Friday, December 21, 2007

What’s happening - Some recent developments in my gaming

Video Problems
My Dell XPS system uses dual video cards for improved performance. It works great … as long as you have two working video cards. For a couple of months now, I’ve been getting a lot of distortion in my games along with red and green colored dots all over my screen. To experiment, I shut down my SLI and ran on one card at a time. Sure enough, one card is trash and the other is fine. So looks like I’ll need a new video card sometime soon. LotRO runs well enough on one card at medium graphics, but I’m looking forward to getting a replacement for my old Nvidea 7900.

I went on a Rift raid last week with my kinship. We took down Thrang, the last boss before the Balrog. It was quite the battle, but we were victorious. Three minstrels seems to be key in that particular battle along with placing yourselves in the small alcoves by the stairs to avoid getting shot at. After Thrang fell, we looted him and he dropped the opal for the reward turn-in armor. And I won! Woo! Now my burglar is sporting his Rift armor head piece (which looks like a hood with a mask).

While I like the ideas LotRO has about in-game armor, I’m also thinking that it’s somewhat silly considering the Lore. Bilbo and Frodo, with a few exceptions, were dressed in coats, vests and other normal Hobbit clothes for their adventures. Bilbo only wore armor during the Battle of Five armies and Frodo, I think, only when he was trying to sneak to Mt Doom with Sam. Long story short, I’m looking forward to the Book 12 changes in appearance – one will be able to create a look for your character independent of the items they have equipped. Yeah, I’m a dork like that.

Last time I posted about a little blow-up my kinship had over some raiders and communication issues. Well, one officer is gone and a couple more people left the kin to form their own. The rest passed quickly and we’re back to doing our thing: having absurd amount of fun together.

Niche Economics of Game Development and the WoW-Killer

Hooray! You made it past the title! You earn 2500 Battered Shields (sadly abbreviated as BS). You will soon be able to obtain such fabulous Battered Shield awards as … um … yeah. I don’t have anything like that. But gratz on making it this far.

The topic of my post today was inspired by a post made over at Mystic Worlds about the MMORPG Holy Trinity of WoW, EQ2 and EvE Online.

She writes:

“For any new game to break into the market with a splash and hold on to subscribers beyond the hype, they must confront the Holy 3. If they don’t, players will simply drift back to one of the three or where ever they came from, once the shininess is gone. If you can’t do fantasy with as much polish, excitement and broad appeal as WOW, then why they hell are people going to stick around to play your game? If you can’t provide a game with more depth for the so-called serious gamer, and do it with the visual brilliance, diversity, lore and expansive content of EQ2 or DOAC, the question is still the same. Why the heck would I pay to play? If you’re going to base a game on out-of-body combat, whether it’s in the skies or on the seas, you’d better do it at least as good as EVE or I just can’t be bothered.”

While I agree that recent gaming efforts have been lacking the initial wow-factor (no pun intended) of the games she lists, I think what we’re seeing, and will be seeing more of, is a turn to niche games.

LotRO will never, ever be as big as WoW. Ever. It had a great release. It features alright if not a little clunky game play. The raids at end-game are at least as interesting as those in WoW with regard to the technical coordination involved in the fighting -- perhaps not as difficult but definitely as fun. Yet every person I know that came from WoW to LotRO has returned to WoW.

What’s interesting to me, however, are the patterns I’m noticing in the people that stayed:
- Lord of the Rings fans (people that loved the books and probably liked the movies).
- People that couldn’t care less about shiny gear. Most of the comments I hear about people’s gear is about appearance attributes such as matching or looking silly rather than looking god-like or powerful.
- Casual Social types: people that enjoy small groups of friends that play semi-regularly and solo on occasion.
- Explorer types (Middle-earth is large and thanks to the rapid expansions by Turbine, there always seems to be new areas cropping up here and there).
- People that enjoy horizontal game play where you can get things which do not necessarily make you more powerful or advanced (eg: houses) along with the vertical, achievement type at which WoW excels (eg: leveling, “gearing up,” etc).

The people staying fit into smaller sub-categories of the gaming genre than those to which past game releases have tried to cater. As a result, I’d be willing to bet, that while LotRO’s subscriber numbers will always pale in comparison to the World of Warcraft’s numbers, as long as Turbine doesn’t drop the ball too badly there will always be a large enough player base for the game to allow it to continue. I suspect also that the subscriber base will be less fickle and less likely to jump ship at the sight of a new game - it’s interesting that while my friends returned to WoW after trying LotRO, so many of them were willing to leap for the “new shiny” in the first place.

I think where we’re seeing is similar to what happens in product development: niche markets. So company x does a great job in creating printer technology. But then company y comes along and builds a printer to create better-looking copies of photos. And another company (z) comes along to create a printer that works better for printing legal documents. Companies y and z will never be as large as x (if they just stick to their niches). But due to catering to niches and excelling within those niches y and z will have stable client bases that company x really can’t get close to since its focus is too broad. Companies y and z will be successful and solvent, just not as big as x got. And if people liked having printers that could do the whole show and didn’t mind mediocre photo or legal document print outs, many customers would also be interested in staying with x.

Getting back to the Mystic Worlds post, while much of her argument is, IHMO, right on the money (Go Big or Stay Home) I think games with lower overheads that don’t mind not being the next “WoW Killer” but just want a piece of the MMO pie will be happy and thrive as long as they work hard to cater to the niche(s) into which their customers fall. Thus, if my analysis of increasing niche games is correct, there will be no “WoW Killer” but there will be an increasing number of smaller, more focused games some of which may appeal directly to what you want in a game.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Thank your Officers

I'm an officer in a kinship in LotRO. I have been an officer in a guild in WoW as well as a second-banana GM and a kinship leader in LotRO during open beta. In my current kinship, there are some people applying for officer positions and I'm not sure why. Being able to help steer the direction of a kinship is neat but the best ones don't really need much steering if the recruiting process is sound. Most of the neat stuff I do can easily be blown out of the water by days like today.

*ding* A rant is about to commence. Please fasten your seatbelts and make sure your tray tables are locked and the seats in their forward and upright positions.

It all began when a group of friends and I decided to help a couple kinshipmates through the long and painful book ten questline. This questline involves much swimming across Lake Evendim so I really wasn't looking forward to it. But I was getting to help some folks with some stuff they needed so I focused on that and just swam my little hobbit legs off.

Then the tells start.

Officer A had send a private message to officer B explaining why he didn't like "hardcore" raiders in such a casual kinship. Officer B decided that rather than talk to officer A, he'd send the contents of the message to some raiders in the kinship but only the parts that make it look like officer A hates all raiders (which would actually be really funny since officer A is the raiding coordinator). Officer B blabs to several kinship members who start sending me tells to complain about officer A's out-of-context statement fragments.

Someone in the group, one of the officers, asked me why I was still on the shore instead of swimming again and I replied in /officer that I was talking to a member about something officer B said officer A said when I realized officer B was still online. Instead of attempting to diffuse the situation he started, officer B attempts to use the 'duck-and-cover' method of leadership by spending the rest of the night incommunicado.

Through tells the other officer in my Evendim group (three of us in the group were officers) inform me that the same individual has been assailing them with tells demanding to speak with the kinship leader, who wasn't online at the time, or to be involved with the officer meeting the next time we have one.

Throughout the rest of the Evendim excursion, I kept receiving / replying to tells, watched two members quit the kinship, assured the other online members that in fact, no, two members leaving does not mean we'll be disbanding the kinship any time soon and also apparently managed to help kill a bunch of stuff and get book ten done. Though I do remember riddling the troll on the way out of the building with our guardian behind me carrying the Palantir. I love doing that.

The drama passed relatively quickly after the two members left and once things seemed stable I logged for the night.

The situation outlined above was not particularly special or unique. I've also seen worse. A lot worse. It's bad in tells but worse when people are actually screaming at each other on Vent.

So thank your officers, those of you in kinships / guilds / supergroups / whatever. We make sure people get help getting gear. We help organize raids, events and whatnot. And occasionally we have to sacrifice our playtime to deal with silliness.

Two good things came out of the whole thing tonight:
1) I got to riddle a troll.
2) I remembered to write "beer" on my shopping list before the next officer meeting. That's going to be an interesting one I'm sure and I'm also sure I could use a drink for it.

More on LotRO Raiding

My LotRO kinship and I went through the Rift again this past Monday. Having downed a boss last week, we got together a group to push in further this week. We had trouble getting a full raid together from our own kinship and ended up getting members of an allied kinship and some other folks who were friends of kinshipmates. One person had already cleared the first and second bosses in the Rift, so those bosses were not present when we entered. Thus we went straight for boss three and four.

Not long after entering, we had a disastrous battle on the stairway after the giant room: we aggroed a group, then a group on the stairs and then got caught in a orc zerg followed by someone getting rezzed and moving too close to the patrols causing a second near-wipe. It seems that we got all ‘teh stoopid’ out of our systems with that little catastrophe because we annihilated the rest of the encounters we were in and lost very few people in doing so. No one got upset or whiny, I think everyone there factored the potential repair bills into account before they decided to go raiding.

Time investments:
We started the raid at 8:30 EST and ended it around 11:30. So that’s three hours of raiding. In WoW, we used to start around 7pm with an 11pm ending time. We raided for about an hour longer per night in WoW. On Monday’s raid, we did allow for periodic bio-breaks and a couple people afked here and there. Time-wise, I think the big difference between the kin I’m in and my WoW raiding guild is that in LotRO, we’re only raiding two maybe three days a week. WoW raiding we every night except one per week where, provided you got your farmed mats, you could do what you wanted. In LotRO, I hardly farmed anything specifically for raiding. I bought my potions and still have quite a few. I go through a lot of power and morale potions, but I also get a lot from questing. Money I tend to get just from killing mobs for quests, quest completion or vendoring trash. I imagine that people with gathering skills have no need to do much more than go gathering for an hour or two a week. I guesstimate that I’d spend about one hour in the game farming to cover the expenses for an entire three-hour raid. Pretty insignificant, IMHO.

Group play:
Just like in WoW, LotRO’s raids emphasis group play. It’s not to the point where one person’s activity / inactivity will kill a group, but people have to have a good sense of where they need to be and what they should be doing. On Monday’s raid, we had a number of fights where our Hunters had to kill adds or the Lore Masters had to mez certain mobs. Both groups did exceptionally well. In one incident, we were pulling a group of five elite master types and the Lore Master and burglars were called on to mez targets. Our group coordination at that point was downright scary. We ended up with five mezzed mobs. No duplicates. Just five mobs wobbling around stunned. We all had a good laugh while the Guardian pulled them to us. A couple came bolting at once towards the end but we dropped them all with no problems.

LotRO raids seem to be more forgiving than WoW’s raids. A reasonable amount of coordination will be fine. And there’s even some wriggle-room for occasional bonehead mistakes. Like the time I hit a mob with enrage (a Burglar ability which causes them to run around a group randomly aggroing people). It was good for getting a mob off the Minstrel, bad when the poor main tank was trying to round the mob up and worse when the silly Hobbit Burglar can’t seem to keep up with the mob to apply another trick to remove the enrage one. So the mob ran around the group with the Guardian and I in tow. We were quite a sight. No deaths resulted but I was glad when that was over.

Gear and Stats:
Being a former WoW player, I take the condition of my gear somewhat seriously. I want to make sure I have the hit points, power and other stats to ensure I am effective in a group. My hit points at the moment hover around 2600 with no buffs. I compared myself to my kinship’s main tank: he has around 5000 hit points unbuffed. Then I took a look at our second main tank for the evening. 2500 hit points with buffs*. He was out in the fray tanking elite master dragons and such with fewer hitpoints than I have with no buffs. Gear matters less in LotRO. We did have some very talented minstrels with us (both of whom have at least some teal raiding gear) which I’m sure helped a lot. Gear is not irrelevant. It’s nice to know however that a lack of gear on one person isn’t going to cause massive issues for the whole raid if it can be compensated for by gear / talents / skills in another class.

As far as stats go, I’m trying to get all my traits moved up around 6 or 7. I have had to grind a lot of mobs to make sure I get the traits completed but I only have one trait stuck at 5, the rest are up to spec.

Overall, I view LotRO’s raiding system a lot more favorably than WoW’s. There’s less time investment needed, less material investment needed and you’re still in for some challenging, fun fights. It’s worth noting that final instance bosses are still incredibly difficult (Turbine increased Thorog’s difficulty in Helegrond so he is insanely hard at this point) but most of the bosses can be dropped with good timing and coordination.

All the stuff above when combined with LotRO's practice of providing high-quality gear from crafting puts raiding in even better perspective: it's another fun thing to do. It's not the be-all end-all of the game. If you want to raid, raid. It will be fun. If you don't like raiding, no biggie. There are other things to do and other ways to get gear for your character.

* I'm not sure how he managed such a low number. Gear explains part of it. Perhaps also he needed to work on some of his traits too.