Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Raiding Paradigm: a response

I was reading Seanxxp at Gaming Conjecture and he was revisiting an item that happened a few weeks ago, where former LOTRO community manager Sapience (Rick Heaton) talked about the very small percentage of their players that are Raiders or participate in PvP.  He was offering that as a reason why LOTRO hasn't offered any new raiding content recently, and probably won't in the near future.  Sean reasonably asks, "Do raiders and PvPers bring something to a game's community that other groups don't?"

Plenty of ink has been spilled over the past decade about the position of Raiding in the pyramid of MORPG playstyles and I'm hesitant to plunge into that growing pool of contention.  Because while I disagree with some of the points that he has made, I think the answer especially with regard to raiders is mostly, "Yes."  Raiding definitely brings a kind of single-minded focus on preparation and execution that is not often found elsewhere.  Having a raiding component to your game will shape it in ways that would not happen otherwise.

As I've mentioned before, I think that MMOs are at a turning point in their development, a fundamental sea change that is different from where we were, say, two years ago.  And one of the axes on which we're rotating is raiding.  Until recently, WoW had been sucking all the oxygen out of the room, basically dictating to its players how the game was to be played.  This was true not just within its own game, but it set expectations that resonated throughout the industry.  And WoW set out two assumptions:  the Myth of Parity and the endgame raiding paradigm.

That second one is the most obvious, so let's start there. WoW declared that the major activity once characters reached max level was to run raid instances.  More importantly, this was the way you would advance your character after you reached level cap:
  • Raiding was how you increased your characters power level (through stats on gear)
  • it was how you acquired new abilities (through trinkets and procs and set bonuses)
  • it was how you "improved" the appearance of your character (through tier sets with a distinctive look for your class)
  • it was how you increased your professions (through recipe and rare mat drops)
  • it was how you visited new zones
  • it was how you saw new lore content, often the most climactic of the game.
In fact, all the markers that signaled a character's increase in level were present in the raiding ladder as well.  We were continuing to level our characters, just not numerically.

And the perennial complaint has been that anyone who chose not to participate in raiding was prevented from leveling their character any further.  Up until that point, all playstyles were supported as valid.  Beyond that point, it was only raiding that could carry your character to the true max level of the game.

As an increasing number of players began to recognize it, there arose a current of unrest.  Bree of Massively asks, what is the justification for preferencing one playstyle above all others? And in true Blizzard style, WoW chose to quell the unrest by doubling down on raiding.  Rather than change their paradigm, they instead made it more accessible to players through Looking For Raid.

Other games have taken a different path, though.  Elder Scrolls proudly announced that they were launching without raiding content, and now are looking at different styles of endgame group activities.  Some games like GW2 and Secret World offer raids along side other end game content, stepping away from the single path of raiding ladders.

Currently, MMOs are at a crossroads.  Some games (SWTOR, Wildstar) have chosen to continue to follow the WoW raid paradigm, while others (LOTRO, Elder Scrolls) have chosen a different path.  And this kind of diversity is good for MORPGS as a genre and an industry.  It will be interesting to continue to watch new releases and new expansions for how the raid paradigm continues to change in the future. 

The twenty-first post in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mythmaking in Warlords

So let's step back for a minute.  This whole exercise of telling stories isn't new.  The art of creating heroic narrative and framing the narrative on several levels and placing the audience in the story, this has been going on for centuries.  We have the tools to make this happen, but sometimes we choose not to, and the question is, Why?

The easy answer is, because that's not what we're interested in.  The game designers want to create something more akin to a facebook game, an engaging activity to pass the time, rather than an demanding vehicle for communicating complicated and often demanding narrative. We want a game that will reach the broadest possible audience.

And also because creating complicated and demanding narrative is hard work.  The longer you try to sustain the narrative, the harder it becomes to retain the story's cohesion.  From a historical perspective, epic narratives don't happen overnight, but are shaped through years of re-telling, refining, refashioning characters and events to the point where they create a message that is satisfying and meaningful to their audience.

So let's look at one of those epic narratives.  The stories of King Arthur are entirely legendary, with only a passing basis in historical fact.  And the legend itself has emerged over centuries of retelling, development, and embellishment, from Nennius in 830, to Geoffry and many other in the 1100s, to 1485 and Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur.  Tennyson visited it in 1859. Certainly, that tradition continues today in modern films and novels. 

And each time it is re-visited, some new piece is added to the canon.  A warrior becomes a king, the Round Table is added here, the Holy Grail is added there, the chivalric code emerges and flourishes, brutal warriors become knights errant, Merlin is important in one tale, Guenivere is prominent in another.

A similar process happened with the assembling of the Homeric epics (Iliad and Odyssey), and the Norse tradition.  On a compressed scale, this is how Tolkien developed Middle Earth.

What I'm suggesting is we are observing and participating in the same kind of myth making process that produced the Arthurian legends.  That is the process we are participating in right now with the Arthasian legends from Blizzard, the Jedi-Sith conflict of Star Wars, and the Neverwinter saga of Forgotton realms.  These are stories that have been shaped over many years of re-telling, with subsequent chapters adding new history and new details to old incidents.

Why did Arthas fall and become the Lich King?  Was he a tragic character or an evil one?  Each time Blizzard re-visits the story (in the original game, the expansions, and the book), the audience gets slightly more, and perhaps slightly different information.  In the end, it is the audience who gets to answer that question, from all the available material, in the way that they find most satisfying. And the answer may change depending on the race of your current character. Every time we run another character through the first 90 levels of WoW, we get another chance to experience and shape that same story.

All this calls our attention to Warlords of Draenor where Blizzard returns to the scene of a central piece of its lore.  We've heard this story before, the drinking of the blood of Mannoroth and the corruption of the orcs. We saw it in the RTS games, we read about it in the library of Scarlet Monastery, we saw its aftermath in Burning Crusade, we're reminded of it in the Caverns of Time. And now we get to look at it more closely in this new expansion. 

We see the same iterative storytelling process, the same mythbuilding tools.  The same story re-told with slight or significant variations.  Was Sir Lancelot a vile betrayer with Guenivere or the only knight pure enough to find the Holy Grail?  Was Guldan a vile betrayer, or a misguided patriot who truly wanted to empower the orcs?  These aren't contradictions ("Blizzard's messing up the lore again"), but valid techniques for developing and elevating major lore figures.

What I expect to find in Warlords of Draenor is much the same process unfolding.  Even though the events were first mentioned decades ago in real world time, the final and definitive history of what happened there hasn't been written yet.  What we'll see this fall may go farther to shape that mythology than anything that has taken place in the game so far. 

Post twenty in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Ten Lessons From Blaugust

As of today, the Blaugust challenge has been ongoing for 19 days, with nearly 30 participants that have posted every day, and another 20 bloggers who are also lending their support.  That represents over 600 blog posts, and we're only two-thirds of the way through the challenge. I think that's a pretty impressive assemblage of the written word, and I'm proud to be a part of it.

I know that there are many veteran bloggers for whom posting every day is a common practice.  For me, however, this has been a huge escalation in my blogging, and its been eye-opening on several fronts. Forcing myself (encouraging myself) to blog every day has both good and bad points and its changed how I write and what I write about.  Here are ten observations from the other side of the keyboard:

1.  Most obvious to me is that posting every day tends to make my posts short and to the point.  That can be good and bad, though.  If I have a topic that I'd really like to explore, it's hard to do it in a short post.  An alternative is to create a series of posts on the same topic, but that takes skill and practice which are in pretty short supply for me at the moment.

2.  Short posts are easier to read, and more difficult to write.  No one wants to slog through a thousand words of my turgid prose.  Blaugust has been a boot camp on trimming away the bloat.

3.  Blogging is about writing, true.  But it's also about non-writing stuff too, like maintaining your blog site, updating and curating links, making the blog visually clear and easy to visit, mastering other forms of social media (like Anook).  It's started me down the path of becoming a better web-resident.

4.  The constraint to write "right now" hones your thinking.  You don't have all semester to write an essay.  You need to get right to the heart of the matter and convey it clearly and with insight.  And do it again tomorrow.  Rapid blogging forces me to pick out that single gem from the chaos of my thoughts and present it simply.

5.  With many authors posting, now is a great time to sample a lot of different writing.  When you're writing mostly within your own bubble, things might become stale.  Reading other authors makes you a better writer.  Listening to other opinions makes you a more rounded thinker.

6.  Daily blogging for me lends itself to a personal schedule.  When I don't stick to one I'm likely to procrastinate, which increases the pressure I create for myself.  Under stress, I'm more prone to writer's block.

7.  I write better when my blogging schedule includes non-writing activities as well.  I now set aside time to read blogs, gather ideas and try to understand alternative viewpoints.

8. Some of the best blog post from gaming blogs can be about non-gaming subjects.  They can reveal a lot about the writer, which then informs that writer's perspective but also identifies areas you have in common with them.

9.  Posting cogent comments on other people's blogs encourages me to appreciate what they're trying to say and forges personal connections.  They aren't just anonymous people with mistaken ideas.  I have a better sense of the challenge bloggers are going through just to put words on the page.  I see them working through thorny problems, striving to be both incisive in their thinking and fair to their subject matter.

10.  Blogging about games changes the way I play games. It is classic application of the Observer effect.  The more I write about games, the more I want to know about them, so I'm more aware of what's going on within their virtual worlds.  I'm paying attention to everything a bit more and it's creating a sense of immediacy that is both intoxicating, but also alarming.

So those are my ten lessons from Blaugust, at least so far.  We've still got a long way to go, but we're on the downhill run.

Post nineteen in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Monday, August 18, 2014

SWTOR: Fall Calendar

A few days ago I rounded up all the dates, both announced and speculative, for the fall in World of Warcraft. I want to do the same for Star Wars: The Old Republic. Sadly, Bioware can be notoriously closed mouthed about upcoming events when it suits them, but that is their decision to make as developers. So again, I’ve assembled a combination of announced dates, dates projected by the developer, and random wild guesses.

August 19th.  We talked about this at length yesterday but Game Update 2.9 brings with it Player and Guild Housing, Manaan flashpoint, and some significant buffs to leveling in Makeb.  That gives players about 3 weeks to become familiar with the first two chapters of Forged Alliances

September 9th.  Game Update 2.10. This next update brings the third chapter in the Forged Alliances story.  The devs have repeatedly mentioned a continuation of the storyline on “the historic planet of Rakata Prime.”  There will also be a flashpoint associated with this planet as well. 

October 21th.  Now that leaves an obvious gap between September and December and I would expect at least a mid-October Game update 2.11, possibly with some narrative to lay the groundwork for this next expansion.  I might also look for some new PvP work at around this time.

December 2nd.  Game update 3.0   This date is completely fictitious, of course, since Bioware hasn’t announced anything officially, but they have repeatedly stated that they are preparing a “Rise-like” expansion to be released before the end of 2014.  By ‘Rise-like’ they mean a planetary expansion like the Rise of the Hutt Cartel, that will increase the level cap and will offer a new planetary story driven by narrative quests that will offer experience for leveling.  When Bioware finally releases this expansion it will be a big deal and will likely include many other game enhancements in addition to the level cap increase, but Bioware hasn’t released any details.

I don’t expect this expansion to directly compete with Warlords of Draenor in mid-November, but maybe a few weeks later to roughly coincide with the original SWTOR launch.  Galactic Starfighter also was released around this time.

December 16th.  We've just recently finished a Gree event (7/22 - 7/29) and a Rakghoul Event (8/5 - 8/12).  In the past we've had the Gree return in the later half of December, overlapping with the Life Day celebration.  I would expect to see a similar event around this time as well.

So that's as much as we know of the fall schedule for The Old Republic.   To me, this schedule looks less full than for a similar time period for Warcraft, but here's the odd thing:  I don't think there are actually more things to do in WoW, the difference is that Blizzard is willing to be much more open about their scheduled events than Bioware.  I'm sure that SWTOR will be packed with great stuff that just hasn't been confirmed on the calendar yet.  And if the players don't know, they can't be building anticipation for the impending event.  Often that means that stuff like the recent Rakghoul Resurgence was half over before many of the players even picked up on its presence.

This stuff shouldn't be buried in the patch notes.  The new reality is that players aren't playing a single game to the exclusion of all others, particularly with the transience of FtP players. The expectation that all the players are going to log in everyday to find out what's new, is unrealistic. Announced events and updates, like the one tomorrow, build enthusiasm.   That's what will bring players back to check out what's happening, and will motivate them to schedule game time, and turn them into long term players. 

Post eighteen in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

SWTOR Strongholds overshadow more interesting story developments.

In a couple of days, on the 19th, Bioware will release a major digital expansion called Galactic Strongholds.  As implied by their title, player housing is probably the most anticipated feature of this expansion, but it is by no means to most interesting to me.  I want to look at whats available in this update, a possibly what it means for the future.

Lore Continued
There are actually three things happening on this date. The first is Game Update 2.9 which brings with it a story segment and a flashpoint (4-man instance) on the planet Manaan.  Bioware has released two short stories introducing characters and preliminary events leading up to the Manaan: Lana Beniko’s Journal and Surface Details.

The first chapter involved assaults and/or rescue missions to both starting worlds Korriban and Tython, and introduced us to new characters. This update (2.9) represents the second in three chapters in an overarching story called Forged Alliances.  This second chapter sends players to a new level 55 flashpoint called Depths of Manaan and the intro stories follow the trail of both a Sith Warrior and a Jedi Knight.

Player Housing
The second major release on the 19th is early access to the Galactic Strongholds digital expansion.  Early access is available only to subscribers, with preferred and free players gaining access a few weeks later.  Galactic Strongholds are player housing for The Old Republic.  Players can purchase strongholds on a number of worlds, which consists of rooms with decoration hooks or hardpoints on which players can attach trophies and decorations.

In addition to personal housing, the game will also introduce Guild Ships, starting at the price of a cool 50 million credits.  This will open the way to guild-centered activities called galactic conquest, where guilds compete against each other for domination of a chosen planet.   PvP, PvE and Crafting activities earn conquest points and the guild that accumulates the most over the course of the week gains influence on that planet.

Makeb buffs.
The third noteworthy change coming on the 19th is a player buff received while on Makeb.  This buff bolsters your gear to 156 level, gives you a continuous healing drip of 2% healing every 3 seconds during combat, and boosts your exploration exp gain by a whopping 250%.

In addition to the buffs, “The density of enemies on Makeb has been reduced.”  And, key story missions no longer scale with the size of the group, so bringing a larger group on these quests won’t make the quests harder.  It will be much easier for stronger players to assist others to complete the storyline quests in Makeb.

This interests me because Bioware must be making Makeb easier for a reason.  This change suggest that the devs know something is not flowing correctly through this planet.  It's likely that their data tell them that many characters are stuck on Makeb, either not having fully completed the storyline there or not having quite reached the level cap of 55.  Many other players simply skip Makeb entirely and run flashpoints and warzones to cover the level range to 55.

In my opinion it's more than simply making Makeb easier.  I'm sure many characters reach Makeb in Corellia greens and hit a brick wall rather rapidly.  Others spend all their basic commendations on level 140 mods (my preferred strat) but you'll notice that the bolster (to 156) is even higher than the comm vendor levels.  Reducing the mob density makes it more convenient to jump in and out of questing in the mesas.  And that exploration buff suggests to me that many characters leave Makeb with a lot of unexplored area still on the table. 

Not only can completing the quests in Make be inconvenient, but the fact that there is only a single-track story through the entire planet makes its re-playability fairly low. No doubt, some players want to be completely focused on the difficult and densely packed mobs their first time through the story, but on their second or third alt they may be looking for a more relaxed experience.  This change gives them that.

The other thing this change suggests is that the devs, in much the same way the WoW devs have done for years, are attempting to clear the decks for these Forged Alliances story flashpoints and possibly prepare characters for the next level cap expansion.  They may also be experimenting with the formula they used for Makeb so they can improve it for the upcoming "Rise-like" expansion.

It's clear that Bioware wants players to be playing through Makeb, and currently they are not.  Making it slightly easier to complete the planet quests might be the boost some players need to get to the endgame.

Post seventeen in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Hiding Story in SWTOR

It often occurs to me that the basic story information in the Old Republic is the best kept secret in the industry. No other game takes its most interesting story elements and narrative quest series and hides it in the most obscure places imaginable.  It takes a remarkable amount of persistence just to know what current activities are being offered, much less piece together random elements into some kind of coherent narrative.

This is certainly true for the Shroud.  The Shroud was introduced into The Old Republic last April, with the Makeb expansion.  It was done with little fanfare at about the third mesa you travel to; given to you by an innocuous droid waiting on the side of the platform.  There are two impertinent droids in the same area, in fact.  By that point, you are focused on saving the planet from complete destruction and saving everyone on it, when a little droid wants you to drop all that heroic nonsense and return to Coruscant for a little chat with SIS.  Of course it makes no sense to do it then, even with a personal plea from a very charismatic agent in charge, so at that point I just filed it away for future reference.

The second problem with the quest is that initial task is to fly to various marked locations and scan the area with a special device called a macrobinocular, a device that gives the quest series its name.  What's misleading is that this has all form and structure of a pretty basic daily quest.  'Go to three locations, click on the objects you find there, and I'll give you a reward."  In fact, that second quest you picked up from the droids is exactly that: go to a planet and fish up an evil relic.

What's different about these quests is that after you complete your three locations, there is a capstone quest at the end that takes the form of an unusual puzzle.  This is an environmental puzzle that asks you to navigate your way through rooms, manipulate objects, and discover relationships between things in your surroundings.  Suddenly, your boring daily quest transforms into an intriguing challenge of logic, creativity, and observation.

These are fair problems, in that all the clues are present at the location, and often the initial solution gives clues to how the further steps of the puzzle are to be solved.  At the end of each sequence, you receive a message from an individual, ostensibly an agent of the Shroud.  And piece by piece we match wits with these lieutenants, at each step drawing closer and closer to our main adversary.

So this is my problem with the way this all is set up:

The way they are presented to the player is designed to be obscure.  The developers don't really want you to know what's going on, initially.  They want you to be drawn in, bit by bit, until you realize that you are caught up in something much larger than a few transmission relays.  By being so secretive at the beginning, they don't properly set up the anticipation that the Player needs to push through the first boring steps.

What they should be doing is broadcasting loudly that these macrobinocular missions form a narrative quest series that delivers major lore points.  The Shroud is a first class villain and antagonist, something that SWTOR needs very badly. While there is a lot of posturing between the Empire and the Republic, the main story is not about the conflict between them.  Instead, it has been other villains that both can fight from different sides.  This is true of the Hutt Cartel as well as the Dread Masters.  Our mysterious agent fits this description perfectly, and needs an introduction and narrative support that befits a major villain.

Yes, I know there is a tradition in MORPG storytelling to hide lore in dark places, just waiting for someone to look there, and this series honors that tradition. But in my opinion, what The Old Republic is missing at this point is a major lore figure to step forward and capture the imagination of its players.  SWTOR needs an Arthas, a Grommash, even an Emperor like the one from Return of the Jedi.  Let's be honest, no one ever really feared the Hutts, even Toborro, who was genuinely insane. The Shroud has the potential to become such a figure.

This is the power of lore.  Not that it supersedes gameplay and social interaction, but that it fuels our enthusiasm for both.

 Post sixteen in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Michaelmas in Azeroth: the Fall schedule

Nothing earth shattering here, but I was just putting together a Fall calendar of what the World of Warcraft will be like in the coming months.  Now that we have the date of the Warlords release, other things begin to fall into place. Some dates are just wild guesses, and still other things like holiday events haven't moved at all.  It's obviously going to be a busy time.

  • September 20 - October 6th:  Brewfest.  This was stepped on two years ago by the Pandaria release.  This event was updated last year to include a Pandaren brewmaster presence at the brewfest.  It wouldn't take much, but a very minor update of this event would be a nice touch.  Not really expecting it with all the work they will need to finish for Warlords. This is probably the last hurrah of the Pandaren expansion, the last moment of revelry with our characters as we currently know them.
  • October 13:     Patch 6.0.1   Class and mechanics changes.  One month before release is a traditional time for all the changes to the classes and other things to be added, to give the players time to get used to them before the start of the expansion.
  • October 18:     Hallow's End.  Typically the most popular of the Warcraft holiday events.  Blizzard may take this opportunity to drop higher level loot to boost latecomers for the pre-expansion event.
  • October 28:     Iron Horde Invasion.   This is a total guess on my part but usually two weeks before release Blizzard begins the pre-expansion events.  For this expansion, we have world events in the Blasted Lands, and a limited time, level 90 re-tuning of Upper Blackrock Spire.
  • November 7-8:     Blizzcon.  Probably in a high frenzy, since the game is literally a week away.  I'm expecting that the devs have held some easter egg in reserve for a reveal at the con.
  • November 13:  Warlords of Draenor expansion released.  The mad rush to level 100 will begin.
  • November 17:  WoW 10th Anniversary festivities begin.   (Taken from the in-game calendar).  Tarren Mill PvP, Molten Core 40-player raid.  Available just 4 days after the expansion itself is released, there may be a lot of pressure to level as high as possible to get into Molten Core or to have the greatest advantage at Tarren Mill.
  •  November 24:  Pilgrim's Bounty.  A holiday that may be largely forgotten this year.
  • December 1:      WoW Anniversary ends.  You need to get whatever pets, mounts, and titles you want before this date.
  • December 16:     Feast of Winter Veil Begins.  I wonder how our garrisons will be decorated for Christmas this year. I'm looking for some tie-in of the holiday to our new, not-quite player housing.  Maybe a quest to find the perfect tree to decorate.
  • January 15:  The Technical Patch.    This, again, is entirely speculative but they often need a class balance patch to fix whatever they broke with the class re-designs
  • March 30:  The First big content patch.  Blizzard expects everyone to be leveled to 100 by this point, and this patch brings the next infusion of content.
Azeroth comes at you fast. It seems like there is something new every two weeks or better throughout the end of the year, and if you choose to participate in every event it is very likely that you will not run out of things to do.

This is Blizzard's time to shine, and in many ways this is the Blizzard team at their best.  This is the Big Show.  The thing that some of them have been working on for two years, and for all of their many faults, they do this moment right here better than anybody.

The fifteenth entry in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August