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Vicarious Existence

To blog about what is going on in the MMO genre from a casual MMO player's viewpoint.

Author: UnSub

The Twelve Trials of UnSub: Warhammer Online - Age of Reckoning

Posted by UnSub Friday October 31 2008 at 10:50AM
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I wasn't going to play Warhammer: Age of Reckoning at launch. Like AoC before it, I was going to give it 30 days, then see what the community reaction towards the title was. Frankly I thought AoC was going to be a trainwreck of a launch, but someone sold their soul for a pretty good launch - it was only after that the problems became clear.

But then a friend picked up WAR and I was in the right place and time that getting it seemed like a good idea. So I end up buying WAR and using the month's play time that comes with the box to trial things out. Unfortunately  I found myself disappointed with a very empty feeling world, a PvE experience that lacked soul, a PvP experience that varied from being fun to incredibly frustrating and a developer who appears not to understand player behaviour in MMOs.

In the initial play month I got my character Etherial, a High Elf Shadow Warrior, to level rank 19, but just got to a point of frustration that meant I was no longer having fun.

I've already blogged about the empty world feeling of WAR arising from server population limts so won't really cover that ground again... except to say that it is probably a major reason for a lot of WAR's other issues. More players closer together means more chances to team up and PvE, more chances of running PvP and more chances of the world actually feeling 'alive'. PvE had no tactics at all to it - no point standing on the other side of a river or up a hill to do a ranged attack, since mobs move the same speed over all terrain, so it is just stand there and attack until they die, then repeat.

No point trying to use terrain to your advantage when your enemies can walk on water!

PvP showed some high points - I got into playing Scenarios... for a while. But seeing Mourkain Temple pop five or six times in a row got old. PUG experiences could get very messy, especially since what was good for individual players often led to play behaviour that lost the match (i.e. it is better to be out there damaging targets than protecting your flag, but not protecting your flag often costs you the match and reduces your play rewards). My RvR experience was running around empty areas and looking at PvP sites that were protected by PvE mobs.

Probably the largest secondary factor to quitting WAR (after not having fun) rather than waiting a month to see if things improve is how Mythic appear to have little understanding of what the real problems of WAR are. Or, if they have the understanding, their will to do something is lacking.

Take the current situation with RvR. It is mostly under-used partly because the character progression rewards from it are so weak, yet is meant to be WAR's core. However, instead of incentivsing players to come to RvR by making it give excellent experience, reknown and / or loot, Mythic instead starts talking about introducing new 'no scenario' servers. Firstly, the last thing WAR needs is more servers (the news on free character transfers off low population servers would seem to support the idea they've got too many servers up currently) and secondly I would hate to see the grind this game would have if scenarios were taken out. Rather than reduce scenarios, Mythic needs to improve RvR's reward if they wish to see this area improve and get players excited.

Or take the Witching Night event. The main show sounds like a great idea - a PQ in an RvR zone for special loot - but Mythic opts to have the PQ reset every "few hours", even hotfixing the event when it was discovered it could reset more frequently than that if successfully completed (it's the last patch note here). For an event that only lasts 5 days, having to wait for a few hours for the chance of something to appear (which can be completed very quickly once the first stage of killing 100 players is completed) is a text book way of annoying the player base.

I'm sure the idea was that people will RvR in the mean time as something to do, but the reality is that scenarios provide better rewards than RvR so it is more likely players will stand around warcamps doing them while waiting for the Witching Night PQ to start, or perhaps taking keeps or area objectives (which, because RvR rewards are so low, generally aren't defended). C'mon Mythic - it's Halloween! Have the Witching Night PQ constantly reset, keep the players in the area and fighting each other, let the players get their candy when they win and keep them happy during the event!

I could go on in this vein, but I've already written plenty. Mythic appears to have designed a game of separate parts, not a game that hangs well together. Nothing it does is really exceptional while a multitude of flaws are on display... and all the while Mythic keeps making changes that appear designed to actively distance players from each other and from the game.

To say something positive, WAR does look good most of the time. It's just ... empty.

I might come back to WAR one day, but 'might' is the operative word. Right now it isn't delivering me much fun and I'm getting more enjoyment out of seeing Mythic deliver fun-stifling changes than I would get from winning a scenario or completing a public quest.

WAR (Beta): What Was It Good For? Making An Obvious Mistake, That's What ...

Posted by UnSub Saturday October 25 2008 at 9:54AM
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Across lots of different industries and repeated time and time again you can find cases of people (or groups of people) making obvious mistakes that in retrospect are pretty obvious. Things like New Coke or releasing an album with a 'baby butcher' cover must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it didn't take long for the mistake to be uncovered when exposed to the public.

WAR's beta should be a text book case of how to do things right yet end up with a very wrong conclusion. At this point, it is obvious what happened, but it needs to be pointed out so that it doesn't happen again. I wasn't in beta but had heard some things, so I asked how Mythic had run its beta process; the responses I got pointed to a common theme.

This theme is that by testing WAR a lot in separate pieces but rarely the whole as it would launch, Mythic missed the basic problems of WAR's size versus player population distribution. Apart from the start, when beta players complained that things were too repetitive, Mythic had beta testers test sections of content in concentrated bursts. Players would be levelled up as required to do the content in the test/  This worked very well and the beta players did get involved were able to go through the zone(s) and test the required areas easily. When that was done, there were plenty of players of about the right level to do some realm vs. realm combat (RvR) or public quests (PQs) or whatever else took peoples' fancy. No-one had to worry about levelling because the next period would see the characters wiped and new characters level bumped as required.

An RvR area that would have been full in beta testing lies empty post-launch.

An RvR area that would have been full in beta testing lies empty post-launch.

This worked great as a beta test - lots of testing focus, lots of players in a limited area to test how things worked and could possibly be broken. However, little time was left to examine how the whole game fit together when players had to level from 1 to 40 under their own steam. The sheer size of WAR's world, together with a large number of world servers, means that players have been distributed far and wide - something that wasn't adequately tested for in beta. It seems likely that Mythic looked at the feedback taking from the tiered beta testing and thought it would apply equally to the title post-launch. Sadly, this is obviously not the case.

The lesson of this tale (and yes, it seems obvious) is that you need to test things under 'real world' conditions as much as possible to know how they will behave in the real world. A tiered beta test is a good idea for examining each section in isolation, but the game as a whole needs to be tested too in order to find out how it hangs together. WAR doesn't hang together particularly well since it appears balanced for a much larger number of players in each chapter - something that isn't happening in the mid-levels of this game. Scenarios dominate RvR - the supposed core of WAR - because they are easier to take part in and give better rewards i.e. allow people to level up more quickly.

Some people might want to blame EA for such things, but I find that one hard to accept given that Mythic appears to have run the beta themselves and just not quite ever got to the point of letting players test from level 1 to 40 in a natural state. Also, given that Mythic already has one successful MMO title under its belt, you would have thought they would have known better.

Unfortunately the case is often that obvious mistakes are only obvious after you have made them.

Champions Online: Beta Starts in Mid-November

Posted by UnSub Thursday October 16 2008 at 3:26AM
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With the announcement that Champions Online (ChampO) is going into beta in mid-November (for the PC specifically - still no announcement about Xbox 360 testing) it certainly appears that Cryptic is going to hit that Q2 2009 release date they've been talking up for a bit. If they do make it - MMOs being notorious for delays that push back launches - it would certainly be one of the quickest turn arounds from announcement to lauch. ChampO was first announced in February 2008 and an April 2009 launch would see a mere 14 or so months from the website opening to it appearing on the shelf.

Of course, this process was cut short by other factors - Cryptic working on the Marvel MMO probably gave them quite a bit to salvage and re-use and Cryptic's toolset has had a major workover since 2006 - but it is still an impressive feat, should they pull it off.

Beta will be the first real test of ChampO. Do its comic-shaded graphics look good when playing? Is it really an action MMO, or a pretender to that title? What new things is it actually bringing to the MMO category? Will six months of beta actually be enough to get ChampO ready for launch? Guess the only way to find out the answer to some of these questions is to sign up to beta. Good luck to those who apply!


WARmongering: Mythic's Missed Steps

Posted by UnSub Friday October 10 2008 at 3:32AM
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I'd written a long, detailed post on Warhammer: Age of Reckoning (WAR) and a number of questionable decisions Mythic has made in reference to this title. But then I went off searching for an article to link to in the wrong browser tab and lost it all. So I'm redoing this as the abridged version (which is probably a good thing in retrospect :-).

WAR has a number of really good ideas and design features in it and, even at launch, has managed quite a reasonable PvP option for players. However, Mythic has also made some absolutely bewildering decisions that seem to undermine their intentions and player enjoyment of their title. Let's go through these weird and / or limited things that Mythic has done:

  • An incredibly weak chat system. WAR is one of the quietest MMOs I've seen, which includes titles where you can't actually type chat comments to other players. WAR's chat system appears to ignore MMO developments in this area since 2003, meaning you can't right-click on names or drag items into chat or accurately filter tabs to the kind of text you want to see. While I don't think everyone wants to see the outright stupidity of Barrens chat, global chat at least lets you see that the game is alive with players. No global chat means that WAR appears as dead as a doornail in terms of active players in the open world.


  • No easy way of dealing with gold spam at launch. So Mark Jacobs HATES gold spammers. If that's the case, why is there no easy way of blocking them? While you can /ignore the gold spammers, apparently that ignore status is only remembered until the spammer logs off, meaning they can log back in and get around ignore very simply. Now, Mythic did implement a new way of reporting spammers that requires you to enter the spammer name, distribution channel and ENTIRE SPAM TEXT. This is a game where you can't copy and paste from chat (remember: weak chat system) into the relevant window, so you'll have to type it out. Other titles allow you to just right click gold spam away (or at least report it easily).  If Mark Jacobs hates gold spam so much, why are WAR's anti-gold spam systems so bad?


  • On the subject of gold spam, the window dressing of public banning notices and the Banhammer counter. Yes, it is a great idea to be visible when banning gold spammers. However, there is incredible irony in ban spamming your players about gold spammers. Having a box pop up in the middle of the screen for everyone on the server might be great the first time, but the tenth time? The hundredth time? Yeah, not so fun. I'm sure this announcement feature isn't going to be lasting too long, or announcing all bannings. Having a Banhammer counter is a nice idea too... but it's just window dressing. So, WAR's banned over 9000 gold spammers? So what? It hasn't stopped the constant flood of gold spam messages I keep getting (ironically the chat system seems most actively used by gold spammers rather than players). I wonder what is going to happen to that counter when 90 000 gold spammers have been banned, or at what point it loops back to zero or starts going into alphabetical integers. Here's a bigger question: how many gold buyers have been banned? Maybe the unnannounced changes in Game Update 1.0.2 will help stem the tide, but I don't hold out much hope.

The Banhammer counter. Pure window dressing.

The Banhammer counter: Pure window dressing.

  • No system in place to deal with side imbalance. If there is any MMO development studio that has experience with PvP side (read: realm) imbalance, it's Mythic. Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC) famously had a number of issues stemming from side imbalance. However, rather than taking what they'd learned from their previous title, Mythic appears to have taken the 'head in the sand' approach. Destruction had a higher player population in beta which Mythic apparently put down to beta testers being naturally evil. On launch, Destruction has a higher player population, which leaves Destruction players waiting in queues and Order players outnumbered in PvP. There are a number of reasons why Destruction is more popular - they look cooler, they were more hyped, Destruction suits PvP players, they have Female Elves in Lingerie (rather than Male Elves in Dresses), the in-game lore seems strongly hinting that Chaos will win - but none of that addresses why Mythic didn't put something in place in case either side had a population imbalance. "Some realms on some servers" getting an arbitary bonus to reknown and experience seems like an underdone attempt at an incentive mechanic - why are realms given dynamic rewards / bonuses in the case of population levels falling outside of certain ranges?

Dark Elves in Lingerie Male High Elf in a Dress

Female Dark Elves in skimpy clothes vs Male High Elves in dresses: guess which side gets picked more often?

  • Public Quests fail due to lack of public interest. Public Quests (PQs) are a fantastic evolution of MMO mechanics. A player enters a certain area and is automatically open to taking part in a larger event with other players in the area. This falls down, however, when there are no other players in the area. Public quests don't scale based on the number of players in them, so it is a bit of pot luck how far the solo player (or even a small group) can get in them. Most solo players can probably pass the first stage of a PQ if they have the patience because it involves killing a certain number of enemies. However, it is trial and error if the second phase can be completed because there is no indication of what might happen next - a large ambush may appear, a Champion-class mob may pop up, you might have to protect particular objects. As such, it is much better to be part of a team in a PQ. However, given the number of PQs in each game chapter, players are often too spread out to take part in them, and perhaps only one PQ gets selected as the 'right one' per chapter. But that assumes enough people are on to actually do them - it is a lot harder to get a PQ done during off-peak times when population is lower. Having a notable and sizeable piece of content made completely undoable because there aren't enough people around is an exercise in frustration.


  • WAR's beta was great at testing the small picture, but didn't see how everything hung together. I wasn't in beta, but I see a common complaint about it was that, although very well run, it just tested ranges of content at a time without letting players naturally get into them. So, if high level content was to be tested, everyone got bumped to high level. This is a good way to test such things in isolation, but not enough time was left to see how the game played naturally from beginning to end. This means that Tier 3 currently is seen as a horrible, grinding area of gameplay because 1) experience requirements for this Tier were raised just before launch and 2) players didn't get to play through it at a natural pace to bring up this issue prior to launch.


  • WAR's key mechanics are undermined by its own server population limits. WAR is about, well, war. It's about PvP between two different sides / realms.  For this kind of gameplay, you need large numbers of players per server so that enough characters exist at each level range so that everyone can compete in a vaguely fair manner. The world of WAR is massive, so you need more players to fill it. However, it appears that the overall server population cap isn't particularly high - I haven't seen any formal numbers, only forum rumours of between 3000 to 5000 players per server. However, those numbers are split in half because WAR has population limits on realms so that Order and Destruction can remain balanced (hah!).  Taking a best case scenario, 2500 players per side isn't a small number initially, but then you have to divide that by three (to split it over the Empire vs Chaos, Dwarf vs Greenskin and High Elf vs Dark Elf), the different level ranges / chapters, and then by the different locations players can be within those ranges / chapters and their purpose (i.e. PQs, scenarios, Realm vs Realm combat, etc). In short, it doesn't take long for a larger number to get subdivided into a much smaller number of players you might run into / play with. Scenarios work best in bringing players together since you can join them from any place (within the valid Tier) in the world and get teleported to them when they start. A number of WAR's key selling points in RvR and PQs are diluted by spreading players out so thinly, which in turn makes the game less fun.


I'll leave it there - believe it or not, the first version of this article was longer! I don't think WAR is doomed by any of the above issues, but they are areas that really make me wonder about the decision processes that went on. WAR has a large world full of content for players to enjoy and a number of interesting game play styles, but then botch things up by apparently not having any insight into how players will behave / react when they enter that world.

Economics of Subscription-based MMOs vs Free-to-Play MMOs

Posted by UnSub Tuesday October 7 2008 at 1:21AM
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I found these articles looking at the economics of sub-based MMOs and F2P / RMT-based MMOs interesting. They are just general evaluations - no specifics of who earns what - but it certainly makes the case for why more F2P MMOs are being developed than sub-based MMOs.

The main article (without going back to the source)

A response to the above link

One interesting thing that sub-based MMOs are starting to do is offer additional, optional content for additional dollars. CoH/V's recent booster packs are one way that some MMOs are getting extra money from players who want to pay extra without necessarily excluding those players who only want to pay the basic subscription fee from any additional content (which would be the case with 'optional' expansion packs). Not everyone is happy with the booster packs, but it is certainly a way of getting access to the extra money on the table.

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