Ping Pong

…or how MMOs know you are playing another game and make you pay the price.

During my recent random ban (and subsequent reinstatement) from WoW, I succumbed to pressure to join Gaff and Wilhelm back in post-cataclysm Norrath.  EQ2 has always been something we’ve been interested in exploring, but having played WoW since near release with our group, its always been the number 2 or number 3 game for me and Mrs. P.

With WAR failing to deliver for our group endeavors, we pinged back to WoW.  With a solo character in the low 60s and the Lich King expansion just around the corner, I figured I spend some time getting him to 70 (now almost 65) so he could explore the expansion reasonably close to launch.  Then the ban hit, so I ponged to EQ2 and have been having a blast.

With my WoW account restored, our instance group reconvened last weekend (see TAGN for the chronicle of our continuing exploits).  Since I’ve been enjoying the new shiny that is EQ2, I’ve been less inclined to level my WoW hunter.  I’ve been spending most of my time in Norrath getting housekeeping set up– leveling basic skills, getting broker stuff set up, skilling tradeskills, etc.  Everything has been going fine.

So I (attempt to) log on last night with the idea that I might be able to progress the heritage quest that Wil, Mrs. P and I started a couple days ago.  And then my nemesis the SoE patcher starts doing its thing…again…

I’ve ranted about this before.  But it decided that it needed to spend 3+hours dl’ing and repatching most of the game.  I hit the forums, the knowledge base, etc. and I can find no reasonable reason why it would do this other than that the patcher is the suxxor.  Wil suggested that SoE mystically starts pushing out patches to subsets of users in advance of a big expasion.  With The Shadow Odyssey expansion due out on the 18th, timing makes sense.  Still its EXTREMELY annoying.

Apparently, EQ2 knew that I was playing other games and decided to penalize me, like WoW did for leaving it for Warhammer…

So after ranting and raging, I let the damned thing patch itself and ping ponged into Eve to queue some skills and check on market buy orders and then off to WoW to see what I could accomplish on my hunter before the expansion launch.  Jealous of my other gaming, Eve locked me out yesterday as it was deploying its expansion making me pay the ultimate price of not having a skill in training for more than an entire day.

I was able to get almost an entire level questing in Terrokar, progressing my hunter to just shy of 65 by the time I decided to call it quits.  With rested XP, he should be able to get to 70 relatively soon and catch the tail of the expansion wave into Northrend.  Without the ban, I probably would have been pretty darned close by now.

With EQ2 having repatched itself, I logged with only enough time to check the broker and go to bed.  One of the small advantages in joining a mature population server is that money is plentiful for buyers, which means it can be pretty lucrative for sellers.  Even lowbie rares are fetching quite (by my standards) nice prices and without much effort, I’m not wanting for cash.

In prior forays into Norrath, I’ve always felt a bit starved for cash and/or limited by way of progression because of either lack of cash to gear up/spell up via the broker or resort to grinding mats and tradeskills to boot strap into what I need.  This time is pleasantly different and part of that is due to the fact that between Gaff, Wilhelm and Mrs. P (not to mention the wonderful resources that RnH provides), we have specialized and have most of the necessities covered– bags, boxes, spells, armor, tailoring, etc. The upshot is that with the new faster leveling, we can pretty much keep each other in necessities without having to resort to the broker too much.  For us its the perfect scenario:  selling to players at inflated prices and purchasing from npcs at static low prices!

Of course, with the launch of Lich King, EQ2 will be spurned for a few days and Eve will be ignored for all but skill queuing until The Shadow Odyssey comes out next week.  Anymore expansions I should be anticipating this month?

A Map Makes a World

I’ve forever been mesmerized by maps. You map people out there are already nodding your heads. Its the E gene in my Bartle EASK personality.

I know I spent more time studying the maps in the Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion than I ever did reveling in Tolkien’s, ahem, poetry or songs… In my table top days (modules, blech), when I was GM, the world always started with a map– a world of mystery in which to reveal adventure. Dark and wild forests, high frozen wastes, searing deserts, storm tossed seas, windswept isles and perilous journeys in between…

The geography creates half the story. Consider the Caradhras Pass and Moria.

One of the things that grabbed me on day one about EQ’s Norrath was the map. As a wee noob, I could make the death defying run from Ak-Anon to Qeynos and see first hand the wide and dangerous world. Simply, the world was a place and that place was subdivided into wonderfully diverse and mysterious zones, all interconnected (zoning or no zoning, it still had the feel of being one world).

The map created that sense of space on Day One.

One of the things I’m missing a bit from Warhammer is the same feeling of one giant world. I’m told (though I haven’t tried) you can run from the noob zone to a capital city. I’ve no doubt it can be done with a certain amount of dying. Part of that feeling comes less from the way the game is designed (3 factions with four tiers of progression, each with matched pair zones) and more from simply the way the world is presented in the map.

The Warhammer map is kind of a chopped up affair. Somewhat sensibly, the default view is your zone view. But there are three relevant viewpoints for Warhammer maps– zone, “Campaign” or “pairing” and world. Unfortunately, switching between these views is a bit clunky, only marginally useful and frankly very unworld like despite the fact that the zones are contiguous. To go from viewing the Empire starting area, you need to either select a different campaign pairing from a menu selection in the upper right or select world or pairing view from buttons below the zone map.

In a Google maps world, I would hazard a guess that most users have some expectation to be able to zoom in and zoom out by simple left and right clicking. In a post-WoW world, I’d hazard a guess that MMO players would expect to be able to left click to zoom in and right click to zoom out to shift their frame of reference. Its not trivial whats lost in the translation.

The WoW world map is made up of actual clickable zones. Even if all the landmass isn’t accessible within them, each zone butts up against all the others (and is depicted as such) or is separated by some immersion consistent barrier (i.e. the ocean). Zone, right click, continent, right click, world, left click, other continent, etc. Like nested dolls, they all fit together. Ditto for LoTRO. Ditto for EQ2.

WARs zones are depicted as merely boxes on a world map underlay or they’re circles connected by dotted lines on the pairing map. Quite frankly, I feel like I’m living in boxes despite the fact that the world is quite broad and interconnected and the main roads (mostly) “line up” between them. Even though the world is much more WoW or EQ2 like (contigous zones) the map makes it feel like Age of Conan’s world in boxes! The truth is, Norsca connects directly with Troll Lands, so why the dotted line of mystery?

When you flip perspectives, you lose the sense of interconnectedness of the zones. Within a zone map, I’d like to be able to click to go to the immediately adjacent zone without going “back out” and “back in”. This is particularly cumbersome in the RvR lakes where the lake and objectives are spread across zone boundaries (separate discussion about whether having a battleground span a zone boundary is a good idea…).

A perfect example is the Tier 2 Empire/Chaos pairing of Troll Country and Ostland. In the RvR lake there, there is a battlefield objective (Monestary of Morr) and a keep (Stone Troll Keep) in Troll Country and another battle field objective (Crypt of Weapons) and a keep (Mandred’s Hold) in the adjacent Ostland zone. Mandred, the Crypt and the Monastery and the warcamps are a very short distance from each other.

Each faction has a warcamp conveniently located nearby and battles often zerg from one objective or keep to another depending on where the attackers and defenders might be tied up. Its quite a pain to see if a battle is happening just down the road which is technically in another zone by opening your map, selecting the pairing map, selecting the next zone and then clicking into that to see if there are any RvR battles going on, ooops shanked by a Witch Elf, gurgle dead.

Question whether it would have been a better design decision to make RvR lakes an indepdent zone between each of the pairing zones… Discuss.

Then there’s the mysterious criss cross between Tier 2 and Tier 3 in Empire/Chaos. Not being Tier 3 yet, I can’t verify what’s going on, but I’m getting a real EQ/Boat on the Ocean of Tears feeling about those zones…

Another aspect of the disjointed clunkiness of the map is the loss of navigational sense. Here, I’m mostly thinking of Saylah’s post regarding the defense of Altdorf. Altdorf is, ahem, a challenging city to navigate. That’s made more difficult by the fact that the Altdorf map, even if discovered, offers no labels for major landmarks, let alone zone access points.

Case in point. I’m a noob, Destro is making their move on Altdorf, I’m in Altdorf, and even if I’m aware of the attack and that I’m supposed to go to defend the Reikwald or the Reikland, where do I go? The Altdorf map offers no clue. Had I not happened across a swirly when I was looking for the entrance to the Sewers, I wouldn’t have been aware of it. Apparently, I’m not alone.

All of the activity in Altdorf revolves around market square, the flight master, the auction house and bank, etc. Even the noob “Tour of Altdorf” quest doesn’t take you near the War Quarters which are gigantic and largely deserted. A better depiction of Altdorf and its physical placement in the world answers that basic navigational issue. Where the hell is the gate to the city?

Its an irony of an RvR game that a faction’s capital city is entirely unaccessible to the low level player EXCEPT by flying in. Just like when we fly to a city we’ve never been to, we have no real sense of geographical place in our minds. Airports, taxis, buildings, traffic, hotels, but what lies beyond?

Consider EQ2 or WoW where all noob roads eventually lead to the big city and its sense of awe and wonder. No wonder all those peasants stay inside the walls, its a dangerous world out there! Goldshire it ain’t.

So that’s my rambling directionless Friday rant on WAR maps. Anybody else get the same feeling? The maps shape my virtual world view and my worldview feels like a bunch of boxes even though I know its not the case. I’d love to see some tweaks to the map to “bring the world together” a bit and make RvR FEEL like there’s a real R there.

Its a Group Thing

Been spending a bit more time in post-cataclysm Norrath of late.  Sony Online Entertainments “Legends of Norrath” promotion got Mrs. P and me sucked back in in large part due to Gaff’s urging.  So far, I can’t say I have any regrets.

As I mentioned before, I had bailed out before when EQ2 was the 3d game for me.  3d game means that’s the one I don’t play.

I like to explore and I like to play with a few select friends.  And, from time to time, I enjoy crafting.  All of these takes a fair amount of time.  Exploration is its own reward.

Group play is its own challenge– time wise its no where near as “efficient” as well-studied solo play or  some kind of Machiavellian minmax group play but its infinitely more rewarding.  Of course with current game design, sharing content and experiences with others requires an almost herculean effort.

In games like EQ2 and City of Heroes/Villains, there are mechanism that allow players of different levels to play together, but lets face it, the higher level player is mostly playing with the lowbie as a charitable act.  Chances are they have already experienced the shared content.

Mrs. P and I have been exploring the evil side of Norrath and generally having a good time.  Gaff has about 87 characters on no less than 34 accounts of all races, genders, classes and levels, and is quite adept at multiboxing so I think he’s hoping we stick with things long enough to plug into one of his multi box groups.  We’re actually looking forward to replicating on a much smaller scale some of our WoW group experiences.

As no doubt Wilhelm will report this week, we had a challenging weekend foray with our WoW group.  As Mrs. P and I retired in the wee hours Saturday/Sunday, I prattled on in my usual Monday morning quarterback fashion about the night’s efforts.

While we were not altogether successful in our primary goals, I was reminded of the extremely rarefied space our little band of adventurers occupies.  Three of us have been playing as a regular group since WoW’s release in December 2004.  Four of us have been playing together since about April or May 2005.   The latest incarnation of our group has been playing together since September 2006.

In a few short months our current group will have been at it nearly two extremely casual years.  In WoW terms, we are finally nearing the current level cap (70).  Until last week when we lifted the self-imposed soft level cap, we had managed to stay within about 1/3 of a level of each other after nearly two years of play with wildly divergent play budgets.  Not too bad I’d say.

As Mrs. P and I were doing the post-instance night post-mortem, it occurred yet again to me what an amazing accomplishment we’ve achieved irrespective of the night’s outcome.  One of us had a baby, four of us moved, one about 800 miles in the same time zone, one about 3000 miles two time zones away, one of us a few dozen miles and one of us twice in that period of time.  One of us lived out of a suitcase for more than a year and still managed to make our Saturday night runs and when they moved to their new permanent abode not miss the Saturday night event after the move.

No thanks to any game mechanic, through heroic efforts of self restraint and self auto regulation, we have shared collectively extraordinary experiences.  Indeed the chronicles of the group that Wilhelm has recorded has created that singular heroic fantastical narrative of shared experience that MMOs should strive to provide for their subscribers.

When I look back on it, we have a single shared narrative which should be the essence of the MMO experience IMHO.  If you read Wil’s amusing and insightful reportage of our collective adventures, you are in fact largely seeing all the data points of the collective narrative.  Except for perhaps crafting, there is no other narrative.  What you see is pretty much our five individual and collective stories in the game universe.

As we’re getting a bit more immersed into the EQ2 scene and frankly a bit bored with everything else currently out there, I’m struck by fundamentally different character of the experience we’ve been having in WoW and Tipa and the Nostalgia the Guild folks have been having back in EQ.  I’m hoping we might replicate at least a shred of the same thing in EQ2.

Maybe I’m just getting old and crotchety but I’m not seeing any of the current crop of games make this kind of gameplay easier.  The “all solo” MMO is a function of the reality that we all have different play budgets and asynchronous progression is the new norm.  I can’t help but think that we’ve lost something by turning the dial completely to solo and not to provide mechanisms whereby different folks with different play budgets can still play together and create the shared experiences that are the most rarified that MMOs have to offer.

I’m not sure there’s a eureka moment buried here as its late, but I gotta think the devs might have a few better ideas than mine to facilitate this kind of gameplay.  Capping XP generation would be a start, but many more aspects would also need to be managed in order to accommodate different play styles and still support the unique squad-based objective.  Thats different from a guild, that’s different from “i have friends who also play the game”.

Then again, maybe I’m over thinking it.  Maybe all it takes is a group of people committed to coloring within the lines and being selfless enough to recognize that a greater good comes out of self restraint and “staying with the group” as they adventure through a virtual world.  I sure wish a few devs would bend their brains to make it a bit easier for us though…

Everything Old is New Again

Summer MMO-ennui what it is, you can tell by my recent posts (or lack thereof), I haven’t got much to say of late. Part of that is a result of an RL conspiracy to keep me busy outside of normal work hours with so-called “business development events”.

Not that they aren’t interesting or valuable, but they do take a bite out of the old game time. As the bloom is coming off of Conan and all else grows long in the tooth, there has been a slow steady drumbeat of some folks to “Return to X.”

Tipa’s adventures with her Nostalgia guild has almost got me to go back to EQ. Now I hear Wilhelm, the Ancient Gaming Noob, has succumbed. I’m not sure I really remember how to play, but I could see it happening now.

Likewise, Wilhelm and Gaff have been haranguing me and Mrs. P to return to EQ2 where Gaff apparently has sixty or seventy alts of every class level and faction with which he can triple or quad or quintuple box or somesuch. The spin is this time lets be naughty (evil).

I really didn’t see me coming back to EQ2 yet. I got to chatting with Gaff and he was asking whether Mrs. P might be interested. I hadn’t asked, but I assumed based on prior experience that she wouldn’t be that interested. Uncanny valley, learning curve, not quite cute enough, etc. But, much to my surprise, when I mentioned the conversation, I got a very positive “That’s a good idea. It might be fun to continue to explore EQ2.”

See, last time, I succumbed to Wil’s thinly veiled shilling for the Play the Fae campaign and started to get sucked in when I got into the LotRO closed beta. I’ve said before, at best, I’m a two MMO guy. I was digging the LotRO beta and our WoW group was rolling so EQ2 got the can.

SO, after a satisfying weekend of home improvement projects, Gaff caught me again with the hard sell and I caved. I dug out the disks (I had uninstalled. OH NOES!) and started what I thought would be the patching process to end all patching processes. Surprise, a clean install (the version that shipped as a bundle with the Echoes of Faydwer) and it was patched and running in only a brief few hours while I grabbed dinner.

Even quicker for Mrs. P who hadn’t uninstalled. Though she fell asleep before she could weigh in.

Not quite sure what happened with my old toons, but they weren’t terribly high level, so I rolled a new Arasai Coercer with the idea that if I was tagging along with better players like the multi-boxing Gaff or the better experienced Wil, then I should be able to contribute something useful like crowd control. I was expecting a bit of a slog as a not-entirely-offense-oriented caster. Still, one of my favorite classes from the original EQ was the Enchanter with its crowd control skills.  I was pleasantly surprised.  I seemed to be having a decent time making progress.

So, I give you Nardendul, Arasai Coercer:

I managed to get to about Level 7 among bouts of laundry which I consider to be decent progress considering I started very late in the evening, and yes, I wanted to read the quests.

For the Arasai starting area, it didn’t seem to have gotten as much attention as the Fae starting area, but it was still smooth, logical and relatively easy to figure out even for me when I had forgotten so much of the basic EQ2 stuff.

Now, if I can get Mrs. P to roll on the evil side, we may have quite a little casual group…

Patch-Fu

Right on up there with The Ancient Gaming Noob’s idea with analyzing MMO fishing mechanics is my next ranty-goofy idea:  review all MMO patchers.  What, you may ask, inspired this weak kneed rant?

Tuesday night was patch night in WoW.  The big 2.3 Azerothian world nerf patch and a wee bit of a hefty one at that at 265 MB (anyone remember when a game demo dl over 10MB was outrageous?).  So at somepoint in the last x years, Blizzard tweaked its patcher so that it could, at your election, download the latest upcoming patch in advance of patch day.  You can have it do it while you play WoW or begin after you logout of WoW. 

Of course, when I’m playing, I usually have skype going, I’m encoding a few mpegs, streaming audio, doing my taxes and uploading my uncompressed video of my junior high class project one man performance of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (in real time) so I tend not to want to take the performance hit.

Of coure, I usually shut down my machine when I’m done with WoW, so there’s not too much of a window for the patcher to try to download the patch.  That said, somehow, WoW’s patcher was apparently able to download the patch before Tuesday night.  Or so it seemed.

Tuesday night, I log on and WoW launches the patcher.  I’m thrilled as I watch the patcher find the previously downloaded patch and the progress bar zips across the screen 10%, 20%, 50%, 75%, 90%, 97%…97%…97%. Huh?  It seems I was 3% light, so I thought, “well, it managed to get 97% downloaded, how long can it take for the last 3% even on patch night?”

I stepped away to get my wife’s machine going.  Unfortunately, she hadn’t gotten any of it downloaded, so I started WoW’s patcher and watched it do nothing.  I checked back on my machine.  Still at 97%.

Ok, plan B.  I went to Gamer’s Hell and started to download the entire patch on my wife’s machine.  We’ll see who wins.  Not to be out done, I went back to my machine and did the same thing.  10 minutes later, both machines had downloaded the patch (prime time U.S. West Coast time) and the Blizzard downloaders had yet to move a single byte.

Why does this process have to be so cludgey?  Admittedly, Blizzard’s launcher/patcher is 1000 times better than SoE’s, but still.  If the game can get through your firewall and they can serve 9 million gamers worldwide, you’d think they could do as well as any of the gaming website which offer up the patches…

I’m still slack jawed at SoE’s patcher having seen it at work on EQ2, Vanguard and SWG.  I’m still not sure why it takes 5 minutes to go from launch to play when there is no patch…  So when do we see the Next Gen patcher?  Why isn’t this better?  Anyone?  Anyone? Beuhler?