Saturday, December 31, 2011

Rift: Macros for mages

Rift has amazing macro capabilities. In some ways, not quite as good as WoW, but in other ways, orders of magnitude better. The primary difference is that in Rift, you can place as many spells in a single macro as you like, and the first one that is currently castable will be the one that is activated when you press the button.

This tutorial isn't about cookie-cutter macros. The macros below don't take additional souls into account and are very specific to one configuration and play style. The point of this article is to teach you how to build your own macros and what to look for when reading your spells and abilities. Once you learn this, you won't need cookie-cutters, though they're still useful to look at, as you may have missed something (for example, my Pyro build wasn't using Heat Wave very often because I didn't see the 50% casting speed increase, and was only using it to reset the cooldown of Withering Flames, a real waste of the ability!)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Rift: Crafting the perfect mage

Mage builds abound on the Web for players of the MMO, Rift, but there's precious little I can find that tells prospective players about the class in detailed and complete terms. I'm going to try to do that, here. Each post will be tagged with "Riftmage" so you can follow that tag to find all of them.

Let me just spend a paragraph on those who don't play Rift yet: mage is one of the four "classes" or "callings" in the game (rogue, warrior and cleric being the other three). The diversity of the game comes from the 10 "souls" that these callings can arrange in any set of 3. If you've played World of Warcraft, then you'll be familiar with the idea of 3 talent trees. That's what your selected 3 souls look like in Rift, but you can select any 3 out of the 10 you like. This means that when I say, "mage", I can mean a necromancer who summons a pet; a pyromancer who throws fireballs around; a chloromancer who heals their party or raid by doing damage to the opponent; or an elementalist who summons an elemental pet among others.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Warcraft Lore: Who is the most powerful being?

Sargeras concept art, Wowwiki
Someone recently asked on the MMO-Champion forums, "who is the most powerful being in WoW?" Predictably, this spawned a long thread, the consensus of which seems to be that the correct answer is Sargeras. I'm not so sure. Here's my response to that thread:

Sargeras isn't the most powerful, lore-wise. This is easily demonstrated by the fact that he was corrupted by ... something. We know that it had something to do with being exposed to the twisting nether for too long, but that's all we know. There's a sort of White Wolf/Mage: The Ascension (not Awakening) thing going on in the Warcraft universe. Space isn't just an empty vacuum (or even a roiling quantum foam), but a sort of boundary layer between the worlds (Azeroth, Draenor, etc.) that we know and something... else. This something else seems to be hostile in the extreme (hence why Sargeras was off fighting to keep it at bay). We know almost nothing about what's out there, but most things in the Warcraft universe seem to have a motive intelligence, and there's no reason not to assume that that's the case when it comes to the Nether.

So... I propose that the Old Gods are a sort of cyst created by the intrusion of whatever it is that corrupted Sargeras, into Azeroth. This is why the Titans are so worried about it, not because they're unable to cope with the Old Gods directly, but because they're just the tip of the iceberg, and they can't cope with whatever lies beneath.

WoW Insider had a great article on this recently, where they speculated that Azeroth was actually a prison, built around the Warcraft universe's equivalent of Lovecraft's Azathoth (and therefore that the name similarity was a deliberate reference).

Whether that's true or no, I think there has to be a big bad planned for WoW's post-Sargeras era... and that's the only source I can see in the works.

In the same thread, someone asked about Ragnaros, and I think that topic dove-tails nicely with the above:
It's quite absurd for a group of adventurers to defeat Ragnaros, isn't it ?
Is it? Certainly, since his power nearly rivals that of the Titans (at least in the sense that he was able to champion the Old Gods against them and make some headway before being banished, though we don't know how he did this, or in what sense he went up against them "solo") I think it's pretty clear that a one-on-25 against him would likely fail. However, that was the old Ragnaros who was defeated in Blackrock Mountain due to his being incompletely summoned to Azeroth from his elemental prison. We have no idea how much that defeat weakened him. It's entirely possible that you're facing Rags at half or less strength in Firelands.

It's also important to realize that we have no way of understanding what the power-level of the Titans or their adversaries are. They're powerful, to be sure, but they also employ a number of highly sophisticated magical and mechanical systems to support their activities. Can a Titan re-shape the world with a thought, or are they merely very powerful, immortal mages with an eternity of engineering at their disposal? Would we be able to tell the difference?

If that's all they are, then measuring Ragnaros in terms of their power might be highly misleading.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria and race choices

There's a lot of (sadly predictable) rage going on right now in the WoW community about the new race in Mists of Pandaria (the next expansion): Pandarens. Of course, the Pandarens have been around since the start and there's long been an unconfirmed rumor that they were slated to be the alliance race in the first expansion (confirmed, now, by the way at this year's Bizzcon).

I want to put the rage in some perspective. This is a game with foot-long floppy ears. This is a fantasy game where one of the most iconic images is a dwarf with a shotgun. This is a game where the magic-addicted deity-kidnappers are a playable race of "good guys". This is a fantasy game with blue space aliens. This is a fantasy game with orcs from space. This is a game with Jamaican-themed trolls.

WoW is, to quote Monty Python, a silly place. We should not be shocked when they add a cute race that riffs on cultural icons, and in fact if we are surprised by that it really speaks to how little we've been paying attention.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What can PvP teach us about the economy?

I've been doing warfronts in Rift quite a bit of late (battlegrounds to the WoWers out there), and PvP with pickup groups teaches me quite a lot about social dynamics, and I think it's given me a moment of clarity about the economy. The invisible hand is an old economics concept, defined as: "a social mechanism that channeled ambition toward meeting the needs of society, even if the ambitious had no benevolent intentions." To boil that down, the economy as a whole continues to generally serve our needs by providing for stable sources of food and shelter, even though it's not at all the goal of those with the most wealth that the majority receive those benefits.

So, here's what I see in PvP. Generally speaking, I win some and I lose some. When I'm up against a highly coordinated and well-geared premade which wipes the floor with our team, I see a number of people losing it, and accusing their team of being bad; of not healing enough; of not dpsing enough; etc. They begin with the assumption that if everyone played "on their level" that they would have won the match. Of course, they were wrong. A randomly mixed group of people with whatever gear they happen to have and no real form of coordination will always be beaten by a well geared and highly coordinated team.

Interestingly, though, these same people will cheer ecstatically when they win, proclaiming "that's how it's done," and otherwise lauding his teammates for excelling. But did they? Didn't they just put in a nominal effort and happen to go up against a team whose nominal effort was hobbled by a lesser gearing or experience makeup that, over the long term, is guaranteed to happen in random matchups?

These peaks and valleys of elation and anger over forces which are essentially random got me to thinking about the economy. Let's say, just for sake of argument, that the economy was a fixed system with pre-determined behavior. Let's say that a recession or depression was "fated" and there was no way that it could be averted. Would the rhetoric change? Would blame not be assigned?

Let's now say that booms and bubbles were also pre-determined and unavoidable. Would politicians not claim credit for them? Would we not try to connect policy to prosperity and give new weight to the policies that preceded such times?

Now, let's go back to the real world where booms and busts are under our control... or are they? Does the invisible hand work toward a benign goal, or is it just the collective pull toward the center? Does it raise the living conditions of the poorest, or simply oscillate the larger trends enough that the rich can become poor and the poor rich, thus never reaching a state where anyone has singular control, and perpetuating itself? Should we blame our politicians for busts, or are they just the inevitable consequence of booms, to be expected; planned for; and weathered?

To return to the gaming metaphor: what is it that we actually expected when we lose? Are we surprised? Do the random things that people did wrong really contribute, or was it just statistics slapping us down and telling us, "that's RNG, bitch!"

As an aside to those who constantly berate their teammates when they lose, and to those who berate their leaders when times are bad, I've taken to saying this at the start of a match, "If we lose and you have to say something about it, try: I'll try harder next time."

Monday, September 26, 2011

Rift: WoW's next generation

I've been playing Rift of late. In case you're not aware of it, Rift is a massively multiplayer roleplaying game like World of Warcraft, EverQuest, Lord of the Rings Online, and so forth. Unlike many other games, however, it's a fairly shameless reproduction of World of Warcraft, in about the same ways that World of Warcraft was a fairly shameless reproduction of EverQuest. Yes, there are massive changes (fewer, I think you could argue, between WoW and Rift than between EQ and WoW), but the core of the games are very, very similar. I believe that Rift uses the Lord of the Rings Online engine, which I think a few other games use as well. Definitely the graphics feel much more like LotRO than WoW.

So, let me review the game in parts.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What is eye candy?

A really interesting thread was deleted on the World of Warcraft forums today, which I think is sad, and a general comment on why you can't use the official forums in a useful way these days. The thread started as a request for "eye candy for female WoW players." It quickly developed many of the standard sorts of threads of comment that you'd expect. There were men posting (half jokingly) that no women play WoW. There were women (or those who claimed to be) posting about how hot Arthas or pick-a-Blood-Elf are. There were those that called for a male counterpart to the warlock Succubus pet.

Sylvanas Windrunner
Overall, it was a fairly reasonable thread. One person posted saying that "it's bad enough Sylvanas and [some other names I forget] are designed as teen boy eye candy." I had a hard time with that one. Sure, these characters are scantily clothed, but they were also all powerful women who shaped the destinies of their people. Are such women not allowed to be as sexually alluring as their male counterparts? Is it just fine for Thrall and Hellscream to bare their chests at every turn, but not for Sylvanas to have a bare midriff?

The standard fantasy trope gives us character after character who shun heavy armor in favor of displaying their raw, sexual power. This is the case with everyone from Conan to Jaina Proudmoore. So, why can't we have sexually alluring females in WoW without it being an attempt to pander to teen boys? Do adult women and men not think Sylvanas looks good in her lack of armor? For my money, that girl can wear the hell out of a little bit of cloth and leather.

Now, back to the "eye candy for women" which I take to mean "eye candy for straight women". Here's the problem with that: for straight men, there's a fairly simple set of buttons you can press. Bare some skin, pose seductively. That's pretty much all you need. For women, there's a more nuanced set of interests, and it's often influenced by the social setting. In WoW, there's a tendency for women to focus on the elves. Partially this is because they're the only races whose men are overtly sexual, especially the Blood Elves.

Partially, however, this is the culmination of a social phenomenon. Most in-game roleplay relating to sexuality tends to involve humans or elves, and that has shaped a lot of the focus. Sure, Draenei and Orc men like to walk around shirtless a lot, and Tauren are the biggest and strongest looking, but there's no social momentum in their directions.

So, the question then becomes: what isn't eye candy? I think that, before you go asking about adding eye candy in the game, you have to ask yourself what you're looking for and what you already have.

Friday, July 29, 2011

WoW: Back to my Warlock

It's been a long time since I played my warlock in World of Warcraft. She's currently 82, and and going into a dungeon or two, I realized just how little I knew about the 4.x warlock class, now. World of Warcraft's single biggest problem is that it's a moving target. You need to re-learn your class over and over and over again, every time an expansion or major patch comes out. There are some great addons that help, though, and if you know the right Web sites to look at, you can come up to speed fairly quickly.

Let's start with my UI. Here's my combat UI:
Warlock combat UI against a training dummy.
Some things to cover in terms of addons I'm using. The pile of buttons at the button is Dominos. I have to choose what goes were in each bar, and they're arranged in 3-button-wide columns to match my G15 keyboard.

Next up, there are the buttons along the left side. Those are autobar, and I don't configure them. They contain my potions, food, trade skills, mounts, etc.

The button bar above the center of the screen with bar-graph type indicators hanging down from it is ButtonTimers, a great mod I'm going to get into below. Notice that I keep my target's unit frame near the center of the screen with big debuff markers that show my debuffs. This is crucial for boss fights.

OK, so the first thing I needed to do was find out what my rotations were. "Rotation" is a word that's now misleading. It used to be that all WoW classes with rare exception had a simple rotation of abilities, where you would cast X, Y, Y, Z, X, Y, Y, Z, and repeat (or some other sequence). Usually you had some big cooldowns that you threw in whenever, but the core rotation was what mattered.

Now, everyone has a priority list. For destruction warlocks like myself, this looks like:

  • Improved Soul Fire (Keep this buff up!)
  • Demon Soul
  • Immolate
  • Conflagrate
  • Bane of Doom
  • Corruption
  • Shadowflame
  • Soul Fire (Empowered Imp)
  • Chaos Bolt
  • Shadowburn (Sub 20% HP)
  • Incinerate
The above quoted from Elitist Jerks, a crucial resource for any class. There are some interesting problems, here. Note that Improved Soul Fire is a self-buff, Immolate puts a debuff on the mob, and Chaos Bolt is just a cooldown-based nuke. So, how do I juggle all these different inputs all the time? This is where ButtonTimers comes into play. Once you install the addon, you get some funky looking free-floating bars. Go to the Interface menu, select the addons tab at the top and then ButtonTimers. You have several options, but start with selecting bars 2, 3 and 4, each in turn and clicking off the "Enable" option for each bar. You just need the one.

OK, now go back to bar 1 and make sure the "lock bar" option is not selected (also unlock your action bars in the normal interfaces/action bars section of the default WoW UI if you have your action bars locked). Click OK and exit the interface menu. Move the bar to a convenient spot on your UI (I suggest targeting yourself while you do this so that you don't overlap your target frame) and then open your spellbook. You want to put the abilities that correspond to each of the items in the priority list into this new bar. I suggest putting long cooldowns on the right and your "bread and butter" abilities on the left. Some, like Improved Soul Fire correspond to a buff, but just put the Soul Fire spell on the bar for now.

Once you have the bar set up, go back to the ButtonTimers menu and select each button from bar 1 in turn. If what you need to track is a long cooldown nuke-type ability (e.g. Chaos Bolt), select "Player" and "Cooldown". If it's a debuff or dot, selelect "Target" and "Aura". If it's a self-buff you need to track, select "Player" and "Aura". For Improved Soul Fire, you want to type the full name of the buff into the "other auras" box, click the "Okay" button below the box and then select the checkbox next to it to show the buff's icon.

Once you 've done this, lock the ButtonTimers bar again and go back to the UI. Go to a training dummy and test it out. You should see bars like the screenshot above has, that will tick down the time until you have to deal with that ability again. With some practice, you'll just have to glace at those bars from time to time, and your situational awareness will be much improved! You can also auto-hide the bar when out of combat.

The other UI elements you'll see are MikScrollingBattleText for the floating damage numbers and alerts. The top damage meter and the one at the bottom are both Skada. However, the one at the top is set to track only the last fight, and during the fight it tracks threat instead of damage. The bottom meter always shows the overall damage meters since the last reset. Skada is probably the best damage meter out there, though I do like recount's graphing.

XPerl is what I use for the unit frames.

Now that I have all of that, I went back to reading the Elitist Jerks forum. There's tons of useful info, there, including glyphs, pet info and so on. Speaking of my pet, make sure you have a macro that can call your pet back. I use one of my basic attack keys. I include a "/petattack [nomodifier]" and then "/petpassive [modifier]" and then "/petassist [modifier]". So, when I control-press, it calls my pet off, but leaves it in "assist" mode so I don't accidentally end up leaving my pet on passive all the time (passive pets used to be a good thing, but assist with active control is a much better model for hunters, warlocks and mages now).

Monday, June 6, 2011

Lord of Ultima (LoU): Raiding for Resources

In a previous Lord of Ultima (LoU) article, I went into how you should build resource cities. As with many other aspects of the game, resources are something that you can deal with in multiple ways. You could build nothing but gold cities (see the building layout article) and buy from other players, but that's risky. What happens when no one is selling iron and you desperately need some to re-build your defenses after an attack?

A third way to go is raiding. Raiding isn't as risky as trying to buy your resources, but it's not as stable as building your own. So why do it? Mostly because it gives you the flexibility to use your troops to defend your cities and castles and you have more opportunities to kill bosses, giving you artifacts. This guide is definitely an optional one in our series, but follow along if you want to learn how to use an uncastled troop city for resources...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Lord of Ultima (LoU): Planning Your Empire

A castle with supporting cities.
Lord of Ultima is a game that's entirely about planning and long-term strategy. Once you build your second city, you're well on your way to the mid-game: expanding your empire and building support structures for the conflicts that will ultimately come.

I could fill volumes of articles with tips on how to play the mid-game, but this article will only seek to introduce the basics: how to plan out each city's purpose; how to cluster cities; where to place them and when to expand to other regions/continents. Mostly, this is going to be broad advice, not specific instructions like the previous articles. This is because there are so many right answers, and they all depend on your play style. We'll get started right after the break.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Lord of Ultima (LoU): Building Layout

A town center in Lord of Ultima
We've been over how to lay out your buildings for ideal resource gathering, in a previous article. Now, I want to discuss all the other kinds of buildings and how they fit into your plans.

Lord of Ultima has 23 building types. 4 of those are basic resource buildings (e.g. quarry); 4 are resource multipliers (e.g. stonemason); 8 are unit generators (e.g. training ground) along with the barracks that increase troop capacity and act as multipliers for recruiting speed; there's the market and the harbor which generate trade capacity and act as multipliers for the townhouses, which generate gold; and then there's the cottages, castles, warehouses and hideouts. I've covered the first two types previously and the unit generators will be covered in another article (though I will talk about moonglow towers, here). The rest are all covered below the break.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Lord of Ultima (LoU): Troop Building

My recent Lord of Ultima article about resource building was mostly aimed at those who have just started the game, or haven't figured out the basics of resource positioning. Troop building is a trickier art. First off, you have to decide what kind of player you want to be: offensive or defensive. Also, the game changes quite a lot as it goes on, and what's safe when everyone is starting out isn't at all safe later on. There will be a whole article in this series on castle design, and another on defensive/offensive strategies, but let's just talk troop production and selection right now.

What Kind of Troops?

The first choice you have to make is what kind of troops you want. There are five reasons to want troops: defense against players for yourself, defending friends and alliance mates against attacks from players, attacking other players, raiding dungeons, and raiding bosses. Let's boil these down to just "self defense," "defense," "offense," and "raiding." The only difference between self defense and defense is that you don't usually need to take travel time into account, so we'll ignore that for now and leave the distinction for a later article. That leaves us with just three categories.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Lord of Ultima (LoU): Resource Building

There's a lot of confusion in the Lord of Ultima (LoU) browser-based, free-to-play MMORTS game. I'm going to set out to resolve some of this confusion in a many-part series which will start with this post. In this post, we're considering resource building, the most fundamental mechanic in LoU.

In the first section, I'll address those who are just starting their first city, and then we'll get into the basic resource building strategies in the second section.

First off, let's destroy a persistent myth. There are lots of old guides out there that talk about building a "grid" of resource buildings. This is old, outdated and wrong information. Ignore such sites. LoU has since moved to a system where you need basic resource nodes (stone, wood, iron, lakes) in order to reach optimal builds.

First up: Starting Out

When you start your first city (log into the game) you have a town hall (level 1) the outline of your city wall (level 0) and, if you're playing on a castles server, your castle (level 1). You can follow the tutorial if you like, but you don't have to. What follows are guidelines for what you do if you do not follow the tutorial, but you can just catch up with this after you finish too.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Attention lame Web site password management

If your browser-based program, Web site, or other Web service requires me to create an account with a password, then I will fire up Password Safe and generate a password for it. If your horrible little toy of a password management tool can't handle a randomly generated ~32-character string of whatever random noise I throw at it, then I won't use it. If it requires that I enter my password in a way that won't let me paste from my password store, then I won't use it. Grow up and get the Net. If you can't then use Google to authenticate your users. They do provide a free API for it, and they actually know how to cope with grownup passwords.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

An open suggestion to Blizzard: WoW needs pullers

There was something about the feel of EverQuest that's different from the feel in World of Warcraft. What was it? I'm beginning to think that it wasn't just playing a bard and having about 20 polygons per character. I think it was the fact that EverQuest actually had three consistent roles: healer, dps (damage-dealer), tank and puller.

Yep, monks and to a lesser extent, necromancers were excellent pullers in EQ. The role of a puller was to scout forward, identify the next mobs to pull to the group and get them to come back just far enough for the tank(s) to pick them up. Pulling was hard, and interestingly enough, it was often seen as a leadership role. It wasn't always strictly necessary, especially since gear and level balance wasn't nearly as razor-strict as it is in WoW, but now it makes me wonder: how could WoW be improved if pulling were a role?

First off, you'd have to identify who would pull. I'm thinking it should be one rogue spec, one hunter spec, enhancement shaman and either frost or unholy death knights. Why? Well, rogues and hunters have traditionally had no other options but to dps and vanish and feign death both seem like obvious hooks for a pulling capability. Shaman and death knights, through this change, would become on-par with paladins in being able to serve 3 out of 4 of the possible party roles, and no class would be able to to it all any longer (though druids would still be the only class to be able to serve as melee and ranged dps, tank and healer).

Now, what does pulling mean in WoW? I think it's probably a combination of an advanced set of marking tools; agro drop; threat transfer and ranged CC. For example, in the next expansion, trash packs in dungeons and raids could be twice as large as the average group could handle. However, using multi-target snares, CCs or saps the puller breaks the group in two, agroing half of the group on himself while the other half stays in place or moves more slowly. The tank picks up the near group and the puller drops agro (vanish, FD, etc.) At this point, the other half of the group resets and the first half gets burned down by the party.

So. why is this a role and not just an extra duty like CC? Well, the easy answer is: gear. Make these new abilities require gearing that's rich in non-dps stats, perhaps even a completely new rating-based stat that only pullers will want. This means your puller will do less dps (not a lot less, hopefully, but enough that you don't expect them to top the meters or even come in second). On the other hand, you need a puller for raids (perhaps 2 or 3 depending on raid size) and you need one for every dungeon group.

For the LFD (Looking For Dungeon) tool, this will mean that there are four ways to queue and the tank is no longer the obvious "leader," as it's the puller that sets the pace and decides what's up next. I think this will set the tank aside as the class that needs to know the bosses while the puller needs to know the dungeon and the trash.

The only remaining problem that I see is this: does the puller have a special role during the fights? Tanks are blowing cooldowns to stay alive. Healers are blowing cooldowns for mana and to save anyone at low health. dps are blowing cooldowns to squeeze out more damage. What do pullers blow cooldowns on? Perhaps the deal with distracting pathers? But that seems to take them too far out of the action. Maybe the puller can back up healers by debuffing mobs with long-cooldown abilities that briefly reduce damage?

These are all just ideas, but the core problem they try to address is this: there are three primary roles in WoW, and the balance of the community with respect to how many people want to fill each role is just not in line with the balance of how many are needed. the solution is simple supply and demand. You can try to create more supply of tanks and healers (so far, no luck) or you can try to reduce their relative demand by making pure dps scarcer. Something clearly has to be done.

Friday, February 11, 2011

On the origins of Harmil

SPAM is a Hormel trademark.
No confusion is intended.
It gets asked sometimes: where do my character names come from? Some are simple like Miskaton or Himalountain which are references to works of fiction (Lovecraft and Lucy: Daughter of the Devil, respectively). Some are just names based on role like Smitina the Paladin or Zot the Mage. However, across a wide variety of games and online services, I've often used the name "Harmil." This one isn't quite so obvious, and I figure it's worth having a blog post I can point people to for the story.

Back in the late 80s, I was gaming (tabletop) at MIT with the Strategic Games Society. Good bunch of folks, and some of my most formative gaming experiences were had, there. In one D&D game I was going to play a cleric, but I wanted to be a bit of a rough-and-tumble sort. Something like Friar Tuck from the Robin Hood stories. He was going to be the party's cook, confidant and healer. I needed a name that fit. For some reason, I imagined him constantly preparing unidentifiable meat for the party while they traveled, and this brought Spam to mind. Going from there, I thought of calling him Hormel, but that was a bit too on-the-nose, so I went for Harmil instead.

And thus was born my most widely over-used character / avatar / user name of all time.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Protoss + Human = Titan?

Protoss as they appear in Starcraft II
Many have pointed out that the Zerg of Starcraft and the Old Gods of Warcraft have much in common, though obviously, the Old Gods are far more powerful than the Zerg. However, I've never seen it pointed out that the architecture and technology of the Titans in Warcraft closely resembles a hybrid of Protoss and Human from Starcraft. If we read really far into that, we could make the connection with Blizzard's upcoming MMO, code-named "Titan." Could it be that that MMO is the story of the bridge between the world of Starcraft and that of Warcraft?

For the Protoss and the Humans to have combined forces and perhaps even hybridized their races would require some rather radical changes in the all-out war between them circa Starcraft II, but if the Zerg were to discover a way to infect and destroy entire planets from the inside-out, perhaps such an alliance would be born out of need?

But what of Humans in Warcraft? The lore within the game suggests that they were descended from Vrykul, a human-like race of giants, but that humans were the weak offspring of Vrykul who refused to cull their young as their leaders commanded. What if this was no mutation, but a reversion to type? What if the Vrykul are actually descendants of ancient (very, very ancient) humans from the Starcraft time period? That could explain why these mutated offspring breed true. It might be that Vrykul have to kill off their human progeny in order to maintain their relatively recessive, non-human traits (most of which appear to simply be their size and cold tolerance).

Ah, I hear you say, but what about magic? Well, there are several kinds of magic in both Starcraft and Warcraft. The Protoss have psionics, the basis of which was never clearly explained. There's also a lot of Clarke-esque "advanced technology indistinguishable from magic" going on in Starcraft, especially in the Protoss camp.

Another interesting angle is the Xel'Naga, a race from Starcraft which is reported to have manipulated the development of both the Zerg and the Protoss, and which will play an important role in future developments for the game... If those two races gained access to different aspects of the Xel'Naga race's capabilities, it's possible that they each found a way (of untold thousands or millions of years) to use that advanced technology to create "magic" in the time of Warcraft.

We know that Demons are, in part, the creation of one of the Titans, gathered from various races starting with the Nathrezim from many different worlds. We know that "The Light" appears to be code for manipulating some sort of power source, be it of religious, natural or engineered origin... that much is never made clear. The Naaru are attuned to it, and were able to connect the Draenei to it in a way that Humans appear to have had a natural affinity for. But there's also quite a bit to support the idea that while Humans see The Light as a quasi-religious phenomenon, it's not quite that simple.

So, now that this new MMO is coming and Blizzard is coyly describing it as "new IP," rather than "original," I think it's clear that there's something going on, here. Will the new MMO take place a few thousand or million years after Starcraft and focus on the origin of the Titans? I think so. We'll see...

Monday, January 24, 2011

No mods? No MMO!

I'm getting tired of people announcing MMOs. Can we please come up with a name for, "a game where many thousands of people can play in the same world, but where the UI is created solely by the publisher, and user interface mods cannot be written? How about Online Large Dynamic game or "OLD game"?

I've heard a lot of feedback around this point, so let me summarize all of the discussion that usually takes place, below, but if you want the TL;DR version: User interface modding is hard to do right, hard to support, and absolutely required of anyone who is seriously trying to unseat the primary MMO (World of Warcraft) in the market. I'll get to why, later. As Warhammer proved, it's not sufficient, but it is a requirement for long-term re-playability and community-building.

As a general note, I'll use "addon" and "mod" somewhat interchangeably, here. I see a "mod" as being anything that modifies the actual in-game experience (e.g. Auctioneer, HUDs, etc.) where "addons" are a much broader category that include simple user-interface changes and other tweaks as well as mods.

But my MMO of choice let's me change colors/fonts too!

Well, that's very nice, but changing layout and look-and-feel isn't what UI modding is about. Here are a few things that user interface modders have done in World of Warcraft:
  • Added an auction house interface with long-term trend tracking, pricing assistance, scanning, tooltip enhancements, etc.
  • I have a tiny addon installed that just alerts me every time I get agro on my healer or dpser characters, by playing a voice saying "agro!"
  • One mod allows damage numbers to be filtered so that many damage numbers can be compressed down into single numbers to avoid spamming my screen.
  • A mapping mod puts known locations of mining and herbalism resources on my map and then draws an efficient route between them so that I can run around grabbing stuff for my other professions.
  • A chat mod transformed the standard chat windows into an IM-like interface that tracks who I'm having conversations with and warns them when I'm in combat and unable to reply.
  • A raid-running mod lets raid leaders perform all kinds of basic administrative tasks more easily and improves on the basic "ready check" mechanic that the game provides.
  • I have a mod installed that tracks how much gold I have on all of my characters and how much gold I've made/lost this session. Similarly, other mods track what goods I have on my characters and put notes in tooltips so that I know if an item is already in my bank or in the mail, etc.
So to sum up, changing colors, fonts and layout is an important part of modding, but so is adding usability to the game that the developers haven't thought of or are not prioritizing.

Addons are cheating / WoW is easy because addons tell you what to do.

I have to agree to a point. There are things that Blizzard has been tolerant of from the addon community that I think they should have stamped out (in some cases they did, but took quite some time to do so). Then there's the question of DBM and other "how to raid" mods. In part, I have to agree that these mods are not a good thing, but most of my reasoning has nothing to do with "cheating." Quite the opposite; mods like DBM are so much an expected part of the raiding experience that Blizzard designs encounters so that they expect you to play with addons that tell you what's going to happen. I'd rather they focus on making these things visually distinct (e.g. giant pillars of lava are probably things you should not stand in). As it is, bosses now "emote" subtle queues that these mods pick up on and tell you "turn around to avoid being blinded," or the like.

IMHO, this is just bad raid design, but the fact that WoW has bad raid design has absolutely nothing to do with the value of mods. Just like WoW bans the use of mods that facilitate cross-faction chat, they could just as easily ban mods which act as "howtos" in raids. That's a matter for game designers to decide, and has nothing to do with allowing addons in the first place.

If the default UI is fine, you don't need addons.

This is said fairly often, but the fact of the matter is that no gaming company has ever produced a perfect (or perfectly customizable) UI. Addons will always improve the game because there will always be someone out there with a good idea that no one in the gaming company thought of. It's just a matter of numbers.

But addons allow viruses!

This, I had to throw in, just because it's sometimes said, and easy to correct: while allowing data from untrusted sources to be interpreted by your computer is always risky, WoW has addressed this problem by giving addons no access to the system or external networks other than by writing saved variables files for state information in a known directory. Addon security must be taken extremely seriously, but with a good, trusted distribution mechanism (something WoW lacks and third-parties have had to back-fill), game designers should be able to do this job reasonably. Your Web browser has a much riskier job to do in running JavaScript which is required by nearly every Web site in the world, now, so if you're OK with the Web, allowing addons in video games is a no-brainer. If you're like me, and you restrict JavaScript on the Web and are very careful about who you allow to run code in your browser, then you should do the same in video games.

I'm a game developer, and I can spend my time on content or UI mods, why would I choose the latter?

This is probably the one question that I have serious respect for. Game developers are pushing the limits of productivity and trying to release a game on time. How can they spend hundreds of man-hours on developing a tool that very few of their players will ever interact with directly? The right answer is to ask how they can spend so much time on the internal content tools they develop? Sure, your players will never use them, but without them, you'll end up producing a game that's unplayable. The sad fact is that you have to budget for this up-front.

On the flip-side, game developers don't seem to push this as a major selling feature. Why is that? If you produce the bigger, badder UI addon framework and it's designed to build a community, why wouldn't you be pushing that to everyone who will listen?! Make it drive the buzz about your product in technical circles where a video game wouldn't normally be news. Get Slashdot talking about it. Have industry publications talking about how this is the new face of community development. Create a new kind of grassroots hype channel for your game!


Here are some interesting quotes on the matter:
  • "People want loads of content right off the bat, and third-party add-ons are a given now," he said. "It’s a tough situation for new games." -MMO FFXIV needs 'FFVII's impact', Strategy Informer
  • MMO fans may be wondering if there will be any interface customisation but at this point TRION are holding off on add-ons. However, they are open to the idea but it’s unlikely they will go as far as the customisation we saw in World of Warcraft. (which I read as "we don't want to be a real MMO") -RIFT Hands-on Preview, IncGamers


My personal feeling is that WoW is a great first try when it comes to allowing user-authored UI mods in an MMO, but it's horribly out-dated. I really don't understand why someone hasn't produced an MMO with an app store, for example. I mean, isn't that painfully obvious? The other problem is updates. There really should be a company-hosted development site through which addon authors can be tracked and their addons monitored so that the authors of the most popular addons can be notified of upcoming releases and betas, be involved in the process, and more importantly, the community can be made aware early on when a major addon hasn't been made to work with an upcoming change. WoW is always broken for a month after any big change because addon development is poorly coordinated, and that's just not something that should be expected.

After all, World of Warcraft is getting on in years, and it seems to me that the world of downloadable addons has taken over several industries. Isn't it about time that MMOs get some love in this respect, and actually start leading the way again?

If you're working for a gaming company and you find yourself wondering: should we have addons? Stop immediately and ask, instead, "what's the next big thing," in addons, and can we do that?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Thinking ahead in WoW: Post-Cataclysm instances

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm ("Cata" is how I'll abbreviate this from here on, and could Blizzard please think about how people are going to abbreviate their expansion names from here on in?) is a great expansion. People are fired up about the new content, the new trade skill, the art... basically everything. The only problem I see is that instances aren't all that fun. There are some great moments, but most of the effort seems to have gone into two things: gimmicks and fire.

By "gimmicks," I mean the use of non-traditional instance tools. The best example is the first instance I ran: Throne of Tides. This instance has so many gimmicks that it's hard to imagine before you walk in. There are cut scenes, teleporters, a jellyfish elevator, a raid boss you get buffed to kill, mobs that jump out of the walls, etc.

By fire, I'm of course referring to the ground effects that harm players during a fight. Sadly, it's become such a pervasive element of encounters (boss and trash alike) in Cata that your strafing keys will be worn out before the next expansion. This makes a mechanic which was previously a nice way to force players to stay alert into something of a tedious way to make ranged casters less effective. You see, melee attackers like my enhancement shaman just strafe around behind a mob, avoiding fire while they fire off their normal barrage of instant-cast effects. My mage, on the other hand is forever interrupting his fireball casts and having to dump an lower-damage, instant-cast spell instead. My mage just cannot keep up with my shamman for dps throughput, even though they're nominally fairly evenly matched.

So, what should encounter design have brought to the table in Cata? Well, some variety without gimmicks might have been nice, but there have to be enough vanilla fights to establish the norm as well. Let's look at one of the most creative instances in Cata: The Vortex Pinnacle. This instance is entirely built in the clouds, and has some interesting mechanics which aren't just gimmicks. For example, there are trash pulls where the mobs start off in fields that prevent substantial amounts of damage, and you have to pull them out to fight. A nice way to break up the otherwise routine fights without changing the in-combat mechanics if the pull is executed correctly. No one loses dps or has to do anything unusual. There are also some nice fights where the "fire" is much more equitable because it requires that everyone move to a particular side of the boss or that everyone move to a specific location while the boss does some large AoE effect. However, the majority of the trash pulls are of the sort one would expect and the boss abilities don't get too gimmicky.

The only other thing that really feels wrong in Cata is the speed-bump at the start when WotLK and Cata dungeons are viewed as a continuum from level 70 to 85. That is, there is such a radical rise in gear ilevel between the ilevel 187 normal-mode drops in level 80 WotLK dungeons to the ilevel 308 normal-mode drops in the first normal-mode dungeons in Cata that there's no way to avoid some very disappointed players who try to level exclusively in instances from the 70s to 85. To counter this, it would have been nice to see Blizzard change the ilevel of some of the WotLK normal-mode gear (perhaps scaling it all up to the ilevel of the ICC 5-man instances -- at ilevel 219, this would still present a big step between dungeons, but might have softened the blow). Granted, a little questing quickly resolves the issue, but that won't prevent many players from going in cold and feeling like they're of no use in early Cata dungeons.

In general, I think the instance design in Cata shows that Blizzard isn't just trying to pump out the same old thing over and over and that's good, but they may have become slightly carried away in Cata with making instances "special".