". I'm sure dps players didn't like that. I didn't like having to call raids because I was there but no other healers were. I also didn't like it when I got benched because we had too many healers online that night! Granted, raiding was more flexible than 5-man instancing, where it really was "1 tank, 1 healer, 3 dps, or go home." But we still didn't have that much wiggle room.

The actual gameplay? The "clicking on a health bar and watching it go up"? That wasn't what I was there for. Don't get me wrong, playing reactively has an appeal over the pursuit of mechanical perfection involved in mastering your rotation as a rogue. But then I think about interrupting, as a rogue - a real high-pressure reactive role. Or playing a Guardian in LOTRO, where you have a raft of attacks that can only be performed following a successful block or parry. That sort of thing keeps you focused on the game, you don't need to be healing to be reactive.

Next thing on my mind: tanking and healing is a pretty weird implementation of heroic fantasy. I really can't think of tank and healer archetypes in the great works of fantasy. I felt far more like a fantasy hero playing Diablo 2 - slaughtering hordes of monsters before they could reach me and devour me, desperately running around to avoid Diablo's flames - than I did playing WoW, standing at the back of the group spamming heals. And if the trinity model doesn't really resemble classic fantasy, don't even get me started on Bioware's bizarre decision to try to bolt an EverQuest-style trinity class system onto Star Wars: The Old Republic. Yep, that's how I remember the Star Wars movies, lots of fights where an armoured rebel trooper stood in the front line, soaking up blaster fire, while a Jedi stood behind force-healing him. Ridiculous.

So, if Guild Wars 2 can deliver us fantasy action, where every player is trying to deal damage, whilst avoiding damage, interfering with the enemy via debuffs, interrupts and knockdowns, and performing a limited amount of healing, then I'll be ecstatic.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Irony of the day

In my post about Diablo 3's RMT auction house, I said "Just now I googled for 'Diablo 2 items' and straight away found many results, the top sponsored link selling various items for prices ranging from a buck or so to a staggering $100+ for some items!"

Today I noticed that Google AdSense was serving up ads for that very website on my blog, obviously I triggered keywords with phrases like "Diablo 2 items" and "buying stuff".

Anyway, I have added them to my AdSense filter list, so they shouldn't be back. While I'm very curious to see how things work out in Diablo 3, I don't endorse real-money trading in violation of a game's T&Cs, so I don't want ads to Diablo 2 itemsellers on my blog. They can join the long list of WoW goldsellers and powerlevellers that I've had to block.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A funny thing occurred to me about Guild Wars..

One of the main driving factors behind me deciding to check out Guild Wars a couple of months ago was that I was liking so much of what I was hearing about the upcoming Guild Wars 2, and thus thought it made sense to try the original game.

And, as I said in that previous blog post, I'm enjoying it very much.

But the funny thing is, a couple of the elements I find most interesting in Guild Wars are going away in the sequel. This isn't necessarily a huge problem, since the sequel is also promising some very cool new ideas.

The huge one, obviously, is the departure from the "heroes & henchmen" model. I have played Guild Wars 100% solo, never grouped with another human in the two months I've been playing. I guess I've been treating it like Diablo 2 - a solo game which can be played online to give the opportunity to trade with other people. This is certainly not the only way to play, and the hardest areas of the game were surely not designed to be played this way (although there is an active community dedicated to doing so, as can be seen in guides like Completing the Underworld with Heroes). But it is what made GW different, for me, after so much time spent playing traditional "solo content / group content" games like WoW and LOTRO.

Guild Wars 2 takes a much more traditional approach. You play a character. No henchmen, no heroes, if you don't want to be alone you can either play with other people or play a ranger so you at least have a pet. And there is traditional group content in the form of dungeons: "Unlike most of the rest of Tyria, which can be explored by solo players, dungeons are designed to be played and enjoyed in pre-arranged groups, composed of either your regular guildies or a pick-up team".

Actually, an equally huge change is going from the lobby & instance model of Guild Wars to a true persistent world. But the instancing isn't one of the things I find interesting about GW. Well, it allows some novel ideas, like "vanquishing" (the achievement of killing every single monster in a zone in hardmode), which really couldn't work in a massively multiplayer persistent world, but really, it's hard to argue that this change will lose more than it gains.

I also really like the fact that GW has quite a horizontal character development model. Getting to the maximum level, 20, really doesn't take that long. There's no real gear grind for powerful weapons and armour. Progression from level 20 is mostly about making yourself and your team more and more flexible, collecting more and more skills and getting all the heroes in the game recruited, so you've got more options when it comes to arranging your build.

We don't have full details about how GW2 will work yet, but the level cap is apparently 80, which sounds like a large and imposing number. Apparently the time to level should be quite flat and not exceed 90 minutes, but even so, that could be 100+ hours of play to level cap. I guess that's shorter than some MMOs, but longer than Guild Wars. Will there be gear progression? I've read that "equipment will be a more significant part of PvE and World PvP gameplay" but that doesn't necessarily mean a full WoW-style ilvl progression.

Also, it sounds like skill combinations are going to be a lot more constrained in GW2. My GW necromancer, for instance, could choose one of 35 elite skills, and then seven of well over 100 other skills. Sounds like a lot of combinations? Well, on top of that he can pick one of nine secondary classes, and pull in skills from that class too. Or take up to three PvE-only skills from the dozens available from various factions. The combinations are, effectively, infinite. GW2 apparently condenses your options from an elite and 7 others down to an elite, a heal, and 3 others, with your other skills being determined by your weapon type. And the full skill list will be shorter, although no doubt future expansion will add more, just as each campaign and expansion has added more skills to Guild Wars.

This is probably sensible. I don't think anyone would claim GW necros had 35 useful elite skills, or 100+ useful non-elites. Nor would they say that there weren't genuine balancing nightmares in a game with so many skills. A "quality over quantity" approach is what I'd aim for if I was a developer. But I can't deny that I expect a frisson of disappointment at the shorter list of skills.

I hope this isn't all coming across as too negative about Guild Wars 2. I'm not intending to be - I'm extremely excited about it. Next post I'll write about some of the things that have me salivating with anticipation.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Six years late to the party, but it's still going off

April 28th, 2005. Guild Wars launches, to a pretty positive critical reaction, and sells a bunch of copies. Two stand-alone campaigns and an expansion pack follow, and a loyal fanbase is established.

June 3rd, 2011. After hearing people say "you know, this game is pretty good" for more than six years, I play Guild Wars for the first time.

A bit of LOTRO ennui and a couple of disappointing free-to-play titles, combined with a rising tide of hype about the upcoming Guild Wars 2, led to me finally succumbing to the ever-present background buzz of Guild Wars fans and installing the free trial. It's quite a limited trial - I thought it was a traditional "two weeks" but it actually also has a 10 hour playtime limit. Luckily for them, 10 hours was more than enough to persuade me to open my wallet.

And for the two months since then, I've been well and truly hooked and playing quite heavily, as well as browsing the forums and blogs, theorycrafting, doing all the stuff you do when you get hooked on a game. There's a lot to like about Guild Wars, here are some of the main things that have kept me happy.

It's cheap as

Guild Wars, not exactly being new anymore, is now pretty damn cheap. And if you have a currency as strong as the Australian dollar, it's even cheaper. The Trilogy pack and the Eye Of The North expansion, all up, cost me the princely sum of A$34.47. And of course, as the fans will constantly remind you, Guild Wars is B2P - "buy to play." Once you've bought it, there is no ongoing subscription. There is a cash shop with some conveniences like increased storage space and more character slots, plus cosmetic outfits, but it's not something I feel pressured to spend money on.

I love the solo player plus team game style

One of the things I really liked about Atlantica Online was the concept of controlling your main character, plus a team of NPCs. And I really like running a team of eight, myself plus seven heroes, in Guild Wars as well. Apparently being able to fully customize your team was a fairly recent addition to the game, previously you could only have three heroes and four "henchmen", whose gear and skills you could not customize. So I'm glad I came along when I did.

Like Atlantica, the strategy of team building is a huge part of the game. Picking your heroes, collecting the necessary skills to give each of them a good build, arming them - it's a great meta-game. And given the quickly-reached level cap and deliberate lack of any real gear curve, this strategy is by far the main determinant of how powerful you are, making for a very skill-based rather than grind-based progression model.

I love the fact that there's actual difficulty for the solo player

In far too many MMOs, solo play is simply a "time invested = rewards" formula, while actually difficult content, where you will fail if you're not good enough, is reserved for group play. When I was last playing WoW, my guild was progressing through the tier 11 raid content, which was sweetly tuned and really chafed our asses to the point where our final victory over Nef, after a number of weeks of attempts, was delicious. At the same time, I was levelling a worgen alt - going through Kalimdor from level 1 to 60, my only two deaths were both from falling when I over-enthusiastically took shortcuts down cliffs. At no point in those 60 levels was I ever in the remotest danger of dying due to enemy action.

Playing through Guild Wars, currently I have completed the Prophecies and EOTN storylines in normal mode, along with most of Factions, and done some missions and vanquishes in hardmode. There have been missions that I wiped and failed. There have been dungeons that reduced me to graveyard-zerging with maximum death penalty. There have been vanquishes that ended in tears as I hit max death penalty and got kicked out.

I have a list of things that I have tried and failed, that I am mulling over tactics for, ready for fresh attempts.

This is awesome. Especially since, as I said earlier, there is no real gear curve - if you fail, you need to adjust your build, adjust your tactics, and try again. Can't outlevel and outgear the challenge.

It's an achiever's paradise

I've definitely got a bit of an achiever-type personality, and Guild Wars offers an enormous amount of achievements to pursue. Complete every mission. With bonus objectives. In hard mode. Vanquish every zone. Map every zone. Collect every skill. Open vast numbers of chests. Max out reputations. Collect prestige armour and rare weapons. Collect miniatures. It's crazy! And the Hall of Monuments is a genius idea to get current players excited about doing all this stuff, in order to earn cosmetic rewards for Guild Wars 2 (I'm up to 10 points out of a possible 50 now).

I can see that it would take a long time to get to a point where you'd say "I have nothing to do." And if you stop playing for a while to play something else, no big deal, since it's buy-to-play, you can come back whenever and there's still an endless list of things to achieve!

Yep, I'm more pleased with this purchase than any game in quite a while, and definitely foresee myself playing for a fair while. And Guild Wars 2 is definitely now top of my list of upcoming titles I'm following with interest.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

That is quite a treasure you have there in that Horadric Cube

I have been an avid gamer all my life, but as a gamer, I have been almost entirely focused on MMOs for something like seven years now. Right from the first day I played Horizons (and what a poor first MMO that was!), I've been hooked by the online worlds. Not long after that, World of Warcraft launched, and any chance of this interest not sticking was gone. WoW is the MMO that I have spent by far the most time playing, starting on release day in November 2004, although my subscription has been off and on as I have taken a number of lengthy breaks in between expansions.

But before I encountered a massively multiplayer game for the first time, my consuming obsession was Diablo 2. I played it a lot. Single-player, multiplayer, softcore, hardcore. I theorycrafted builds, pored over drop rates, did my own parsing of the game's datafiles, wrote some tools, all sorts of stuff. I was a serious D2'er for a couple of years there. So, needless to say, I've been quite keenly anticipating the upcoming release of Diablo 3.

And last night, wow, what a bombshell of a news release there was, in the form of Blizzard's announcement that D3 would have an auction house where items can be bought and sold both for in-game gold, and for real cash.

While goldbuying is a scourge of modern MMOs, the black market in D2 was all about selling items directly. Back in the day, before Blizzard cracked down, you could search on eBay and find all manner of items for sale. Once that avenue was closed, RMT went to the same sort of sites as currently sell MMO currency. Just now I googled for "Diablo 2 items" and straight away found many results, the top sponsored link selling various items for prices ranging from a buck or so to a staggering $100+ for some items!

So given this market, Blizzard have decided to take a leaf from Sony's Station Exchange, enable and moderate the trade themselves, and - of course - take a little cut from each listing. Now that's a fascinating idea for a revenue stream other than the currently common subscription and cash shop models!

Here's why I think this idea will be popular

Diablo 2 was the ultimate casino game. WoW pales in comparison. You kill a boss in WoW, you know he's going to drop, say, two epics from a table of 10 possible drops. Kill anything in D2 and it could drop anything. In the highest level zones, literally any mob can drop any of the most valuable items in the game. Sure the odds might be millions to one against, but yes, that imp could drop a Zod rune.

And on top of that, the stats on the items were random too. Sometimes to variations were minor - the much-loved Windforce bow only had one variable stat, 6-8% mana leech. One in three chance that when one dropped it would have 8%, and be "perfect". But The Grandfather had 150%-250% increased damage - a massively important stat, and the odds were 100:1 against getting a perfect one. That's if you ever saw one drop. Elite uniques like that were extremely rare to start with.

So if D3 follows a similar pattern, I expect to see perfect instances of rare items sell for large sums of money. Which means that every time you play, it will be like being given a lottery ticket. When any piece of loot that drops could be a perfect elite unique that sells for serious cash, you better believe killing bosses will get your pulse racing.

Here's why I think this idea is cool

Obviously, "subscription vs. free-to-play" has been the debate of the last year or two in the MMO world. I've had a lot of fun with free-to-play MMOs such as Atlantica, and with subscription-turned-F2P games like LOTRO. But one thing that has always bothered me is that in a subscription game, the developer and you are partners. They want to entertain you enough that you'll keep playing and keep paying, and you want them to entertain you because, well, that's what games are for.

But in a F2P game - the developer wants to entertain you, sure. But just keeping you playing is not enough. They need to keep you paying, too. And therein lies conflict between player and developer. They need to make playing totally for free kind of frustrating. They need to make you wish that you could be more powerful, or less restricted.

This is the point where someone usually says "why aren't there more buy-to-play games like Guild Wars?" And sure, as a gamer, that's great, but it's tough for a developer to provide ongoing support and content without a revenue stream.

This auction house idea? It has the potential to make the game generate a massive revenue stream for Blizzard, whilst the players can buy the box and play for free. Or, they can buy the box and then spend a fortune buying stuff from other players. Or, they can buy the box and then recoup the money farming and selling. But the relationship between Blizzard and the players is once again one of "we need to keep you having fun so you keep playing."

Here's why this idea worries me

Diablo 2 was always something of a cheat's paradise. Maphacks, teleport hacks, townkill hacks, duping.. it had the lot. And WoW also has had no shortage of teleport hacking, with all the underground miners and so on you see about the place.

Combine that with the amount of account hacking going on these days. Everyone knows people who have had their accounts jacked. I get dozens of spam emails every week trying to phish for my WoW login.

Now combine all of the above with a means to cash out ill-gotten gains with Blizzard not only facilitating it, but profiting from it! And good luck relying on your players to report cheats if the game is instance-based rather than persistent world, and thus none of your honest players are ever in the same gameworld as tele-hacking farmers.

I'd like to think Blizzard have the ability to counter all this, but honestly, I'm not sure they do.