Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The tanking shortage.

There are many reasons for the tanking shortage in World of Warcraft, but the biggest cause is that the difficulty level scales inversely for tanks (at the present). Tanking an heroic raid boss is easier than tanking a 5-man heroic dungeon, and has been for the duration of the Cataclysm expansion.

So how can SW:TOR keep tanking interesting as tanks progress to hunting bigger and bigger game? Firstly, raid encounter designers can keep tanks on their feet. This can be done through choreographed movement (running out of melee range for an ability, then back in vs. unchoreographed trying to keep bosses [with their AI-driven pathing] out of randomly spreading ground affects), by adding interesting adds, and by making boss fights multi-boss affairs. In World of Warcraft, many people consider Ulduar to be the pinnacle of raiding. It had 13 non-vehicle bosses, of which only 3 were single-mob encounters (and of those three, one included an add in its heroic mode). Furthermore, all of the fights in Ulduar required some degree of movement for tanks, which combined to make the tanking experience challenging and exhilarating. SW:TOR's encounter designers would do well to keep Ulduar in mind while doing their own designing.

Secondly, encounters need to get more difficult as a tank progresses. Small group content tends to include more "trash" mobs than single-boss encounters. Tanks are often required to wrangle multiple enemies, organize crowd control, utilize stuns, interrupts, and survival cooldowns, often on a single trash pull in small-group play. Looking back to World of Warcraft, there are many instances where tank error will lead to a wipe in heroic 5-man content, but the last time that a tank needed to be really on-point in a raid encounter was the final boss in the Trial of the Grand Crusader raid instance back in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion (there are some fights that are moderately challenging in Cataclysm, but the last fight that stressed me out as a tank was handling the adds in ToGC). SW:TOR needs to make sure that they balance small-group content to be easier than large group, and also to utilize the features that can make small-group content challenging on a grander scale in their large-group settings.

Lastly, tanking gear needs to be interesting. From Burning Crusade through Wrath of the Lich King, encounters were tuned in a way that allowed (or forced) tanks to gear for threat (after reaching the block cap, if one was a Tankadin). In Cataclysm, between how hard bosses hit and reforging, the accepted best practice for tank gearing is to stack avoidance and mitigation and ignore everything else (Death Knight tanks often gear for hit/exp caps, but all other tanks are not afforded that luxury). Juggling gear to stay at or around the hit and expertise caps is interesting and fun, ignoring those stats at the expense of survival is not, especially when it leads to spikey threat generation and a general loss of control over one's character (missing a big threat ability multiple times in a row is not fun, and making the DPS wait on a newly spawned add with a relatively tight dps requirement is annoying and potentially raid-wiping). As tanking gear gets better and better, it should not lead to the gear becoming worse and worse for some content; as gear improves, it should become outright easier to complete previous tiers of PVE content, whether they are small-group or large-group.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Why I hate addons.

On the dashboard of my car is a speedometer. Also present are a fuel gauge, an engine temperature gauge, an odometer, and a tiny picture of my car that lights up in different places when the corresponding doors are open. Some of these things are legally required to be there, but even if they weren't, I would never buy a car that did not come with them. So why in the heck was I just playing an MMO that has a barely functional threat meter, no dps/hps meter, no system of effectively sifting through its (glitchy as hell) action log, no simple search bar for a character's inventory, no built-in coordinate system in its maps, and no built-in boss timers?

One of the real killers of immersion in World of Warcraft was the fact that the end-game, while technically playable without any addons, really required a suite of third-party downloads to experience effectively. Certain addons were mandatory for certain classes (tanking was impossible at points without a good threat meter), and others were absolutely required for raid leaders. While Blizzard has gotten better about this over the years, the fact that one of two addons can still make a significant difference in a player's numbers is truly damning. Constantly checking the four corners of one's screen because of the ridiculous spread of important information seriously ups the difficulty level of  moving out of the fire that you're standing in, and at a certain point (like when it becomes apparent that Power Auras are necessary) beating the addon UI mini-game becomes a mandatory, though not universally fun hurdle.

Even if Bioware does not support addons for SW:TOR from release, they will eventually. Developers aren't perfect, and they'll almost certainly miss some features that players really need. However - if they're smart - they already have a team in place to clean up and incorporate the best and most popular third-party addons into their UI with the utmost of haste. When I start blasting my way through SW:TOR's raids, I want to be able to do it just as well with their default UI as captain "I make my own addons" (that may or may not be a Zabery reference). One hallmark of a great game is letting actual player skill (and my slow, old-guy reflexes) determine just how bad of a player I am, not my inability to set up this newfangled addon.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

So...why SW:TOR?

So why not Rift, or Aion, or DCUO (that's the one with Batman, and he's my favorite!)? I think my wife best summed up why SW:TOR is the MMO to pay attention to when she said, "deep down, everyone wants to be a Jedi."

I should backtrack a bit. Two weeks ago my wife mentioned to me that now might be a good time for me to stop raiding for good. Her argument went something like, "I don't see you during the day, so I damn well better see you at night...also, shouldn't you be doing dishes right now?!" This was followed by a debate about video games, during which I may have pointed out to her that she'd once had her very own World of Warcraft account (ostensibly so that we had something to do together while I was stationed in Georgia and she was working in Ohio). She claimed to have outgrown video games, and declared herself disinterested in ever again playing another. Then, after much cajoling, I showed her this. Which was promptly followed by an extensive research session, where we investigated the playable races and the Jedi Shadow Advanced Class.

It would be easy to brush this off as a casual gamer being enticed by a new game and its "better than all three Star Wars prequels" CGI trailer, so I put the game to a real test. I sent a link to my father. The last game that my dear old dad played with any gusto was snood, and the last time he played a video game with me or my brothers was NHL '94. Seriously. At the height of my time in WoW, when I was co-owner of my own raid guild and both of my brothers were in it with me, we never came close to getting Dad to try the dang game. But he agreed to try out SW:TOR (on the condition that both of my brothers and I join him).

WoW has done a lot to revamp their leveling process, make the quests more intuitive and interesting, and generally make the game welcoming to new players, all of which is moot, because there's no hook to get those new players into the game. SW:TOR has that hook built in. My soon to be 60 year old father saw the original trilogy in the theaters back in the 70s, loved them, and then went about outgrowing video games as they became increasingly time consuming and demanding (in the sense of demanding a learned skill set and new muscle memory). Dad played pong. He suffered through NHL hockey on the Sega Genesis with its relatively intuitive controller commands, and then ducked out right around the time Zelda came out for the Nintendo 64. The only way that Bioware can keep a customer like my father is by making sure that the game doesn't force unintuitive mechanics on its players, keeps bait on the glorious Star Wars hook that they have, and isn't overly difficult for non-gamers to get a handle on.

Bioware definitely has a handle the first two issues. Plot is their mantra, and every review I've read seems to confirm that they've really nailed the plot --> immersion experience. Likewise the controls for the game will almost certainly be intuitive, just based on KOTOR and the intense Beta that Bioware's been running (they've already scrapped their first go at a UI based on user feedback, which is a good sign for the combat system). But that third point is the one that worries me. My father will probably never be soloing anything in SW:TOR, he'll have at least one of his sons questing with him. However, he cannot be the only non-gamer contemplating a foray into the MMO morass for this Star Wars title, and a lot of those guys are going to be going it alone. The people inclined to participate in the Beta are almost certainly old MMO hands, and so they will likely want a higher level of difficulty and challenge in their solo endeavors than a non-gamer would. All that being said, if the hook is strong enough - if the plot is engrossing enough to drive even the most casual of non-gaming gamers to pursue it with gusto - then new gamers will learn the MMO skill set without even noticing it.

SW:TOR is a game to pay attention to. People may mock it as WoW with lightsabers, but WoW is the most popular game in the genre for a reason. If all that Bioware has done is take the WoW formula and immerse it in a deep and involved plot that happens to be based in an already exceptionally popular sci-fi setting, it could easily crush everything that's come before it. Either way, I'll be there playing it with my dad.

How I learned to quit WoW (and start caring about SW:TOR)

When Bioware first announced that the third installment of their Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) franchise would be an MMO, I was excited. Then I went back to farming one vanity item or another in World of Warcraft (WoW). At the time I was enthralled with WoW, and although the prospect of doing all those WoW things - but with a lightsaber! - was intriguing, I couldn't see myself abandoning my friends and family (or at least, those of whom played on my WoW server). Then Cataclysm happened.

In the last year, my wife, most of my friends, and both of my brothers have cancelled their WoW accounts. Their specific reasons for quitting are varied, and while outside influences have had some affect, the underlying cause of their cancelled accounts has been WoW's failure to keep them engaged. My best friend quit because he wanted to be challenged by hard content, but could not devote the 12+ hours a week to the raiding scene and its endless iterative wipes. My middle brother quit because he could no longer find himself immersed in the game (teleporting from point to point and fighting raid monsters with no quest engagement to buttress his motivation). My youngest brother got sick of the tedious minutiae of choreographed raid encounters (sometimes he just wanted to be able to smash something really hard and not have to worry about all the other things going on). My wife got tired of the seemingly binary difficulty scaling; fights were either too easy, and thus boring, or way too hard.

I don't entirely blame Blizzard for losing the devotion of my friends and family. Blizzard must have realized that they had saturated the market for MMO players, and so they developed the Cataclysm expansion as a way to open up the market and get new players; most of their resources seemed devoted to cleaning up the early game. However, they made two major errors in the development of Cataclysm. Firstly, they did a terrible job timing and marketing the expansion. They needed a wedge to break into the mainstream and needed to time this expansion with something, anything, to bring their product to a new audience. The long-awaited WoW movie would have been perfect, but a massive toy and merchandising campaign or a kid's cartoon show would have worked. Instead they published some second-rate novels, and a bunch of manga. This error should be self-evident, but if it isn't let me clarify by pointing out that everyone I know that reads franchise novels or manga is already playing WoW. This does nothing to open up the product to new markets, and doesn't even help keep the majority of consumers hooked, which leads to their second big mistake: They ignored and alienated a large chunk of their consumer base.

By the end of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, WoW was a mature game. Every player I knew in the game had multiple max-level characters that he or she was at least somewhat attached to. So when Cataclysm came out with five new max-level zones that were almost completely linear it was guaranteed to both damage a player's immersion and become boring. Cataclysm was sold as an expansion of choices. The talent trees were being redone to do away with cookie-cutter specs, pve roles were being expanded to allow a group to 'bring the player, not the class,' and raids were being offered (and theoretically balanced) for both groups of 10, and groups of 25. Choice is good! But when you're saving the great pillar of happy rocks from the evil nihilists for the 4th time, and being lauded as the one great savior of the whole wide world (of Warcraft!) for the 4th (or 40th, if you've ever done any other questing) time, it rings a bit hollow. So Blizzard managed to whiff at the whole expanding the market thing, while at the same time devoting nowhere near the resources necessary to keep their current customers happy, and as a result everyone I know quit the game, and nobody that I know started playing.

So where does this leave SW:TOR, and why am I suddenly passionate about a game that isn't out yet and hasn't released much information? Well, this post is TL;DR, so I'll have to write another one...