Tobold's Blog
Thursday, September 23, 2004
Do not import World of Warcraft

Several people brought this bad news to my attention: If you happen to live outside of the United States of America or Korea, you will be unable to play World of Warcraft this year. Interview with Chris Sigaty from Blizzard to be found on On the official beta WoW forum (scroll down to the blue text on the middle of the page) this has been confirmed as being true.

Only way to work around this is to somehow get hold of an American credit card, as access control will be based on your billing address, not IP address. Blizzard claims to be working on a solution to let Europeans play on the US servers after the European release, which is to be somewhere in early 2005, around 3 months later. This is supposed to address international guilds, but frankly, the US members of these guilds are NOT going to wait that long, and after 3 months the level difference will be far too big to group. Blizzard also failed to explain why they are able to release a completely localized Korean version of their game simulataneously with the US release, but unable to release at least their unlocalized English version in the UK. Last time I checked they were still speaking English in the UK, even if it sounded differently than American.

In contrast look at the following statement from SOE about the servers of EQ2: "Players in Europe will be able to play on any of SOE’s EverQuest II servers, including those servers based North America". Well, seems somebody else decided for me what I will be playing at christmas.

[Edit]Another official confirmation that you can not play WoW outside North America with an imported copy is found here.
Wednesday, September 22, 2004
World of Warcraft - Release Date

In a change to the World of Warcraft - Frequently Asked Questions, there is now finally official information about when WoW is going to be released. Quote: "The game is scheduled for simultaneous release in both the United States and Korea at the end of 2004." While "end of 2004" could theoretically be the 31st of December, it is a lot more likely that it will be somewhere in November, to get the game into the hands of the christmas shoppers.

Simultaneous release in both the United States and Korea, while 3rd world countries like Europe will have to wait or import. *Grrrrr*
Tuesday, September 21, 2004
Saga of Ryzom

The French company Nevrax launched Saga of Ryzom last week with little fanfare. Ryzom is an unusual MMORPG, with some very original and creative ideas. But do these add up to a playable game? I checked out the open beta just before release to find out.

The first thing one always notices about a MMORPG is the graphics. Saga of Ryzom is certainly pretty. The landscape looks good, the mobs even better, and the characters are nicely animated. The world does not have the old middle ages fantasy look, but is much more organic. Instead of elves and orcs, we get original races living in a tribal environment as hunter-gatherers.

Saga of Ryzom uses a skill-based system without character classes. The player does not have one character level, but 4 completely separate skill levels, in fighting, magic, crafting and harvesting. Every level you go advance in one of these skills gets you 10 skill points in that discipline. These can be spent at a trainer to purchase either new actions or stats improvements.

The interesting thing with this approach is that you can decide which and how many skills you want to pursue. There are no artificial limits, like in other games, where you can't be good in both melee and magic. There is only the natural limit of your time and effort. Advancing in all four skills is possible, but takes four times as long as specializing in just one.

Combat, by melee or magic, is very similar to many other MMORPG. You double-click on one of your actions to set it to auto-repeat, and go drink a coffee while your character is killing the monster. If you have special actions, you can work those into the combat, making it a bit more interactive. But in general, combat in Ryzom is not very fast, not very interactive, and not very interesting.

After combat you will find that there is no loot in the traditional sense. All monsters are animals, and those don't carry coins or items. You can only loot monster body parts, with a quality level corresponding to the monsters level. These body parts can be used as ingredients for crafting.

Aside from monsters, you can also get resources using the harvesting skill. This is comparatively interesting; there are different harvesting actions to find and then dig for resources. All resources can then be combined with the crafting skill to give weapons and armor. Every single piece of equipment in Saga of Ryzom can be made by players. NPCs sell the same items, but for relatively high prices. NPCs also buy resources at very low prices. So the advantage of trading between players is obvious. Unfortunately, there is no auction house or other automated trading possible; you just have to shout on the trade chat channel.

The big innovation in the different actions for the four skills is that you can design actions yourself, out of so-called stanzas. Whenever you buy a standard action for skill points from a trainer, you also acquire the stanzas this action is made of. Any action is made out of a stanza that describes the basic action, like melee attack, or fire damage spell, plus stanzas that modify that action, for example its range, plus finally the stanzas that determine the cost. Positive modifiers have a positive point value, while costs have a negative point value. You can only make actions in which the negative points are equal or greater than the positive ones. This system is probably most interesting in the design of spells, but the other three disciplines also profit from it.

Saga of Ryzom also has quests, but they are very simple affairs: kill some monsters, bring back some monster parts, harvest some resources, or craft some items. The quest giver NPCs each have a list such quests, and once you took one of them, you will need to wait some time before this specific quest respawns on him.

The game has some unique problems as well. The main problem for anybody who wants to advance in fighting or magic is how to find monsters of the right level to kill. The unusual twist here is that there are not too few monsters, there are too many. Set your radar to the maximum range of 250 meters, which still isn't all that far, and you might well have over 100 mobs showing up. The non-aggressive mobs travel in huge herds, often circled by the aggressive ones, and you can observe occasional fights between them. But while such a big herd consists of mobs of all the same type, they vary in levels over a huge range. You need to click on each individual in the herd before you find the one of the right level for you to kill.

The problem gets even worse if those monsters are new to you, as you have no way of finding out how strong they are. You are told neither their level, nor whether they are stronger or weaker than you, like in other games. Instead the game uses a classification system with adjectives, which are different for each mob type. Your only chance to find out if a "roaming" mob is stronger or weaker than a "wary" one is to attack it, possibly dying if you guessed wrong. Or you look up the information on some website. There was supposed to be a color-coded system as well, but in the open beta it still wasn't working.

It all adds up to a game that is certainly playable, but unfortunately not very exciting. Saga of Ryzom is not a bad game, but it is probably not good enough to stand against the strong competition from all the excellent games that came out or are still expected for this year. In Ryzom, you can grind in four different ways, to four different levels, but beyond that there is no sense of purpose. Nevrax promised a "storyline that matters", but I haven't noticed one. The biggest selling point is the customizable actions, but even they are not all that fun in the end. It is doubtful that Saga of Ryzom will become a big commercial success.

This review also published on
Monday, September 13, 2004
WoW Stress Test Ended

Yesterday, Sunday at 6 pm PDT, the WoW stress test ended. We all knew it would end on Sunday, but not which hour, so there were already "world ends" celebrations just before noon, with people dancing and launching fireworks. A surprisingly happy atmosphere everywhere, most people saying farewell with the words "see you in retail". A large majority of the 100,000 beta testers will buy this game, and talk positively about it until then, which is good for Blizzard.

On the last days of the stress test, I mainly tested the non-spellcasting classes: Warrior, Rogue, and Hunter, all played to at least level 10. Well, the hunter only pretends to belong to this club, in reality he is a spellcaster in disguise. He has mana, which he uses for his special shot attacks, and in melee he isn't all that good. His leather armor and axe are decent enough, but he only has one single special melee attack, and that one recycles very slowly. If he didn't already half kill the mob with his gun (I played a dwarf, other hunters use bows), he is in serious trouble in melee.

At level 10 the hunter gets the ability to charm animals, so I ran around a while with a snow leopard pet. That worked pretty well, and looked good. I didn't test it much further, but it seems that you can actually train abilities with you pet. If it dies, you revive it, you don't necessarily charm a new one. And you can stable up to two pets with a stable master, so you can have 3 pets in total to switch around. But me personally, I still don't like pets, even if they don't get lost or attack something on their own like they did in earlier games. But I just might get a non-combat pet for my characters in WoW. There is a wide choice of them, available to any character class, and they are just for the looks. You can have a cat, a parrot, or some other animals. You could even have a pet cockroach, for the stylish undead. And I've helped somebody with the engineering tradeskill to build a mechanical squirrel pet, which was also cute.

Leaving the hunter, I played the 2 classes that do NOT use mana. At first I thought the rogue, who uses energy instead of mana to power his special attacks, would be similar. But there are some big differences: Your energy does not go up with level, you always have 100 energy at the start of a combat. And unlike mana, you get a significant amount of energy back every second. The other special of the rogue is the combo points. The basic special attack of the rogue attaches 1 combo point to the target. Other special attacks, like backstab, also add 1 combo point. A target can have up to 5 combo points, which are shown next to his portrait. And when there is at least 1 of them, the rogue can perform a "finishing move", whose power depends on the number of combo points. So some strategy is required. Use not enough combo points, and the finishing move doesn't kill the target. Use too many, and the combat takes longer. 3 combo points were usually enough for a mob of the same level as my rogue.

The rogue also has some other nice strategies: He can stun an enemy for 3 seconds, run around him, and then backstab him for a good amount of damage. He has a special attack that sends a humanoid enemy to sleep for 25 seconds, or until he takes damage. You can use that one to stun one enemy in a group, while fighting the others. Some special abilities require you to be in stealth mode, where you are nearly invisible, but still not totally, so you have to sneak up on your enemies carefully. Rogue plays differently than most classes, and is an interesting addition.

Another class that is a lot more interesting than his namesakes in other games is the warrior. The warrior starts the combat usually with zero rage, and builds up rage by attacking and getting attacked. He can then spend this rage for a range of special abilities. He can also decide not to spend it, but then it slowly fades away after combat. So a good idea is to charge your rage bar on a lesser enemy, to then attack a big boss mob directly after, with your rage bar full.

As race for my warrior I had chosen undead, playing Horde now, so I can concentrate on Alliance in the retail version. After leveling him up to level 11, I decided for him to go on a long journey. He could have travelled riding a bat to a neighboring zone, or with a goblin zeppelin to other Horde territories, but I wanted to visit the Alliance lands instead. The dwarven lands are 3 zones south of the undead lands, but as those zones are of much higher level, I took the long way round, and swam most of the way along the coast. Undead don't breathe, so they can't drown, but even other races have no problems swimming long distances, they just need to keep their head over water. If you enter the ocean proper, you get a decreasing fatigue meter, which would probably kill you if it went to zero, but swimming along the coast worked well.

Of course I did manage to die several times on the trip. Most of the coast was free of mobs, but there were some swimming monsters at some places, and they were of much higher level than me. It was really fun to dive beneath the waves, and suddenly find a coral reef, complete with sunk ship, inhabited by a race of mermen. Who then proceeded to kill me. Oh, well. Dying in foreign lands gets your spirit to the closest graveyard, from where you can travel on as spirit to regain your corpse. Or you pay the xp for revival there, if the graveyard happens to be closer to your destination.

So hopping from graveyard to graveyard, I finally made it to the dwarven newbie zone, which is quite an achievement for a level 11 undead warrior. In the Alliance lands, you not only get attacked by their local monsters, but also by all the guards, and the guards range from level 30 to 75, killing you with one hit or two.

I was playing on a non-PvP server, which meant that PvP options were there, but quite limited. I was unable to attack any dwarves, and they were initially unable to attack me. I had to attack a dwarven NPC to get a PvP flag. Then the dwarves were able to attack me, and I was able to defend, but not attack any innocent bystanders. Very good system. I even chatted nicely with some of them, but we were limited to the /say channel, you can't send /tells to players of the other side, and you can't hear the local general chat channels. Fortunately as undead I did speak common, other Horde races can't communicate with Alliance members at all, speaking only orcish.

But while the trip was nice, it confirmed my judgement that PvP in a MMORPG is pointless. I got myself a PvP flag, and tried to get some Alliance players of my level to fight me, by saying things like "Booo!", or "Hands up! This is a one-man invasion." But nobody with whom the fight would have been fair wanted to fight me. The only thing that happened was that they shouted out my position on the local defence channel, and some high level players arrived some time later and killed me. The lowest level I ever got attacked by was 16, a full 5 level above me. And that was just for fun, you don't gain any xp in PvP. And you don't lose any xp in PvP either, as long as your ghost can run back to your corpse, and your corpse isn't "camped" by the person who killed you. But still nobody was interested in a duel between two players of the same level. People only participate in PvP if they are absolutely sure they can win. Which is totally boring.
Sunday, September 12, 2004
Everquest II European Closed Beta

MMORPG life for me couldn't possibly get any better. On the last day of the World of Warcraft stress test open beta, I received an invitation to participate in the EQ2 European closed beta. Woot!!!

The only disadvantage is, that the EQ2 beta has a NDA. Sorry, dear readers, but there will be no review of EQ2 before the NDA isn't lifted.

How did I get into the closed beta? I'm not sure, but I have a suspicion that it wasn't on my charm alone. I guess it is because of previous "customer relationship". I'm logging into EQ2 with my Sony Station account, which is full of data of me having paid for EQ1, SWG, and pre-ordered EQ2, including the Starter Kit. You don't need much of a CRM software to pick me for special promotion, like a beta.
Friday, September 10, 2004
World of Warcraft News has a series of articles written about the stress test, in case you aren't tired enough of reading my ramblings already. :)

Latest news on World of Warcraft is that the tradeskill system is going to be completely changed. Skill points will disappear, but you will be limited to two major tradeskills. Which is in effect *one* major tradeskill pair, like mining/blacksmithing, or herbalism/alchemy. The minor tradeskills of fishing, cooking, and first aid can be learned in addition to that. Good idea, because otherwise nobody would have taken those. Especially first aid is not a real tradeskill, it just provides non-healers with another form of healing. As you can't use the bandages made with first aid if you don't have the first aid skill, you can't produce something for sale.

The big advantage of this change is, that previously your level was closely related to your skill points, so unless you had a high enough level you couldn't advance very far in your favorite tradeskill. That was especially annoying when the best items you were able to produce were of lower level than yourself, and not useful to you. With the new system you can at least try to keep your tradeskill up to a level where you can equip yourself with good items.

I already mentioned that the rest bonus system makes it a good idea to play several characters, instead of just power-leveling one. The limitation in tradeskills makes "alts" even more useful, as you can cover a range of tradeskills with your characters, and exchange wares via the nice mailbox system. Only disadvantage: Passing items from one character to another only works between characters on the same side, Horde or Alliance. So I will have to decide on which side I will make all, or at least most, of my characters.

There are only two character classes that are limited by side, paladin (Alliance only) and shaman (Horde only). And as I like the paladin much better than the shaman, I think I will play Alliance. As the orc/troll starting area was the one I liked the least, I think I can live with that decision. If I'm missing the Horde side too much, I can still make another Tauren shaman, who would then have to live without twinking and without being integrated in a tradeskill network.
Thursday, September 09, 2004
World of Warcraft Journal

The news of the day is that the WoW stress test has been extended. It was supposed to end today, but now will end 3 days later, on Sunday. In celebration I add a third part to my review, just telling some stories of what happened to my different characters in this game during the stress test. This is highly likely to be totally unstructured, you have been warned. :)

My very first WoW character was a dwarven priest. I have a personal preference for healers and tanks, I feel neutral towards damage spell casters, and I dislike pet classes. A cleric in classic pen and paper D&D is healer as well as tank, so I thought priest would be a good choice in WoW. Well, that turned out to be wrong. A WoW priest is a mix of healer and damage spell caster, while being limited to cloth armor gives him very low tanking ability. He does have some unique tricks up his sleeve, a damage absorption shield for example. In other games damage spell casters often have some sort of root spell, to prevent monsters from attacking them. The WoW priest blasts them from a distance, and when they close up, he turns on his damage absorption shield, thus being able to continue casting damage spells without interruption.

Compared to other games, where healers are often unable to solo, the priest was reasonably good at soloing through the low levels like this. But in comparison with the other classes in WoW, he isn't all that good for solo play. At level 10 he receives better healing spells and resurrection, both of which are great for group play, but useless when soloing. My priest often had difficulties soloing mobs below his own level. He did join a group with a warrior and a hunter once, and there he was much more useful. World of Warcraft being very much about soloing, I don't think I will play a priest in the release version, unless I find people where I'm sure I can group with them all the time.

That being the first character, he also suffered a lot from the first-day problem of WoW: Lack of newbie level mobs. On day 1, obviously all players are hunting those, and they simply can't respawn fast enough. That produces some additional downtime where you simply can't find anything to kill. And I had to abandon some quests, because the quest mob was hunted by everybody, and there weren't enough of them around. I created a second character, a human paladin. This *was* as healer/tank, but the human newbie zone was even worse than the dwarven one. There were two quests to kill Kobold Workers, for a combined total of 22 Kobold Workers to kill per player, and only a handful of spawn points. It was actually funny to see 6 or more players standing around a Kobold Worker spawn point, trying to be the fastest to kill him when he popped up. Should have made a screenshot.

So the paladin was put on hold, and I made a night-elf druid instead. Good choice. The druid can wear leather armor, which is already a lot better in melee combat. And he gets staves to wield right from the start, which deal more damage than the priests mace (but are slower). Playing the druid in combat took getting used to. Spells in WoW not only have a casting time, but they also can have a "cooldown" period. The druid has damage spells that take some time to cast, but then can be cast again immediately afterwards. And he has spells that cast instantly, but then can not be cast again for some time. The trick is to pull with the long casting time spells, and use the others when already in melee, as the long casting time spells tend to get interrupted a lot when somebody is hitting you.

Unlike Everquest, druids do not get a Spirit of Wolf movement enhancement. But they do get different damage spells, a root spell, armor buffs, a thorns buff that deals damage to mobs hitting you, healing, and regeneration. And all that before level 10. At level 10 they then get the ability to shapeshift into bear form, which effectively turns the druid into a warrior whenever he wants. As he can buff himself first, and the buffs last quite a long time, the druid is quite powerful and independant. A great soloing class, which I will certainly play in the release version.

Next character was a Tauren shaman. I have incredibly mixed feelings about that one, it was both the best and the worst character I played. He was best from a role-playing point of view. The Tauren culture is a highly interesting American Indian type of culture. The shaman is a central point of that culture, and gets very cool quests. In one of those quests he has to drink a vision-inducing potion and then "follow his vision". The vision turns out to be a ghost wolf which you have to actually follow on foot, avoiding to get into combats on the way, to your destination where you get your quest reward. Probably the most fun quest I did in this game. The shaman also is the only class that gets an improvement to run speed, by being able to transform himself into a ghost wolf at level 20, but I never got that far.

While being interesting, the shaman was incredibly frustrating to play. One reason for that is that the plains in which he plays for the first 10 or more levels are full of aggressive and fast monsters, which attack on sight in quite a large radius. You often end up fighting more mobs than you wanted, and if you run away, you more likely than not get hunted by even more monsters. This was the character who died the most often, with me cursing loudly all the time.

Part of the problem was that while the shaman at first glance played like the druid, on closer examination he was not a solo character. Instead of the long lasting single person buffs the druid gets, the shaman is casting totems. A totem is planted in the ground, lasts for a minute or so, can be attacked and destroyed, but gives a rather powerful bonus to the whole group as long as they are in range. Kind of an area-of-effect buff. They would be great in a group, the more players the better. But if you cast them just for yourself, they cost too much mana to be efficient. And the Tauren already had about 15% less mana than the night-elf, so he ran out of mana all the time. Whether I will another Tauren shaman in the live version depends very much on with what people I'm playing with, and how grouping will evolve in World of Warcraft. If in the release version people group more, because it makes more sense to socialize when you have more than a week to play, and because it might be a good idea for higher levels, the shaman might be quite powerful. For soloing, especially in the Tauren plains, he sucks.

The dwarven priest had done fishing and cooking as tradeskills. Bad choice, because what does a healer need hitpoint-regenerating food for? The night-elf druid did skinning and leather-working, which was already much more useful. The very first thing you can do as a newbie leather worker, armor kits, is already very useful. You can patch 4 pieces of your armor, giving each a +8 bonus on armor class, and that works on looted armor, or quest armor, as well as on crafted armor. Getting a +32 permanent armor bonus as lowest level skill is quite nice. But then the Tauren Shaman became Herbalist/Alchemist, and there I was really impressed by the usefulness of tradeskills even at low level. Right from the start you can make 3 different potions, a very useful healing potion, a strength potion, and a armor potion. The armor potion giving +50 armor for 60 minutes, and the strength potion being likewise long lasting and powerful, those tradeskills are really worth pursueing, and not just a waste of time and money sink like in so many other games.

Finally I came back to that human paladin. By this time I had found out about mailboxes. These are incredibly useful, not only in a social context, but also for twinking, or exchanging tradeskill goods between your characters. The only bad point about them is that the delivery takes 1 hour. And "Horde" characters can't mail "Alliance" characters and vice versa, so my Tauren couldn't send his potions to the other characters. But my priest and druid send a lot of useful stuff to the paladin, helping him along.

That was in so far important as the paladin is very much dependant on his equipment. He can wear mail armor, thus being a real tank. And he deals all of his damage with his weapon, with an added Holy Strike magic ability. Besides that, he gets abilities that make him invulnerable for 6 seconds, which is just enough for him to heal himself with his healing spells. And he gets "auras", buffs that don't cost mana, are always on, and work on the whole group, but you can only have one of them going at any time. I found the paladin to have the best balance between solo and group play, he is useful in both situations. Okay, the druid wouldn't be bad in a group, and his buffs and damage dealing capabilities would be welcome. But the druid is more in the "nice to have" category, while the paladin borders on "must have", fulfilling one of the key roles in a group, tank, and helping out with his auras and minor healing. He can even resurrect later on.

Talking of "must have", in WoW that doesn't really exist. Groups can be formed with about any mix of characters. For example as level 9 druid I grouped with two more level 9 druids to kill a level 12 named quest mob. The mob attacked one of us, so that character mainly just healed himself, while the other 2 druids blasted the mob with damage spells, or healed the attacked one if need be. Likewise a group of several paladins would also work well, because they could turn on different auras, and change between healer and tank role as required. The disadvantage of every group mix and tactics working somehow is that it teaches you less about the best tactics. The MMORPG veterans have to thank Everquest for being the best school of MMORPG combat tactics. In EQ, if you did it in a sub-optimal way, you died, which does wonders in teaching you how to do it right. And once you had a good group going, you were reluctant to leave, and stayed together often for hours. In WoW groups often form in front of the quest boss mob, kill it, and disband. The advantage is minimum downtime for group set-up, but the disadvantage is a lot less friendships formed.

The paladin will still be played this weekend, as he hasn't reached level 10 yet. In WoW you get new abilities or spells every 2 levels, and at level 10 you often have most of your class abilities in some form or another, so that is a good level to judge a character class for usefulness. I played all other character classes and races as well, but only until level 4, where you have at least enough abilities to know what the classes are about.

The warrior is interesting for his rage ability, but I made an orc warrior and didn't like his desert starting area very much. To be tried with another race at another time. I made a gnomish rogue, which was cute, especially in stealth mode, but sneaking up on mobs and backstabbing them is usually not my style. My undead warlock was quite powerful, being the class that gets his pet the earliest. The pet is quite good as magic damage dealer, so it nearly doubles your firepower, as well as being useful as dummy target for the mobs to hit on. If the imp dies, you simply summon a fresh one. Powerful, but as I said, I'm not a big fan of pet classes. The other pet class is the hunter, but as he gets his charm animal ability only at level 10, I didn't bother to play him that far. The troll mage I played was in the same barren newbie region as the orc warrior. The mage deals more damage with spells, but has less useful other spells than the druid. He gets some summon food and drink spells which aren't all that good, food and drink being cheap and plentiful.

Another reason for continueing with my paladin is that he is also busy with mining and blacksmithing, which he received at level 8. At level 8 you should have the 20 skill points that are often necessary for learning one gathering skill for 10 points and one crafting skill for another 10. I like tradeskills. In the stress test not many people bothered with them, being too busy leveling, so resource spawn points were easy enough to find. The paladin is only level 9, but already got his mining skill nearly maxed out, and has already 45 in blacksmithing skill. He now can make not only basic copper mail, all pieces, but also the first runed copper armor pieces, which are much better. So slowly the problems of crafting become evident. *Crafting* is easy, it is finding the resources that is difficult. The paladin now needs not only the copper and stone he can mine himself, but also other resources. Some come from other lines of tradeskills, like leather. Fine thread can be bought in tailor shops. He uses linen cloth, which is dropped from humanoid monsters often enough. But he also got recipes using Malachite, which are a rare drop from mobs. In the whole week of open beta stress test with all my characters I found about 4 Malachites (and stupidly sold them, not knowing that the stress test would be extended long enough for me to actually need them).

In the stress test, there wasn't much of a player economy going on. I guess most players just sold the gems they found to NPCs, as even NPCs pay more for them than for normal loot from the same mobs. But I hope that will improve in the live version. NPCs sell expensively and buy cheaply, and have quite a limited selection, so there is a wide margin for a crafter to live on. The auction houses would be a great place for players to receive a good deal more money for their gems, and buy good equipment. The question is whether players will bother with that. Most classes can survive on the money they get for their loot from NPCs, equipped with the items they receive as quest rewards. Using the auction house would be advantageous, but it is not absolutely necessary, and it would involve special effort. The auction house sure was a lot less frequented in the stress test than it is in FFXI.

One thing no stress tester left out was to take a ride on one of the flying mounts. I still need to do the goblin zeppelin this weekend, but I already rode the gryphon and the hippogriff. The Tauren city had a windmaster, where it seemed you could ride the wind itself, but there was no route available for taking. It seems that new routes open up once you visited the other side on foot. These rides are so much fun, especially during daylight hours, where you see much better.

World of Warcraft has a unique day/night system, it is not accelerated at all. One day in the game is exactly one day in the real world. Hover your mouse over the little sun/moon icon in the upper right corner, and the time shown is the same as in the PDT time zone. Frankly, I didn't like that feature. While you can still see at night (with the help of the gamma slider in the video options) the world at night just isn't as pretty, and some things are harder to find and identify, due to lack of colors. If I played on a European server, where the time would probably be set to correspond to my time zone, I would be constantly in the dark, as during the week I only play during the evenings and into the nights. This is one reason why I will probably prefer to play on the US servers, PDT is 9 hours before my time zone, and so my usual evening play sessions are in the middle of the day there.

I'm looking forward to playing WoW another 3 days, even if my main goal, playing the game for the review, is already reached. But World of Warcraft is simply fun, and there are a million things still to do. I already pre-ordered my copy from DVDBoxoffice, to have the US version of the game. Due to their free worldwide shipping, which is obviously slower than priority express, I will probably miss the first week or two of the release version. But after experiencing a release-like situation in the open beta, I don't think I am missing much. I'd rather let the first week wave rush through the newbie zones before starting there at my leisure. See you in Azeroth at the end of the year.
Wednesday, September 08, 2004
World of Warcraft Opinion

As promised, part two of my World of Warcraft review, describing what I likes and where I see the weaknesses of this game:

The short version of my opinion on World of Warcraft is that I like it, and that I will buy this game when it released. The open stress test beta had to limit itself to 100,000 players, and that number was filled very quickly. And most people I met in the beta wanted to continue playing in the release version, so this stress test will generate even more free positive buzz for Blizzard. One doesn't need to be much of a prophet to predict that this will be a huge commercial success, one of the few games with several 100k of players.

Strangely it is hard to point out any unique new features which make this game so much fun. The game is chock-full of features, but each single one of them has already appeared in a similar form in some previous game. For example, public transport on a flying gryphon is very cool, but not fundamentally different from public transport on a horse in Dark Age of Camelot. The difference between World of Warcraft and lesser games is how well done every feature is, how well balanced, and how the features work great together in creating the atmosphere of a believable world.

The strongest point of World of Warcraft is the quest system. A player in WoW will never feel lost, not knowing what to do next. You still have unlimited freedom, but if you are in need of guidance which monsters to hunt next, or which zone to go to after out-leveling the current one, the quest system will provide help. And this help is in-game, you do not need to look up information on some website. Quest descriptions are accurate enough for you to solve them without outside help most of the time, but not as mindless as marking the monster to kill on your map. Quests are even color coded by difficulty.

If World of Warcraft has any weakness, then it is the fact that it is not a very social game. Being able to solo is great, but it often means that you don't bother with the difficult process of setting up a group. Instead of groups that stay together for hours, like in Everquest or Final Fantasy XI, you get groups formed spontaneously in front of the harder to kill boss monsters, dissolving directly after the task has been completed. Of course the non-permanent character of the open beta stress test might have added to this. Maybe in the release version the higher levels and the guilds will make groups more frequent in WoW. Some places like dungeons have spawn points quite close together, and if there aren't too many players in that place, hunting in a group could well give more xp per hour than soloing, and be less dangerous.

More groups would definitely be needed to make some of the character classes viable. For example the priest with his healing and resurrection is great in a group, but with only cloth armor and the least powerful aggressive spells he is rather hard to solo. The same is true for the shaman, whose major ability is casting totems, area-of-effect buffs, which are great for a group, but if you use them in solo play, they cost too much mana to be really effective.

The chat system could also be better. Actually it already *is* better, but needs a lot more documentation. By default you have 2 text windows, one for chat, and one for combat messages. Few people know how to create new chat windows, how to make more than one of them visible at the same time, or how to create new chat channels. This area of the interface is the least intuitive.

Social interactions can add a lot to the longevity of a game. But sheer size also helps. The world of WoW is huge. While there are no "zones" with loading screens (unless you change continents), the world is cleverly partitioned into areas with the help of mountains and other borders, with passes, gates, and the famous flying mounts connecting the different areas. The impressive thing is not the size of the world alone, but the variety. The areas are obviously hand-crafted, not just produced by some random-number algorithm. And the quests blend in perfectly with the areas. For example the plains of the Tauren lands fit well with American Indian culture theme of that race, and the natural spirits theme of the quests there.

One particular problem of the stress test, which most likely will reappear during the first week after release, is that monsters are sometimes hard to find, due to competition from other players. If there are 100 players in a small area like the humans newbie zone, each of them with the same two quests to kill 22 kobold workers, the poor kobolds have a life expectancy measured in seconds. I have seen 6 and more people camping a single kobold spawn point, which looked quite silly. One could finish the quest faster by grouping, every kobold killed counts as one kill for every group member, but the experience points per monster are much lower if you group. The monster shortage has already been addressed by the developers during beta, and will be much less of a problem once the game is past its first month, and people are stretched out over a wider range of levels.

So why do we have to wait until November or so before we can play the live version of World of Warcraft? WoW in its current form is stable, bug-free, and filled with enough content, but only if you judge it by the abysmal standards of previous MMORPG releases. There still are some minor lag problems, some minor bugs, the talent system seems only half-finished, and closed beta testers report of high-level content being still thin on the ground. The additional 2 months before release will help here. A few power gamers will always be able to "outlevel" a game. But the average player will have many months, if not years, before he runs out of content.

World of Warcraft further stretches its content by making it favorable to have several characters. There is a lot of fun to be had by trying out the different character classes, and experiencing the quests of the different races starting areas. And by alternating between the characters, you can always get a "rest bonus", doubling the xp you gain in combat. As long as your characters are on the same side, Horde or Alliance, you can even send items and money from one to the other via mailboxes. That is not only helpful for "twinking" (giving stuff to your low level characters), but also very useful if your different characters have different tradeskills, so for example one alchemist can provide all your characters with potions.

I'm not sure yet how long the fun will last, and if WoW will keep me playing for many months. But this is definitely a game worth buying and playing.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004
World of Warcraft - How it works

In spite of not being American, I received an invite to the World of Warcraft stress test. I assume it happened because I bookmarked the not-yet-functional download page before Fileplanet got around blocking access to that page based on your IP address. Lucky me. I played WoW all weekend long, doing little else, and trying all races and all classes. This game is huge, and thus my review is also huge. This is one of the reasons that I have decided to split it into two parts:

A game review is a curious mixture of reporting objectively how a game works, and subjectively how the reviewer likes the game. That is not necessarily a bad format, but there is a certain danger of being heavy on the impressions and light on the information. So in this first part of the WoW beta review, I am going to focus on the information, and then put most of the judgement in the second part. The review I am posting here will also be part of the bigger review on, which will add the opinions of other people as well. So, this is how World of Warcraft works:

World of Warcraft (WoW) is a level based MMORPG of the classic style. You have the choice between 8 races, 4 each for the Hordes side and the Alliance side. Each race has the choice of 4 to 6 character classes, out of 9 existing classes. The choice is final, there is no way to change your character class. If you want to play something else, you need to create another character.

Your class determines what spells and abilities you can learn, and they are unique for each class. There is some overlap with spells that are called differently, but basically do the same thing, for example priests, paladins, shamans, and druids, each have their own version of healing spells. The only abilities that are not class specific are tradeskills. Some classes get talent points starting from level 10, which allow you to further specialize. The classes that don't get talents get other cool powers at level 10, for example shapeshifting for druids. It is possible that all classes will get talents in the release version, and that this part is just not finished yet in the beta.

7 of the 9 character classes are spell-casting, and use a classic mana bar below the hit point bar. Every spell costs an amount of mana, and if you are out of mana, you can't cast any more. Rogues use an energy bar instead, but it works the same way, but in addition to that they collect combo points from using one sort of attacks, which they can then spend on other sorts of attacks. Warriors have something new, a rage bar. That one starts at zero, and gets build up in combat. Then this rage can be spent to pay for special combat abilities.

But even if the ways they work are slightly different, every class has several options of what spells to cast, or what abilities to use in combat. There is the standard MMORPG auto-attack, but it is the special moves that really make the difference. So combat is relatively interesting, you don't just hit auto-attack and go for a coffee.

After combat you might be low in hitpoints and/or mana. Both regenerate even when running, but if you sit down and rest, the regeneration rate is better. You can shorten the rest further by eating and drinking. Food is completely optional, but beneficial if you use it. Many things in World of Warcraft work like that, enticing you with a bonus instead of forcing you. The downtime between combats is comparatively short. If you are in a crowded zone, like most of us were during the stress test, the limiting factor is the availability of mobs to kill. Kudos to Blizzard, who noticed that early on during the stress test, and increased the spawn rates of monsters in the newbie zones.

Whenever you rest, online or offline, you accumulate a "rest bonus" for your xp, visible as a little mark on your xp bar. This bonus grows by one "bubble" of xp for every 8 hours rested in an inn or a city, but 4 times slower if you logged out in the wilderness. The bonus is capped at 30 bubbles, which is 1.5 levels. Until your xp reach the little rest bonus xp marker on the xp bar, you will get twice as many experience points in combat. This rest bonus is obviously designed to help the casual gamers close the gap towards the power gamers, a bit like the "power hour" in Ultima Online.

World of Warcraft is a relatively easy game. Not only from the point of view of intuitive game play, but also from the point of view what your character can achieve in a given time. Every character class can solo, and often win against monsters slightly above their own level. You can also form groups of up to 5 people, but you only really need to group for big boss monsters for some quests.

If you die, you have several options, all of which are nearly painless. If you have a priest of level 10+ in your group or in the vicinity, you can be resurrected on the spot, with no xp penalty, but with your hitpoints and mana low. If you can't get a resurrect, you have to release your soul from your body, and reappear as a ghost in the closest graveyard. From there you can run back in ghost form to your corpse, which does not cost you any xp. Or you can decide to come back to live in the graveyard, but that costs a small amount of experience points. So, unless your corpse is in a really bad position, or you want to use your dead as a free teleport to the closest village, death does not cost experience points.

Most of the time, you will travel on foot. Distances are reasonable, it takes time to run somewhere, but not too much. You can also "bind" in an inn, which gives you a special hearthstone, with which you can teleport back to that inn once per hour. For longer distances, there is public transport. Most of this is with flying mounts, riding a gryphon, or a wyvern. This does not work like a teleport, but you actually fly over the landscape. That not only looks great, it also gives you a feeling of in which direction you are traveling. There are no loading screens beyond the initial login. Besides public transport, you can also acquire a mount, like a horse for humans, or a huge wolf for orcs. But those become available only at level 40. Tauren, a minotaur race which would look silly on horseback, get the plainsrunning skill at level 40 instead.

Your main activity in World of Warcraft is most likely to be quests. The game is full of quests, and they are easy to find. Quest giver NPCs have a big glowing exclamation mark over their head, while quest target NPCs have a question mark, and are marked on your mini-map. Many quests are about killing monsters appropriate to your level, so taking the quest and getting the quest reward is better than just camping monsters for xp. You can do every quest only once, and each quest tells a believable story, adding to your knowledge of the world around you. Most quest items only drop from monsters if you are actually on the quest, so there is no "I have found this quest item, now where do I get the quest for it" situation like in older games. It is possible to be on quests all of the time, there are plenty of them everywhere. Quests can be abandoned if you didn't like how they worked out. And if the people you are grouped with are eligible for the same quest, but didn't visit the quest giver NPC, you can even share your quest.

There is player vs. player (PvP) combat in World of Warcraft, but not if you don't want to. There are race war servers, where PvP between the Horde and the Alliance is always on, but there are plenty of player vs. environment (PvE) servers too. On the PvE servers, PvP combat exists only in a very limited and consentual form. PvP combat isn't completely designed yet, there are plans for battleground areas.

World of Warcraft has 13 different tradeskills, but 4 of these are gathering skills, like fishing, or mining. Some resources are gathered with those skills, some resources can be bought in shops, and some only drop from monsters. When you learn a production trade skill, you are given a limited number of recipes. Other recipes can be found on monsters, bought from the trainer, or gained in quests. Once you have the recipe and the resources, success in making the item is automatic. But if you make a difficult item, your chance to increase your skill is much better than if you make an easy item.

Even at relatively low levels, tradeskills are already useful. For example even starting alchemists can brew healing potions, or potions that make a character stronger, or improve his armor class, for a generous 60 minutes. Novice leatherworkers can produce armor kits that give +8 permanent bonus on leather armor pieces.

Such useful items produced by crafters, and many of the loot items, can be traded between players. Either directly in a secure trading window, or in an auction house, which exist in several big cities. Not all items can be traded though. Some quest items are "soulbound", which means you can only sell them to NPCs for money, not pass them on to other players. Other items are not initially soulbound, but become so if you ever equip them. This should help battling "mudflation", the traditional oversupply of items which exists in all games that do not have item decay.

I hope this review gave you an idea of the game play of World of Warcraft. But of course unless you can get into one of the numerous beta tests, you will have to wait until November to see for yourself. There is no official release date yet, but November is the most likely date, based on what different computer game shops claim. It would be reasonable to assume that Blizzard would want to launch this before the christmas shopping period.
Thursday, September 02, 2004

The guys from Blog Directory sent me an e-mail, asking me to add my blog to their blog directory. Well, why not?

The only annoying thing about it, was that I had to choose a "category" in which to put my blog. And all the possible categories were countries. With the countries like Norath, Dereth, or Azaroth, from where I am usually reporting, conspiciously absent. I put USA. Not that I live there, but I'm mostly talking about American games. Bloghub seems to assume that everybody just blogs what happened to them in their country. But I can imagine many subjects, like games, or movies, where it is not really relevant in which country you live, but more in which country the game or movie was made.
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