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Dynamic quest content in 2013: GW2, FFXIV, and WoW

December 29, 2013 2 comments

Late last year I wrote a bit about my hopes for dynamic quest content in MMOs. Dynamic quest content was a promise to break away from a fixed linear content model where players are pushed along one or — if you were lucky — a few fixed questing tracks in a game. Once those were complete, players mostly had to wait until new content was released or perform some repetitive tasks, usually in the form of daily quests. This is killer for games whose entire existence is based on a persistent world.  Several games have incorporated dynamic content into their play models, so I thought it was worth taking a look back at my experiences with how they implemented this potentially ground-breaking technology.

Guild Wars 2

FrozenMawGuild Wars 2 was the first game to try and incorporate dynamic content.  Early on, running around in new zones was exciting.  Sure, every now and again you’d run into the same events, but overall it felt like every time you entered a zone, you’d end up having a slightly different gaming experience.  That was a huge plus, and I think it ultimately gave the game some good legs for both myself and my wife.  The problem was that even though the event chains were extensive, they weren’t random.  In fact, they were scripted along relatively narrow paths.  And true to form, players found a way to optimize the patterns.  I don’t think either of us is entirely sure when the change happened, but over time as players started figuring out patterns in zones and ArenaNet started adding more rewards for dynamic events, doing those events just stopped being fun.  The champion farm was born.  Masses of players would run in circles around zones knocking off supposedly challenging mobs like they were nothing to get some great rewards.  And they can get nasty about it if anyone messes up the cycle.  This was particularly bad in low level zones where new players can be exposed to that as some of their first gaming experiences.  All the complexity of the dynamic events boiled down into a circuit course with a mob of players that trivialized the encounters.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

The amazing thing is that even if the model the Guild Wars 2 implemented wasn’t perfect, it’s started to permeate into other MMO contenders. Since I had given Final Fantasy XIV a try when it was first released, I decided to take advantage of my free month. I’d not really followed the games refurbishment, but I was particularly surprised to find out about the FATE system. One of friends told me about the FFXIV’s dynamic quests before I jumped in: “You have your story quests as well that are specific to you and your personal progression through the game, you have class quests for all the different classes, you have FATEs which are basically like guild wars style events, in fact almost EXACTLY the same events in some cases.”

I’m not going to be quite so favorable as to say FFXIVs FATEs were on par with Guild War 2’s dynamic quests, but they definitely had a lot of similarities.  Indicators on the mini-map alerted players in the region to crises that demand that players flock from all around.  They can last for for up to 15 minutes and have even less impact on the game world.  But they did make running around at least slightly more variable. Unlike GW2 dynamic events, however, players are incentivized to participate in FATES thanks to their experience rewards.  There were only enough story quests to level your main class so FATE circuits became one of the primary mechanisms for players to level up alternate classes. This was annoying because as with GW2, the events seemed to not scale terribly well past a certain threshold of players.  Ultimately, I didn’t play the game for more than a month or so.  I can’t say that the FATEs were the single reason, but they definitely didn’t help.

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria

Which brings me to my most current gaming experience with dynamic events:  World of Warcraft’s Timeless Isle.  I’d stopped played World of Warcraft about a year ago, but the recent announcement for many changes to game in the next expansion at Blizzcon prompted a lot of my old friends to return to the game.  We’re going to see if Blizzard’s new “it’s more fun to play with friends” approach to design was as genuine as it seemed listening to them talk about it.  To my surprise, I found out that they’d been slowly adopting dynamic event content into their game as well.  Thunder Isle in patch 5.3 had a few small dynamic events and the Timeless Isle in patch 5.4 did away completely with scripted daily quests in favor of small little events on the Timeless Isle.

ZarhymEventWhen I first got to the Timeless Isle, I couldn’t help but notice was a few players seemingly running in a circuit.  It didn’t take long to figure out that there are a relatively fixed number of possible events and most people just run around looking for them.  As with FFXIV and GW2, Blizzard opted to place some small call-outs on the map to alert players to events and rare bosses spawning on the island.  Players also tend to call out when then events are up, resulting in mobs of players converging on whatever events happen to be active, just like the champion farms of Guild Wars 2.  Overall, there’s a decent range of larger events and smaller events on the island, but the number is so small that it becomes fairly repetitive quickly.  Blizzard’s announced there will be more content like this in Warlords of Draenor, so it’ll be interesting to see what they’ve learned and if they can expand on what seems like an growing experiment for the developers.

Observations

Based on the three games, I’ve come up with a few general observations about what I’d like to see in the next generation of dynamic quest content.

  • Most dynamic quests feel “right” for about 2-10 people, beyond that even if monsters scale in health based on the number of players the social dynamic seems to crumble.  Announcing the quests to crowded zones tends to draw too many people; it may be worth having several pools of events that can happen in a given zone based on how many people are around (e.g. if a zone is crowded, mostly large scale events designed to accommodate that many occur).
  • Cause and effect is still too predictable, and thus exploitable, by the general player base. Most zones seem to have too few events that get cycled through. Logging in results in less of a question of “what will I experience today?” than “when will I experience these events?” It’d be nice if the pool of possible events was large enough and variable enough that you might only see a given event once a week or so.
  • Dynamic content can tend to feel disconnected due to the events being somewhat isolated. Responding to individual crisis after individual crisis can feel a bit futile.  WoW and Guild Wars have implemented zone wide rewards for participating in certain events in a zone, but these still fall a bit short of a compelling reason why a character is running around after a point.  It’d be nice if maybe the game could string a few events together to create individual meta-objectives for players.
  • Dynamic content still mostly only impacts the game world locally.  In the best implementations, infrastructure and player services can be disrupted, but it’s almost always completely temporary and usually only a minor nuisance.  In the worst, the events do absolutely nothing to affect the game.  Ideally, it’d be better if a dynamic event affected a wider area. For example, a conflict a few zones over could noticeably affect prices or availability of goods to incentivize players to spread out and also give the world a larger sense of connectivity.

The introduction of dynamic quest content has definitely left a mark on the MMO genre and is becoming a fixture with new, redone, and old games. I’ve not been shy about how excited I am that these games are moving beyond linear content; but I’m also coming to realize that sometimes theory can only take you far. I don’t know yet what the future of dynamic content is going to be in MMOs, but it almost certainly is not yet mature. My hope is that someone can find a way to keep it fresh enough that we can avoid the compulsion to run around in circles waiting for random stimuli.  I’d rather wander and be pleasantly surprised, than feel like I’m piling in for the morning commute.

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Fly or Die – Status of Pet Battles in Mists of Pandaria Beta

July 30, 2012 4 comments

One of the best parts about public beta tests is that they let players like me contribute to the game development process.  I recently spent a bit of time beta testing the new pet battle system in Mists of Pandaria, the next World of Warcraft expansion. I’ve found that the system is not only a great addition to the game, but also a fairly unique opportunity to study how implementing a theoretical game design can often have unintended consequences.  In the current beta build, population imbalance in wild pets creates an environment that heavily favors certain pet families over others. There’s plenty of time for this to change, but unless Blizzard adds a good chunk more wild Dragonkin, Mechanical, and Undead pets to the game, your best bet when the expansion is released is to grab a Flying pet and go to town.

The Mists of Pandaria pet battle system takes its inspiration from Pokemon in that players can assemble teams of pets designed to compete against pets of various types or families.  The official site describes this best:

Pets are grouped into common categories called families. Families include Critter, Dragonkin, Mechanical, Magical, and there are many more. Each pet ability also corresponds to a specific pet family; Deep Breath for example is a Dragonkin-type ability, and Lift-Off is a Flying-type ability. Family determines a pet’s strength and weakness against other families. Each family also has a unique passive bonus.

The interaction of pet family strengths and weaknesses adds a strategic layer on what is otherwise a fairly straightforward combat system.  On paper, each pet family has comparable strengths and weakness such that no one pet family stands out above the others.  In practice on the beta server, however, certain pet families are superior to others because of a disproportionate representation of certain pet families in the wild. For instance, you are 13 times more likely to encounter Critters and 12 times more likely to encounter Beasts than you are to encounter four of the other ten pet families. This population imbalance neuters some bonuses and amplifies some weaknesses to the point of being frustrating while getting your pets to their maximum strength. Bonuses against Critters and Beasts are vastly superior to benefits against other less represented families like Humanoids or Mechanicals.

Birds are well known for their resistance to cute.

To be fair, this imbalance is a byproduct of the fact that the existing game had a lot of critters and beasts in various zones.  No one can expect Blizzard to radically change the world we’ve come to expect just to account for this.  Nevertheless, the current distribution of existing wild pets ends up creating a framework with the following rules of thumb:

  • Flying will have a ridiculously easy time leveling.
  • Mechanical, Magic, and Beast will have a fairly easy time leveling.
  • Dragonkin, Humanoids, Aquatic have a fairly neutral experience.
  • Critters will have a fairly difficult time leveling.
  • Elemental and Undead will have a ridiculously difficult time leveling.

If you’re interested in how I came up with this, the short version is I weighted every family bonus and weakness using the relative chance of encountering a wild pet of each family type in the current beta build.  If you want the longer version with tables and numbers, you can get it here on the Mists of Pandaria feedback forums (I’m Renart). The model does not predict the success of any individual pet — as some pets have multiple damage types — but it does provide a reasonable gauge of overall pet family strength across the whole of the game.  Further, a family’s strength will probably vary somewhat due to uneven distribution of the family across the leveling spectrum (e.g. wild Dragonkin only exist at high level).  Even with these assumptions taken into account, the above statements are probably still useful guidelines to streamline a player’s pet battle experience and avoid major headaches. Several other testers feel that these observations are consistent with their experiences.

Giant robot beats Bunny every time.

Blizzard has about a month and a half to change the system somehow to alleviate this disparity between families.  There are two things I think they could do fairly simply without reworking the whole system.  First, converting as many Critter and Beast pets as possible into other less represented families whenever it might make sense would help even out the distribution.  This is easiest for pets that already deviate from particular themes (e.g. A Fire Beetle that has fire skills could easily be called an Elemental with Critter skills instead of a Critter with Elemental skills). Second, and perhaps more importantly, adding a good 5-15 additional pets in the Undead, Mechanical, Dragonkin, and Humanoid families would balance out the weakest performing pet families.  These two approaches combined would work best. It won’t completely remove the imbalance, but this close to release it seems like a reasonable compromise to mitigate the problem.

I’ve addressed the pet battle system previously to express my belief that it’s probably one of the boldest additions to the MMO ever in that it provides an entirely new content layer across the whole game rather than just expanding the older systems. I still feel that way. But if nothing changes between now and September 25 regarding the conditions I described above, you can bet I’ll be competing with almost everyone trying to catch and train the choice rare Flying pets in game… and probably grabbing a few Magic (+50% damage to Flying) and Mechanical (-33% damage from Flying) ones as well just to handle the inevitable onslaught of moths, buzzards, and parrots we’re all bound to run into.

My New Hats

April 3, 2012 1 comment

It’s probably about time that I update the Quest.  The bad news is I’m finding it harder to keep up posting here regularly.  I busted my self-imposed goal of one post a week.  Again.  The good news is why I’m taking longer to post; I’ve  been busy learning for my new job with a fairly young software development company.   It turns out that my previous background coupled with the programming and networking courses I started taking a few months ago have made me into an attractive hybrid (except without the tax benefits and lower emissions).  The company that hired me doesn’t build games, but the role I’ve been brought on to fill gives me plenty of opportunity to learn about development and work on some of my technical skills.  If all you care about is reading about my personal life, you can probably stop here.  Anyone else who likes or is curious about games, feel free to keep going.

I wrote last week(ish) about some of my thoughts about the next WoW expansion and its implications on the future of mobile gaming.  If you actually made it to the end of the post, you probably noticed I said I was not in the beta.  Now I am.  This past weekend, I was a part of the 300,000+ annual pass holders who were tossed an invite to the beta.  My lovely and talented girlfriend / editor was kind enough to grant me several hours of play time despite my having been away all week on business for my new job.  It would be criminal to waste that gift and not share some of my experience in the beta with you all.  Spoiler Alert:  There are Pandas.  Everywhere.

Many of the new features I’m excited to see in the expansion, like pet battles, are not yet implemented on the beta servers.   Much of the new class and race content is available, however, and I decided to make the most of it by trying out the games newest class and race:  the Pandaren monk.

Along with everyone else.

After making my new character, less-than-cleverly and more-than-hastily named Rollshambo, I logged into the server and was confronted by a sea of black and white fur.  It turns out that the other 299,999 invitees also decided to make pandas.  While it made the initial experience a little frustrating, I took it in stride and eventually got past some of the early bottleneck and out into the world.  I was able to play most of this content at Blizzcon 2011 anyway, so I don’t feel like I missed much by rushing through the area.  That is not meant to diminish the content, however.  The new quests and objectives are quite amusing, especially when you get to enjoy minor bugs that result in sweet headgear like this.

Yay ridiculous hats!

Online games usually demand teamwork between players to complete objectives, so support roles often end up being simultaneously the most in demand and the least played in the game.  Consequently, I usually end up playing one of them.  This was my experience playing a healer almost exclusively in World of Warcraft over the past few years.  However, doing anything for several years will make anything seem monotonous eventually, so Blizzard’s promise to give the monk a new healing style emphasizing an interactive melee experience piques my interest.  I chose the healing specialization, the Mistweaver, at level 10 and worked my way to level 25 over the weekend.  While I only have two healing spells by that point, both function differently than almost any other heals I’ve used on other characters, resulting in a unique experience even at this low level of play.  Only time and testing will tell if Blizzard can deliver on the hype of the class, but so far I like what I see.  In the meantime, I will be enjoying the fact that I have two new hats to wear:  novice software developer at work and novice bug “unintended feature” reporter in the Mists of Pandaria beta.

My new job has 100% less balloon rides than this screenshot.

World of myCraft

March 25, 2012 4 comments

Last week, Blizzard issued a massive release of new information about Mists of Pandaria, the next expansion pack for World of Warcraft.  The information confirmed that the expansion will include a Pokemon-style mini-pet battle system announced at last year’s Blizzcon.  It also announced a new in-game faction that will allow players to take care of their own farm, reminiscent of the hit Facebook game Farmville.  While these additions are only a fragment of the new content being offered, the two games within the larger game seem to signal that Blizzard may be setting World of Warcraft up to evolve to a more immersive content delivery platform where players can tailor the kind of game experience they want while still experiencing the Warcraft universe.

Pet Battle System
source: mmo-champion.com

Massively-multiplayer persistent worlds inherently appeal to many gamers for their ability to preserve a player’s time invested playing a game.  Playing WoW’s in-game version of Pokemon or Farmville will offer players experiencing burnout entirely different game experiences within the persistent world without having to switch to a new game or platform.  Perhaps more importantly, players who never were into crawling dungeons or fighting other players in arenas now have a reason to try and perhaps stick with the franchise.   Blizzard has always had a strong track record of taking established game paradigms and expanding them in new ways, so their incorporation of highly successful game that appeal to a variety of audiences only makes sense as they attempt to make World of Warcraft more applicable to an increasingly diverse gaming audience.

Tiller’s Farm
source: mmo-champion.com

Even more interesting, perhaps, is the fact that these alternative games within the larger game seem ripe for adaptation into mobile platforms.  Blizzard recently expressed interest in eventually offering a way to experience the game via the iPhone and other mobile platforms.   It will probably be some time before players can experience the entire game on a mobile platform, but Blizzard already offers ways to access parts of the game experience via mobile apps to chat with players in game and conduct business on the in-game auction house.  It would not surprise me if we saw mobile apps fairly soon after the expansion allowing players to engage in the pet battle system or managing their farm while on the go as well.   These new alternate games not only diversify what World of Warcraft players experience, but also potentially how they experience it, likely setting the setting the bar for future MMOs.

World of Warcraft may be getting up there in age, but these developments make me confident that Blizzard has a few more tricks to show us and that gets me even more excited to learn what the company has in store for Titan.  In the meantime, I’ll just have to wait like the rest of the annual pass holders out their for their turn at the Mists of Pandaria beta.