Thursday, November 20, 2008

It's not you, it's... actually no, it is you.

As I have been progressing through Tier 4 in Warhammer and participating in some of the "end-game" battles for Keeps, I have slowly been coming to a disturbing conclusion:

Warhammer peaked for me back in Tier 3.

At the moment, Tier 4 definitely feels like a grind. On the surface, it's the PQs, PvE quests and Scenarios that I am finding tiresome. But if I look a bit beneath the surface, I think what is REALLY bothering me is that now that I am catching glimpses of the "end-game" I am finding it lame and unfufilling.

MMOs and the "end-game"
MMO bloggers and forum posters both talk a lot about the "end-game" of an MMO. We write about how long it takes to get to end-game and the quality of the "end-game" but we never really talk about why the "end-game" is important to us. An outside observer might even ask why MMOs even need to have an end-game?

The secret MMO players don't want to admit to is that we like to get "hooked" by a game. Whether you are playing a video game, watching a movie or reading a book -- we all love to become so enthralled with our entertainment that it gives us a sense of "being there" in the moment.

In fact, I would argue that, almost by definition, all entertainment is a form of escapism which allows us to immerse ourselves in diversions away from unpleasant realities.

Of course, the problem with reading a good book or watching a good movie is that eventually it ends. But MMOs are different.

Instead of an MMO ending, it just transitions us to something else. A new game that is only playable by people who have finished the original game. A game that allows us to continue what was started (albeit at a much slower pace).

It's like finishing a great book and instead of being sad the book is over, discovering that author wrote another trilogy about the same characters.

The true success of an MMO isn't measured by innovative gameplay but by the number of subscribers and longevity of their subscription. We write and talk about how we want to see all this nifty innovation but what we really want is something that is just fun to play over and over and over again.

My take on WAR "end-game"
In almost every way, the game you play at Tier 1 is the same game that you play at Tier 4. Oh sure, there is MORE of it, but the fundamentals of the gameplay are exactly the same. You can PvP in either open world RvR (oRvR) objectives or through Scenarios.

I'll ignore concerns about population balance and such in oRvR for the moment. I've been fortunate enough to land on a server where oRvR was not a ghost town. In fact, it's quite the opposite in Tier 4 in the evenings. There are certainly issues here, but let's presume for a moment that it's not the game breaker.

Scenarios are fun (and rewarding) but they lack much in the way of purpose beyond leveling Career and Renown Ranks. They might contribute to Zone control, but the result of a single Scenario win is not noticeable. Heck, the result of a dozen wins doesn't even seem noticable.

oRvR is noticeable. Taking keeps, and battle objectives is clearly shown on the zone map and is obvious. So OK -- the zone is controlled. And...? There is still no real purpose to any of it and certainly little in the way of personal rewards or sense of achievements.

In theory, if one side is really dominant over the other side, then they can attack a City and all this cool stuff happens. But uh.. the problem with that logic is that it means one side needs to get trounced. So either you a) have no opposition and can assault a City with little opposition, or b) you have good opposition and end up in some stalemate unable to get to the City "end-game".

So in reality, the only options left to you in Tier 4 are the same exact ones that are open to you at Tier 3. You can do Scenarios or you can attack/defend Keeps and Battlefield Objectives. Don't get me wrong, these are fun enough but they lack purpose.

I don't know what the solution is, but all I can say is that Mythic really needs to do something in order to make this "end-game" feel more meaningful. Or maybe it just would have felt more meaningful if Tier2 and Tier3 didn't have keeps too.

Crashes to Desktop
I crash at least once every hour of gameplay. With load-times and such, it can take me 5 to 6 minutes to load the game back up. If it happens during a PQ, I lose all my contribution points. if it happens during a Scenario, I am no longer in it when I log back in.

I would call these crashes "livable" but highly frustrating. Ironically, I had less of them in beta and a couple of weeks after launch.

Up until now, I have adopted a "well, it just launched" attitude to the crashes. But with the next major game update on it's way, I just don't think they are as focused on improving that part of the game.

Temporarily canceling Warhammer
My next billing cycle was 11/17 and I made the decision to play Wrath instead of WAR for a bit until they address some of these issues.

This is not a goodbye forever thing, just a goodbye for now thing. It's not a bad breakup, just a maybe we should start seeing other people breakup.

WAR is a good game, an innovative game, and a fun game. It's just not a game I feel like playing over and over and over at the moment.

I'll likely be posting some comparison thoughts between Wrath and WAR over the next few days. I have some good/bad thoughts about both games. And since I swore up and down I wouldn't play Wrath, perhaps I should mention start by talking about that first.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

WAR: An incentive problem

Bloggers like to talk about the "incentive" or "reward" in an MMO because they have significant influence on player behavior.

At launch and during Open Beta, I commented several times that one of the things I really appreciated about Mythic's approach to incentives is that everything you do gives a reward. The theory being that if everything you do can provide a reward, then people will be more inclined to choose the "fun" thing over the "rewarding" thing.

The easiest path
Of course, MMO players also generally prefer the path of least resistance. So while the Mythic approach seems to help players avoid the "unfun" things, all things are not so perfectly balanced that the amount of effort required to achieve each reward is exactly equal.

We see the net result of these inequalities by player preferences. The most obvious one was that players were choosing Scenarios as the primary method of leveling. My take on this issue a month or so ago was that this was because Scenarios were the only activity that earned you both XP and Renown.

Mythic's answer to this problem was to increase the reward of World RvR objectives and World RvR player kills. This is a step in the right direction, but it also seems incomplete.

Renown Rank is more difficult
Syncaine noted today that his RR is nine levels lower than his Career Rank. As I pointed out in his comments, the problem is that he will likely outlevel the gear he wants that requires a higher Renown Rank by the time he achieves the required Renown level.

The issue for Syncaine is that he spent most of his time leveling in other ways, primarily PQs and quests. It seems asinine that he is effectively being PUNISHED for not leveling through Scenarios.

The Renown Rank cap
This is rarely talked about, but until you hit Rank 40, Renown Rank is actually capped and can't exceed your current Rank. In other words, if your Rank is 10 then you can't ding Renown Rank 11 until after you achieve Career Rank 11.

We don't ever talk about this cap because it's largely irrelevant after Tier 1. After all, if Renown Rank is more difficult to earn than Career Rank, how many people ever end up in a situation where this cap impacts them negatively.

And yet -- it does exist. We just don't care because we are never in a position where Renown is "wasted" because our Career Rank was too low.

This got me thinking: What would YOU do if your renown was capped?

If you were 99% into RR 21 and you were only 25% into Career Rank 21, what would you do knowing that earning additional rewnown is simply wasted?

Would you still play Scenarios?

I know I wouldn't play Scenarios. I would go quest or do PQs for gear until I dinged another level. A lot of the "incentive" for participating in the Scenario would simply disappear for me.

Lowering amount of Renown to level RR
I can absolutely understand why RR should go slow in T4. The pacing for RR should be slow, particularly after rank 40.

But when I think about Syncaine's situation and how my own behavior would change if I were RR capped, then I can't help but think that the best solution would be to lower the amount of Renown points required to level Renown Ranks 1 to 35.

If we reduce the amount of points, this means that players would need to participate in less Scenarios in order to rank Renown. This puts more players out in the world for PQs, dungeons and quests.

It also gives someone like Syncaine the opportunity to "catch up" his Renown Rank in a reasonable and timely manner.

World RvR
The counter argument is that this could dis-incentivize Keep Sieges and Battlefield Objectives.

I would disagree.

I actually think that people would be MORE inclined to take Keeps and BOs at the lower tiers if they knew that they could level Renown Rank that way fairly quickly.

In other words, right now it's pretty impractical to spend a night taking BOs and level up RR much. But if it were possible to gain a RR or two in a few hours of taking BOs -- then that becomes much more attractive.

Or at the very least, it's not less attractive than what currently exists.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Death of a WAR Server

There are a number of subjects I could write about today. I could write about WAR patch 1.05 and how it appears to be increasing the damage dealt by all classes across the board while simultaneously nerfing healing. Or I could write about the trials and tribulations of the server migration that took place for my guild earlier this week. In fact, I had a quite lengthy post planned on that subject for today except something else occurred last night that trumped pretty much any other subject for me.

Large scale RvR in Warhammer Online fails. It fails hard and it fails for exactly the reason you would think it would fail when several hundred people all show up in the same place. The server can’t handle it.

A little background information is required
On my old server, Eerie Downs, we were a low pop/med pop community. The interesting thing was that while Order was low pop, we owned everything in T3 and T4. In fact, it was actually a bit frustrating because our guild could never really form up a Warband to take anything because we owned everything – pretty much all the time.

I’d like to claim responsibility, but I can’t. The reason we owned everything was because of the Hate guild. These guys are organized and every single one of them is a vetted out player that goes through a lengthy application process. They are not a big guild, just a damn good guild. Formed back in the EQ days, they have stuck together through several MMOs.

You would expect the Destro to hate an Order guild that was that good (and arrogant) but the surprising thing was how many other Order guilds disliked them. Partly out of jealousy, but also out of the type of frustration that comes from what amounts to a one-sided battle with no objectives to take.

Server transfer shatters Eerie Downs community
When the free transfer struck our realm, Eerie Downs players were faced with two choices: Praag or Hochland. But the bigger question for most guilds (Destro and Order both) was where was Hate going to go? Guild and players who disliked Hate wanted to transfer away from them and those that liked Hate wanted to follow. Once they made the decision, everything else fell into place like dominos.

Hate decided on Hochland. Almost without exception, every single Destro guild chose Praag and every Order guild who disliked Hate also left to Praag. Our guild was pro-Hate and the idea of an organized Destro and organized Order guild facing off against each other just had too much appeal to ignore. The potential for epic battles was just too good an opportunity to pass up and considering that we had some friends in Hate already it only made sense to transfer to Hochland.

The existing Hochland community was described as the polar opposite of Eerie Downs: Destruction owned everything and was dominated by one or two organized Destro guilds. The largest and most dominant of which was a Destro guild named Ruin. The Ruin guild was described as a Zerg guild because of the sheer number of members, but they put together a good argument for how they like strategy that convinced Hate there might be more to them than just a zerg. Ultimately, they threw down a challenge to Hate who ultimately accepted it.

The most surreal thing about the transfer is how much the Hochland players courted the Eerie Downs players for transfers. A good Order guild is a hot commodity and the large Destro guilds on Hochland were desperate for a guild that could offer some challenge. Likewise, the Order guilds on Hochland were also desperate for a good Order guild because they were tired of being constantly beaten down.

Hate meets Ruin
The first couple of encounters between Ruin and Hate were interesting. On Eerie Downs, Hate didn’t have an alliance. They didn’t need one. They are extremely organized, they scout, they flank, and they hit objectives fast and hard.

Whenever Hate ran across Ruin in 2:1 or lower numbers, they trounced them. They took and held most of the objectives they were after and then Ruin started overwhelming them. Hate has less than 100 members. Ruin has more than 300. Anything less than 2:1 odds and Hate whooped Ruin. But as the night went on, Ruin numbers started getting huge. Particularly as the other Destro guilds got into the act.

By night’s end, Destro had won the day and regained control of most of the lost objectives and keeps.

Epic fight brewing
The thing to remember is that unlike on Eerie Downs, almost every single Order guild on Hochland was thankful to have a guild like Hate as part of the community. Hate formed an alliance with several of the larger Order guilds. And those guilds told some other guilds. And those guilds told some other guilds.

Until last night – there were at least 200 to 300 Order players fighting for objectives. And an equal or greater number of Destruction. I didn’t play DAoC, but when I think large scale RvR – this was exactly the thing I am talking about.

And it wasn’t just a Zerg fest either – all very organized under Hate. Warbands (not parties – Warbands!) with assignments hitting multiple objectives, flanking, scouts positioned at intervals at various points of interest. All very very cool stuff, except for one little thing…

Epic failure
The forces of Order formed at the Dragonwake encampment. From there, some warbands attacked each of the two keeps. The largest force circled around the back of the second keep and waited for the outer doors to break down. Once they did, the remaining group stormed the inner doors and we quickly took the keep. Meanwhile, most of the destruction was defending the other keep.

After gaining control of the further away keep, we circled back to help finish taking the other keep. There was a massive group on both sides. All our forces converging on the doors – all their forces defending.

Sounds epic right?

Except it took me 20+ seconds to mount up when we left the taken keep. Oh and every spell I cast took that long to cast. No real way to tell how much health anyone had to heal either since that was also delayed. Oh – and then the server crashed as we approached the door of the second keep. And no one could log on for five minutes. And when we did log in, we were several minutes farther back then when the server crashed.

Epic failure part 2
And so we gave up on Dragonwake simply because that many people in a single location wouldn’t work. So we went to Praag and split up our forces into several groups. These mini-groups of 2-3 warbands each then proceeded to take objective after objective and keep after keep. Destruction also split up forces to counter the attacks but couldn’t keep up with our organization and multiple keep/objective attacks.

So Destruction regrouped back into a large single force and attacked the center objective in Praag (the Square). We remerged back into a big group and…

No not a server crash again. Just a complete inability to cast more than one spell every 10 seconds and roots that last four times longer than the intended durations. And not just me – everyone. And this is particularly problematic when people are trying to HEAL. Group heals were impossible on my Archmage.

The crazy thing is that it wasn’t animations or graphical lag as I would have expected. For example, I could move around fine – I would just see people who weren’t really there. Or after my casting animation would end, nothing would happen. I would summon my horse, see the casting bar end and then nothing. If I moved, I got an interrupted error. If I didn’t move, then 10 to 15 seconds AFTER the casting bar ended, I would mount up.

Pretty much the definition of server lag.

Biggest issue facing Warhammer
This is a huge problem that needs to be addressed. As it stands right now, RvR just isn’t intended for more than a couple of warbands fighting against each other. Age of Conan got a bunch of flak for similar complaints about their end-game and it was much deserved. And so is this.

In my mind, this trumps all other possible issues with Warhammer and they need to derive some type of solution. The sad thing is that there might not be a solution. As with all other problems in Warhammer, how do you control player behavior? I mean if word-of-mouth says that the fight is in Dragonhawk, how do you stop a 1000 people on each side from showing up?

The thing is – this is only going to get worse as this type of thing becomes the “end game” for Warhammer Online. Right now, lots of people are leveling and doing it primarily in instanced servers, PQs or solo quests. What happens when all these people show up for the WAR and the server crashes?