Monday, May 30, 2011

Archeology versus Artifacts

As RIFT and Cataclysm were released very close to each other, it's interesting to compare similar systems from both games. One such comparable mini-game is Archeology in WoW and collecting Artifacts in RIFT. In a lot of ways, Archeology reflects current WoW design, while Artifacts reflect RIFT and perhaps Vanilla WoW design.

Description

First a quick description of the two systems. For Archeology, you have four dig sites marked on your world map. You fly to a digsite, and start surveying. Surveying is essentially a Hot Cold game. Your survey tool tells you when you get closer and provides a rough direction. When you find an archeology node, you collect fragments. There are three nodes per dig site. Collect enough fragments and you assemble an artifact. Most WoW artifacts are sold for gold, but there are a lot of pets and non-combat items.

Artifacts in RIFT are more like resource nodes. They're bright, sparkling white balls that are stuck all over the map, often in hidden or out of the way locations. When you click on an RIFT artifact node, you get a random artifact for the zone you are in. Each artifact belongs to a set. When you collect an entire set, you can turn it in to an NPC for tokens. You can then exchange these tokens for various non-combat rewards. The best analogy to this is collecting baseball cards or collecting CCGs like Magic: the Gathering.

Comparison

What I've found is that Archeology in WoW is very grindy. Fly to digsite, survey, survey, survey, fly to next digsite, repeat. But it also offers guaranteed results. If you put in the time, you will complete the artifact that you are working on. The only randomness is where the digsites appear, and what artifact you are currently working on.

In contrast, Artifacts in RIFT are extremely random. Nodes spawn in random places, so you can go hunting and not find any. Every node is a random artifact. You can get lots of duplicates, while not finding the ones you need to complete your set. You can, however, sell or trade your duplicates. On the other hand, the final reward is not random. You just have to collect X sets to get the specific reward you want, while in WoW you have to wait for the correct Archeology project to pop for you.

It should be noted that in my time playing RIFT, I only ever managed to complete 1 Artifact set. I had like 20 or so partially finished, but only one complete set.

Archeology in WoW is very interface-driven. The dig sites are marked on your world map, and aren't shown in game at all. When I'm flying to a dig site, I have to have the map open so I can tell if I'm in the right spot. And surveying is entirely done using an interface button.

Collecting Artifacts in RIFT, on the other hand, are in the game world. Picking one up often requires maneuvering your character out on a ledge, or doing fancy jumping to just the right spot. The only interface action is actually putting the artifact into a collection.

Archeology in WoW is entirely independent of other players. You don't share nodes or dig sites with other people. There's no real competition or cooperation with them.

While in RIFT, other people can beat you to the Artifact node. It's like herbing or mining. You're busy clearing out the enemy mobs, and they sneak in and grab the artifact.

Archeology in WoW is also aimed at endgame, and is also not really something that you can do in between quests. It's pretty much impossible to level archeology without a flying mount. In some respects, it feels like Archeology was designed as something to do while waiting for a dungeon queue to pop.

Whereas it's perfectly possible in RIFT to see and collect an artifact while out questing. Even low levels will collect many artifacts.

Conclusions

In a lot of respects, I like RIFT Artifacts better than WoW Archeology. I love the fact that Artifacts are in the game world, scattered in obscure corners. I like trying to figure out how to get that artifact which is stuck in the tree. In WoW, I really dislike flying from dig site to dig site with my map open, trying to tell if I am flying in the correct direction.

I like the whole rush of opening the Artifact node and seeing what you get. It reminds me a lot of my days of playing Magic, and opening packs to see what rare I'd pull. While a dig site in WoW is terribly boring. Survey, survey, survey, but I know I'm getting 3 nodes of 3-5 fragments each. The only moment of excitement is finishing a project and seeing what the next project is.

In some respects, it sort of feels like the WoW devs spent too much time trying to simulate the profession of Archeology, rather than coming up with a mini-game which was actually fun.

But then again, I don't like the randomness of RIFT Artifacts. As I mentioned above, I only ever completed one set. And the more sets you finish, the harder it becomes to finish the remaining sets. Like Magic, getting the last few cards you needed to finish your collection can be a killer. On the other hand, if you removed the randomness, it might lose its luster and become a straight grind.

It's entirely possible that because I treated RIFT Artifacts as a side-game--only collecting them as I came across them in the course of questing--that I never saw the real flaws and frustrations. I imagine that trying to complete the Achievements for collecting all the sets would be mind-numbing, and you'd eventually resort to the Auction House to purchase the few artifacts you are missing. To me, the idea that a mini-game would force you to do that is something of an admission of failure on its part.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Revamp of the Old World

There is a contradiction at the heart of the old world revamp in Cataclysm. On one hand, the mechanics are more newbie-friendly, to the point where even a lot of experienced casual players are saying that it is too easy.

But on the other hand, the stories being told are not particularly newbie-friendly.

Take Westfall for example. The new Westfall is a tour de force. It is gorgeously done, and a joy to play through. And yet, would it work at all if you hadn't played the old Westfall? If you didn't really know who Edwin Van Cleef and the Defias are?

There's lots of zones like this. The reclamation of Western Plaguelands is also a great storyline. But can it work if you didn't see the original Western Plaguelands?

Darkshore is heart-breaking for an older player. But again, not experiencing the original Darkshore causes that zone to lose a ton of impact.

The same thing is going to happen with a lot of NPCs. Their "origin story" disappears, but the NPC is still in the world. For example, take Chromie and Tirion Fordring. Fan favorites, both of them. But the original quests which introduced you to them have been removed.

To me, the level 1-60 zones in Cataclysm now feel like Book IV in a series. But Book I is no longer available to read. And Books II and III now come after Book IV, for some reason.

But then again, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe new players won't be hampered by this fact. Or maybe it will feel to them like the world has history. I mean, I never played Warcraft III, and I never felt that I greatly missed anything.

(Except for Illidan. I never really understood what the fuss about Illidan was all about.)

Of course, one significant difference is that Warcraft III is still available for play, while the original zones are gone for good.

I am not sure that--if I was in charge of an MMO--I would ever green-light a revamp like Cataclysm. I actually agree with pretty much all the mechanical changes, and even the easier difficulty. But I would balk at rewriting the original stories of the game. Even though the new stories are extremely good, I think the loss of the old stories was a greater harm.

Of course, going through the older stories and tightening them up is another matter. In some respects, my ideal change is something like what happened to the quest [Princess Must Die]. The pig, Princess, used to be on the other side of the map, in the Brackwell Pumpkin patch. It was moved to the Stonefield farm. This made it easier to complete the quest, and strengthened the original story. Before, you were sent to assassinate a pig on a different farm, which was somewhat questionable. Was the pig really causing damage, or was Ma Stonefield using you to hurt an innocent competitor?

While now the pig is clearly causing damage to the Stonefield farm. The story is tightened up, and mechanically life is easier as you don't have to run to one end of the map and back.

In a lot of respects, I think Blizzard should have kept changes to the original zones to that level. Edit Book I rigorously, but not replace it entirely with Book IV.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

4.2 Raid Nerfs

Yesterday Blizzard revealed that with patch 4.2, Tier 11 normal raid content will be nerfed into puggability.

(Yes, I just made up that word right now. But I think it's a fair description of what the difficulty of T11 content will look like after 4.2 hits.)

In any case, there's a lot of angst running around the blogosphere and forums. But the thing is that the raid paradigm has changed, and there's not a lot of use in holding on to the old paradigm. We've discussed this before, but raiding has switched from a "progression" paradigm to a "focus on the current tier" mentality.

This nerf fits right in with that idea. Come 4.2, the current tier will be Firelands, and all guilds will jump into that. T11 will become the province of pickup groups and individuals gearing up for Firelands.

And T11 does need a nerf in that case. Right now, it is not forgiving enough for most pickup groups to complete successfully.

It is also silly to expect that gear from T12 will make pugging T11 easier, as I've seen proposed. The people who will need to pug T11 are the people who need to gear up so they can join their groups in T12, not the other way around.

In my view, the "progression" paradigm is dead and gone. It's not worthwhile to protest changes from the point of view of "progression across tiers" raiding anymore. In the new world of raiding, only the current tier really matters.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Trends

A reader asks:

As a back drop let me tell you that I played wow from vanilla to wraith..quit..then came back for cata then quit again. But putting in those five or so years has left a mark on me (for better or worse I haven't figured out yet). I doubt I will ever return for numerous reasons not the least of which is not knowing anyone from the early days that are still playing...but none of this either here nor there. I active/ casually follow a handful of blogs concerning WoW (and other games) and have started to notice a disturbing trend of people not posting anymore. Whether because they quit the game, moved on, or just got tired of blogging who knows but here is my question.

Is the phenomenon of WoW starting to wear off? Is the community of gamers shrinking, moving on to other games, or other forms of entertainment? Or is it just the blogs I follow are shutting down?

To some extent it's probably a combination of the two. WoW has been out for six years now. That's a long time to be a phenomenon.

But a lot more is probably due just to the blogs you read. People stop blogging and new ones start all the time. (I wonder if any of my readers remember Psyae.) When you're an avid player, there's a lot more incentive to search out new blogs. But searching out new blogs is a lot of work, and after a while it becomes easier and more comfortable to stick with the blogs you know.

I've always found that it's really hard to generalize the whole game from your personal perspective. Sometimes it becomes really easy to think of your situation and the people around you as "normal". Theres a lot of self-selection bias.

I really noticed this when I was following Elitist Jerks. A lot of the people who hang out there think of their experience as the normal one, when we all know that it isn't. But all their friends have the same experience, as do the people they hang out online, so they don't see everyone else.

As well, we're moving into summer, and there's always summer lulls.

So I don't really know if there's a general trend. That would require access to better data than I have. If I took my experience as normal, then there wouldn't be a decrease at all. For some reason, a lot of older players who quit have been coming back to us. But, as I said above, personal experience is often misleading.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Too Much Mana Regen?

I haven't really commented about the upcoming mana cost increases for Holy paladins in 4.2. I'm still waiting to see how things pan out. Though naturally the forums are up in arms over the changes.

But I'm coming to the conclusion that there is too much mana regen running around these days. In a lot of respects, it feels like my mana bar is swinging around wildly during fights these days.

We were doing Heroic Maloriak the other night. On the first attempt, the phases at the end of the fight went Blue->Red->Green->P2. I entered the Green phase with about 40% mana, which in retrospect was a bit too low.

On the second attempt, which was a kill, the phases went Red->Blue->Green->P2. This time I entered the Green phase with 90% mana. This is because the healing needed in Blue phase is pretty light, making it a total regen phase. Pop Divine Plea, cast Holy Lights instead of Divine Lights, etc.

Sadly, a lot of my mana went to waste because WoW crashed on me in P2. It was quite infuriating. Why didn't it crash the previous attempt when I was bone dry?

But this "swinginess" of mana seems too much to me. Bouncing around from 40% to 90% and back down is really weird. If a fight has a regen phase, you can gain a ton of mana back, probably too much.

Personally, I'd rather Blizzard nerf mana regen rather than increase costs. It seems like it would make healing mana more stable and predictable.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Premium Cross-Realm Dungeon Feature

A Blizzard CM, Zarhym, posts:

With the continued popularity of the Dungeon Finder, many players have been asking for a way to group up with real-life friends who play on other realms to take on instances together. Today, we wanted to give you a heads up about a new feature currently in development that will allow players to invite Real ID friends of the same faction to a party regardless of the realm they play on, and then queue up for a 5-player regular or Heroic dungeon.

As this is a fairly complex service to develop, we don’t have a release date to share quite yet. It’s important to note that as with some of the other convenience- and connectivity-oriented features we offer, certain elements of the cross-realm Real ID party system will be premium-based, though only the player sending the invitations will need to have access to the premium service. We'll have more details to share with you as development progresses -- in the meantime, you may begin to see elements of the feature appear on the World of Warcraft PTR.

First off, I think mentioning the Dungeon Finder was a bit misleading. As I read it, this doesn't have a lot to do with the Dungeon Finder. It sounds like you can invite RealId friends to your group, and then queue up for an instance.

Honestly, I don't really see the point to this feature. There's already a workaround if you want to play with real-life friends regularly. You just roll new characters on the same server. You can save your old characters for times when your group isn't online. And if you're always playing together, then maybe server transfers are a better option.

I don't really see how the economics of this idea will work. This feature sounds like something you pay for ahead of time, that you plan on using multiple times, but not too often. And only one person in the group needs to pay for it.

I don't think that the number of players that would use this service is very high. And the people who would actually need to pay for it is a fraction of that number. So basically, I don't think the amount of money you'd get from this is worth the complaints from the community that "Blizzard is making us pay extra if we want to play with friends".

It also doesn't fit in with previous premium services. Server transfers, et al, are all one-time things. Having a price tag attached to them just serves to keep demand down, and ensures that people only use those services when they really need to. If server transfers were free, people would be jumping around like crazy.

I don't really see the point of decreasing demand for this service. Maybe it serves to ensure that people don't RealId strangers just to group with them again. That you only put "real" friends on your RealId list. This is one thing that could convince me that charging for this feature is a good idea. If there is a significant potential negative effect to this service, depressing demand via pricing is wise.

However, I don't think Blizzard charging for this service is "wrong". Personally, I'll never use it. So for me, having it be optional is better than bundling it in the base package and increasing the price of that.

Complete speculation, but from a software dev perspective, it kind of feels like one faction of Blizzard management didn't really want to spend the development time and effort on this feature. That they thought it would affect too few people to be worth spending money on, and would end up like the barbershop1. But another faction really wanted to work on this feature. Maybe because it would set the stage for future cross-server coordination. So the two factions compromised with the idea that it would be a premium service and so "pay for itself".

Of course, the above paragraph is pure speculation. But to me, the other premium services, and even the pets and mounts, make sense to me as premium services. I may prefer that Blizzard didn't charge for them, but they make economic sense to me. But I just don't see the point of charging for this idea when only one person out of the group of friends would actually end up paying for it. It's ticky-tacky, nickel-and-dime stuff that seems out of character for Blizzard (though maybe not Activision).

1. You can really tell from a lot of Blizzard's comments that they feel that the Barbershop probably wasn't the best use of resources, given the number of people that actually use the feature semi-regularly.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Levelling Speed in Cataclysm

There's a lot of concern that levelling is too fast in Cataclysm. I am not sure if it is too fast or not, but lately I've been making a bunch of low level alts. Here is one thing I've noticed about levelling speed.

If you do nothing but quest, the XP curve seems to match the quests very well. But if you do anything else like a dungeon, or some PvP, or even herbing/mining, it feels like the XP from those activities starts making you outstrip your quests.

It seems like Blizzard wanted to make running instances, running battlegrounds, or herbing/mining viable methods of leveling. So that questing wasn't the only path. But to me it feels that if you dip into multiple areas, it hurts questing because you get pushed past the optimum level for the quests you currently have.

In Vanilla, questing was the sole means of levelling. Dungeons formed too infrequently to really affect you. Battlegrounds didn't grant XP. And herbing/mining certainly didn't help you level.

(As an aside, I don't really understand why herbing and mining started granting XP. That seems so unnecessary to me.)

I don't know how one would fix this issue. If Blizzard expects someone to do multiple activities, and adjusts XP accordingly, then someone who just quested would find themselves under-level for the quests they were getting.

So that's my observation on the state of the early game and leveling speed. I'm not sure how extensive the problem is. I have a low-level rogue, who has quested, done each available dungeon two to three times, and is a herbalist. That rogue has definitely out-leveled her quests. On the other hand, I have a low-level shaman that has done nothing but quests, with no professions. That shaman matches his quests correctly.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tower of Radiance

I've been thinking about the talent Tower of Radiance. Common wisdom is that healing off-beacon is the way to go, rather than healing on-beacon and generating extra Holy Power. But how close are the two options?

SpellAmount Healed
Divine Light11733 + 1.15306p
Beacon - Divine Light5866 + 0.57653p
Light of Dawn (Glyphed, 3pt)11512 + 2.376p
Beacon - Light of Dawn5756 + 1.188p

(Values taken from Elitist Jerks.)

For the on-beacon scenario, healing done = 3 DL + 1 LoD + 1 Beacon_LoD.

For the off-beacon scenario, the extra GCD contributes about 60% of a Divine Light. Healing done = 3 DL + 3 Beacon_DL + 60% * DL + 60% * Beacon_DL

If we remove the common 3 Divine Lights from both scenarios, we end up with the following:

On-beacon healing: 17268 + 3.564p
Off-beacon healing: 28159 + 2.767p

Note that on-beacon healing actually has a higher coefficient. What that means is that there is a point of spellpower such that on-beacon healing will surpass off-beacon healing. That point is around 13700 spell power.

So off-beacon healing still does more healing. But there is a cost. That 60% of a Divine Light costs a fair bit of mana, while the Light of Dawn was free. And on-beacon healing will do more if the last heal in the off-beacon scenario was a Holy Light instead of a Divine Light.

So, unless my math is greatly wrong, on-beacon healing is surprising close to off-beacon healing. It may even supersede it if the off-beacon healer casts Holy Lights sometime during the fight, as the mana saved during the on-beacon rotation can allow you to replace some of the Holy Lights with a Divine Light.

Of course, this doesn't count the practicalities of healing specific fights. Sometimes two tanks are taking the brunt of the damage, weighting towards off-beacon healing. Sometimes only one tank is taking damage, weighting towards on-beacon healing. In a 10-man, Light of Dawn is less likely to hit all 6 targets (though it does hit pets as well).

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Building a Better Community, Part II

I forgot one other strategy for building a better community when I was writing the last post.



D. Reduce Anonymity

According to John Gabriel's Greater Internet F****** Theory, the combination of anonymity and an audience causes normal people to feel free to act badly. So maybe reducing anonymity is a valid strategy to build a better community.

6. Tie all characters to a single id

Remove the idea of anonymous alts. All alts can be identified as belonging to the same player/account.

7. Tie all accounts to real word name or identity

This takes the previous idea a step further. Your online identity is linked to your real name.

In addition to reducing the anonymity of the would-be bad actor, this also might have the additional effect of "humanizing" the other players. Sometimes when you're playing with a bunch of avatars, it's easy to dehumanize them and treat them as effective NPCs. Perhaps using real names will remind people that they are playing with real people.


I also want to respond to a couple of specific comments made.

Community Based Policing

SaiyanMan states:
Isn't the central problem: "The Internet is a horrible place to have a community"? The only working solution on a fairly large scale tends to be a strong, user community based policing.

I am not as sure of this as you are. Community based policing enforces the current norms of the community. So if the community is bad, the norms it enforces will be bad as well.

For example, if you picked 5 random WoW players and presented them with one player, Sue, who used the word "gay" as a pejorative, and other player, Jane, who does 2K dps in heroics, who do you think the community is more likely to censure?

(If you say Sue, I have a bridge in Brooklyn that you might be interested in.)

In my experience, community based policing only really works when the power is not given to the community at large, but to a subset of users who have a vision of what the community should be. Often older or original members of the community.

As well, community based policing is vulnerable to hijack by organized "mafias". A small group working together can often intentionally push the community moderation in an unintended direction. Just imagine if Goonswarm gets to be the police in your MMO community.

Moderated Servers and the Best Guilds

Winterpine suggests:
Create specific servers where there is little to no moderation or banning and see where people choose to roll their mains. Five bucks says that many who try out the "freedom of speech" servers will realize society without laws isn't as peachy as they thought, and that a little (self) moderation goes a long way in improving play experience. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see the best guilds thrive on the moderated servers.

This might or might not be a good idea. But personally, I would be shocked if the best guilds were on moderated servers.

The best players tend to come from the young, male, hyper-competitive gaming culture.1 Killer-Achievers, basically. They are not particularly attracted to moderated servers. The culture is often crass, and contains a lot of bravado. They're not bad, per se. If the lines are laid down, they will stay more or less within them, pushing the edges where they can.

But that culture would see it as a point of pride to be top dogs on the non-moderated servers. A sort of "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen" attitude.

1. I'm not saying that they're all male, or all young, but the core of most high end guilds tend to be males in their 20s.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Building a Better Community

Tongue firmly in cheek, Tobold asks what game companies could do to build a better community.

I'll take the question seriously and give several possibilities. But I'd also like to take a step back, and consider the greater strategy behind each idea. As well, remember that all things have a price, but some prices are worth paying.



A. Improve the environment

The idea behind the Broken Windows Theory is that "humans constantly monitor other people and their environment in order to determine what the correct norms for the given situation are." An environment in disrepair encourages people to be more anti-social, while a maintained environment prevents further vandalism.

Basically, the theory states that paying attention to small violations of social norms helps prevent larger violations. Accordingly, here are a couple of suggestions following this theory:

1. Have a strict naming policy

Normally, naming rules are very relaxed, save on Role-Playing servers. Enforcing stricter naming rules for characters, guilds, and PvP names would send a signal about what is acceptable and not acceptable. We've all seen the terrible, scatological, rude, and quite frankly stupid names that abound in WoW.

They're kind of like graffiti and petty vandalism. Making sure that names are decent (and also don't use special characters) might improve the general environment.

2. Stricter forum moderation

Hyper-aggressive forum moderation would set a the standard for what is acceptable behavior. Forum bans should also result in in-game bans, further linking the idea that how one behaves on a forum should match how you behave in-game.


B. Filter your audience

There's an old saying that "one rotten apple spoils the bunch." Here, the idea is that a single malicious player can destroy the community for numerous other players. That player might also influence other players to behave badly as well. Identifying and getting rid of that player might have the greatest impact on the quality of your community.

3. Be more willing to ban players

If it looks like a player is a bad influence, ban them. Even if it is debatable, maybe it is better to lose a good player than keep a bad player.

4. No PvP

If you follow the Bartle archetypes of Killer, Achiever, Socializer, and Explorer, Killers are the ones who enjoy harming the game experience of others. Killers are also greatly attracted to PvP. Getting rid of PvP gets rid of a major attraction for those players and makes it less likely that they will join your game.

There's some circumstantial evidence for this. First, battlegrounds have always been much worse than dungeons. Heck, I've been in BGs that featured vicious insults and trash talk when we were winning!

Second, of the MMOs I've played, the Lord of the Rings Online community (at least prior to going F2P) always had a very good community. I don't think it's a coincidence that it's the one game that featured the least PvP.


C. Remove sources of conflict

Maybe to improve the community, the best thing to do would be to remove the things players fight over.

5. Make the game easy.

In my experience, players are pretty easy-going as long as they are successful. It's really only when failure happens that the knives come out. If the game was much easier than it is, maybe players would have less to fight about.


Anyways, those are some ideas to improve the community of an MMO. Remember that they all have drawbacks, which I really haven't discussed at all.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Crowd Control Changes

Big Bear Butt has a good post talking about the changes coming for Crowd Control in 4.2.

Basically, sheeping a mob in a pack will no longer pull the rest of the pack.

I completely agree with BBB that this is a good change. It makes CC much more user-friendly, as it separates the CC phase from the actual pull. Rather than painstakingly marking the entire pack, we will be able to CC first, see that it was done correctly, and then pull the remaining mobs.

The DPS can even CC ahead of time, confident that they won't be pulling before the tank is ready.

As well, it will make tanking easier. The CC'd mobs will stay where they started, while the remaining mobs will be pulled to the tank. This makes it a lot easier for the tank to use AoE abilities without breaking Crowd Control. Essentially, we get some of the Wrath-style AoE capability, while still using Crowd Control.

All in all, this will be a good change for the game.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Optimizing and Fun

Several commenters advance the notion that looking up talent and gear optimizations is not fun.

And there's a lot of truth in that statement. Coming up with your own specs and strategies is a great deal of fun. Personally, if I'm looking at something new, I like to make up what I think the optimal spec will be and then go to Elitist Jerks and see how my spec differs from theirs and why.

But you know what isn't fun? Wiping.

It isn't fun to wipe to bosses you know that you could beat if only that hunter over there went to EJ, looked up a decent spec and rotation and tried it out. It isn't fun to watch your guild die because you stalled out at a boss that you know your team had the skill to beat, and optimal specs, gemming, and rotations would have been enough to push you over the hump.

I've been there and done that. To be honest, I've probably contributed to the problem in past guilds.

I'm in a guild now that takes it for granted that players will use the Internet to help determine optimum specs, rotation, reforging, and gear. That every player will come to raids pretty close to the accepted optimum for all those elements. If you app to us, and you differ from the optimum, you will face extra scrutiny.

And you know what? This is enormously freeing.

It takes so much of the "busywork" off the table. We still struggle with fights, but we're struggling with execution, and mastering the mechanics of the fight, not basic elements of how to play the class.

Talents, gear, and rotation are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to playing. They're the basics. Using community resources like EJ allows you to "shortcut" past those basics and work on more advanced techniques1 and fight-specific mechanics.

Ironically, taking optimization for granted allows you to focus on playing the game, and not playing the spreadsheet. Someone else has made the spreadsheet for you, has done the math. Leverage their efforts, steal their results, and you get to focus on making the right gameplay decisions for the fight at hand.

1. For some examples of more advanced techniques, see Kripparian's video.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

More Thoughts on Optimality

Choices and Futures

Several commenters took exception to my statement that "for a decision to be meaningful, there must be a right choice and a wrong choice."

Kring states:

I couldn't disagree more. You only have a real choice if all choices are valid.

It's like democracy. Just because you're allowed to vote doesn't mean you also have a choice. You only have a choice if there are multiple good and relevant parties.

I don't really think we're that far apart. Perhaps I'll rephrase and extend my thoughts.

For a choice to be real, it must lead to different futures. If you vote Conservative or NDP, it's a choice because the future with a Conservative government is different than the future with an NDP government. However, the desirability of each future matters.

When voting, neither future is obviously desirable. Some people would prefer the Conservative government, others the NDP. Thus neither choice is right or wrong.

However, this is not the case with optimizing. In one future, the boss dies. The other future, the boss doesn't die. The future where the boss dies is 100% more desirable. Thus, barring any side-effects, the choices that shift the probabilities towards first future are "right", and the other choices are "wrong".

For another example, take a Civ-like game. Both going for military victory or cultural victory are valid choices. But if you're pursuing a cultural victory, randomly producing tanks for no real reason when you could have made a cathedral instead is the "wrong" choice.

Now if it's a single player game, then no one else other than you pays the price for your wrong decision. But in a team game, wrong decisions hurt your team's chances of victory.

Shintar phrases this in a different manner:
Situations where there is a clearly right and a clearly wrong solution are calculations, not choices.

Sure, if that's the semantics you want to use. But it is incumbent on you to pick the best calculation in a team game. And the best calculation is determined by the optimizers.

Good Players and Sub-Optimal Choices

Masterlooter states:
If you have the "optimal" setup, and I have a "sub-optimal" one, but I do more damage than you (with equal gear), then I am more valuable to the raid. But since my setup is considered to be "inferior", I may not even get an invite to the group in the first place.

In my view, this is a bit of a strawman. The truth is that this very rarely happens.

High-skill players almost always use the optimal spec or strategy. There are a few exceptions, but they are very rare. The vast majority of the time, someone with a non-optimal spec turns out to be a low-skill player.

Encouraging medium or low skill players to feel that they are a "special snowflake" and don't need to use more optimal builds dooms them and their group to mediocrity and failure. You have enough trouble with lack of skill, why further handicap yourself with a sub-optimal build?

And even the high-skill player with the sub-optimal spec does her group a disservice. If the high-skill player switched to the optimal spec, odds are she would play at an even higher level.

DPS Meters

There's also a lot of antipathy for DPS meters among the non-optimizing crowd. This is probably uncharitable of me, but sometimes it seems like DPS just want the freedom to play badly and not get called out for it.

They'd rather no one be able to tell how terrible they really are. That might mean they have to take the "effort" to improve. Just let the tanks and healers carry the group and do the work, while they sit back and collect the loot.

After all, it's pretty obvious when the tanks and healers are failing. What's so wrong with having an element that makes it just as obvious that the DPS are failing?

Good players don't worry about DPS meters. You know why? Because they post respectable results. They're an asset to the group instead of dead weight.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Optimality

Nils and Tobold are talking about inefficiency and the fear of being sub-optimal. Both of them seem to feel that the drive to optimize is negative.

I disagree.

For a decision to be meaningful, there must be a right choice and a wrong choice. Taking the right choice makes it easier to be successful. Taking the wrong choice makes it harder.

Players optimize because there is a chance of failure, and no one wants to be the guy who is deliberately handicapping the rest of the team. The game is already hard enough. Why make it harder on the rest of your group?

Trying to stop optimization is futile. Removing the ability to inspect or dps meters just means that you don't get any feedback and can't see what's going wrong.

You can remove the decisions entirely. Remove talent points and different stats on armor. No more optimization. But that makes the game less interesting.

You can make the game easier. If there's no chance of failure, there's no point in optimizing.

You could make content less predictable. But this is no guarantee of optimizing. PvP still has optimal builds and, more egregiously, optimal group compositions. It just changes the focus on optimizing to be the most damage for the most situations.

And I don't think that PvE players like unpredictable content as you think they would. Faction Champs in ToC and Prince Malchezzar in Karazhan had unpredictable elements, and there was a lot of grumbling about those.

As well, unpredictable content can still be optimized. Think of Blackjack or Poker. It's unpredictable. Yet there are still strategies and optimizations for those games. Only now you have to take probability into account, which makes the optimizations far harder to execute.

You could rotate content such that the "optimal" build in Fight 1 becomes sub-optimal in Fight 2. Which is promptly followed by the playerbase replacing the players from Fight 1 with different players for Fight 2.

In reality, I think that most people who are against optimizing aren't really against optimizing per se. Rather, they are against other people optimizing for them. If they were the ones to come up with the "optimal" build and reveal it to the world, then they would be happy.

But it just doesn't work that way. My rule of thumb is to assume that there are people who are ten times better at this game than I am. And there are people who are ten times worse. The better people are going to come up with optimizations faster than I will. The worse people will not see what I see, and just perform at a much lower level, making grouping with them destined to failure.

For any meaningful decision in a game, someone will determine the "right" answer sooner or later. The good players in the game will figure it out pretty quickly. The bad players will never figure it out.

The best an MMO company can do is make sure that each "playstyle" is close enough to the optimal so that it is viable. But otherwise, it is impossible to have meaningful decisions in group play, and yet not have optimizations.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Paladin Tier 12

Blizzard recently unveiled the Paladin Tier 12 armor:


I think it looks rather decent. A lot of people deride the "dress" surcoat/cassock, but I rather like them. It makes paladin armor recognizably different than warrior or deathknight armor. It also plays up the "cleric" aspect of the paladin.

The helm is clearly inspired by T2, Judgement armor. In fact, where T2 was Paladin as Dark Inquistor, this set is Paladin as Fiery Inquisitor. Which is a pretty neat interpretation.

What's most interesting to me is that Blizzard did not show off any recolors of the set. And because the T12 theme is fiery armor, I don't see how they can actually do recolors this time around without wrecking the theme. So it will be interesting to see how, or even if, they differentiate the heroic version from the normal version.

My final verdict is that T12 is not in the absolute top Paladin sets (reserved for T2 and T6), but it is certainly above average.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Star Wars: The Old Republic Preview

Ouch. These guys probably aren't going to get any more previews or material from EA. Oddly courageous for the gaming media:

Our opinion of The Old Republic, formed over two solid days of playing, is that it’s one of the most boring titles we’ve ever had to endure. It’s plain and staid and deathly dull.

I don't know how absolutely accurate this will turn out to be, but I admire Bitgamer for being so willing to bite the hand that feeds them.