Regrets, I've had a few. But then again, too few to mention
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 August 2015, 3:46 am
Syp started the latest MMORPG blogosphere trend talking about regrets, followed by Rowan Blaze and Telwyn. I was a bit surprised that they all shared the regret of not having gotten into MMORPGs earlier. I'm not in the same boat: I played LPMUDs on a university mainframe computer with ASCII terminal, 25 x 80 text characters "resolution". I played Ultima Online on dial-up, and quit after the first telephone bill arrived. I played Everquest relatively early on, even if I wasn't there for release. I started my MMORPG blog over a year before World of Warcraft was released, and at that time already had played pretty much every game on the market. I'm just not sure that Syp, Rowan, and Telwyn missed much.

Certainly, the early period of MMORPGs pre-WoW had more variety, the formula of what a MMORPG is was less fixed and less static. There was a lot more experimentation going on. On the other hand, a lot of that experimentation went horribly wrong. There are events, like the launch of Anarchy Online, where my regret is to have been there rather than not having been there. Anarchy Online also showed what could go wrong if you designed worlds and stuff by algorithms, for example by creating weapons that actually had negative stats, because the weapon existed at 200 different levels and the formula designed the stats at level 100 and the slope of increase/decrease per level could be so steep that the low levels fell below 0. Several games experimented with open world player housing, leading either to horrible overcrowding (UO) or deserted player cities when server populations shrank (SWG). Star Wars Galaxies was full of failed experiments, like the first Jedi design, or the NGE, but probably had the best resource gathering and crafting system I've ever seen. Everquest and Final Fantasy XI showed up the limits of forced grouping. Nearly every early game failed to foresee that some people would camp or grind stuff 16 hours a day (and modern games still haven't found an adequate solution for that). So the early days of MMORPGs kind of resembled the mythical Chinese curse of "may you live in interesting times". I don't regret having lived in interesting times, but the experience wasn't always pleasant.

Overall I can't say I regret much of my long years in MMORPGs. The worst regret is possibly having fallen for the hype and buying the lifetime subscription for Lord of the Rings Online, and then playing the game very little because of the unresponsive combat system. I certainly made mistakes, both with playing MMORPGs and with blogging about them, but I tend not to regret my mistakes but rather cherish them as a learning experience. Thus the Sinatra quote in the title. The very definition of a game is that it provides a safe environment for experimentation, with limited consequences, thus I would say it is natural to have less regrets about games than about real life.
Tobold's Blog

Handling lore
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 14 August 2015, 3:18 am
I find that my attitude towards lore is very different between playing a MMORPG and a tabletop RPG. In MMORPGs I tend to completely ignore lore. Part of that is because when I was young I read a lot of fantasy literature and learned to tell the good from the bad, and the writing of a typical computer RPG is usually rather bad. I mean, does the whole Warlords of Draenor alternative timeline story make sense to anybody? The other problem is that in a MMORPG lore tends to clash with gameplay. I play different alts, so I end up killing the same main villain several times, or worse I find myself in a script of being betrayed and can do nothing about it in spite of already knowing who the bad guy is. In the other direction lore is nearly always completely irrelevant for gameplay, the game never asks me to make any decisions based on my understanding who is good and who is bad. The good guys have a green name and I can't attack them, the bad guys have a red name, and outside scripted events I can attack them; that is all the lore I need to know.

In a tabletop RPG the situation is very different. Especially for me as DM, being lorekeeper is part of my job. Now there are different approaches to that: Some DMs make up the lore on the spot, as the world only exists when the players come into contact with it. The disadvantage is that this requires a very good memory, because stories tend to loop back to NPCs and other lore elements you described before, and then you better remember what you invented on the spot several sessions ago.

So my approach is usually one of preparation. Especially if I play a campaign or adventure that I haven't written myself. I will read the adventure and campaign material several times and think about the various relations described in there until that virtual world becomes kind of real in my head. If I know the history of my campaign world and the NPCs that are principal actors in it, I can respond to any situation that comes up in the game with a consistent answer.

For my new campaign I was lucky with the timing. This is Europe, with its long summer holidays, and in a group of 1 DM and 6 players it isn't easy to play during summer, because everybody is gone at some point or the other. That creates a huge gap between the last session before the holidays and the first session after the holidays. But as this year we finished the old campaign just before the holidays, and only had time for a short introduction of the new campaign (character creation and a warm-up fight), I had all summer to prepare the new campaign. As the Zeitgeist campaign is *huge* (the first hardcover with the players guide, DM guide, and adventures 1 to 4 has 562 pages), I could really use that time. Now I feel well prepared, having understood the interaction between the various power groups in the campaign world, and events about to happen that the players will interact with.

When I started playing tabletop roleplaying games in the early 80's, the written modules and campaign guides were all you had to prepare. Today there are other sources, because other people will have played the same campaign and put their experiences in blogs, podcasts, or even videos. 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons works well with videos, as long as you stream your virtual tabletop in the video. There are various videos on YouTube basically showing people sitting around a table for hours, and there an audio podcast would have worked just as well. In any case, it is interesting to hear how a different DM describes the same campaign world, and what the reactions of different players are to certain situations. Sometimes it helps you to identify pitfalls in the adventure, where the players ask a perfectly reasonable question or take a logical course of action that the adventure failed to foresee. Seeing that happen in somebody else's campaign helps to avoid the gap in my own campaign. On the other hand every podcast or video is full of player interaction and dice rolls that have no relevance for my own campaign.

The big difference between tabletop RPGs and computer RPGs is that lore actually makes a difference in the pen & paper game. There is a much larger possibility space for players to make decisions in, and only if you have meaningful decisions to make becomes the lore important as a basis for deciding who to help and who to fight. The best a computer RPG can come up is a decision system where you better be consistently good or consistently evil to get to the maximum power level of your alignment-based powers.
Tobold's Blog

Training useless skills
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 14 August 2015, 4:20 am
Jessica from Herding Cats reports on 5 ways being into games have helped her career. Things like networking, podcasting, raid organization and guild leadership provided her with skills that were applicable to real world situations, and thus helped her career. What struck me about the list, and similar lists I've seem over the years, is that all the skills listed that you can learn from playing a MMORPG are skills that are ancillary to the game.

A large number of players will play the same MMORPG *without* ever learning speaking skills from a podcast, writing skills from a blog, or leadership skills from organizing a raid guild. You'll rarely be asked for those skills if you apply in a top guild. Instead the main skill required to be a top raider is hand-eye coordination: Seeing what happens on the screen and pressing the appropriate key within a short reaction time. That is a skill that is trained by a number of different video games. And there are very few real world jobs in which that skill is of much use (fighter pilot?).

A "seriouz gamer" will look down with disdain on games like hidden object games, which are rather popular (especially with a female audience) on various online or mobile platforms. Or the various match 3 games or other puzzle games. But I would say that those games are more likely to train skills that are useful in the real world than the core skills of most hardcore games. Even Angry Birds teaches you more about physics than a shooter. And you'd better not try to survive in the wild with the "skills" you picked up playing DayZ.

I don't believe that violent games turn people violent. If games would influence real life behavior strongly, I'd be more worried about racing games, because it is more likely that a gamer is behind the wheel of a real car than at the trigger of a real Kalashnikov. However I do believe that games can teach you things and train certain skills. So my main criticism of violent hardcore games isn't that they might affect players negatively, but that I think they fail to affect players positively, they don't teach them useful skills.
Tobold's Blog

Mixing narrative
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 August 2015, 8:18 am
While normally I link to other blog posts because I want to discuss the core message of that post, sometimes I can't help but be more interested in a side remark. In a post on Critical Hits the author mentions "the thorny problem of delivering story at the gaming table while at the same time pulling story from the players". That struck a cord with me, because it is one of the principal issues I see for my upcoming new campaign.

Computer RPGs don't have that problem, because they don't attempt to integrate player narrative. There is pretty much only the story the devs want to tell, with only minor variations like side quests left to the player. The strength of a tabletop role-playing games is that the DM isn't the only contributor to the story, which incidentally keeps the game more interesting for the DM. Players can make actual decisions that change the course of the main story, and they all have their personal story that can be interwoven with the main story of the adventure.

As a DM any contribution to the story by the players should be welcome. The mantra of DMing is to never say no, say "yes, and ...", just like in improvised theater. But assuming that your campaign *has* a story, the issue becomes one of getting players to contribute to that story without them destroying it. I failed in that in my previous campaign in one adventure, where the players somehow decided near the end of the adventure to rather run away than to pursue the main villain, thus killing the end of the story that I wanted to tell.

The trick is to find the right balance between what a MMORPG player would call theme park and sandbox. If you provide an endless stream of events that happen, the players can only react and don't have much freedom to contribute their own story. But if you leave them with no clue and expect them to come up with a story, the results usually aren't great either, unless you have a very much narrative minded group full of impro specialists. So your job as a DM becomes to provide a framework, a world full of NPCs who are performing your story, but with enough freedom for the players to choose how to engage with that story. And then sometimes you need to force them to act by creating a situation which requires some action.

"Pulling story from the players" can also involve adding stuff to your story that wasn't originally in there. Some story hooks for the players can easily be prepared: You know the background of the characters, you know your NPCs, so you can devise a reasonable link between the two. Not every NPC has to enter a story as an unknown character, one of the player characters might have a previous relationship with him. And you can foresee how an NPC would react to visible clues, e.g. an NPC cleric reacting to a player paladin of the same faith. Just be careful as DM that you provide story hooks for different players, and not always the same, so nobody feels excluded. The trick is then to use those interactions with the NPCs to draw the players deeper into the main story, but simultaneously allowing them to contribute their part of the narrative by giving them freedom on how to react to their personal connection with that NPC.

The upcoming campaign is probably the most difficult I've ever directed as a DM. Let's see how I fare in this challenge!
Tobold's Blog

Golf clubs and MMORPGs
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 August 2015, 4:01 am
What is the difference between a 5 iron and a 6 iron golf club? A golf veteran can probably explain the difference and knows in which situation to use which of these clubs. Everybody else would be unable to see the difference between the two, if they weren't hadn't "5" and "6" etched onto them. MMORPGs have the same issue: If you made a screenshot of yourself killing some wolves in a game like Wildstar or Guild Wars 2, and you showed that screenshot to a non-gaming friend and asked him what game he thought that was, he is likely to answer "World of Warcraft". Because he probably hasn't heard of the other MMORPGs, and for him the difference between WoW and GW2 is about the same difference as between those golf clubs.

I am currently playing World of Warcraft. But that is more or less an accident of history. I might as well play Final Fantasy XIV or Guild Wars 2 or one of many other similar games, and that wouldn't make a change in my life. There are very few games in the MMORPG genre (EVE, A Tale in the Desert, Puzzle Pirates), where the basic gameplay is actually much different from World of Warcraft. I was reading about the design of Project Gorgon where the devs asked themselves "what is a player going to do every 15 seconds, every 15 minutes", and the answers were "kill a mob" and "hand in a quest". And these answers are the same for a huge range of games, even games like Destiny that aren't usually considered as MMORPGs.

The sad thing about this is that the possibility space of MMORPGs is much larger than this. You weren't doing a quest every 15 minutes in Ultima Online. You don't kill mobs in A Tale in the Desert. Games like the first Asheron's Call showed that interesting social structures other than raid guilds are possible. Star Wars Galaxies experimented with non-combat classes and player-built cities. The whole promise of "players living in a virtual world" was squandered by everybody (including Blizzard) following the Everquest model of MMORPGs and neglecting the alternatives. Nintendo made a better community-shared virtual world with Animal Crossing than any of the big MMORPGs ever managed!

If the overall MMORPG market is in decline, it is because most developers chose to do "more of the same", trying to emulate successful games instead of searching for success with other formulas of gameplay. I still believe that a big social MMORPG which is about living together in a virtual fantasy world is possible, without violence being the main gameplay option. I just hope that devs interpret the various "WoW is dying" reports correctly as that the EQ model of gameplay has been overdone and isn't attracting players any more, and that we need something completely different. I don't want another golf club.
Tobold's Blog

What is the market size of MMORPGs?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 August 2015, 5:25 am
MMO Data hasn't compiled subscription numbers since the end of 2013, but showed that the sum of all subscribers for all MMORPGs peaked in 2011 and declined since then. I wonder if anybody has more recent data on that. While I hear that Final Fantasy XIV is doing well, the best information I can find about it's subscription numbers are speculations on Reddit claiming 750k players. So if World of Warcraft is losing 1.5 million players in a quarter, I don't see how that is compensated by anything else. We might be at the lowest overall number of subscribers for MMORPGs ever.

This doesn't count Free2Play games, and due to several high-profile games having switched (e.g. SWTOR) or being in the process of switching (e.g. Wildstar), the number of *players* of MMORPGs might actually be on a very different trend than the number of *subscribers*. On the other hand I'm not seeing much indications that there is a big boom in player numbers for Free2Play MMORPGs either. For example the response to the announcement of the Guild Wars 2 expansion was everything but enthusiastic.

I'm seeing a lot of talk about other genres instead: Card games appear to be kind of hot, between Hearthstone and Magic Duels. MOBAs report huge player numbers, and they might be a more direct competition to MMORPGs, having a larger overlap of features. Games like Destiny and other online shooters equally offer gameplay in virtual worlds populated by lots of other players, and the line separating them from MMORPGs is getting thinner. Meanwhile MMORPGs appear to be stuck in "let's announce an expansion with more of the same" mode, with very little hope of the genre being revolutionized by innovation anytime soon.

So I consider it possible that the MMORPG genre as a whole is declining in player numbers. I just would really like to have some more solid data on this, instead of a bunch of anecdotal evidence.
Tobold's Blog

No man ever steps in the same river twice
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 August 2015, 4:10 am
The title is from the greek philosopher Heraclitus, who insisted that the world is ever-changing. I agree. But that doesn't prevent people from nostalgia. And in the case of World of Warcraft, people are either nostagic for vanilla WoW, or for the first expansion, The Burning Crusade. Instead of realizing that this was just the time where WoW was still fresh, and we weren't so jaded as we are now, they assign some mythical properties to The Burning Crusade. And Blizzard jumped right on that bandwagon and announced the next expansion to be thematically very similar to TBC. I don't think that will work.

Of course nostalgia does work to influence buying decisions. I expect the rise in subscription numbers for Legion to be even higher than for Warlords of Draenor. But then people will quickly realize that you can't step in the same river twice, that Legion isn't TBC, and that you can't bring back the old enthusiasm just by plonking Illidan back into the game. My prediction is that two quarterly reports after the release of Legion the subscription numbers will be back to lower than before release, just like the universal curve predicts.

For me, in hindsight, The Burning Crusade was actually one of the worst expansions of World of Warcraft. The whole attunement concept was a disaster. The Burning Crusade destroyed many guilds and changed social aspects of the game for the worse forever after. It fostered elitism and the concept of "you aren't good enough to be in this guild". There is nostalgia by people who at the time *were* the elite and at the top of the heap, but even that turned out over time to be a rat race and hamster wheel which people couldn't keep up with forever. And the zones of TBC to this day are my least favorite content in WoW when leveling a new character.

The one good thing about Legion is that it won't be like The Burning Crusade at all, in spite of the demons. LFR, flex raiding, premade group finder, and all the other inventions to make the game less elitist and more accessible aren't going to go away. Some basement dwellers whose life purpose is to lord it over others in a video game where they "rule" due to having no other life will be seriously disappointed by the "new" version of The Burning Crusade.
Tobold's Blog

Weapon madness
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 August 2015, 6:31 am
The trick to get rich, both in World of Warcraft and IRL, is to not spend your money. So in spite of having a big business selling upgrade essences, I never used them on my characters. It wasn't really necessary, as I'm not raiding, and I get plenty of gear from other sources. But yesterday I made an exception and equipped my level 91 paladin with an iLevel 705 two-handed axe.

The effect is astonishing. For comparison the heirloom axe at level 91 is only iLevel 530 and has an average damage per second of 118. The upgraded crafted axe has an average damage per second of over 600, thus 5 times more. Okay, I spent nearly 60k worth of gold and materials on the thing, but due to its low minimum level the thing will have a huge impact on my paladin. I had the gold and materials on hand, but somebody else could have gotten there by spending real money on WoW tokens, so the whole thing feels a lot like Pay2Win.

I don't plan on equipping more iLevel 705 gear, I'm fine with a mix of heirlooms and found gear. I see why there is a limit of using only 3 crafted items though. I think that on the weapon the effect of having a much higher iLevel is more significant than on other gear. I wonder whether that was what prompted Blizzard to effectively remove weapons from the next expansion, by giving everybody the same artifact weapons.
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Pandas on speed
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 10 August 2015, 5:54 am
I started Mists of Pandaria when it came out, end of September 2012. Early November 2012 I cancelled my subscription. Somehow at that point in time I didn't like Pandaria, and I only got one single character from level 85 to 90. With that experience it is understandable that I was somewhat reluctant to play Warlords of Draenor. I didn't play directly on release, but waited until Christmas 2014, where I first took a free 10-day trial before subscribing. By now it is safe to say that WoD clicked far more with me than MoP: Over 9 months later I am still playing. Of course it helps that Blizzard allows me to play for free now, I have enough gold for 2 years worth of WoW tokens.

Maybe my problem with Mists of Pandaria was a bad choice of character class: The one class I leveled to 90 was my priest, based on the logic that I'd get into dungeon finder groups very fast. But two things happened: I grew completely disenchanted with WoW dungeons, they turned from the content I liked the most to the content I like the least; and I more and more found the shadow priest soloing combat style tedious and annoying.

So when I started Warlords of Draenor, I bought the expansion and got a free boost to level 90, which I used on my fury warrior. I had much more fun playing that character solo, and got him to level 100 first. I also played my shadow priest, but less frequently, and it took a long time for him to reach level 100. I think I reached level 100 on my frost mage before I reached it with my priest. The frost mage was level 85, which the patch changed to 1 xp away from 86, and I leveled him through Pandaria by doing half the quests in the Valley of the Four Winds, and all the quests in Kun-Lai Summit. My fourth level 100 character is a Worgen demonology warlock which I just created for this expansion. I only played him through the Worgen-specific starting area, and then paid to give him a boost to level 90. With these 4 level 100 characters I played for the last several months.

This weekend I decided to go for number 5. After analyzing what combat style I liked and trying out some stuff like a death knight I had, I went for retribution paladin. I had one of those at level 85, human, on a different server. So I transferred him to the same server where my other level 100 characters are, so he could get stuff from the Worgen warlock. Now the frost mage I had leveled through Pandaria using quest gear. For the paladin I went for heirloom gear, which gives a big boost to experience gained. The results was a sort of speed run: I just reached the Sha of Doubt main event in the very first zone, Jade Forest, when I already hit level 90. I haven't even done all the side story quest lines in Jade Forest, barely more than half a zone to get from 85 to 90!

Now the paladin is in Draenor, in his own garrison, a few xp away from level 91. At level 91 stuff will happen on the gear side: From the warlock (who has blacksmithing) the paladin received an iLevel 705 crafted axe. I find it kind of crazy that the crafted gear in WoD has this low a level requirement and this high a possible iLevel, after upgrades. The Pawn addon tells me that the crafted 2H axe is a +500% upgrade to the level 90 WoD quest axe I am currently wielding. And then I will have to make a decision about the rest of the gear: Right now the heirlooms are maximum level 90, but I could further upgrade them to 100. I might do that for the xp bonus, because after having already done 4 characters, I pretty much did every quest in this expansion.

On the other hand that wouldn't leave much to play for that paladin once he reaches the level cap: The naval missions of my other 4 characters give "baleful" tokens that are bound to account, so my paladin already has a bank full of baleful plate tokens. But I think it will still be interesting to play him in Tanaan Jungle. I also want to change his profession from currently blacksmithing to engineering. I could also, just for fun, go for a Gnomish Gearworks early (even if that isn't the most efficient way to level your garrison) and play him as some sort of crazy gadgeteer paladin. That might be fun!
Tobold's Blog

Weird monetization
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 August 2015, 2:38 pm
I always considered the item shop in Card Hunter fair, and the game offering a good balance between what you can get for free and what you get if you pay a reasonable amount of money. And at first glance the iOS version Loot & Legends looked similar, albeit with higher prices for Loot Club membership. So I bought the basic edition special pack and started playing on Friday, having extended the Loot Club membership to two days.

By Sunday I had not only reached the end of the club membership. I also had reached the end of the campaign game. Loot & Legends is significantly shorter than even the basic version of Card Hunter, so at level 10 I had reached the last map. And then it turns out that there is absolutely no reason for me to spend any more money on the game. In Card Hunter you can get xp and loot by replaying maps (after a day). In Loot & Legends that isn't possible. You can replay as much as you want, but you'll only get gold, no xp, no loot. Thus no need for a Loot Club here.

Loot & Legends has an arena mode, but apparently the Loot Club only gives you 5 more points on a win. But you always fight the same enemy team (a mirror of your team) on the same handful of maps, so that mode isn't very interesting. So basically I reached the end of the game after only two days, and have no more reason to play or to spend money on the game. And generally I found Loot & Legends easier than Card Hunter, so I could probably have finished the game without paying anything. The basic edition special pack for $10 turned out to be more than enough.
Tobold's Blog

Card Hunter everywhere
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 August 2015, 6:41 am
Two years ago I blogged about how much I loved Card Hunter. I still think it is a great game, but of course after having played it for a good amount of hours in 2013, I stopped playing at some point, then played something else, and promptly forgot about Card Hunter. Now the game is back on my playing schedule, because there are lots of news and new versions.

On the PC you can now get Card Hunter on Steam. That version is identical to the browser version, and you can link accounts and use the account from the browser or Kongregate for the Steam version. Simultaneously the game got a second expansion, Expedition to the Sky Citadel, raising the level to 21. So far so good, but that isn't actually the version I am playing today.

Because this week Card Hunter came to iOS under the name Loot & Legends, and made by a different company. Loot & Legends takes many aspects of Card Hunter, like the combat system and the story of Gary, Karen, and Melvin. But it changes the map, and the cards, so it feels much like a new game. The only disadvantage is that, while you can still perfectly play the game for free, a month of "Club Membership" which gives you better loot has effectively doubled in price from $10 in Card Hunter to $20 in Loot & Legends. On the other hand you can now buy the membership in much shorter blocks of time (1 day and 7 days), so if for example you only play on weekends it'll cost you less than $20 per month ($1.50 to $2 per day depending on how much currency you buy, so still more than $10).

So if you haven't played Card Hunter yet, I'd probably recommend the PC version on Steam rather than Loot & Legends on iOS.
Tobold's Blog

World of Warcraft Legion
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 August 2015, 2:46 am
So yesterday Blizzard announced the next World of Warcraft expansion, called Legion. That caused an immediate problem: How do you abbreviate that? After "MoP" and "WoD", are we supposed to call it "L"? Or "Leg"? I guess we'll just stick to the full name and call it Legion.

As predicted, the fake "leak" got lots of details of the new expansion right, just because they were so easy to predict: Level 110, the Burning Isles as new area, a new class (Demon Hunter), more dungeons. But instead of replacing the garrison with a pirate ship, which would have been way cool, Blizzard went for a much weaker "Class Order Halls", with a new and revised follower system and not much more. Curiously, while Horde and Alliance and still supposed to battle each other, at the end of the day the warriors of each side meet in their common Class Order Hall to drink a beer together. And so do the mages, the priests, the hunters, etc. . I wonder if that means that in the Class Order Hall you can actually speak to the players of the other faction having the same class as you do.

Apart from the predictable stuff and the weak new player housing, the announcement also had a few news of genuine improvements: One is the artifact weapons. Basically your weapons stops being an ordinary piece of gear which you constantly replace by something better you looted. Instead you get an artifact weapon at the start, and that weapon has its own experience point system and you will level it up. A second xp system is a brilliant idea: Players insist on fast leveling, so a month after release most players are already at the level cap and then need to wait forever for the next expansion to see the level cap raised again. The artifact weapon xp will certainly be gained at a *much* slower rate, so that by the time you hit level 110 you still have a lot to do before your weapon hits the cap too. That is a great idea which solves the problem that a lot of content becomes completely unrewarding once you hit the level cap in a previous expansion. Different skins for the artifact weapons exist, so that not everybody is running around with the same weapon, and every class and every specialization has its own artifact weapon. (Note that Blizzard can't count: They announced 36 different weapons for the different specializations. But the Demon Hunter apparently only has 2 specializations, so there are only 35.)

The other big improvement, although it concerns me a lot less, is the PvP system. After over 10 years Blizzard finally realized that it would be a good idea that if two characters of the same class and level dueled each other, the result should depend on skill and not on who had farmed more gear in raids or in PvP. So the honor system will be completely revamped, you can't buy PvP gear for honor any more. Instead you gain honor levels up to 50 which give much less bonus than gear did. And at 50 you can voluntarily go back down to level 1 and get a prestige point, which shows that you are really badass and have accepted a voluntary reduction of power in exchange for some fluff like a mount or weapon skin.

I didn't get a good feel for the Demon Hunter class yet, which seems to be a weird mix of ranged and melee in cloth armor. It is a hero class that will, like the Death Knight, get its own starting area and higher starting level (presumably be level 100 on leaving the starting area). There might be a severe racial restriction to only elves (night elves for Alliance, blood elves for Horde). This is really something which I will need to try to see whether I like the combat style.

Overall I found the announcement not overly exciting, being pretty much in the range of what could be expected. No word on earlier release, although "beta later this year" makes me think that I was right to say that this won't get released this year any more. I was a bit disappointed by the "yet another demon invasion" theme, instead of a more interesting pirate or other theme. And in spite of an obvious attempt to make "The Burning Crusade II", I stick to my prediction that this expansion will not fundamentally alter the subscription number curve. It is only that the older the game gets, the more ex-WoW players there are, and the bigger the blips get that each expansion causes. So presumably just before release WoW will be under 5 million subscribers, there will be a rise in subscriptions by 4+ million players, followed by "WoW is dying and lost half of its subscribers in 6 month" posts when it fall back to 4 million subscribers half a year after the expansion release. The fact that I can predict subscription numbers half a year after the next expansion releases will prove my point that the content of the expansion doesn't matter for that.
Tobold's Blog

Investigative adventures
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 August 2015, 5:11 am
For those of my readers who follow my journal of my D&D campaigns (all three of you), you can expect the first real session (after a previous warm-up session) journal entry in three weeks, when we start to play again after the summer holidays.

As I mentioned earlier this new campaign uses the Zeitgeist Adventure Path from EN Publishing. The main advantage to use a pre-made campaign is that your adventures fit together into a larger story, better than I usually can accomplish when I string together a campaign from disparate adventures from different sources. The main disadvantage is that not every adventure might suit my particular group. The first adventure is bloody brilliant and a great fit to the playing style of my group, I think we are going to have a blast with that one. But the second one is an investigative adventure, and those have historically been a catastrophe with this group, having failed with different attempts by different DMs.

The players in this group simply aren't very interested in whodunit type of gameplay. Past attempts have included the death of one campaign in an adventure where after taking several sessions to question different NPCs all the players had completely forgotten what the NPCs at the top of the list had said by the time they had arrived at the bottom of the list. The one attempt I did was marred by the players disbelieving every clue ("can't be that one, it's too obvious!"), and finally running away rather than facing the villain because they weren't sure how that would work out and couldn't agree on a common approach. So when I see that adventure two of the Zeitgeist campaign has a list of 40 NPCs to interact with, I start getting panic attacks. This will never work!

Fundamental problems with investigative adventures with my group are two-fold: One is that we don't play every week, so the players forget clues over several sessions and thus have difficulty putting those clues together correctly. And two there is a lack of internal leadership, coming from both a reluctance of people to lead, and an even stronger reluctance to follow. So by the time finally somebody says "okay, let's go left", somebody else is sure to disagree and say "no, let's go right". Give them more options and my 6 players will come up with 7 different opinions on what to do next. And that usually takes forever to sort out into a real action.

There is a strong parallel here to MMOs: Classic adventures resemble theme park style MMOs, investigative adventures resemble sandbox MMOs. While on paper sandbox games can be great, they also can go very, very wrong. "Successful" sandbox games usually attract people by allowing them to be incredibly mean to each other, which has a certain attraction to a certain type of person armed with internet anonymity. Doesn't work so well in a fixed group of friends sitting around a table. And for every player who sees the sandbox as an opportunity to do anything he likes, there are several others who look at the same scene and just scratch their head, unsure about what they are to do next. Sandbox games simply aren't for everybody, which is part of the explanation of why their market share in the MMORPG overall market is so limited, in spite of every project always producing a lot of hype.

If your players are either lost or mean to each other in a sandbox, your choice is limited to either giving up, or removing a lot of freedom from the sandbox to move the game more and more into a theme park direction. I will see how it goes, but I might have to seriously rewrite that second adventure for my campaign.
Tobold's Blog

Am I a subscriber?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 August 2015, 2:48 am
Azuriel wrote another sensationalist WoW is dying post but managed to put an actually interesting question at the end: Who is counted at a subscriber for World of Warcraft in Europe / North America? We know that in Asia WoW works with time cards and everybody who spent some money in a given month is counted as subscriber. But what about people who are using WoW tokens to keep their accounts active?

Technically I cancelled my WoW subscription two months ago. The exit interview asks you why you quit, but all the questions assumed that I didn't want to play any more. The option "I still want to play, I just don't want to pay real money for it any more" didn't exist. Yesterday I bought 4 WoW tokens (on the off chance that today's announcement increases interest in WoW and thus the price of WoW tokens), but after that I *still* had over a million gold on my characters. Even in very basic maintenance mode without putting in any effort I easily earn twice or more as much gold per month than it costs to pay for a WoW token.

So does Blizzard count me as a subscriber? Or am I counted as "left World of Warcraft during Warlords of Draenor and never came back"? I haven't received any mails of the "come back to WoW" type yet, but those usually come much later after a cancellation.

The interest in subscription numbers has a dual purpose. On the one hand it is interesting how many people are actively playing the game, because the more people play, the more you meet in game, or interact at least indirectly with them, for example on the Auction House. I can clearly see a decrease in activity on the AH for my server cluster. The other purpose of looking at subscription numbers is that they reflect somehow the revenue of the company making the game: If a game isn't profitable enough any more, it might get shut down.

With the early subscription games the two curves were identical: Every player paid $15 per month, so the curve showing subscription numbers equaled the curve showing revenue. But as soon as the amount of money a single player pays isn't constant any more, the two curves diverge. For example nobody has a curve of the number of players of EVE Online, we only have the number of "accounts" (which reflects revenue). As many players in that game have more than one account, and the number of accounts per player can change (e.g. because this year EVE banned multi-boxing), the number of players and number of accounts is not the same. In a game that becomes Free2Play, like SWTOR, you can't really deduce revenue from the number of players at all. And nobody cancels an account that is free, so what exactly do you count as a player? It is perfectly possible that right now SWTOR is counting me as a player, while WoW is not, although I haven't played SWTOR for ages, and play WoW every day. Hey, and I bought a life-time subscription for LotRO when it released, so they probably count me as subscriber too.

I think for World of Warcraft it would be best to count active non-trial accounts, regardless of whether the monthly fee was paid in gold or real money. After all, *somebody* paid $20 for my WoW token, even if it wasn't me. Counting me as a subscriber would thus reflect both active players and revenue. I just don't have an official confirmation that Blizzard is counting the same way.
Tobold's Blog

Next WoW expansion release date
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 August 2015, 11:33 pm
All subscription MMORPGs have the same universal curve of growth, plateau, and slow decline of subscription numbers. Nothing Blizzard announces this week about the next expansion can change the basic trajectory of slow decline WoW now is on. It is stupid to think that any design feature is responsible for subscription numbers, that WoW was better while it was growing than it is now. If Mists of Pandaria had been released in 2007 and Burning Crusade in 2012 instead of the other way around, that wouldn't have changed the basic universal subscription number curve at all. It's not them, it is us, the curve is based on network effects and people getting bored with any game, not design features.

Having said that, any expansion results in a blip on that curve. And the financial impact is significant: If 10 million people buy a $40 expansion and there is a 3 million subscriber blip for one quarter, we are talking about additional revenue in the order of 500 million dollars here. Which is exactly why Blizzard has always said they wanted to release expansions faster: It costs them only a fraction of the added revenue to make an expansion. They would release an expansion every year if they could. But large organizations have their own internal production dynamics and Blizzard has proven again and again that they are unable to speed up the pace of expansions by much.

Now previous expansions were announced in November Blizzcons, while the next expansion is being announced this week at the Gamescon. From that some people concluded that Blizzard is going to announce the expansion for this Christmas. Dream on! Due to the mythical man-month they can't just throw more resources at the problem and speed up production by much. If the next expansion comes "faster", they'd be lucky if they could manage to release it in one year, around the time of the next Gamescom. It is not that they can't see all the good reasons for an annual expansion, or don't want to make faster expansions; they just can't manage it. The next expansion for World of Warcraft is going to be released in 2016, and more likely in the second half than in the first.
Tobold's Blog

Mr. Suitcase
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 August 2015, 12:29 pm
From 1994 to 2000 I played Magic the Gathering with actual cards, as opposed to virtual cards. And I was the type of player we used to call "Mr. Suitcase", having a collection of cards so big that I literally needed a metal suitcase to store it in. I spent about $1,000 per year buying cards, and I didn't buy single boosters but boxes of 36 boosters. Now the actual boosters contained (and still contain) 15 cards, of which only 1 is a rare, 3 are uncommon, and 11 are common. But as an edition had about equal numbers of different rares, uncommons, and commons, you ended up with a big excess of commons when you bought enough boosters to get every rare. So when I saw that Magic Duels: Origins has 6-card boosters, containing 1 rare, 2 uncommons, and 3 commons, I considered that an advantage, because it means less excess commons.

As I previously mentioned I paid €40 for 50 boosters in Magic Duels Origins, because by buying the maximum amount of gold at once I paid only €0.80 per booster, while buying them one by one costs €2 per booster. But given my previous experience with Magic the Gathering I thought that 50 boosters would still be very far from a complete set. Turns out I was wrong, looking through my card collection I see that it is already nearly complete. How can that be? It turns out that Magic Duels Origins has a casual player friendly system of rarity restrictions and smart boosters: You can only ever own 1 of each mythic rare, 2 of each rare, 3 of each uncommon, and 4 of each common (as opposed to being able to put 4 of each card in a paper deck). If you open a booster, the cards in the booster are not completely random, but a random selection of the cards that you don't have the maximum of yet. You never find excess cards in boosters.

So the 251 different cards in the Magic Duels Origins set result in a "complete collection" of just 800 cards, of which you get 320 for free as starting set. That leaves 480 cards to get from boosters, or 80 boosters. You get 8 free boosters from doing the tutorial and story missions, which leaves just 72 boosters to collect. Me buying 50 boosters just left me with 22 boosters to buy with gold. You can get about 3 boosters per day due to a 400 coin daily limit (not including quest rewards), but even though I play far less than that it is possible that I'll get a complete Origins collection without paying more than my initial €40. If you never played Magic the Gathering paying €40 for an iPad game probably appears to be a lot of money. But for a MtG collector, €40 per set looks rather cheap. It also means that any attempt to "pay to win" is hard capped at €60.

Back in my days, WotC launched a basic edition now and then, and then every year one big set and two small sets. If that is still the case it would cost me about $100 per year to be Mr. Suitcase in Magic Duels. Which, again, is a lot for an iPad game, but a factor 10 cheaper than I used to pay. The only downside is that I can't build every deck that the paper version can build, because of the rarity restrictions. More casual players would probably consider that a good thing, because decks with lots of rares tended to annoy the players who had spent less money on their collection.

Note that Magic Duels is thus much cheaper than Magic the Gathering Online. And as far as I know (haven't played MtGO for years), MtGO doesn't have a single-player mode versus AI. Which is something I prefer after years of experience with players behaving badly.
Tobold's Blog

A practical approach to game monetization
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 August 2015, 4:29 am
Over the last decade paying for a game has gotten increasingly complicated. Among MMORPGs there are very few subscription games left, and even those all have shops and/or systems to buy in-game currency with real money via game time codes. The "buy once, play forever" payment model for other game genres is also on its way out: Buying once now frequently only gets you the base game, and you need to do additional payments for DLCs and expansions to get all the content. And the "forever" part is now not just limited by new operating systems not able to play old games any more, but also by games now frequently requiring connection to an online server, and the game becoming unplayable when those servers shut down.

Instead of simple buy once or pay monthly systems, we now have far more complicated systems where you can pay a variable amount of money for a variable degree of service. It is understandable that there is a certain degree of resistance, because there clearly are games which use the complicated monetization systems to nickel and dime their players, or make them pay far more money than those players would have been willing to pay in a buy once system. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that this is yet another case of resistance is futile: If you refused to buy all games that don't have only buy once or pay monthly monetization, you'd be left with not much choice of games at all. Absolute refusal to play games with variable payment models simply isn't practical any more.

A major reason why resistance failed is that most gamers were never very principled in their resistance. Even the most hardcore gamers flocked to Free2Play games like League of Legends and Hearthstone, or bought and sold in-game currency in EVE Online via PLEX. Game companies never felt they were losing customers by using variable payment systems, and simple economics show that variable payment systems earn companies more money than fixed payment systems. So for gamers it is time to let go of the hypocrisy, posting a refusenik position on various gaming forums and blogs while participating in the system anyway. What we need is a more practical approach to game monetization.

One thing that the panoply of game monetization systems has shown is that there are clearly some systems which are fair and acceptable to most people, and others that feel much more unfair and exploitative. The problem here is that it is nearly impossible to define criteria for fairness that everybody would agree with. That is because complex games often leave room for different player motivations, and different player motivations lead to different attitudes towards different monetization schemes. If I don't play PvP in a MMORPG, I don't care whether you can buy uber PvP gear in the item shop. But if I PvP was the main reason for me to play that game, I would care very much. Thus the only way to approach game monetization systems is to have a set of personal criteria.

For me personally one major criterion is how optional payment is. I like systems like in Hearthstone / Magic Duels where I can get exactly the same cards by playing, and paying is basically just a shortcut to get stuff faster. However there is a fine line there somewhere, as perceived fairness depends on how fast or slow you advance without paying. Recent example: Magic Duels giving 10 gold for a medium difficulty AI match plus 40 gold for a daily quest to buy a 6-card booster for 150 gold felt reasonable to me. Warhammer 40k Deathwatch giving only 6 credits per match to buy a 3-card booster for 100 gold is starting to feel sluggish. Another factor in the same example is that in Magic the cards I buy will be useful as long as I play the game, while in Deathwatch a higher tier card I find in a booster later will make my previous card obsolete.

One example of how personal fairness criteria can vary from person to person is the wide-spread system in mobile games to have some amount of "energy" which limits how long you can play in a session. You then need to either wait for that energy to restore itself slowly over time, or pay for an immediate energy boost. Me, I am totally okay with those systems. I don't mind at all to play a game for half an hour and then close it an do or play something else while I wait for my energy to come back. Other people are far more impatient with regards to this, and find such systems totally unfair and unacceptable.

With regard to content, that is most of the time something I am willing to pay for. In spite of other people's protests, I found the expansion for Guild Wars 2 perfectly reasonably priced (although communication could have been better). I'm okay with the business model of Destiny, and many other games with expansions or DLCs. That is because in those examples like GW2 or Destiny I felt I got a full game for the first payment, and the expansions and DLCs are more content for more money. In other cases I was less happy, because the base game felt far more unfinished, and day zero DLC and annual DLC passes made it look as if I was sold a salami slice by slice.

My recommendation for everybody is to think very hard about what variable payment systems you find acceptable and which not, and then check carefully each game what exactly you are supposed to pay for. There are no simple rules any more where you can boldly state that every Free2Play game is evil, and then sneak off to play League of Legends. I'd rather play a game for free and then see in practice whether what is for sale is fair or exploitative. Both exist, and you need to find out for yourself which is which.
Tobold's Blog

Concentrating on the core
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 31 July 2015, 3:13 am
I rarely play a game just for the story. Game stories rarely reach the quality of a good book, and if you play for the story the game doesn't have much replayability. So I am far more interested in gameplay. And most of all I am interested in the core gameplay mode, what I call the "basic repeating unit" of the game, the one thing you do over and over and over. In a MMORPG that would typically be combat. For me to like a role-playing game, I need to like the combat system. And if the combat system is flawed, I typically won't play the game for long.

One prime example for that is Lord of the Rings Online, for which I technically have a lifetime subscription, and where I absolutely love the setting. But I find the combat unresponsive and annoying, so I ended up not playing it much. In Wildstar I liked the combat for solo PvE, but felt that it broke down in all multiplayer situations, with far too many telegraphs everywhere. The Secret World I considered combat to be somewhat sluggish, you need to shoot a zombie in the head ten times before he falls over. And so on.

World of Warcraft for me has passed the test of time, I still like the combat system after a decade and thousands of hours played. But as combat is different for the different classes, I am getting more selective with what classes I play. I like classes that have varied and interactive combat, for example having abilities that you can use under certain circumstances, random chances to be able to use some bonus power, interrupts, and a mix of damage dealing and self-preservation powers. My fury warrior is quite good for that, and so is my frost mage, in a completely different way. I'm less happy about my other two level 100 characters: The demonology warlock is by far the most powerful, being able to beat elite mobs the other two can't, but at the cost of having an extremely boring combat; very slow spells, and a sure way to beat almost anything by simply keeping a voidwalker alive forever (Health Funnel + Drain Life) and waiting that the elite mob eventually drops dead. The shadow priest I like the least, he curiously has less self-preservation abilities than the others, and doesn't do well against multiple enemies. He has a basic spell rotation that deals good damage against single targets, but isn't very interactive.

Having basically "done" Tanaan Jungle already, including the achievement needed for flying, and getting bored of just doing garrison maintenance, I am looking for another character to level to 100. And how much fun combat is will be the prime selection criterion. I leveled a beast mastery hunter from level 1 to 34, but I feel he somewhat has the same problem as the warlock: Powerful, but boring. I fiddled a bit with a unholy death knight I had at level 80, but ended up not liking it much either for similar reasons: Huge damage output, but not very interactive combat style, you could program his spell rotation in a macro. So last night I played my level 86 retribution paladin, and liked that one much better. Abilities that you don't hit blindly, but which depend on the situation, and a good mix of damage and self-preservation abilities that you can adjust to many different combat situations.

I'm pretty certain that rogue is probably the most interactive class in WoW, but that one might be a bit too twitchy for me. Monk I only tried at low level, but it didn't click with me yet. I have a level 65 shaman as well, but I never liked the totem mechanic nailing your bonus to a specific location, and forcing you to recast them if you move. The one other character I have which I still might play in my moonkin druid, where I find the sun/moon mechanic quite fun.

What combat mechanics from which game or class do you like particularly? Which ones do you dislike?
Tobold's Blog

World of Warcraft : The Dark Prophet
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 30 July 2015, 1:08 am
On the World of Warcraft loading screen there is the announcement that there will be an announcement of the next expansion on August 6th. Personally I find those "we announce that we have something to announce" things a bit silly. Furthermore there is apparently a leak, which might or might not be complete fiction. I once made up the announcement for the second WoW expansion that I called The Freezing Jihad, and got a surprising amount of things right, from the new level cap to the ice theme. The monk I predicted got added later in Mists of Pandaria.

So for comparison with the real announcement, here is the "leaked" one:

The expansion will be called The Dark Prophet

New level cap will be 110

New class introduced, the Shadowstalker, a sort of magical ranger without pet

8 new zones with 2-3 new dungeons per zone

Location will be the South Seas, filled with trolls and naga

Instead of a garrison players will get a ship, which can travel around, and get a pirate crew

As you can see, the "leak" is full of relatively predictable stuff. Which doesn't make it less likely to be true, because who expects something really ground-breaking from Blizzard?
Tobold's Blog

Warhammer 40,000 Deathwatch Tyranid Invasion
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 27 July 2015, 6:37 am
Competing today for the title of the game with the silliest long name is Warhammer 40,000 Deathwatch Tyranid Invasion, made by the same people who did Warhammer Quest, but currently on iOS only. Like Warhammer Quest, Deathwatch is a tactical turn-based game, in which you level up a squad by gaining experience points and gear from missions. But the similarity ends there. While Quest was fantasy and had random dungeons, Deathwatch is in the 40K universe with you playing a squadron of space marines fighting aliens in a series of 40 hand-made missions. More importantly the combat feels very different. While in Quest the enemies came in similar numbers and had similar abilities as your adventurer party, in Deathwatch you play powerful space marines frequently fighting off an endless stream of less powerful aliens. You rarely kill every monster on the map, but have victory conditions like surviving X turns, or reaching certain waypoints.

Combat is turn-based, with your space marines having only 4 action points per turn. Each space to move costs 1 AP, while firing a weapons costs between 1 and 3 AP, so you're not doing much each turn. However you can use unused AP to set your space marine to overwatch in one direction, and then he shoots during the enemy turn if aliens run into his target area. The feel of combat against the tyranid aliens is done rather well, and at its core the game is much fun.

Less fun however is the monetization. In addition to the $5 cost of the game, there are also in-app purchases of boosters. Each booster contains 3 cards, which can be space marines, weapons, or gear. One of those is guaranteed (or "guarenteed" as they spell it) to be tier 2 or better, out of 4 possible tiers. You get 1 booster for finishing each act of 4 missions for the first time, and 1 booster for 100 in-game currency, of which you get 6 for succeeding a mission in normal difficulty. Otherwise boosters cost between $1.23 and $1.49. My main problem with that is that if you don't buy boosters, you're going to play with bad tier 1 space marines for a while to earn boosters; then once you finally get some higher tier space marines, you'll have to start over to level those up again. Buying boosters at the start is a pretty massive power boost, even if the higher tier weapons won't be useful immediately, as they need higher level space marines with better accuracy to work properly. It isn't quite as bad as Warhammer Quest where you couldn't get different character classes, enemies, dungeons, and epic weapons without paying for them, but it still smells of Pay2Win.

Space marines in Deathwatch never die permanently, which might have to do with some people having paid to get those marines in the first place. But there is a death penalty: To unlock wargear slots, traits, and abilities you need far more experience points than you can earn in a single mission. But if you save them up and your space marine dies, you lose all saved experience. I think that is a pretty good system. I haven't finished those 40 missions yet, and apparently once you do you unlock higher difficulty levels "veteran" and "heroic". But I'm not sure how much longevity the game has, as even with the higher difficulty you'll be running through the same 40 missions over and over.

The weakest point of the game for me is that it runs rather slow, even on an iPad Air. There are very long loading screens, and the game takes forever to start up. Which is annoying as it apparently uses all of the memory, so if you switch to another application you need to restart the game and can't quickly swap back. On the upside the game looks rather good, using the Unreal 4 engine. Overall I am having fun (having bought some boosters), but I'm not giving out an unreserved recommendation. Be aware of the technical limitations and the monetization before you buy this!
Tobold's Blog

Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 25 July 2015, 1:37 am
I originally wanted to write an article like this one about Heroforge, with photographs. But frankly I just don't have the photographic skills. And I still need to persuade one of my players to paint them. So I'll stick to my traditional medium of just the written word and refer you to the above linked article for photographic examples.

Heroforge is a service, launched via Kickstarter, that provides 3D printed figurines for tabletop roleplaying games. The website works a bit like a character generator from a MMORPG: You create a character in one of several different settings, choosing his race, gender, clothing/armor, weapon, and pose to create a 3D representation that corresponds to your character sheet. You can then have that character printed on standard 30 mm scale, or twice or four times as big. At the time I ordered my figurines a month ago, you could get them in either strong plastic or ultra-detail plastic for $15 and $25 per figurine. Now steel ($35) and bronze ($100) are also available as "beta materials".

On the website it said that 3D printing could take up to a month, and then I thought the figurines would get shipped from the USA to Europe, which could take some weeks as well. But instead of waiting 6 weeks I was positively surprised that I got the figurines just 6 days after ordering. Turns out they have manufacturing facilities in the Netherlands. I took the ultra-detail plastic ones, because they were said to be more suitable for painting. The figurines are very nicely detailed, in clear, frosty plastic. But I need to handle them with care, as apparently they are prone to breaking. And they are a lot lighter than the usual lead figurines.

I like Heroforge because getting commercial figurines that exactly fit your characters is difficult. For example I had a halfling ranger in my previous campaign, and could never find a fitting figurine in our local games store. My new campaign is even more difficult, because it uses traditional 4E D&D classes, but a Renaissance setting with some Steam Punk elements. The group is playing a squadron of musketeers, and where do you find a figurine of a wizard with a musket? Heroforge allowed me to switch between genres when making the figurines, so all the characters I made have a gun on their back. Okay, the gun looks more like a Winchester than a musket, but let's not be picky to that degree of detail. One character, who is playing a tank with a background of being second generation policeman, is even wearing a Victorian policeman's helmet. So I got myself some truly unique figurines for my campaign that exactly fit the character sheets.

6 figurines in ultra-detail plastic, plus shipping, isn't exactly cheap. But I think they are worth it. I'd love the bronze ones, but that would really get too expensive for the whole group. I could however imagine players wanting to print their favorite character like that. I'm looking forward to show the figurines to my group when we start the campaign (only did a warm-up session up to now). I think they will be thrilled!
Tobold's Blog

Player interaction
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 24 July 2015, 6:29 am
Ravious and Bhagpuss kicked of an interesting series of discussions about player interactions in MMORPGs. Bhagpuss states "There's nothing amazing any more in joining with dozens of people of all ages and races and genders and religions separated by thousands of miles and an infinity of experiences, coming together to imagine killing a giant dragon or a destroying a titanic spacecraft. Happens all the time.", while Ravious thinks we prefer to play alone, but in a crowd.

While I do think that Bhagpuss is onto something when he thinks that familiarity breeds contempt, I do wonder in how far game design is to blame for our desire to play alone rather than with other people in a MMORPG or other online world. To me it appears as if most game design inadvertently makes us hate our fellow players. Either because that other player is actively trying to kill us, or because cooperative play is designed in a way that a weak player can ruin our experience. As I mentioned previously, I haven't been running dungeons in the current expansion of WoW; I mean, who needs the hassle? Even if many runs might just end up being totally silent and anonymous, there is a too high chance of getting grouped with somebody really annoying. The chance of a real bad experience ruins multiplayer for me. But I totally realize that in most of these cases the other player didn't ruin the fun for everybody on purpose, but is a victim himself of game design. The system puts together players with different goals, strengths, and attitudes in a challenge that would only work if the group was far more homogeneous in purpose and strength.

On the other hand I'm frequently in the so-called premade groups in WoW. They nearly always work well, because the purpose is more narrowly defined, and the design is in a way that adding another player is always helpful, even if he isn't superman. But premade groups have a short duration. I wished that guilds would work more like a permanent form of a premade group than like a permanent form of a dungeon group. It would be better game designs if guild members could contribute on a daily basis to the progress of the guild, regardless of playstyle and strength, instead of the guild purpose being so narrowly defined by raiding, or reduced to a chat channel.

I must say that the best player interaction I experienced, with and without guilds, was in A Tale in the Desert. And that was through game design, with people being able to cooperate, and everybody being able to contribute. I also think that the original Asheron's Call had a superior social system with new players being vassals to veteran players, with each contributing to the success of the other. Unfortunately I didn't play that at the time, and much later it becomes difficult to join any social system. There is a reason why ATITD resets every now and then and starts over fresh.

Anyhow I do think that new MMORPGs should experiment more with social structures. There was more variety a decade ago, with games like Star Wars Galaxies and others I mentioned. Today there is only the raiding guild model left, and that is a shame.
Tobold's Blog

iLvl 681
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 23 July 2015, 5:54 am
Just to give a short status of my World of Warcraft experience, the average item level of my main character (fury warrior) is now 681. Besides some iLvl 670 items from follower missions, and iLvl 685 items from ship missions, he is mainly wearing items coming from baleful tokens found in Tanaan Jungle. These tokens most of the time give just a iLvl 650 blue item, but sometimes result in a iLvl 675 epic. As you find enough of those tokens, you get chances for such an epic frequently enough. In addition there are upgrade items that upgrade either of those baleful items to iLvl 695. You get one upgrade item for finishing the 6th campaign quest series, or you buy the upgrades for 20,000 apexis crystals. Which isn't all that much any more, since apexis crystals now come in at a much faster rate.

My three alts (frost mage, shadow priest, demonology warlock) are a bit behind that, but not too much. With the warlock I made a costly mistake: Bought two baleful trinkets and upgraded them to iLvl 695 for a grand total of 50,000 apexis crystal. Turns out that half of that was totally wasted, as the trinket is "unique equipped" and you can't wear two. And you can't get refund on upgrade items you already used. Ouch!

What I'm not wearing at all is gear from raiding, as I neither raid nor run dungeons. One exception was doing a LFR raid with each character to get some blueprints for the shipyard. What I am also not wearing is crafted gear, which is a conscious decision to not spend that much gold. Each character could wear 3 crafted items, and fully upgraded each item could be iLvl 715. But that costs 60k+ gold per item, which times 12 would eat up most of my funds. And really, what would I need such a high iLvl for as long as I don't do raids nor dungeons?

However I was thinking of leveling another character, either a moonkin druid, unholy death knight, or retribution paladin. I'm accumulating a second sort of baleful tokens, which are limited to a specific class of armor, but only bound to account. So you can send a new character a bunch of those tokens and insta-equip him at level 100. Even weirder those iLvl 715 items have a minimum level of only 91, and I was thinking that at least an iLvl 715 weapon would be a good investment for a new character. But as the three characters mentioned are only level 80 to 86, I'll first have to decide which one to play and get that far.
Tobold's Blog

Mercenary mode
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 20 July 2015, 4:56 am
Factions in World of Warcraft are a curious thing, since the beginning. Some people chose a PvP server and consider this to be a game about the struggle between Horde and Alliance. Others chose a PvE server at which point the factions become pretty much meaningless. And Horde and Alliance have never been really balanced in terms of numbers of players. That causes problems for specific PvP content which is Horde vs. Alliance, because the side with more players ends up in long queues.

So Blizzard decided to "fix" that with the announced mercenary mode: The players from the more numerous side can simply fight for the *other* side, thus removing queues. If you always thought that Horde vs. Alliance made no sense at all, it doesn't matter which side you are fighting on, does it? But of course those who liked factions are complaining that this makes factions meaningless. Well, more like another nail in the coffin, the stories of the expansions were more "Horde and Alliance fight together against some new menace" than a faction war.

I don't think Blizzard will ever completely eliminate factions, but the borders could be made even more porous: Cross-faction chat, cross-faction groups, guilds, and raids, and so on. We already have cross-faction auction houses. Somehow WoW never lived up to the original premise of Warcraft : Orcs vs. Humans, and if anything factions will become ever more unimportant.
Tobold's Blog

Magic Duels : Origins
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 July 2015, 2:20 am
Magic the Gathering, the granddaddy of trading card games, has over the last years been experimenting with how to get the game out to computers and especially mobile platforms. As the card game has new sets of cards every year, they decided on making a new computer game every year. So there is a Magic 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. That started out with you being only able to play premade decks to which you added more cards you gained by playing. But every version had a bit more freedom, and the 2015 Magic had a full deckbuilder for your own decks and the possibility to buy cards. At which point it turned out that a new game every year doesn't mix well with buying virtual cards which you can't transfer to the next game. So Wizards of the Coast changed their strategy and is now making a new game without a year in the name: Magic Duels : Origins. It is already out for iOS, and will come to PC and XBox later.

On the one side Magic Duels : Origins is free. You get the game and the full story mode for free, which gives you the same guided experiences as previous versions: In 5 stories you play an increasingly complex mono-colored deck against premade AI decks to learn the basics of each color. But while doing that you also earn coins. And the game gives you a free starter set for deckbuilding. The coins buy you boosters, and then you can create your own decks to play either against AI opponents of various difficulty or against other people in duels or even two-headed giant mode.

Magic Duels : Origins thus nearly replaces the aging Magic the Gathering : Online, and is a lot closer to playing the card game than the annual version were. And that comes with a big warning: Magic the Gathering is the game that invented the Pay2Win principle. On paper you can get all the cards for free by playing, but a 6-card booster costs 150 gold, and you only gain 5 to 15 gold from a win against the AI and 20 from a win against another player. So there is a strong temptation to buy coins for money. Magic Duels : Origins has the steepest rebate scheme for such purchases that I have ever seen: $20 buys you one booster, 20 times $2 doesn't buy you 20 boosters but 50. Which means you absolutely shouldn't make small purchases in this game. Play for free, then if you decide you have enough fun to justify spending money, spend directly $40 for those 50 boosters. That still doesn't get you every card in the game, but already a much bigger base from which to builds decks from. With the big purchase rebate the virtual cards cost less than the paper version.

Personally I made that $40 purchase, because I love the complexity of Magic and find Hearthstone far too simple for my tastes. But I'd say that for most people the simpler and cheaper Hearthstone is probably the better option, and Magic Duels : Origins is the niche option for the veteran geek. I'll get my fun out of those $40, but that is because I love building decks.
Tobold's Blog

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