Quote of the Day: Where's Waldo and the MMO

| Tuesday, November 19, 2013
I found this in a recent Slate column about using analysis to optimize the search for Waldo. With just a few word changes it would apply perfectly to MMOs.
If you’re foolish enough to pull out your tape measure and use my guide to Waldo-hunting you’ll not only subject yourself to confused stares—trust me—you’ll also be missing out on hundreds of clever visual jokes (the finish line of a race with runners approaching from both sides, an ark filled with two of every animal floating away from a zoo), which are as much a part of the Where’s Waldo experience as finding the man himself.

Great guilds are more important than great raids

Not too long ago, Doone made his list of the top five raids in WoW. I tried to make my own little list, but I was hindered by a few things. First, while I've seen and finished all but one pre-Cataclysm raid, I'd done many of those during the next expansion and therefore with a different experience. Naxx at 70 is not the same as Naxx at 60, and of course neither are like new Naxx at 80.

Why wasn't I in those raids? Because I wasn't in guilds that were doing them. In Cataclysm I was almost never in a guild and consequently did almost no raiding. Ditto for Pandaria. LFR was raiding in visuals only.

If asked about the greatest raid ever, of all time, I will answer Karazhan. Why? Well it certainly was a great raid. The bosses were varied. Some were made-up for the raid, but many were straight out of the stories we'd hastily clicked past to get our quest reward or the games that made Warcraft a title that could sell millions of copies of a game in a completely different genre. Kara introduced many innovations such as tokens that reduced the tendency to get completely screwed by the RNG; a small, accessible raid; and polite ghosts.

Yet, why don't I say Ulduar? That was a place with a nifty story, varied bosses, and all manner of neat new tricks such as getting to punch a tank. It was perfectly tied into Storm Peaks and if there is one thing I love it is when instances are tied to their locations. The short reason is that I was in a different guild. I still enjoyed their company and stuck with them for a while after, but it wasn't the guild that I ran Kara with. I ran Kara with my guild, founded by my friends and me, filled with people of a similar mindset. Ulduar was someone else's guild that I was let into. Though in retrospect, when I took another shot at playing again in Cataclysm they were the ones I ran with, even giving up playing my paladin (it was on another server, this wasn't one of those "I quit my main to get into a raiding guild" stories). Just writing that was enough to make me start looking for them again. This is a dark road. :)

Anyway, there's the general trend: While Ulduar was on par with Karazhan, even a little difference in guild attachment can dramatically tip the scales. There is another issue though: I never finished Ulduar. We were stuck so close to the end, and I think slowly getting there and I would have gladly fought it out. Then someone set up a circus in Icecrown and we were off for some of the most forgettable bosses since Molten Core. My WoW experience was downhill from there, struggling through ICC, with Ulduar still bugging me, all because Blizzard yanked guilds away.

That brings me to my happiest time in Cataclysm. It wasn't a long time, but for a few brief moments I was back raiding with them again. I wasn't on my paladin. I don't think Dragon Soul was all that great of a raid. But I was with friends. About a week and a half ago I went looking for them, eventually going with the straightforward method of resubbing. Sadly, many of them are inactive now (not gquit), but a few are around and maybe more will come back. In the meantime, some low-key MoP is fun.

But about my top five raids...
Molten Core
Gruul's Lair
Ruins of Ahn'Qiraj (20-man)
These are in no particular order. Nor do I suffer from the delusion that these are the Top Five Raids. They are only mine and are almost entirely due to my situation at the time.

Molten Core was my first raid. I have fond memories of fighting Garr, a fight which required many warlocks, and during which I demonstrated my creativity, figuring out, in a time before many guides were around, a better way to banish. Perhaps it was a small thing, but it was fun. While it was an amateurish raid design, it was also perfectly integrated into Blackrock Mountain, a place filled with instances and raids, all connected in one way or another, making it a prime destination for players 50-60. That made it a fun, or frustrating, place on a PvP server.

Karazhan was a hard-earned victory, fought through with my own guild of friends. It was there that my paladin went from alt to main, a position that would only be lost because of The Great Betrayal. There was such variety, such strange things to find.

Zul'Gurub was strange place. There are multiple optional bosses. One boss was different depending on the week, and somewhat difficult to summon, needing an alchemist and some odd ingredients. Another boss was fished up. Where MC was dull, ZG was bizarre and outlandish. Players could loot voodoo piles for a chance at voodoo dolls, needed for trinkets, a rare thing in those days, but they'd be mind-controlled for a while. The 'correct' response was to CC them, but why not kill them instead? In an era of 40-man raids, ZG only needed 20. Its loot was an unusual mix of purples and oddly-powerful blues, seemingly scattered at random. Even that long ago Blizzard was doing strange things with its raiding.

Gruul's Lair consisted of one incredibly hard pull and a somewhat pushover final boss. The Council was based on a good pull: get the mobs where they needed to be, attacking the right people, and things could go fairly smoothly. Screw it up and it's a horrible mess of everyone dying. The final boss, Gruul, was a fight about spreading out: he'd slowly turn players to stone, then shatter them, hurting those nearby, so spreading out 25 people just right was sometimes difficult. I'd recently joined a new guild, merging our fading one with another that needed a boost. They reluctantly let me tank Gruul, but called for a lot of misdirects, because "paladins have trouble with aggro." I proceeded to double everyone else, at a time when aggro wasn't a matter of sneezing with righteous fury on. That was a source of endless amusement for me. Even beside that, those were still days when paladin tanking was still in doubt, it wasn't that long ago that paladins were mostly just exceptionally mana-efficient healbots. Of course we were recognized as good trash and five-man tanks, with our mechanics perfectly suited to holding aggro on unlimited enemies, but handling just one was apparently in doubt. And, of course, I always pulled with my goblin rocket launcher, because if you're going to make a tank, why not do it in style?

If You Log On to an Alt

| Friday, November 15, 2013
If you log on to an alt he's going to want to run the new content.
Before he moves on he's going to want to have his professions up to date.
To get his professions up to date he'll need to farm some materials.
While he farms some materials he's going to want a zapthrottle mote extractor.
The mote extractor requires a delicate arcanite converter.
Since no one makes many of those anymore, he's going to need to fly to Winterspring.
When he can make the converter he'll see that he needs an arcanite bar.
To make an arcanite bar you need to log on to your alchemist alt...

Why does the Jade Forest anger me?

| Wednesday, November 13, 2013
I think I've finally narrowed down about half of my problems with Mists of Pandaria to one place: the Jade Forest. It's simply a stupid, terrible, awful place that sets up a negative vibe for everything else.

To begin: I do not like the hozen. I would have preferred that we killed all of them. Ditto for the fish people that the Alliance get stuck with. These are not new local allies. They are instead a collection of villages of idiots and are of debatable usefulness. Maybe things are better for the Alliance.

Jade. Everything's about jade. Jade this, jade that. The local pandaren don't seem to grow any food, despite eating constantly. They gather no resources beside jade and fresh flower petals. I've found no mentions of food caravans from the valley. The only useful export is its fighting pandas, who then go off to protect areas that are actually worth protecting. And, of course, lots of jade. There's a line between a theme and a total lack of creativity.

The Timeless Isle is not part of this, due to it being its own, not-terrible place. That's for another post.

Any zone will tend to get worn out when it is the only one available. Hellfire Peninsula wore out. Wrath of the Lich King had two zones to start with, which helped. Cataclysm had two, except one was underwater and therefore I hated it, so Mount Hyjal has gotten very old for me. Level 80 has turned into something of a parking lot for alts. And now there is the Jade Forest. Somehow it has worn out sooner than others. I blame the hozen.

In the run up to Mists of Pandaria many people complained that a "joke race", that is, the Pandaren, were being made into an entire expansion. They have not turned out to be a joke race. They've been given a history, a culture, and even some bits of nuance, such as the divide between the big brewers and the small wanderers. Even the Sha works well, as it can function the same as the classic "they went insane and now we have to kill them" procedure for generating bosses, yet it offers something closer to a reason. Granted, I am still a bit bothered by the notion of fighting the physical manifestations of things like anger and violence.

Instead it is the hozen who are the joke race. They're an absurd lot of stupid monkeys who talk like idiots. And that's all they are. They're central to the plot of the starting zone, heavily involved in the faction-based quests. It turns what could have been a great story of two invading forces struggling to survive, and if they're lucky, conquer, into a long-running joke. This is why I've concluded that the single biggest problem with Mists of Pandaria was that it was founded on a joke race, not the Pandaren, but the hozen. Though it might have helped if our introduction to the Pandaren didn't involve so much kung fu and jade.

Pandaria is a horrifying place

| Monday, November 11, 2013
The next expansion was revealed, which means that Mists of Pandaria is going to be shut down in a week. Or so I'm lead to believe by trade chat. In the meantime, let's look at how horrifying this expansion has been. Where does one even begin? First, by skipping over any gameplay complaints. I've done those a while ago.

We could look at the basic premise: Pandaria is a peaceful land with no major threats beside the highly-predictable mantid invasion, until foreigners showed up. Yep, everything is the fault of foreigners. They show up and ruin the natural balance of things with their imperialist conquest. At least we aren't pushing bloodthistle.

But look deeper and Pandaria is actually a terrible place.

The agriculture alone could be the end of their society. It is all based on a couple dozen plants, all of a single breed. Monoculture is bad enough in real life with just biological plagues, but they could fall victim to magic as well. The only plant with any variation seems to be grain, and even that may have only been variation in processing rather than different plants.

Note the land distribution as well. There are only a few landholders. Most have very small farms that they run with their families. A select few own vast farms and control access to the Tillers Union. They openly mock outsiders, attempting to bully them off their land. To work the land they have vast numbers of laborers, and thanks to the land distribution, they have little chance of rising economically. Thankfully for the landowners, those laborers are kept in check by the threat of the Sha. Any 'negative' emotions could destroy the world, so they'd better keep quiet.

There is little hope that economic or technological growth will help anyone either. There are no apparent means of mass production beside the breweries, which are needed because you can't drink the water. Technology doesn't get much attention, instead resources seem entirely devoted to preserving the past. Yet maybe that is necessary, because the Pandaren may be incapable of building much on their own. The great wall that protects them and the two faction hubs are both left over from the time of the Mogu. Almost everything else is wood. Those few stone structures that they have built are either short walls around towns, temples, or the giant jade serpent statue.

While there is some hint of past development in the agricultural sector, with better seeds having been created, the resulting surplus isn't getting them anywhere. Instead it goes to feeding armies of scribes, priests, and artists, none of which are known for their habit of developing anything new. The scribes repeat the past. The priests tell everyone to stay calm. The artists redo old themes in old materials.

The overall picture is a society that is completely stagnant. It does not build, invent, or innovate. If it is lucky, the appearance of outsiders will wake it up. If it is unlucky, it will be destroyed by the aggression, innovation, and economic power of the outside world.

Even More Immersion Breaking

| Friday, November 8, 2013
Blizzard support RPs outside of the game as well. This is ruining my out-of-game immersion.

Explorers are an elitist waste of money

I submit to you a theory: Explorers are an expensive, perpetually-unsatisfied group that are more profitable to ignore than to cater to their endless appetites for stuff that no one else cares about.

Explorers like to explore. It can be places or rules. In fact, I'd suggest that the key thing they seek to explore is not a place, but a rule. Consider a universe with instant teleportation to anywhere. In effect, everywhere is here, so therefore where is there to go? Nowhere. It is the rule set that makes it exploration. It is rules such as gravity that make it a meaningful experience to climb a mountain or look over a hill. In effect, the rules are the places.

Consider World of Warcraft before flying mounts. While it would seem that there were fewer places, there were, in fact, more. With the greater rule distance came more places to explore. To fly over on your mount is meaningless, but to figure out the oddities of terrain or the limits of tools such as flow fall or parachute cloaks, those meant something. The player had overcome an obstacle.

I'd add behavioral norms to this as well. We commonly move in certain patterns, moving from quest hub to quest hub along predictable routes. If, for some reason, we take a different route, then we may find something. The place itself may be nothing in particular, but breaking the rules on travel makes it seem like something more. Consider, for example, my delight at finding absolutely nothing in Icecrown. I found nothing hidden, in fact I went nowhere that I hadn't been before, but I used different rules.

Anyway, getting back to bashing explorers: places and rules are expensive. Most players want terrain that works smoothly. They don't want random holes in the ground that kill them. They want to have some clue to where they're going. It has to look pretty, or at least look like it is supposed to look the way it looks. Case in point: World of Wacraft looks like a weird cartoon, but it is supposed to look like that, but terrain textures should be consistent and not suddenly break halfway down the hill.

Rules are even more expensive. As cool as it must have been to discover it, it's probably better for raiding if throwing saronite bombs not rebuild the Lich King's platform (can you tell how long I've been out of the raiding scene?). Try doing bug testing and catching all that. You can't. Yet people will complain, and for good reason, if you don't.

Explorers make all of this harder. Other player types are more likely to leave these things alone. They see a wall and leave it at that. Only a weird person sees a wall and thinks, "I bet there's a way to walk straight up that." And then they go and do just that and someone's stuck figuring out how to fix it. That's the difficulty with explorers: they need rules to break. Maybe these are rules that you're supposed to break, such as wandering around on a ground mount, in which case they can be safely ignored as harmless lunatics. Maybe they're rules that you're not supposed to break, that crash servers or break encounters.

But let's get back to the places. It's not so bad just generating random terrain. Of course then explorers catch on and whine about it. So you give it the personal touch, creating places to find. But not be led to. Explorers hate if you act as if you expect them to find it, despite making it for them to find. Or you make it by accident and good luck producing those on a consistent basis without simultaneously destroying your game with low testing standards.

This is where the cost-effectiveness comes in.

Socializers can get by with a chat function. Or forgo that and have them use a third-party program so they can chat during your game that they pay for for no apparent reason. It's like printing money without the Secret Service hunting you down.

Killers are fine with a system that lets them kill each other. Some modicum of fairness may be needed. Or, sucker the achievers and socializers into being their prey and throw fairness out the window.

Achievers can be summed up with one concept: 0. Take anything in your game and count it. Stick a zero after it. You've just created content for an achiever.

Then there are the explorers. They need actual content. Maybe its a place that is hard to get to, or at least somewhere that people won't commonly go. It could have something novel about it. At the very least it needs to exist. Content is way more expensive than zeros, mindless slaughter, and talking.

But it gets worse. Achievers don't mind if everyone knows about something. They might even prefer it; they're trying to find things to achieve. Giving them a guide may even be something they want, so they can achieve more. Those explorers though, giving them anything more than a piece of paper and a pencil may be too much information. They want to wander blindly in the darkness and maybe stumble across something. The in-game guide that the achiever uses to more efficiently achieve is poisonous to the explorer, who, the more you tell them the less there is for them to explore. God forbid your game generate any sort of community that offers advice to anyone or else it's entirely out of your hands as a developer.

In this way explorers are elitist. They don't want the nice zeros and death that you made for everyone else. They want this expensive, customized content, just for them. And you can't really tell anyone about it, or else it won't be exploring anymore. They're basically virtual hipsters who are never happy unless they're talking about how they found something before it went all mainstream.

You might remember the statistics: only a few percent of players saw the original Naxx. The devs didn't like this much. No one was seeing their amazing work. Who sees the troll village? Few people. Not so many fly over it, and how much can they see from there anyway? People tend to tab out when flying anyway. I imagine just as many people saw Naxxramas floating in the sky, but that's hardly equal to fighting in it. Naxx was remade in an expansion and many more people saw it. I've heard that the troll village is also being tweaked, opened up, and so people will see it.
The unspoken implication, which I get to claim is there because I wrote it, is that it was better when people weren't seeing it, that it was better when getting there meant exploiting terrain glitches in Winterspring rather than following a quest line in Darkshore. For us explorers it was better. We had to figure out rules, and then break them, to be rewarded with something that has no apparent reason for its existence, except the remote chance that some explorer will break those rules and find it.

And then they got rid of the rules altogether with flying mounts. There are no hills if all dimensions are open to you. Alas, that was all back in another reality. I do miss it.

Are achievements the right tool for whatever it is they're supposed to do?

| Thursday, November 7, 2013
Guild Wars 2 uses achievements for a few things. They track the story of the moment. They act as a daily/monthly reward system. They shuffle us randomly around the map to go kill that one NPC type of which we've killed 497. They make Syl mad. Maybe they do other stuff as well, stuff that I am not awesome enough to know.

For all these things they do, I wonder, is this the best way to do it? I'm going to set aside whether the game should do this in the first place; that's for another day.

The story of the moment tracking is terrible. I don't know where I am in the story based on it. It gives no context to the story. It's just a check box and a number. This is a time when a quest system would function better.

The daily/monthly reward system works more effectively, perhaps because the thing to track is so much simpler. Achievement systems are well-suited to tracking numbers or basic actions. The WoW method of daily quests is more cumbersome, requiring travel to pick up the quest to do what you did yesterday and will do tomorrow.

The random shuffling of almost-complete kill achievements may be intended to promote exploration, though since it would send you to where you've already been it isn't adding anything new. Still, it does send you somewhere different, sometimes. The system isn't pretty, but it does work, at whatever it is supposed to do.

WoW has achievements too, but that's for another day, by which I mean that when I tried to write about it all my words turned into stupid.

Maybe the problem is that Explorer types don't like whatever it is that achievements are trying to do. But that's for an upcoming post titled "Explorers are an elitist waste of money."

NBI: When the muse stops

| Monday, November 4, 2013
The Newbie Blogger Initiative is over. Maybe that's some symbolism right there. There you are, writing high with your fellow initiates and people giving you topic ideas. Maybe you just started your blog and you've still got all that pent-up stuff to talk about. But it's running out, isn't it? The initiative ended and so did the initiative.

Uh oh.

For the record, I've been staring at this part of the post for a few minutes.
Don't Panic.

There is another pause here. What do I say?

Say something. You're going to work and presumably expecting to come home. Then what do you do? Play a game? Not play a game but wish you were? Which game? What will you do? There's a post. Too dull? Then ask why you want to play that particular game.

It doesn't have to be a new game. It could also be a retro game. It could also just be a game that you like. You know what I played a few weeks ago? Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the game that came out before Fallout 3, which came out before Fallout: New Vegas, which is not a new game.

But what could you possibly say that hasn't been said? See how it holds up over time. See how it compares to its successors. Maybe the game came out back when everyone was 10 years old and with a few years under your belt you realize that the plot of the game was ever so slightly totally racist. Maybe the social or political situation has changed and the game looks entirely different from the new context.

There may be nothing new under the sun, but that doesn't mean we've found it all, or remembered it. Remember that for the most part, great explorers didn't get there first or even second, rather, they got there first after someone forgot who actually had.
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