MMO Data Analysis

This post stems from Syl’s recent rant on games giving (or trying to give) players what they want.  I feel a lot of empathy for the position.  There’s a lot to be said of EQ and the stubbornness of the design but you really have to give Verant credit at the time, what with sticking to their “vision”.  On a side note, it appears that vision isn’t enough to get Pantheon going.

I’m a data analyst by training and a project integrator by career.  That means I take a bunch of numbers and stats from a given system, analyse and interpret them, then assist in the design of a new system and then finally help the end users with transition to the new stuff.  I live in a world of numbers, patterns and statistics.

Systems, just like games, are for the most part a black box design.  You know what goes in and what comes out but the inner workings are a mystery.  From the outside, you can’t see the system interdependencies.  All you see is that if you put in X, then Y comes out.  Theorycrafters (of which I did a bit of in WoW and a lot of in SWTOR) try a ton of mathematics to reverse engineer a blackbox.  This is well under 0.01% of the game population though.  Other people may use the spreadsheet generated by the theorycrafter but next to no one mucks with the code.

As a general rule, MMO players are horrible designers.  By and large, they are sheep who follow the sparkly path.  They like the black box and that when they press a button they get some fancy graphics.  If you give a player a choice between a high risk, high reward activity and a low risk, low reward in nearly all cases they take the easy road and just repeat is ad-nausea.  It isn’t that the design for the high risk is bad, it’s that human nature is risk-averse.  We don’t go around kissing spiders after all.

A MMO designer has a ton of metrics generated from the game from all sorts of venues.  Heat maps, activity counters, percentage of completion, distance traveled and many more.  Each individual piece says something but given that MMOs are such massively complex beasts, you’re missing the context of the data.  WoW’s Firelands tier of Cataclysm raiding had less than 1% completion rate on heroic, under 10% on normal.  That would be a red flag and you’d look at raiding numbers.  Is it because the raids are too hard?  Not enough people?  Gating is too complex?  Not enough gear?  The raid isn’t rewarding enough?  Other competing activities are more engaging?  Each one of those questions has numbers but it take a pretty bright person to find the links between them.

So as a player, what can you really do about this?  Posting on official forums is often times useless as the din of the dumb is much too loud.  A decent developer instead keeps track of fan site message boards, which usually attract people with a vested interest in the game in that you can better communicate with context.  You can start a blog on the game and start some further discussion (I still rank exceptionally high for Neverwinter).  You can “vote with your wallet” but moving your expenses from a game you don’t like to a game you do.  99% of the time when you quit a game today, there’s an exit interview where you can explain the position.  I know from personal experience that those questionnaires are highly valued as it’s much easier to get an old player back than a new player in.

There’s an old adage that goes if you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one.  Games that lose their focus on their core end up in this bucket.  It’s rare to find a game that is drastically flawed from the start.  If you’re playing the long game then you need to start small and get bigger – please a few and convert some later.  If you’re playing a short game, then you want a flash in the pan. Of course, there’s always the split between planning and reality…

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ESO – Level 19

I clearly remember Age of Conan and Tortage.  This opening zone, from 1-20 or so, was full of voice acting, quality build and was an amazing experience.  Once you left Tortage though, the game turned to a separate beast.  No voice acting at all, huge balance issues, bugs everywhere and next to impossible to progress without future balance changes.

ESO is an interesting beast in that the quality of the content remains solid so far but the bugs are getting absolutely ridiculous.

bug1

As a Templar, the above bug happens every 10 minutes or so.  My weapon gets replaced with a spear graphic, from one of my attacks.  It sticks around for 2 minutes or so, prevents me from sprinting, looting or interacting.  /reloadui has been used more often than some of my skills.  Some quest markers won’t show – /reloadui.  Stuck in a wall, /reloadui.  It’s buggy to a point where I would quit out of frustration but the rest of the game has such good stuff I keep on trucking.

Don’t get me wrong now, the content that’s behind these bugs is fun, if more sparse.  If the first zone could be considered 100% full, then the next one is about 60% full.

trollWhen I tried to finish off the first zone, and it’s dungeon, I hit a “known” bug.  This is one where the first part of the quest has 3 types of failures – either the object doesn’t show, the scene doesn’t trigger or a party member can’t progress.  Our group hit all of those bugs, multiple times.  After all that, we decided to take a trip in the dungeon and everything was ok but the last boss, who requires the quest I guess since he never spawned.

I’ve run dungeons hundreds of times.  ESO uses a trinity with wonky mechanics.  Taunt works fine, I guess but the concept of threat doesn’t.  It’s kind of like GW2 I guess.  Bosses themselves are either bugged or badly balanced.  One boss, a lizard-type, has an instant charge on a random player with no animation or warning.  This charge takes them to 10% life, then applies a DoT over 3 seconds that kills them unless you hit the enemy.  Think about that a second.  Without warning, an enemy will drop on a party member and kill them in 3 seconds unless you can find them and hit them.  In a game where you aim with the mouse, not TAB.

The third issue I have is crafting materials.  I craft as a Blacksmith and an Enchanter.  My bank has nothing but crafting materials and it’s full.  My bags are full of material.  I spend way too much time mailing stuff to mules.  Way too much.

I’m going to honest.  MMOs need a few months of beta testing simply to polish and bug test.  ESO doesn’t really appear to have done much of that.  An end-game bug that prevents people from seeing any end-game content?  How is that even possible?  The content is superb and I am enjoying myself.  But wow, there are some real headscratchers in here.

 

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ESO – Update level 16

Coming from a gamer who typically hits max level in week 2 of a launch, my progress vertically has been stunted. That’s a good thing.

Rohan, back after hiatus, has a similar outlook on the game as I do. It’s an interesting game that’s hard to classify. Not exceptional but curious, which may be enough. It’s enough for TSW right?

Anyways, my goal in ESO right now is map completion. The compass indicated black/hollow icons if I get close enough and I can’t stand it. Caves/tombs have skyshards, quests and rare enemies that aren’t on the map. I could care less about my level, my skill points or my gear. I want that icon to change color.

Perspective now. Almost all themeparks are about the big ride at the end. You take kiddie rides, stand in line and see the window dressing but you have a goal and it’s a finish line. That goal does not exist here. ZOS has pretty much flat out said there is none of that.

Without an end game, people have a single choice at max level – PvP. SWTOR was identical but the content GETTING to max level was pretty bad.

I put my name reservation alts to the side for now. A future test will be to play a quest+skyshard leveling path with one of those alts. From what I see on the interweb, they are going through it about 5x faster than me. Anyone who is max level today has likely missed the point of the game.

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ESO – So Far

While the beta of ESO didn’t really float my boat, I found a coupon for the game and decided to give it a try.  A few people are quite happy with it, so why not?  I did a few days of early start, then played this weekend.  I got my kitty cat Templar through about half of the first zone, Auridon.  Just shy of level 12 and the dungeons.  Here are my collected thoughts so far.

The Good

Quests are darn impressive.  There’s very little kill ten rats but more of the fed-ex/click here type of stuff.  All of them are fully voiced and multi stepped.  It’s quite organic too, with next to no guidance to find a quest and plenty of help to complete a quest.  Just like the past ES games.  They are also the primary way to level.  I mean it would take an hour of killing enemies to equate to a single quest in terms of progress.

The art is also good, if you like the semi-photo realism.  I don’t see why anyone would play anything other than a Kajiit or Argonian as every other race is a variant of human.  The Kajiit tails are cool to look at.  Zones are pretty spiffy and not to hectic on my laptop.  It is very hard to see any harvesting nodes unless you have a particular skill, which I think is a bonus.

Exploration is awesome.  You find caves, people, quests, locked chests if you bother to look.  I am a solid 20 hours in and have half of the first zone done and am only level 11.  Max level is 50, so if the math holds out, I have a sweet amount of content to go through.  That is very appealing.

ESO-Sunlight

The not so good

Crafting.  Maybe it opens up in complexity but meh.  I’ve researched a few things, upgraded some items but I do not see how the system gets more complex.  The good side is that leveling has next to nothing to do with making items but instead about breaking down items.  Making stuff in different styles, or crafting sets (assuming you have the appropriate recipes) is smart.  Perhaps it’s just that stats in this game are very simple.

The classes are also ho-hum.  There’s a tank, paladin, melee DPS and mage.  All of them share 85% of all skills, so the class specific ones are where you get your flavor.  I played the paladin (Templar) for most of my time and could not find anything fun about it.  The tank (Dragonknight) has some interesting skills, so I’m going to focus on him for a while.

The Bad

No one will ever say that the ES games were strong on combat.  ESO is no different.  It just feels off.  With little mana or stamina, you’re going to be using auto attack 50%+ of the time.  Long battle?  It’s about chipping away and there’s no real feedback to the game.  Considering you spend 95% of the game’s progress in combat, this is a real big issue for me.

The skills are also a disappointment.  While there are plenty of them, you are limited to only a small amount  (6 total) to use at any one time.  Only about half of all of them are something you’d even bother considering when compared to another.  There’s a lot of overlap and clearly superior skills.  I get that in a sandbox you’re not going to have tons of variety.  It’s just that blah skills combined with a hokey combat system is really off-putting.

ESO - Bugeye

Long-term prospects

I am enjoying myself, even with the issues present.  I’ve had no bugs – impressive compared to the last beta round.  Oddly though, my pleasure has nothing to do with the online component and everything to do with the Elder Scrolls component, namely freedom of exploration.

Let’s be clear on that point.  My longterm prospects are dim once I’ve “consumed” the content as the little group content I’ve done has been so piss-poor uncoordinated that I’ve found no fun in it.  It’s right on par with GW2 group content.  The glue of an MMO has to be the people and there’s very little of that here that I’ve found so far.  I’m hopeful though, as time moves on and people get accustomed to the game.

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Travel is Part of the Challenge

FF-X reminded me of an older approach to challenge related to travel.  In XII and XIV, you can see every enemy on the field and avoid them.  All versions previous to that, it was a random event while travelling.  This is somewhat jarring in X, especially related to rare monster hunting.  One particular bugger only shows up every 20 fights it seems and I need 10 of it.  Random battles are certainly frustrating and being able to pick and choose your enemies is more fun approach.  Especially when it comes to ambush attacks that instantly kill your party…damn Marlboros.

I’m also playing a bit of Quest for Glory (in the 2nd one now) and combat in the wild is deadly.  I can take on one type of enemy so far, what being a weakly wizard, so I want to avoid travel in most cases.  Skipping the content here would remove the feeling of “argh, run away, run away” I get while crossing zones.

UO had visual enemies on screen that I could (should) avoid.  Destard, the dungeon of dragons, was a death pit of running around avoiding everything that moved.  Even the rune/recall system was fraught with death, especially if you bound the rune to a really bad spot.  High level recall books often had a few runs smack dab in the middle of a lich/demon cave.  That’s ignoring the entire PvP aspect of travel.  NPCs broke chase, enemy players did not.

EQ took a slightly different approach, notoriously with the massive trains (hello Butcherblock!).  Enemies had massive aggro ranges and followed you the entire zone.  SoW was the only way people survived some of these places.  I chose a necromancer specifically for the dead man floating buff, which allows me to travel the skies above the death traps.  Travel options were severely limited and death from a wrong turn (including potential corpse loss) was a bit too much for me.  If enemies broke chase after a while, I think this would have been a fine compromise.

WoW originally had a densely populated world, where travel on the roads was often deadly.  Sure, they didn’t follow you forever but if they caught up with you, bye bye.  It was very easy to chain a bunch of enemies together without trying and world PvP (STV and the Mill) created massive death zones.  BC kept this approach for leveling and then it introduced player flight…

Player flight removed any and all risk from travel in the game, similar to what I did in EQ with my necromancer.  Since you couldn’t fight enemies in the air, there was rarely any serendipitous socializing.  The world became empty with people dropping in, dropping out and avoiding interacting with the world at all.  WotLK took a similar approach and made 2 zones that were near impossible to travel without flight.  Cataclysm gave flight to everyone, everywhere and there are entire zones I never experienced.  Combined with the massive dependency on phasing, I barely grouped with anyone at all, if I could ever actually see anyone.  MoP was the final kick at the can for this model.

Timeless Isle is the best success Blizzard has had with non-raid content since launch.  Emergent gameplay cannot happen with everyone in the air, so no one flies on the island.  They have stated a few times now that the TI model is going to be used for WoD and they still haven’t committed to any flying at all during the expansion.

I think this is a great thing.

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At a Glacier’s Pace

Let’s chat a bit around the fire shall we?  There’s an old saying that goes “Do not raise your children the way [your] parents raised you, they were born for a different time.”  I think that applies extremely well to gaming and even more so to MMOs.  A gaming generation lasts about 5-7 years.  The last console wave was on the tail end of this.  The general point of this is that the strategy applied at the start of an MMO needs to change over time.

In IT design there are two portions of a service that are often classified as above and below the waterline, like an iceberg.  Only a very small portion is ever seen by the user (above water) while an inordinate amount of time is put on the back end items (below water).  So whenever you see a patch/expansion, figure the amount of time it takes for you to consume it and multiply that by at least 100 to get an idea of the amount of effort it took to generate it.  So, if you get 60 hours of gametime, likely it took 6000 hours (which is a ~month for 30 people) to create it.

Suffice it to say that IT developers strive to find economies in the below water systems in order to maximize the amount of content delivered in the least amount of time.  Agile development!   The older the system, the harder this is to do.  Microsoft famously stated that the average Windows coder during the XP days, only ever put in 1 line of code per day due to historic content.  IE had the same problem up until version 9, which explains why it still fails the Acid3 test.  In order to move forward, sometimes you have to rebuild the foundation.

Today’s world is run through agile development, meaning that changes needs to be applied quickly and for lower cost.  This is done through service oriented architecture.  Think of it as Lego blocks.  If I wanted to build a boat without Legos, it would take a heck of a long time – wood, nails, etc…  If I built it with the blocks, then I could get a boat built in 10 minutes.  StoryBricks (for EQ Next) uses this model.  So does the Foundy in Neverwinter.  GW2 is able to release new “living content” at a quick pace because of their toolsets.  SWTOR seems to have an update every other month.  TESO and WildStar are both promising something similar, with a quick dev cycle to justify the subscription cost.  EvE does a decent enough job too.

The outlier for years has been WoW.  Their patch cycles aren’t the worst, a few months between but their expansion windows are simply ridiculous.  There was a time when “soon” meant quality.  It does for Starcraft.  It did for Diablo3 once Jay left (that game is barely recognizable now).  It has not often meant it for WoW.  The MoP expansion, outside of new art, introduced one new mechanic – pet battles – and that took 11 months.   Flex Raids, arguably the 2nd best thing to come out of MoP, took much less time. WoD looks like we’re going to see at least 14 months with no new content.

Now, there are a couple of possible reasons for this.  One, Blizzard is exceptionally greedy and wants to milk the user base for all their money.  I doubt this when MoP launched, it was the lowest rate of sales in their history.  The next quarterly review is expected to show another drastic drop, likely hitting the 5-6 million user level.  Second, Blizzard only runs 1 development team that changes in size based on the content being developed.  This seems highly probable as it ensures quality development and a lower bug count but not having multiple source codes running around.  Old code needs to be stable and the toolsets must be ancient.  The WoW ship is massive and even a little tweak can have massive repercussions.  There is tons of evidence that raiding is at an all-time low, somewhere near 15,000 guilds total raided in SoO outside of LFR.  Servers are being connected (merged without some of the hiccups) continuously, with only a dozen or so that are not slated.  When people are leaving en-masse for “greener pastures”, it puts the fire under the designers to keep what you have and get people back.  Pressure, in design, often leads to very bad ideas or impractical ones (such as the Path of Titans which sounded amazing).

I am not saying Blizzard is closing WoW or that it’s failing.  Just that the statistical anomaly that existed for ~5 years seems to be returning to normal.  Players have realized that there are plenty of viable options on the market.  It’s just surprising that with all the change that has happened on the market, that Blizzard hasn’t made a more concerted effort to change their design practices.

 

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Gaming Updates

I’ve only been on 2 games recently, FFX-HD and WildStar.

Final Fantasy X – HD

When this game came out in 2000, I was all over it.  I still own it on the PS2 (and X-2) but I wanted to see what Squeenix did to improve it.  The answer – quite a bit.

The sound is amazing.  A lot of it was re-recorded and the music is great.  The original had a more “midi” flavor to it, but today’s version is practically orchestral.  The voice acting is the same and on-par with a high school play in terms of quality.  I get it.  FFX was one of the first RPGs with full voice acting, and it shows.  FFXII was a drastic jump in quality on that front.  Graphics are quite impressive.  Some of the character models have been redone, or rather re-worked.  Real shadows now too.  All the textures are in HD and the detail is darn good.  It even seems like the draw distance has improved.

Combat is to me, the pinnacle of the FF series – a near perfect merger of strategies and tactics.  After having played the auto-pilot XII and the “press A” XIII, this is quite refreshing.  Make the right choice and you can avoid disaster, make the wrong one and restart the fight.  You’re always given enough time to make the choice too, which is great.  Boss fights are a ton of fun too, especially Seymor on Gagazet and Yunalesca at Zanarkand.

The game also added the international content – expert sphere grid and dark aeon fights.  The former is a more customizeable feature compared to before and the latter a massive butt whooping.  I’m at the phase where I need to enter Sin and I’m collecting for the Monster Arena.

People complained at the time that X was linear and to some degree it’s still true.  XII took a wholly different approach and XII decided to go super linear.  X provide enough lateral movement and options throughout and a very open end game to boot.  I’m guessing rose-colored glasses here but it’s enjoyable.  Reliving nostalgia for the win!

WildStar

I finally got into the beta the week before and got a few characters to level 5, just to see the starting zones and character dynamics and paths.  I liked what I saw and got the pre-order from GreenManGaming with a 20% off deal that got me the deluxe edition for the cost of basic.  I went back into the extra beta this weekend, deciding that I wanted to see housing (at level 14).

I have been planning on playing an Esper, so I used my Dominion Chua on the solider path, to try and get through the levels.  I am ~80% complete the first zone and level 15.  I didn’t read any quest text or lore (and there is TONS of lore) because I don’t want to spoil myself.  I am extremely impressed in the quality of the story and characters though, without going into more detail.

So, leveling content first.  You have zones with small town hubs.  There are maybe 4 quests in a given hub and the remainder are triggered out in the field through the satellite phone. By and large, generic quests of kill X, where X goes up by a % based on the difficulty of the kill.  Fights are against 1-4 enemies at a time and I died a few times because I didn’t pay attention to telegraphs.  I like dying.  You also get to unlock path missions at various points.  Soldiers include kill-type events, either defend a point, test a weapon, assassinate a target and so on.  I will not be playing a Soldier on live – likely a Scientist.  There are plenty of Settlers around putting up buff stations for other people.

There are group quests (I found 4 in the zone) and you need a group for it.  There are challenges that ask you to collect X, kill Y or destroy Z within a certain timeframe.  You get a bronze, silver or gold medal based on your performance and the reward is a lottery of sorts on prizes.  Each prize has separate odds of winning and the one you hedge your bets on gets a 400% increase.  I opted for housing stuff whenever possible.  These challenges re repeatable after a certain time too, which I think is great!  The zone is organic, without obvious breadcrumbs.  I am pleased.

Crafting opens at level 10 and is decently complex.  Gear is actually usable and leveling up is not just setting up a macro.  I opted for a tailor and made some decent gear that replaced all I had.  Costumes are open from level 1 too, so even though my stats went up, I could keep a consistent look across the levels.  The crafting trees are complex and decently balanced.  Color me impressed.  Oh, I tried cooking too, which is a weird beast of a mini-game.  The link goes into some detail on it but you’re essentially playing darts.  It’s a neat system, not sure how it will work at the tail end.

Housing is what I really wanted to see and what you get at 14 is the tip of the iceberg. It’s more than a house, what with the plot system.  I made a simple garden first, then decorated my house with a bed, carpet, ferns and other knick-knacks.  The tools are both simple and complex, depending on what you want from them.  I spent a solid hour in that house, trying on the different textures and features in preview mode.  I think this is where I will be spending the majority of my time/money.  It is really impressive.

Now, I get that people see Wildstar as WoW on LSD.  It is a hyper version and if you don’t like the style, stay away from the game.  It does however improved on a lot of systems WoW has.  Character customization is fluid (you can “respec” at any time), there is a mentoring system, the world is more dynamic, travel is meaningful, crafting is more complex and involved, combat has an “open tagging” affair, there is minimal phasing, combat is tactical and responsive.  There are surprisingly few bugs but some systems need some polish (the auction house in particular).  Color me impressed.  Hopefully the next beta weekend I can get to 20 and run a couple dungeons.

Granted this is the view from level 15.  The view at end game may be drastically different.  Even so, the ride to the end sure looks like a lot of fun.

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