Themepark – Content Design for Engagement

I have a few friends that are massive Disney fans.  They are not 8 years old but in their 30s and 40s.  They take annual trips to Disney World/Land or take a cruise.  Fascinated by it all really.  My question to them some time ago was why?  Why are you taking the same ride again and again?  Haven’t you seen it all?  And the answer is simple.  There’s just so much to consume, and of such high quality, that you can do something completely different every day.

I took my first cruise last year, Celebrity Cruises.  It’s one of those lines where you pay a bit more, there are next to no kids and the service is superb.  There are tons of things to do on the ship and since each is high quality, you can don’t feel you’re wasting time doing it another go during the week.

MMO themeparks need to meet that standard to succeed today.  You need variety, quantity and quality.  The last one is certainly subjective but the first two are pretty darn easy to compare between games.

I realize with WoW that the Raiding game and Dungeon game are not so much my cup of tea.  Sure, LFR is something to do and likely the cap of my possible time investment in a single session’s attention span.  Dungeons are a means to an end, outside of the first couple runs.  Eh.  So I need to set myself alternate goals, and this is something that is complex in many themeparks.

Outside of non-consequential PvP, other themeparks give you a few options.  GW2 has the living story, map completion and some customization.  RIFT has housing, pets, AA, a crazy achievements bucket and some solo instances.  SWTOR has housing, conquests and the legacy system.  WoW has pet battles, collections (mounts/pets/toys), transmog, Farmville (and Farmville 2.0 in WoD), solo instances, achievements, timeless isle (and similar in WoD) and monthly-ish events.

I’ll give a more specific example or examples really.  I have 4 level 90s and 2 that I could easily get to 90 in a week.  Plus the boost I’m looking at for getting WoD (eventually).  So I have them set around old raid instances right now, to get the Raiding with Leashes achievement.  This requires 12 pets that drop from old-world raids – MC, BWL, AQ and Naxx.  My Hunter is trying to capture Spirit Beasts and rare pets.  My Monk is capping out factions outside of dungeons.  I’m also hunting additional mounts and pets in the wild, so I have someone “camped” at Huolon to get a shot at the dropped mount.  I haven’t even bothered with Transmog, at least not a couple weeks before an expansion.

Side note, I was collecting pets and mounts before it was cool.  At the end of LK, I had a crazy amount of them – and when they went across the account rather than player, I was incredibly happy.

I did something very similar in RIFT 1.0.  I went through each zone and closed all the achievements I could outside of rare hunting.  That was a heck of an achievement in itself.  Then macros and runs to find the rares for some neat pets.  Then a lot of costume hunting.  It was a ton of fun.

It was fun because even though I was repeating some content, multiple times, the goal was outside of that content.  I wasn’t doing a dungeon so I could do another dungeon or raid.  I was doing a dungeon so I could run a pet battle, or get a cool mount, or neat suit.  This “crossing of content streams” gets people more deeply invested, or at least gives them a better understanding of all the game’s components.

Now, I am not so much a completionist as I am one who likes smart, small goals that compound.  I won’t spend 100 hours to get 1 item and 1%.  I will spend 100 hours to get 100 things and that same 1%.  Shadow of Mordor is a good example – I just looked at the map and closed off all the events, 90% of which aren’t related to the main game.  Batman is an even better example.  I closed all the events there except the Riddler clues since they required additional effort that I didn’t find fun.

Lots of small, bite-sized events that are fun, I’m in.  I’ll do a ton of them.  Long, drawn out events that lose progress (so you restart), I’ll keep those for my real world job.

WoW – Leveling in the New Age

Another interesting update on the leveling path in WoW since 6.0.2.  I have quite a few characters it seems, now more than ever at 90.  It’s raining 90s.  And without the boost.

The Hallowe’en event has 2 particular rewards that greatly facilitate leveling.  First is a daily quest in the first town hub (Goldshire is one) that has the headless horseman come by, die in 2 hits then drop his head.  Turn in the head, get a very large chance at a broom mount.  This mount is great for leveling for 2 reasons. First, it counts as a flying mount that scales to all other mounts.  Second, it’s instant use.  That last one means you can use it when you’re falling or moving, so I bound it to my mouse.  It’s a massive increase to travel speed, at any level.

The second reward is a daily quest that gives you a 10% buff to experience for 2 hours.  Which is pretty much what a single heirloom piece gives.  Remember, heirloom doesn’t work at 85+ but this buff does.

I decided to run another test.  My Hunter was able to do Jade Forest and come out near level 88.  Some rested, no buff.  My Rogue however, who has a naturally faster TTK (time to kill) speed was fully rested and only played with the buff.  I finished Jade Forest at 88.9 and hit 90 before I ended up in Halfhill.  It took less than 2 of those buffs (2 nights) to get there and I never saw the tail end of my rested exp bar.  I think it’s more than feasible to hit 90 in under 1 day played for an average player, stacking heirlooms and rested experience.  Makes you wonder what the 90 boost is worth…

The good side is that it takes less than 1 hour per level from 85-90.  So getting people ready for the expansion is cake.  The bad side is that I miss out on a ton of gold.  See, when I ran my Monk through at the launch of MoP, I gave him 100g to start off, heirlooms and some bags.  When he hit 90, he had all the flying skills unlocked and ~8,000g left over.  So 1-90, just buckets of gold.  I was smart during the leveling and got a UI mod that auto-posted items to the AH.  More than half my gold came from that.  My Hunter in contrast made about 2,000g from 80-90.  My Rogue barely made 1,000g and that’s with pickpocket on a macro (but everything is either a beast or has no pockets for Jade Forest/Valley of the Four Winds).  Now, I am far from needing cash, I have over 200,000g from a past farm the AH for a month test.  For other players, getting an alt to top level means you’re going to be short on cash.  The good news is that flying mounts, the only real money sink the game has to offer today that all players should invest in, means squat in WoD since there are no plans to allow flying.  You’re saving ~10,000g per alt.

Related, and depressing, is that any MoP top-tier content is going to be irrelevant in 2 weeks.  I have no idea why people are farming frogs in Timeless Isle when the best item you can get is going to be replaced by your first quest reward in WoD (ok, maybe the 2nd).  My Monk, geared for 5.4 (ilvl 525 I think), is clearly the strongest character I have, killing elites in little trouble.  But my super-undergeared Rogue (under 400 ilvl) is able to compete on the same content, just needs to play smarter.  The gear gap today, after squish, is fairly small.  Small if you understand your player mechanics.

ArcheAge – Next Thing?

I like to read Eri’s Healing the Masses posts on ArcheAge.  I say this because I have absolutely zero interest in any open PvP game and her posts remind me a heck of a lot of my early days in UO (before split).  I get why people enjoy it, I do.  It’s like people who eat mustard with eggs.  I mean, what’s with you people, it’s mustard?

ArcheAge seems split into 2 games.  The 1-30 PvE themepark of sorts.  Then the open world game at 30+ that tries to merge PvE with PvP.  It makes the world a more dynamic and living place and to be honest, I don’t mind a bit of the rush that goes with it.  Some areas are off limits, or provide better rewards if you can get through.  Armadas of boats running docks is a cool thing.  Faction wars are even better.

What sucks about open PvP is greifing, where the play of one person causes more financial harm than they bring in.  And in a F2P game… this barrier is incredibly low.  I remember when Diablo3 came out and people were mutli-boxing gold runs.  I saw one guy who had 200 VMs running gold runs, pulling in a few million per hour.  With the RMAH, it was an EASY money laundering system.  D3 was B2P, where you needed the license of ~$60 but making that back from RMAH was a pretty simple affair.  I know I made a few hundred from it.  AA being F2P, with zero up front cost and tons of bots makes the D3 issue look juvenile.

And I haven’t even begun to talk about the actual hacks.  Bots that automate actions are one thing.  Hack that teleport, grief and replace client data are a great way to destroy an entire game in a few short days.  Neverwinter had an infamous Caturday that cause the devs to roll back the economy for 2 days.  WildStar had teleporting resource bots for 2 weeks. You couldn’t hit a node in any 35+ zone (thank goodness for housing plots).  ESO was lucky, it only had armies of bots camping dungeons and spamming for gold.  That AA has a hack that auto-detects house decay and allows for an auto-placement before the house goes splat is ingenious.  That everyone playing the game had to endure an anti-hack tool that does nothing is ridiculous.

All this hacking produces more gold, which artificially inflates the economy.  If something used to cost 5 gold, now it costs 20.  And it gets worse every day.  This makes for an artificial barrier of entry for any new player and ages the game’s economy.  But it doesn’t put any money into honest player’s pockets.  It just isn’t a sustainable economy but you can’t expect a rollback!

The absolute worst part about AA is that Trion has zero control on the code. No matter what you post or report, Trion can’t do squat.  They can report it overseas, sure, but so far that hasn’t given any fruit. If I was sitting in a Trion room right now, I’d be sweating bullets watching the leeches destroy a goldmine of money and pushing more and more paying people out the door.

This year has been such an interesting one for blogging about MMOs.  It’s like there were no lessons learned at all.

WoW – MoP Update

In continuing with the previous string of posts, my Hunter is 88.5 now and that’s after completing the majority of Jade Forest.  I’m trying to think back to the last time I went through this process and I’m pretty sure I hit 90 after the Jade, Karasang, Valley and parts of Kun-Lai.  I’m pretty sure I’ll hit 90 before unlocking the farm, so 1.5 zones or so?  I’m thinking that the new leveling path has you spend <2 zones per expansion to get through, which seems a rather large waste to me.  Let me explain that a bit more.

BC’s best zones were not the starting zones.  Shadowmoon Valley and Netherstorm were great.  Terrokar was ok and now I don’t think you even set foot there.  LK’s starting zones were solid enough, though Borean Tundra was the better option.  Sholazar was great (lore!) but Icecrown and Storm Peaks were simply amazeballs.  Cata’s zones all stunk up something fierce, with maybe Mount Hyjal being ok.  Let’s all forget Uldum.  MoP’s zones were a mixed bag.  Jade Forest was/is good.  Then it was a rough going until Townlong.  Dread Wastes without a flying mount is still a nightmare.  While I understand that the story flows from zone to zone, it would be a neat trick to have ALL the zones open per expansion and just flatten out the experience.  Use scaling or whathaveyou to keep those zones active.  GW2 does this pretty good.  It sucks missing the ride that some of these zones provide.  It just seems weird where a game would knowingly make you avoid 75% of the content.

Back to the Hunter.  I specced Beastmaster as it was traditionally the leveling build of choice.  WoD’s ability pruning and standardization of pets is not making BM that much fun.  Sure, I can use a Molten Core Hound as a pet but his only unique skill is a damage shield.  All my cooldowns are pet related, which makes it suck something fierce when I don’t have a pet.  And there have been a half dozen quests now where I don’t have access to a pet, meaning I have 2 skills to damage an opponent.  It’s like fighting unarmed.  I think I’m going to try Marksman.

Hunter pets have always fascinated me.  Now with a streamline, there are 11 types of buffs provided by various pets. So have one of that buff type and you’re good.  I’m collecting a bunch now, since the stable cap has gone up to 50.  In fact, I found a Spirit Beast in Jade Forest that I wanted to try capturing.  And that ended up killing me in 3 hits instead.  I think once I hit 90 and spend a bit of time on the Timeless Isle (alliteration?) I’ll go back and collect some friends.  I did do something similar at the tail end of Cataclysm, where I collected dozens of pets.  I think I’m around 200 or so now, avoiding all those that required 1000+ kill farms.  There’s just some OCD aspect about collecting that I think many of us can relate to.

While I still have a DK in the wings, and a max level shammy and monk, I think I’ll be sticking with the hunter until WoD comes out.  Who knows I might actually buy the expansion too.

WoW – Patch 6.0 Impressions

Rohan beat me to it but I share similar points.

First off, and I think I mentioned this in the past, I sub to WoW for a month or two every 2 major patches, including expansions.  So I saw the start of MoP and then I saw 5.2 (Thunder Isle) and then 5.4 (Siege of Ogrimmar).  I think it was less than a month for both of the patches but a solid 2 for the MoP launch.  Value for money and all that.  Plus, I have little intention on raiding, due to time constraints and 2 kids.  (Kind of the reason I am not subbed to Wildstar atm…, what with 2 50s and 2 others in their 30s).

Pre-amble.  I have a 90 Monk, 90 Shaman, 86 DK, 86 Rogue, 80 Mage, 86 Hunter, 60 Paladin (through RAF boosting no less), 30 Druid, 5 Priest (bank alt) and zero Warriors (because they suck).  Also, I really miss the ability to sprint and double jump.  You don’t realize it until it’s gone but it makes travel on foot that much more fun.

Heirlooms

Back to WoW.  Last post I mentioned a lack of changes to heirlooms.  Well in actual fact it’s a little worse than I had thought.  Heirlooms are bought through 3 methods.  Justice Points (now gone), Darkmoon Faire tickets (1 week a month) and Trial of the Crusader (which if my math is correct, 7 days of dailies for 1 piece of gear).  JP vendors are gone, so not quite sure how that’s going to work out.  The reason given was “due to unsure prices and to avoid buyers remorse”.  Let me break that particular point down for you.

Justice Points were dungeon currency.  It was maybe 2-3 hours of dungeon runs, very easy to do in order to get an item.  I would hazard to call it cheap even, at least the easiest of the 3 methods.  So even if it were to be some nominal amount, say 500 gold per item (guild heirlooms are 2500 IIRC), then it begs the question what they expect the new value to be.  It’s hard to imagine them being cheaper than current.  So you get into conspiracy theories of Blizz pushing their “buy a level 90 boost”.  I dunno, the entire thread just seems like really bad PR on a core part of their community (the one who actually bothers with alts).

On the flipside, experience was drastically normalized.  I had an 84.5 Hunter on logoff, and on logon, had an 84.99999 Hunter waiting.  MoP experience gain is ~50% higher than previous, if not more.  Cataclysm should be around the same path, making heirlooms a very quirky item.  I think I might be able to do 80-85 in 1 zone now.  Will have to try with my Mage at some point.

Combat

Ability pruning was a pretty frigging big deal for a Hunter.  I’d guess 25% of all skills are gone.  As a BM, that leaves 2 buttons for main rotation (Cobra Shot and Arcane Shot) and then some pet cooldowns.  It is quite strange.  Good strange mind you, as I had hotbars within hotbars.  It was an episode of Pimp my Hunter.  The UI is much cleaner.  Plus with 6.0, every mod broke something, so I’m playing vanilla.

The stat squish is massive, I think my ring is like +15 or some such.  I will say that a stat boost itself is less noticeable, as the scale from base is flatter.  Hmm, let me try that again.  Before this patch, your base damage was a factor of your level and base stats.  Base stats at 90 were nothing really, so each piece of gear you added was a tremendous boost to power.  A decent ring might give you 10% more.  Now it seems that the base value is higher and that gear provides less benefit, let’s say only a 7% boost from the same ring.  What this means is balancing is much easier for Blizzard as the player power variance is smaller.  It also means that player skill is more important than before as you will have trouble “out gearing” a situation.  That’s a paradigm used in Cataclysm, to disastrous effect on subscriptions… so time will tell.

Reforging is gone.  Enchanting is barely there.  Jewelcrafting took a hit.  None of the Professions provide any combat benefits.  Haste windows are gone.  Snapshotting is gone.  It seems like every corner of customization was cut pretty deep.  Ask Mr Robot is going to need a new job I’m thinking as the game is currently heavily simplified in terms of stats and rotation.  The complications added are now mainly around player skill.

But do I have the same amount of power as before?  I’ll say yes for the time being.  The leveling power curve was well-adjusted.  There’s no more “in between expansions” power gap either, so that’s nice.

Art

New player models, which by consequence also means no character models in some scenes as they weren’t programmed?  I dunno if it’s a bug or not but me + parachute = no character.

Bunch of UI changes too.  Items you can click are highlighted with an outline, harvesting and quest nodes.  Quest overlays are more informative.  Hunter stables can take 50 pets (up from 10 last I checked).  Aura alerts are still there.  Some icon changes.  Icons in bags are different, in particular when you are at a vendor.  Junk is clearly tagged, though there still isn’t a junk button.  Overall a solid improvement (based entirely on the mod community I might add).  I’ll still mod the UI though – if only to control the button size ratio.

The models are a bit more fluid in their movement and the style is somewhat consistent with before.  The eyes though, they are hollow.  It’s like uncanny valley over here but then again, how often do you look at someone’s eyes in WoW?

Also, they are 10 year old models.  The game looks like it was made 10 years ago, in particular due to the fact that MoP had no new capital city.  If WoD has as new Shatt to play around in, maybe it won’t be as noticeable.

Crowd Control

This is an odd one for me since I played 8 years of a Rogue and was stun-locking when you were still in diapers.  Pretty much any stun effect that disables you and still allows an enemy to attack you is gone.  The ones that get you out of combat but break on damage are still in.  Interrupts are still there with their original cooldowns as are root/slow effects. For combat, I have half the damage control tools I had previous, which means I am taking more damage and need to time my skills to be at the tail end of a cast.  It’s balanced by the fact that many “casters” require to stand still now to get a spell off, so there’s some delay in damage output.  Still, it’s a new way to play and I’m curious as to how the crowds will adapt.

Overall Impressions

I will be honest here and say that I expected more rather than less.  There are massive systematic cuts to combat and player customization, which is like 90% of the game content (excepting Pet Battles).  I used to write guides for games and this expansion would have me cut at least a quarter of it.  Players have only a fraction of the tools they had before, which is quite jarring.  It’s a real “back to basics” push and I can commend it as it’s something I try to do in my own job.  The game feels familiar and different at the same time, which is what you want in an expansion.  Now let’s open this red door…

Changes are a Comin’

The first bit of news relates to Wildstar.  Megaservers are coming next week, so you’ll be able to find people to play with again.  Yay!  Also, Drop 3 & 4 are being combined and targeted for November.  It’s making it hard to figure out what is in and what is out of scope of that change.  The Reddit feeds are good enough to try and keep track but there’s still some mystery to be had.  Of interesting note, January is Carbine’s timeframe for “solo friendly” content.  I could write for miles about that topic.  MILES I say.  But in short, delaying all your content until after WoW and SWTOR have launched their expansions is an odd play of hands.

WoW is dropping patch 6 today, which is the precursor to the actual expansion.  This includes all the system changes but not the actual new content (zones, dungeons, level increase, garrisons, etc…).  So you get to see item squish, removal of guild levels (yay!), removal of reforging, changes to glyphs (you now get a bunch at default), removal of some difficulty achievements, a new group finder (not LFG/LFR), the new Flex raid model, massive class balances, new stats, new character models and just plain cleanup.  Though they are removing one type of Anti-Aliasing that was a GPU hog, in order to accommodate the players with scientific calculators.  It’s a rather significant downgrade to fidelity, if that means anything to you.

You can read the link for all the notes and there are plenty but the core of the matter is that this is the stage-setting patch for the expansion – where Blizz applies the final tweaks to the system to make sure that the swap from Beta makes sense.  I fully expect the raid scene to take a dive for 2 weeks, a few emergency patches and a trainwreck of “I can’t faceroll anymore” posts to result from the squish change.

What I find odd as lacking, is a revamp of the heirloom items or experience normalization that typically happens near expansion time.  Where 1-85 is pretty quick (you can do 80-85 in 2 zones), the experience from 85-90 isn’t up for debate.  It’s arguably a fun experience, at least compared to the junk of Cata (thank goodness for flying) but if they are selling level 90 characters… then you’d think there’d be some QoL changes to this experience as well.  I am expecting some post soon that changes that to everything working until at least 90, at least by 6.1.

Quick math… level 25 guild + heirlooms until 80 = 60% increase to experience from quests and kills.  Which also combines with rested experience.  And these items are fairly easy to acquire (except the ring…damn that fishing derby).

I am quite curious to see how all these changes play out.

EDIT: I am putting dollars to donuts that Blizz implements a system similar to SWTOR’s Legacy framework, or Marvel Heroes’ Synergy section.  And therefore completely removes the existing Heirloom function.  And for 6.1.  Any takers?

Shadow of Mordor – Quick Hit

Recent release on Steam (and I guess some other platforms), Shadow of Mordor is an interesting take on the LOTR lore.  I’ve got about 20 hours in, says I’m near 80% done so I figure it’s time to put my thoughts to words.

SoM plays a bit like Assassin’s Creed and the new Batman games.  A mix of stealth assassination and darn sweet combat controls, mixed with some sandbox open-ended gameplay.  Well, that last part is much more sandbox than I had thought, in that there are only 25 or so “quests” for the core story, a real fraction of your playtime.  You need to complete the main story quests mind you, in order to unlock the 2nd zone, Power Struggles (that further unlock skills) and to actually unlock particular skills.  I did none of that for the first 2 hours and had a blast.

There’s stuff to find, slaves to free, Orcs to interrogate and a slew of side quests.  I did all of that until my map was empty (and I ran around a few times to see if I missed a spot) and then I decided to start the main quest.  A few of those in, then it unlocked more side quests.  Rinse and repeat for 20 hours and there are a small handful left.

The quest is so-so and really only peaks if you have any interest in LOTR.  The idea is neat but the execution just doesn’t work out so well.  It’s just an excuse really to move the mechanics along, which seems like a wasted effort.

There’s always a compromise when it comes to sandboxes and actual levels.  The power curve is really quite hard to balance.  I’ll use Skyrim as an example.  Some parts are death at low levels with bad gear.  Go back after you have triple fireballs and things turn to cake.  SoM has this issue in the first zone and in the second as well until you unlock the Brand skill.  It is very easy to be overwhelmed and die until you get that.  I died a solid 50 times, trying various strategies out.  Once you get Brand though… the game just takes a massive challenge dump.

Brand is an ability that converts an Orc to fight for you.  You can use it in combat (after a small combo) or stealth attack someone with it.  If you Brand all the archers in a given area, then activate them, it’s a shooting gallery.  Like 5-1 odds gallery. But hey, you only really unlock that at the tail end of the core story, so it’s not too big a deal.

The controls are decent enough, and responsive.  Combat is super fluid, even more so as you unlock more skills (particularly the dodge/stun combo).  It’s very fun to jump from one enemy to the next, using decent timing to get the perfect strikes in.  It’s a solid jump up from Batman.  The assassinations are also well done, and the quests to get there aren’t “follow this guy in the bushes for 45 minutes, fail and restart”.  So that’s sweet.

That's a BIG dog.

That’s a BIG dog.

You have a melee weapon (sword), a ranged one (bow) and a stealth one (dagger).  They each have strengths and can be comboed with each other in combat strings.  You can unlock rune slots for each, which is sort of like a perk for the item.  Say, 50% chance to heal when you have a critical strike.  There are different tiers of perks too, and if you Brand then threaten a boss orc, you get a better chance at a rune.  But they also get more powerful and get a posse.

And now we get to the Nemesis system.  There are normal orcs, up to 15 captain orcs and then 5 warchiefs per zone (2 zones).  Each orc has strengths and weaknesses.  Some are immune to melee, or get stronger if there’s fire, or fear these direbeasts.  You don’t know any of this unless you interrogate orcs too, so if you catch one cold, you can be trying for a while to figure out how to attack them.

If you kill a captain or a warchief, another orc can take their place.  Orcs can kill you and get promoted and get more powerful.  Orcs can kill each other, or recruit other orcs to increase power.  And it’s all dynamic, so you’re never seeing the same orcs again.  Well that’s not true.  Say an orc kills you, they will remember it and taunt you next time they meet you.  And sometimes an orc you think you killed just comes back with scars.  And that’s where the real open-ended gameplay comes from.

See, if you Brand all the captains, you can then Brand the warchiefs.  Then you get a few of them close together and use another skill to kill all Branded enemies.  BOOM, rain of runes.  Then speed up time a bit and more Orcs come back.

I am impressed.  The Nemesis system is where the real meat of the game is and it’s truly innovative.  Smooth controls are the other part of the foundation and combined provide a really enjoyable experience.  I’m kind of thinking that this is the new model for open world gameplay with combat mechanics.  It’s really well executed (pun intended) and worth your dollars.