Tobold's Blog
Saturday, May 31, 2008
What makes AoC so successful?

A reader was asking for my opinion on why Age of Conan was so successful, much more so than Vanguard or Lord of the Rings Online. I believe at the heart of it is the combat system. While for an outsider the combat in Age of Conan doesn't look much different than the combat in WoW, using a very similar interface and killing monsters by hitting hotkeys, in practice the AoC combat is very different. It is a lot fast, and the combo-based special attacks and the shields give you the illusion of interactivity. Whenever I go back to WoW, I start to wonder why by weapon swings only hit one of the mobs in front of me, the AoC way of hitting everything in your path is so much more intuitive. Combat is Age of Conan is fast, furious, and fun.

I tend to separate features in an MMORPG into two categories: basic repetitive units (like combat or crafting), and content (mobs, zones, quests, etc.). Age of Conan wins on the strength of the basic repetitive unit of combat, because that is where it plays "new". On the side of content I'd say AoC is better than Vanguard, but not quite as good as LotRO. LotRO used its license a lot better. Most of AoC isn't strictly Conan related, but could be any other random fantasy game.

I don't think that the "mature" content drives sales much. For me it wouldn't make any difference if a patch tomorrow removed all the gore and nipples. But then "age of conan nudity" is *still* the top search term that leads people to my blog, so I could be wrong on that. Maybe one has to be immature to enjoy mature content.

Finally the release date helped. Both Vanguard and LotRO released too close to The Burning Crusade, one just before, one just after. Age of Conan released at a time when no great other MMORPG had been released for a while, and the next upcoming releases are still half a year away. There was a real vaccuum in the market, and AoC filled it.
Friday, May 30, 2008
Post number 2,000

This is my two-thousandth post on this blog, and the blog isn't even five years old, which makes an average of over one post per day.

Having said that, I must say that I'll probably post a bit less in the coming months. I'm a bit burned out by World of Warcraft, and Age of Conan didn't exactly cure that. The one game I'm very much excited about, I can't write about, or at least can only comment on publicly available information. But if I'm lacking ideas on what to write about, I'll ask you guys. I think I'll keep up the open Sunday thread every week for readers to propose subjects, and I'll take more time to respond to the comments there. And gaming enthusiasm is something that comes and goes, I'm sure there will be more for me to write about in the future.
Another miracle patch for AoC

I patched Age of Conan with the latest patch yesterday night, and to my great surprise found that since then my framerate nearly doubled. Previously I had 40 to 50 fps at medium settings, and since the patch they shot up to 80. So of course I tried high graphics settings now, and got a quite playable 40 fps now, in the PvE adventuring zones. Boy, AoC sure is pretty at high graphics settings!

The patch also contained a note saying that "withdrawing coins from the bank should now correctly add them to the coins in your inventory, instead of overwriting them". This is the kind of patch note that scares me, because it reveals the gravity of the bugs they are fixing. But I must say that Funcom is the master of miracle patches, with every patch bringing big improvements to the game. The trader (NPC doing bank, auction house and mail) is now working, which he wasn't on release. And of course now being able to run AoC at high settings and without crashes is also a big plus. And there was also an announcement that Funcom banned the people who used an exploit to get to level 80 quickly. So while the game still isn't quite at the level of excellence I wished it would have, the speed of improvement is certainly laudable.

I'm still not a big fan of Age of Conan's user interface. For example for selling items you have to scroll through an alphabetical list of all your items, you can't just click on them in your inventory. It's far too easy to accidentally sell something you wanted to keep. But as Relmstein pointed out, it is possible that the user interface has been designed to work well on a console, and not only with mouse and keyboard. Age of Conan is planned to come out for the XBox 360 next year, so it would make sense to already design the user interface in a way that it can be played with an XBox controller. The last dual platform MMORPG I played was Final Fantasy XI, and I actually used a gamepad to control the PC version, because that just played better. I'm just wondering how Funcom plans to port the awesome PC graphics onto the XBox 360. Now *that* would really require a miracle patch.
Thursday, May 29, 2008
WAR crafting

The latest Warhammer Online video podcast is out, and it talks about a subject dear to my heart: crafting. So how does crafting in WAR work? Glad you asked. :) In the video podcast Mark Jacobs, in spite of not being quite the showman that Paul Barnett is, explains the basic principle very well: Crafting in WAR is not based on recipes. Instead it is simply based on ingredients and skill. Thus if you have the ingredients for example for a healing potion, and the skill to make one, you can make that healing potion without having to go to a trainer or find a rare drop with a healing potion recipe. I find that a big improvement over the WoW system, where for example my mage has his enchanting skill maxed, but still can't make many useful enchantments, because the recipes are all rare drops from places nobody goes to anymore.

Mark presents only 2 crafting skills in that video, plus 4 gathering skills. The two crafting skills are talisman making and apothecary (alchemy), which work in a very similar way: you take one container, one main ingredient, and three other ingredients and mix them. The type of main ingredient determines what exactly you are making, whether it is a healing potion or a potion that gives some stat bonus. The other ingredients either increase your chance to succeed, or they modify the recipe, for example making a healing potion that heals more points, or a stat buff potion that lasts longer. There is also a chance to get critical successes and making unusual potions or talismans. Talismans apparently work like gems in WoW, some items have slots into which you can add them.

The four gathering skills are unusual insofar as none of them involves searching for resource nodes. There are two skills that work like skinning in WoW, that is you get something from dead mobs: Scavenging for humanoid mobs, butchering for animals. One skill works like disenchanting in WoW, you take a magical item and extract a magic essence from it. Mark stresses the point that unlike WoW the essence you extract is related to the bonus the item you disenchant has. So if you disenchant an item with a strength bonus, you'll get an essence which would confer a strength bonus to a talisman you made with it. The last gathering skill is called cultivation and apparently works a bit like growing plants in Final Fantasy XI: You put together a seed, soil, water, and nutrients, and some plant or fungus grows out of it, which can then be used as apothecary ingredient.

The system looks quite interesting, but I'd sure hope that there will be more crafting skills in the final game than just two. It should be possible to design a system to craft weapons or armor with the same principle of mixing ingredients instead of using recipes.

Disclaimer: The above information is all based on publicly available information in the video I linked to, and does thus not fall under the NDA. As much as I would like to respond to some commenters spreading false negative rumors supposedly "leaked" from the WAR beta, I'm under a legal obligation to stick to publicly available information, and can not confirm or deny any rumors. I'd just ask you to treat the WAR beta leaks like the WotLK alpha leaks and not put too much credence into them until at least an open beta is available.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Exploits and bad balancing

Some people just played a lot. Others used known exploits. A third group of players used the badly balanced apprentice system of Age of Conan to powerlevel, with reports that going from level 40 to 50 as apprentice takes 2 hours. As a result there are already a lot of level 80 players in Age of Conan, one week after release, 10 days after the early access started. And a huge number of level 60+ players as well, who'll reach level 80 next week. And then what?

I think leveling in Age of Conan is too fast. And of course its not good if there are exploits in the game that let you level even faster. I do like the idea of having apprentice / mentor systems in a game, but they should be balanced in a way to be not useable for powerleveling, they should just be a means for friends of different levels to play together.

If you reached the level cap in AoC in a week, you'll be bored of the game very quickly. That can be dangerous on PvP servers, as bored level 80 players are likely to gank others for entertainment. Of course the idea of getting to the level cap fast is to do the PvP endgame content there, battlekeeps and all. But if the game is buggy and exploitable, and people can insta-kill and shoot through walls, how much fun is PvP going to be? And for how long? Age of Conan might enjoy good sales due to its excellently timed release date, but I can't help the feeling that this isn't going to last very long.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Isn't it ironic?

I've read several comments on various places that Age of Conan had the best, or one of the best MMO launches ever (which I could only agree to if you exclude the early access period from that evaluation). But then the irony of it struck me: If AoC had the best MMO launch ever, then Funcom now holds the record for both the best MMO launch ever, and the worst MMO launch ever (Anarchy Online). Who says companies can't learn from their mistakes?
What AoC means for WoW

According to Michael Zenke from Massively, Age of Conan has sold 400,000 copies, out of 700,000 boxes they put on the shelves. Not bad for the first week. And, kudos to Funcom, the release launch went a lot smoother than the beta or early access. The reception of AoC in the blogosphere was a mixed. Keen and Graev already cancelled their accounts again. Tipa from West Karana sees AoC challenging WoW. The Ancient Gaming Noob correctly points out that "MMOs are a long haul proposition" and reserves judgement until having played it more. And the Common Sense Gamer thinks that WoW won't even notice AoC is out.

So here is what I think. I don't have proof, only anecdotal evidence, so preface every phrase here with "In my humble opinion": I think that World of Warcraft suffers from a cycle of peaks and troughs in subscription numbers. This is largely self-inflicted, numbers peak after big content patches and expansions, and fall in long periods of no new content added. Other factors, like summer holidays, also play a role. I do believe that WoW is heading for a major trough of subscription numbers in the western world. Remember that of the 10.7 million WoW players about 6 million are Chinese, who are on a different cycle, and who pay much less. There are less than 5 million players in the US and Europe, and the number will be falling over the summer, because the Burning Crusade is getting long in the tooth, and not everyone likes to spend his summer holidays in front of a computer.

Age of Conan will reach between half a million and one million subscribers this year. Most of which will be ex-WoW players. A good number of them will have stopped playing WoW anyway, with or without AoC, but a couple of hundred thousand will be pushed over the edge and quit WoW for the prospect of a new game. And Blizzard will notice that, because all of these are the well-paying US/Euro kind of subscribers. Age of Conan will not "kill" World of Warcraft, but it will dent it a bit.

Summer will end, christmas will approach, and now everything is possible. WoW could bring out Wrath of the Lich King in November, and it's subscription numbers would peak again. And personally I don't see Age of Conan having much staying power, not in a game where the first people reached the level cap in the first week already. Wrath of the Lich King will make a much larger dent into Age of Conan's subscription numbers than AoC does into WoW's now. But another possibility is that Blizzard misses a 2008 release date for WotLK. And it is also quite possible that Warhammer Online makes that date, and comes out for christmas. And then Blizzard would really start feeling the pain. I do believe that WAR has an even bigger potential of getting subscribers away from WoW than AoC has. If WAR comes out for christmas and WotLK doesn't, they could easily sell a million copies this year. Again, these are all Americans and Europeans, and if WAR beats WotLK to a christmas release, WoW numbers could suffer an even deeper trough.

None of this will "kill" World of Warcraft. But we are talking numbers here that are big enough to show up in a companies annual report of revenue and profits. If Wrath of the Lich King doesn't come out by the end of this year, the 2008 profits from WoW will be significantly lower than those of 2007, and investors and people at Vivendi will notice. Blizzard would bounce back to a dominating position when they bring out Wrath of the Lich King, but then what? If the third expansion is still another 2 years away, the overall trend of WoW subscription numbers could well go into permanent decline. One day WoW won't be the biggest kid on the block any more, not because of one WoW killer, but because of a death by a thousand cuts. The best Blizzard can hope for is that the new champion will be their next generation MMORPG, but that is not a given.
Monday, May 26, 2008
Face off interview at Sweetflag

DM Osbon from the Sweetflag blog always has interesting ideas for new projects. This time he plans to start a series of face off interviews with other bloggers, pairing two very different blog writers against each other. And I'm part of the first face off interview.
New, but not much different

Imagine Blizzard released a new World of Warcraft, which was completely separate from the old one. The new WoW would have new continents and zones, new quests, new classes, new talents, but the gameplay wouldn't be much changed. There would still be tanks classes, healer classes, dps classes, combat would still be by pressing hotkeys, and the graphics engine would be still the same, just with new artwork everywhere. As new WoW would be a completely separate game from old WoW, you couldn't bring your old characters, you'd have to start anew a level 1 with everyone else. But of course if your guild or friends decided to play new WoW as well, you could reform your old guild in the new game. Would you play new WoW?

Maybe that question isn't quite as hypothetical as it sounds. Several readers remarked on watching the Warhammer gameplay videos that both graphics and gameplay looked remarkably similar to World of Warcraft. So what if WAR is the new WoW, just with a bit more PvP than the old WoW, but otherwise not much different? And frankly, Age of Conan, while graphically looking different and having a faster combat system, still has the same gameplay as WoW: Talk to quest NPC, kill the 10 foozles he wants dead, come back, get xp and item reward, level up, get new spells and talents.

And there is nothing wrong with the new games being not much different to World of Warcraft. Most people like WoW, or at least liked it when they played it for several thousand hours. If they are burned out now, it isn't necessarily the basic gameplay they can't stand any more. It might very well be that they just have seen all the zones of WoW, done most of the quests, played most of the classes, and simply consumed the content of WoW faster than Blizzard can add new content. And if you just want "more WoW", and can't wait for the next expansion, then playing a similar game might just be the thing for you.

So here is the big question: if you are currently feeling a bit burned out from World of Warcraft, is it the basic gameplay you have seen too much of, or the specific WoW content? Would you play a game which is new, but not much different?
Sunday, May 25, 2008
Open Sunday post

The disadvantage of a discussion on a blog compared with the discussion on a forum is that the readers only get to comment on the subjects of the blog posts, they can't start new subject posts themselves. So = # # = suggested I make on "open" post on Sundays, with no subject, where readers can talk about whatever they want, and propose subjects to talk about for the rest of the week.

So here is your invitation: What would you like to talk about? Try to limit the subject range to broadly game related.
Friday, May 23, 2008
Warhammer beta

I am explicitely allowed to tell you that there is a Warhammer beta, and that I'm in that beta since today. Everything else is confidential, so you won't hear anything but publicly available information from me until the NDA drops. I'd say "Woot!", but I'm not sure if that is covered. :)
Age of Conan nudity

Over the last couple of days the top Google search term leading people to my site has been "age of conan nudity". Lets tastefully assume that this is all concerned parents who want to make informed decisions of whether they can let their children play this game. :) In any case, there appears to be demand for me to write about the subject. So how much nudity, sex, or nipples are there in Age of Conan? Don't worry, I won't post screenshots, this won't become a NSFW post. :)

When you start Age of Conan, the first quest NPC you meet is a young lady tied to a rack, wearing a kind of strangely shaped gold bikini. The outfit definitely is sexy, but strictly speaking there is no nudity, the essential parts are covered. And that is the most revealingly dressed NPC I've seen up to now, the ladies in Tortage are more covered. There are mature dialogues with sexual innuendo, and you'll meet some NPC ladies of negotiable virtue, but you never see them naked or engage in any sexual acts. There is also a logoff screen with scantily clad girls, but no nudity. Age of Conan has less sex and nudity than a Boris Valejo poster or the recent single-player RPG The Witcher.

So where is all the excitement about Age of Conan having versions with and without nipples coming from? Well, there is a way to see nipples and nudity in AoC, but for that you have to create a female character. In other games, when you remove all clothing from your paper doll, your avatar is shown wearing some sort of underwear. In Age of Conan, if you remove a female character's clothing from the paper doll, you'll see her topless and wearing a G-string. In the open beta version, which I assume is the version the US got, you'll see her breasts including the *shape* of the nipples, but the nipples are the same color as the flesh. In the European version I have now, the nipples have a more realistic looking reddish texture circle. You don't see your toon naked in the character editor, but there is a slider for female avatars that controls breast size up to Dolly Parton proportions. So if you are into virtual sex dolls, you can create a female character with rather preposterous shapes, undress her in the game, make her move with emotes, and look at her from all possible camera angles. I'm not an expert, but I'd guess that for $15 a month you can find better offers on the internet, virtual or otherwise.

And as a guild mate of mine remarked in guild chat recently when we discussed these "features": "Tobold wishes to inform you that he only looked at all this for blog research!" :)
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Fantasy Wars Review

We recently discussed how re-installing old games is often a disappointment, and that the better idea is often to play a modern remake of an old classic. One of these classic games I used to play is Fantasy General from 1996, which has been remade last year under the name of Fantasy Wars. Being a bit burned out on MMORPGs, I recently downloaded Fantasy Wars from GamersGate, and am now somewhere in the middle of the first campaign.

Fantasy Wars is a classic turn-based strategy game on a hex-map, playing in a fantasy world. Thus besides classic units like infantry, cavalry, or archers, there are also units like tamed eagles, or spell-casting mages and other heroes. And the orc side has various sorts of goblins, orcs, and trolls. The number of units per side is limited, typically to something between 10 and 20 in the early maps of a campaign, not sure if that will get more later. Every unit has stats describing attack value, defense value, movement points, and various special abilities. Units also have a level from 0 to 5, heroes up to 10, and with each level their stats go up, and you get to choose one of three so-called perks. That can be a general bonus to one stat, or something terrain-specific, so you could have units fighting especially good in forests. This makes choosing perks an interesting element of gameplay, because you must decide whether you want units to have lesser bonuses which work everywhere, or whether you want to specialize in certain terrain bonuses, which are higher.

Every battle begins with you deploying your units on the map in designated areas, and proceeds turn-wise from there. Most units can only move once per turn, even if they didn't use up all their movement points, with the exception of skirmish troops, which can move several times. Units can only attack once per turn, so skirmishers can move next to the enemy, attack, and move away again. The outcome of every combat is determined mostly by the stats, with a small random factor, and is influenced only by terrain. Facing, or being surrounded by enemies, doesn't affect combat. Thus the combat system is pretty simple, but nevertheless fun. If you have a line of troops and the enemy attacks you from one flank, he doesn't win because of some artificial flanking bonus. He wins because he can send his faster troops to kill your archers in the second rank, and because your troops on the other end of the line are too far away to counterattack next turn. The only advanced combat rule is that archers can "cover" a friendly unit that is attacked next to them. Terrain plays a huge role in Fantasy Wars. If your unit stands on a hex with some combat bonus, and fights somebody standing in a river or bridge hex with a combat malus, the result can be pretty devastating. And of course rivers cost lots of movement points to cross, so most units will have to spend one round on the river hex to cross, making them extremely vulnerable. Every unit consists of several men, while heroes have a number of hitpoints. Men in units can become dead or wounded. You can heal wounded units by skipping a turn. You can replace dead men by recruitment during battle, but that costs money and lowers the units level, so often it is better to wait for the end of the battle, where all units refill to maximum at no cost.

You win each battle by fulfilling certain victory conditions, called quests. They usually include that your main hero must stay alive, and that you must capture certain towns or castles on the map. Often there are also optional quests, which grant you additional money, troops, or artifacts when you complete them. Capturing a village, town, castle, or ruin outside of quests will also reward you with money, troops, or artifacts. So you might be tempted to go slowly and clear out all the map. But your level of victory is determined by how many turns it takes you to win, with gold, silver, or bronze victory giving you less and less final rewards for beating the map the longer you take.

Between maps you reorganize your troops. With the campaign progressing, better troop types become available, so you can upgrade for example your peasants to militia, then swordsmen, then foot knights. By upgrading surviving troops you keep their level and perks; if you lost troops in battle you can buy the better troop types right away, but starting at level 0. Buying new troops or upgrading old ones costs gold, of which most often you don't have enough. You can also redistribute artifacts, of which heroes can carry three, and normal troops just one. Artifacts can give all sorts of bonuses, for example an ice orb that freezes river and lets your unit cross them faster, or a banner that raises the stats of all adjacent troops. Simpler artifacts just give some stat bonuses. Once your army is reorganized, you fight the next battle of the campaign, which appears to be strictly linear. But there are three campaigns in the game, the human campaign, the orc campaign, and the alliance campaign, the latter only becoming available after having finished the two former. If you aren't in the mood for a campaign, you can also fight a random map. Fantasy Wars also has multiplayer capability, but I didn't test that.

The old Fantasy General had a very similar gameplay, with fantasy units fighting battles on hex maps, leveling up over the course of a campaign. The major improvement of Fantasy Wars is that everything is now in colorful 3D, and nicely animated. Fortunately not every single combat is shown in full animation, because that would take far too long, but apparently some combats are randomly chosen to be animated. Very well done, without distracting too much from the strategic aspects.

As you know, I don't give ratings for games on this blog. I like Fantasy Wars a lot, and would recommend it. But some people would never dream of playing a turn-based strategy game, and so Fantasy Wars is clearly not for everyone. If you never played turn-based strategy games before, Fantasy Wars might actually be a good place to start, because it is a lot easier to learn and get into than some of the hex map strategy games replaying historical wars. There are some truly scary games with hundreds of units and miniscule detail out there, which are more for the hardcore fans. Fantasy Wars is as casual as hex map strategy games get. Recommended.
AoC downtime

I solved my Age of Conan crash problems by following the advice of a friend and guild mate, who insisted that I buy a sound card, because that would make my computer faster than just using onboard sound. I'm not an expert, but it appears as if my Nvidia motherboard doesn't really have a sound chip, it only emulates one using CPU power. So adding a sound card would free the CPU to do other stuff. I found a Soundblaster Audigy SE for 40 Euro, installed it, and tested that my AoC crash problem when casting a certain spell with sound on was gone.

But that was all I did in AoC last night, because then the European servers had a server maintenance downtime for 8 pm to 1 am scheduled, in preparation for the Euro launch on the 23rd. I really don't understand why all this downtime always has to be scheduled during prime time. And I've read the US early access period was even worse, because it was only 3 days, and of that time the servers were up only 48 hours, with one downtime scheduled the evening of the last day. I so hope that once the game is launched everywhere, the maintenance window is moved to mornings, local time. I find scheduled server maintenance starting at in the evening or late afternoon unacceptable for a MMO.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Hyboria lacks that world feeling

So my Herald of Xotl left Tortage and started questing all around Hyboria. But somehow "all around" is not really the good description. All the zones are instanced, and are accessed by talking to some NPC who teleports you there. It is simply not possible to walk into the next zone, you walk to the zone border where somebody teleports you into the next zone. Only that some teleports are all across the map, connecting the cities. You can reach a zone on the far end of the map as fast as the zone shown next to where you are on the world map. This has a horrible demotivating effect on me: I'm an explorer, and I'm missing a world to explore.

There being no sense of place is not only a matter of transport, but also of quest organization. Whatever city you are in, the quests you get can lead you to adventuring zones which are nominally attached to other regions. I left Tortage at level 19 and went to Stygia, but ended up leveling to 22 mostly in Aquilonia. Pretty quickly you start thinking of zones not in terms as being north, west, south, or east, but in terms of being X jumps away from where you are.

Now every region has their own zone for leveling up from 20 to 30. The advantage of being able to jump so quickly to any zone is that you end up with tons of quests for every level, more than you would need to level up. Don't like a quest? Just skip it, there are so many others around. The disadvantage is that you easily outlevel a zone before you have seen everything, and that by jumping around between zones you also jump around between the various strings of lore. You get less involved in a zone and its lore.

The game hasn't even started yet in Europe, and barely got out of the gate in the US, and already people report being bored. I'm not far enough to verify it myself, but apparently the content gets even weaker after level 30. Which is pretty much the state Lord of the Rings Online was in at release, so it wouldn't be all that surprising. As I said, I'm not there yet, but already I feel an urge to rather level up another class to 20 in Tortage with its fun destiny quest lines and voice overs, instead of doing random quests, randomly distributed all over Hyboria. Tortage has a lot of character, the wider world of Hyboria is lacking the world feeling for me.
Wrath of the Lich King alpha leaks

I've seen several different version of this flying around, Wrath of the Lich King "leaked" information from "data mining" an alpha client. But if you look at them a bit closer you will find old acquaintances like Titan's Grip, a warrior ability that allows two-handed weapons to be dual-wielded. That was a notorious part of a previous hoax "leak". So in my opinion all of this information flying around is fake, just created to make fun of the gullible. Don't believe anything you hear until there is at least an open beta. Hoaxers love to fake alpha information just because nobody has access to it, so it can't be verified.

The only reliable information we have right now is that the alpha started on May 1st. Which would be in line with a possible christmas release. Now Blizzard is notorious for not giving a damn about release dates. But if Age of Conan really achieves its sales target of 700,000, and thus sell much better than Lord of the Rings Online a year earlier, that would be less an indication of AoC being better than LotRO, but more a proof that people are getting more and more bored with World of Warcraft. If Warhammer Online comes out for christmas and Wrath of the Lich King was postponed into 2009, Blizzard would take a noticeable hit in revenue and profits. And in spite of their cherished image of the developers being in charge, even at Blizzard that is only true as long as they bring home the bacon. The long delays between expansions are starting to hurt Blizzard, and sooner or later a guy in a suit will start kicking some ass.
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
MMore Insight

Kanthalos from MMOre Insight moved his blog to a new domain. Check it out, he writes well, and covers a wide range of MMOs from WoW to Mythos.

On of his posts on the possibility of short-lived MMOs got me thinking about Age of Conan again. Funcom apparently expects to sell 700,000 copies of AoC, with 100,000 people already in the early access. Where do these 700,000 people come from? It is pretty safe to assume that most of them will be WoW players or ex WoW players. Now imagine in half a year Wrath of the Lich King and Warhammer Online are both released in time for christmas (I know, wishful thinking, at my age I should stop believing in Santa). Don't you think that the Age of Conan subscriber numbers would take a big hit then?

But that wouldn't necessarily make Age of Conan a failure. If they really sell 700,000 copies for $50 each, that is already $35 million. Keep the numbers up for half a year, then drop down to half, and the game is still quite profitable. It is hard to say how many players are in a "I'm playing this only while waiting for WAR / WotLK" mode, but I guess I'm not the only one.
Age of Conan freezes apparently sound related

After playing some more and finding out that Age of Conan still freezes on me half of the time that I use my Pillar of Infernal Flame combo, I searched high and low for suggestions on how to fix it. And one guy on the forums suggested to disable sound, a check box which is suspiciously marked with a mouse-over text saying "disable this if the sound system causes crashes". So I disabled sound, and played for hours without having a single crash.

I have a nForce 680i SLI onboard sound card with a Realtek chip, and before you ask, yes, it has the latest drivers. This is not a very exotic motherboard, and with onboard sound cards being quite good nowadays, there are lots of people without added sound cards around. This same sound card plays every other game I have without problems, only for Age of Conan I have to disable it to play. :(

Now my options are "play without sound", or "buy a sound card", both of which are equally unattractive. I would much rather have some option in AoC to turn of spell sound, and still get the other battle sounds, music, and voice overs. Anyone got an idea how to fix this?
Monday, May 19, 2008
Following my destiny

The best feature of Age of Conan for me up to now is the destiny quest line, which starts at level 5 when you first reach Tortage, and ends at level 20 with you leaving the island and entering the big world. I haven't done that last part yet, but only because you can't start the final battle for Tortage before level 19. I've done all the previous parts (except for the one bugged one), and received a rare (blue) quality robe as reward.

The destiny quests can only be played in nighttime mode, which is solo. But because it is instanced just for you, your destiny quest line depends on your class, or rather your archetype. Warriors, priests, mages, and rogues get 4 different quest lines. But the really fun thing is that the 4 quest lines all tell the same story, but from different angles. Some quests are the same, like for example every class has to fight through the volcano instance to talk to the slave master. But other parts of the quest are class specific. The rogues have to sneak and steal stuff, the mages have to become apprentice of the evil sorceress to learn her plans and foil them, and so on. And quite often the quest givers tell you that somebody else will do one part, and you are charged to do another part. And then when you replay the game with another class, suddenly it is you doing that first part, and your told somebody else is doing the other part. So basically you need to play all 4 archetypes to see the story from all angles. It's pure Rashomon, for the Akira Kurosawa fans out there, a great way to tell a story.

But even if you just play one part of the story, the destiny quest line is great fun. It is a coherrent story line, explaining what is going on in Tortage, and enabling you to vanquish the evil tyrant. By shipping you off to the mainland at the end of the story, the game nicely gets around the inconvenient fact that the evil tyrant will of course still be there for the next player once you beat him. It creates a good illusion of you really having changed the game world. What you have to do in the quests isn't that special, talk to this guy, slay that guy, etc., but the way the story is told is far superior to normal quests. You actually read the quest texts because the story isn't as random as regular quests, and there are cutscenes for the big events. I liked the destiny quests in AoC even better than the lore book quests in LotRO, where the multiplayer nature often made people hurry through them and not have time for the story.

Most of the normal quests in daytime, multiplayer Tortage aren't bad either. There are some bad apples, like a quest to kill 40 crocodiles of which there are far too few. But there are plenty of quests, far more than you'd need to level to 20, and so you can just skip the bad ones. What could be better is the placement of quest givers. Quest NPCs are placed all over the city and island, and it is far too easy to receive a quest, march off to an instanced quest location to do it, come back, and then find a quest NPC sending you back to kill the same mob in the same instance hidden in a different corner. So better run around Tortage and pick up all quests first, which then are conveniently sorted in your quest log by location, before going off to places like the White Sands Island to do all the quests there at once.

You could theoretically level up from 1 to 20 just doing daytime quests, and then skip the destiny quests, but why would you? I can only advise you to always first do the nighttime destiny quest line, and only switch to daytime when you need a higher level to continue the destiny quests. There only being one starting area from level 1 to 20 is certainly a disadvantage to replayability of Age of Conan, but I feel that the 4 interwoven destiny quest lines really make the best out that limitation. Well done, Funcom!
Shoo, shoo, AoC fanbois

Don't get me wrong, I am having fun playing Age of Conan. The very fact that I spent the weekend playing AoC and not WoW tells you so. But that doesn't make me blind towards the obvious deficiencies of that game. And every time I mention a problem, I get accused of "excessive negativity" by some AoC fanboi. Sorry, but I'm not standing for that. And I think that the whole MMORPG genre would be a lot better off if people would stop making excuses for buggy games, horrible customer service, and game design flaws, just because a game is new. So here is a list of things I found unacceptable on my first weekend of AoC. Note that I *am* paying for this, the early access costs $5 / Euro 5 for 10 days, thus the same 50 cents per day fee as the regular monthly fee.Now you can say all you want about this still being early days, about WoW not having been perfect on day one, or whatever. But I think that we should stop accepting crap like that, just because we are all so excited about a new game. The industry standards have gone up since the early days, where buggy releases were still acceptable. The least I can do is state loud and clear where the problems are, and that this isn't good. If that scares away a couple of customers from Funcom, it is their own fault, I'm not making these things up, I'm just reporting what I see. And I refuse to be gagged by some AoC fanbois, who think that nothing but undiluted adoration should be written about this game. AoC is certainly better than Anarchy Online or Vanguard at release, but it is still far from perfect. And if we players just accept games like that, game companies have no reason to make games that actually work well on release.
AoC crash problem solved

I hope, at least. On my first day of AoC early access, my PC froze up in random intervals about once per hour. But as that couldn't be reproduced, it was hard to get to the bottom of the problem. But then I reached level 17 and got a new combo, the first that needed two attacks to activate: Pillar of Infernal Flame. And now the freezing up became reproducible: every time I did that move my PC crashed. So I concluded that it was not some memory leak as I had thought, but some graphics problem. I verified all AoC files, but the verification routine didn't find any errors. So then I thought it might be a problem with the graphics driver. I had downloaded the NVidia driver 169.21 three weeks ago for the open beta, where Funcom had expressively recommended getting that version, which was the newest at that time. But since then a new driver had come out, so I downloaded and installed version 175.12. And since then I can cast Pillar of Infernal Flame without my PC crashing. Haven't played long enough since to see whether the PC still hangs once per hour, but the immediate freeze problem seems to be solved.

[EDIT] False alarm, the game STILL crashes sometimes when I cast Pillar of Infernal Flame. Just not all the time. :(
Sunday, May 18, 2008
Age of Conan first day

The early access of Age of Conan finally started. And Funcom applied the so-called "miracle patch" and managed to get the release version being better than the open beta version. Unfortunately it is still far from perfect. I can play at a good framerate of 50 fps, but only with low graphics settings, in spite of a E6600 dual core CPU, 4 GB of RAM, and a Geforce 8800 GTS 512 MB. And once in a while the game freezes up, and I need to reboot my computer to restart. Never seen a game that needs so long from reboot to actually running.

I played 9 hours and made it to level 15 with a Herald of Xotl. I only chose that class because I wanted to play a Stygian, as their level 20 area looked more interesting than the Cymerian or Aquilonian one. But it turns out that the herals is not a bad class at all. Technically he is a mage, but up to now I haven't got a single ranged spell or ability. The heralds main damage is done with a two-handed edged weapon, combos, and his Hellfire Breath spell. I put my first 5 talent points into improving that breath, so now it has a casting time of 0.3 seconds, practically an instant, and deals awesome area damage. As the combos take about as much time as the cooldown of the breath, I do a breath - combo - breath - combo dance which is quite lethal. And of course the herald has the I WIN ability, the ability to transform himself into a rather nasty demon every 2 minutes for 30 seconds, which helps a lot when you need to overcome a tricky situation. Best strategy is to transform into demon, quaff a heal-over-time potion, and then attack, and even large groups of my level are no problem. Having said that, I must say that I have never died so often in the lower levels of a game. Age of Conan is quite deadly, with sometimes huge aggro ranges and unexpected respawns.

After some experimentation it turned out that the optimum strategy for Tortage is to try to get as far as you can in the night mode (destiny mode, solo), and only play the multiplayer day mode when you need more levels for the destiny quests. If you level in multiplayer first, the destiny quests just become harder, because the level of the mobs there rise too. And of course in solo mode you don't have the problems with other people killing your mobs, which is endemic in some parts, like the White Sands Island. The destiny quest line is a lot of fun, where else can you make a volcano explode by exchanging the blood of a virgin used in a ritual to calm the volcano with the blood of a lady of negotiable virtue? Of course I missed half of the volcan eruption when my computer crashed again.

But I was happy enough to get to that quest at all, because the quest (The Awakening II) before that, finding a man called Renton and making him talk, is bugged. I killed his corrupted friends, he moves to another point, I kill the next group of corrupted friends, he moves in front of his house, and I get no third spawn of mobs to kill. And when I talk to Renton, the quest dialogue suddenly ends without any more options, you need to hit ESC to even leave the dialogue. Now normally I would have been forever stuck in there, as even after 1 hour of petitioning no GM came to help. But fortunately once you reach level 14 you are given the option to skip that part of the destiny quest and continue right with the next part, which I did.

So up to now Age of Conan is a mixture of having fun and getting frustrated often, a feeling I know from many previous bugged game launches. AoC is "playable", but don't expect a high level of technical excellence and customer service.
Saturday, May 17, 2008
AoC early access problems, what a surprise

In principle the Age of Conan early access should have started today. But of course the Funcom servers didn't hold up. You can't log into the game because the authentication servers are unreachable, and you can't visit the game website or the forum either, because they are down. And the saddest thing about that is that it doesn't surprise me at all. In fact I would have been surprised if that pre-launch would have gone well.

Age of Conan is coming out with perfect timing. People have grown bored enough already of the daily quests and the added content of WoW patch 2.4, and WAR and WotLK are still months away. Funcom could have made a killing, at least for half a year or so until the competition catches up. But if they aren't prepared for that many customers, and their infrastructure can't handle them, there will be a natural loss of frustrated players going on until the remaining numbers are just big enough for Funcom to handle. One would have thought they had learned something from Anarchy Online, but apparently they didn't.
Friday, May 16, 2008
DVD subtitles

I was blown away today by the excellent customer service of I buy a lot of DVDs from them, and on their website it isn't always obvious whether the DVDs have subtitles or not. I already had several cases where no subtitles were mentioned on the product page, but once I received the DVD they fortunately had subtitles. English is not my native language, and especially when heavy accents are used I much prefer having English subtitles on my DVDs. So I wrote to Amazon with my concern, and received an answer less than 2 hours later. Not only did they promise to forward my request for more consistent information to the relevant person, but they also provided me with a link to, a site which calls itself the "ultimate online resource for subtitle users". This is going to make buying DVDs over the internet so much easier! It is hard to believe if you are an online gamer, but there ARE companies with great customer service on the internet. :)
AQ and deathknights

I was reading this nice post on Common Sense Gamer, where Darren talks about the Wrath of the Lich King expansion for World of Warcraft. He talks about the announcement that Northrend will open just like Outlands, on day one of the expansion, without anything like a gate opening event like Ahn'qiraj (AQ) two years ago. Darren says about that AQ event: "Looking back I honestly think that the whole AQ event, although neat, was a bit of a failed experiment on Blizzard’s part. I have no issue with global events for players to participate in. However, I do think these types of “gating” events to content are a bit ridiculous. It looks like Blizzard is throwing out that model completely. Actually come to think of it, this whole idea of gated content is being phased out industry wide. Most MMOs that I know have gotten rid of that mechanic completely with EQ2 and now WoW being the most recent examples in my memory." I said back in 2006: "I don't really know why these games are called massively multiplayer. Because if ever you assemble a massive number of players on one spot, either the game crashes or at least you get unbearable lag. Which makes world events problematic."

So we all agree, Blizzard has seen the error of their ways, there will be no more world events, and everything is fine? Not quite. Because in his next paragraph Darren starts talking about deathknights, and with the AQ lag disaster fresh in my mind, I immediately start to think "wait a minute!". Because while Wrath of the Lich King does not have a gate opening world event, it has something quite similar: every single deathknight created, regardless of faction or race, will start in the same zone, eastern plaguelands. This being the very first hero class, quite a lot of people will create a deathknight in the first days of the expansion. It is quite likely that more than 1,000 players per server will find themselves simultaneously in the eastern plaguelands! And it was that accumulation of players in the same zone that made the AQ event a failure, not anything with scripting the event. It is highly likely that the eastern plaguelands will be extremely laggy and unplayable. Not to mention that up to now the old Azeroth zones don't have dynamic spawning yet, so finding a mob to kill for your deathknight quests will be rather difficult, unless Blizzard updates the spawning method of that zone.

I perfectly understand the reasoning behind this deathknight starting zone, and it makes perfect sense from a lore point of view, and from the point of view how to teach people fast how to play a new class starting at a higher level. I am just not sure that WoW has the technical possibility to support so many players in the same zone at the same time. If you plan to level up a deathknight early after release, be warned that there might be problems.
WoW raiding made easy

Last weekend I was present when my guild killed Rage Winterchill, the first boss in Mount Hyjal, for the first time. Me being more of a casual raider, it doesn't happen all that often that I'm there for a guild-first kill. In fact we didn't really plan to take down Rage, we were just there to have a look around, and for jewelcrafters like me to gain some reputation. Mount Hyjal reputation gives you the same jewelcrafting recipes as the new Sunwell Offensive vendor, but for 6 gold instead of 40 gold. As there are a *lot* of recipes, MH rep saves you serious money. So on our first attempt we got swamped by the waves of mobs. But the second attempt we already had the waves down pat, engaged the boss, and to our surprise brought him down to 12% before we wiped. Everyone suddenly realized that this was totally doable, so we did a third attempt and promptly succeeded in taking Rage Winterchill down.

If you had told me a year ago that one day I'd kill a boss in Mount Hyjal, I would have laughed at you. We have a lot of casual raiders in our guild, and we still haven't even tried the final bosses of Serpentshrine Cavern and Tempest Keep. But while before we would have needed to kill both bosses to even get the attunement for Mount Hyjal, patch 2.4 removed all attunements from the game, and it was announced that Wrath of the Lich King wouldn't have any attunements at all. Another development was that over the last year lots of raid encounters have been made easier. For example we recently killed Magtheridon, who was too hard for us before the nerf, and now was well within our possibilities. Besides making raiding easier by removing attunements and nerfing encounters, raiding is now also easier because getting epics is easier. There are now more crafting epics, more PvP reward epics, more badge epics, and all the raid bosses drop more badges and tokens than before. Getting fully epic equipped now takes less time than a year ago. And of course raiding is also getting easier with time simply because everyone inevitably gets more powerful and experienced the longer he plays at the level cap.

While Burning Crusade raiding was made easier with every patch, there are some indications that Blizzard wants to make raiding more accessible in Wrath of the Lich King right from the start. As mentioned there will be no attunements in WotLK, and every raid dungeon will exist in one supposedly easier 10-man version and one harder 25-man version, with better loot. At least right now it sounds a lot like my suggestion to create easy-mode and heroic raid dungeons. But how easy or hard these raids will be in the end, we don't know yet. 10-man raids are not automatically easier than 25-man raids. Larger raids can be easier, and easier to organize for a casual raiding guild, if the larger number means that you can take a couple of less good raiders with you. 10-man raids can be extremely hard if there is no room for error at all, and you need exactly this or that class mix, and any minor error of any of the 10 members leads to a wipe.

So what I would be hoping for is that there is a progression in difficulty between the various WotLK raid dungeons, with the first 10-man raid dungeon being easy enough that a 10-man group freshly arrived at level 80 and with slightly suboptimal raid composition can still beat it. For the next 10-man raid dungeon you'd already need some of the loot from the first place, plus a bit tighter organization, and so on. The most difficult 10-man raid could actually be more difficult than the easiest 25-man raid, because some casual raiding guilds have less problems getting large numbers together and more problems with tight organization. Up to now there is simply no information whether WotLK raiding will play out like that, but it is still possible. Accessible raiding for a larger part of the WoW player base is a good thing, and I sure hope that Wrath of the Lich King will bring us that.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
Vivendi anticipates Wrath of the Lich King for second half of 2008

Vivendi, parent company of Blizzard, sent out a press release yesterday in which they say about World of Warcraft: "the second expansion set is anticipated to be released in the second half of 2008". Note that this isn't a guarantee, they were careful to insert the weasel word "anticipate" into the statement. Because if lets say WotLK was delayed half a year beyond that date, it could possibly affect the share price of Vivendi. And if they had promised a fixed date for the expansion, they would be vulnerable to lawsuits from angry investors.

Nevertheless of course Vivendi "anticipating" a second half 2008 release has a lot more weight than me anticipating the same time frame (which I did, repeatedly). In other news the same press release announced World of Warcraft's subscriber number to be 10.7 million now, having added 0.7 million subscribers in the first quarter of 2008. Vivendi Games revenues for the first quarter was $221 million, of which Blizzard made $192 million (of which $99 million were profit before taxes). Note that 4 quarters of $192 million do not $1 billion make. In fact Vivendi explains that their revenues first quarter 2008 was 24% lower than in 2007, because they did release the Burning Crusade last year, and no expansion yet this year. Which pretty much explains why Vivendi would very much like Wrath of the Lich King to come out before christmas: the sales would then mostly happen in the year 2008, and the year on year comparison wouldn't look so bad. Releasing a WoW expansion is like printing money: the sales of WotLK in the first month in the US and Europe alone will bring in as much revenue as the complete first quarter 2008. And as secondary effect the resubscriptions caused by the expansion will lift monthly revenue for several months. So this is serious money, and if WotLK slips into 2009 after all, somebody from Blizzard would have some difficult explanation to do. If you think players can be quite rabid when a game is delayed, wait until you see the guy whose annual multi-million dollar bonus depends on that release.
WoW Oceanic problems

A reader alerted me to a thread on the World of Warcraft customer service forum that has reached over 100 pages of complaints from customers playing on Oceanic servers. Apparently since patch 2.4 the Oceanic servers have huge lag problems, up to a point where going on a raid is strictly impossible during local prime time. WoWInsider confirmed the story, but was satisfied with Blizzard saying they are working on it. But that was a month ago, and the Australians are still reporting big problems.

Part of the problem appears to be that while US servers are in the US and Euro servers are in Europe, the Oceanic servers are not in Australia, but in the US. So their lag is inherently worse than that of other players. While Australia regularly scores quite high in the UN index measuring quality of life, when it comes to MMORPGs the situation is not so rosy. Many MMORPGs are not sold in Australia at all, or come out much later, or don't offer local servers. Or as Blizzard's Oceanic customers imply, they get much worse customer service. That doesn't seem fair, but is probably just a fact of economic reality. Australia is huge, but only has 20 million inhabitants, and the rest of Oceania doesn't add many more. So in terms of potential profit, Australia counts as a small and faraway country. That is unfortunate for the Oceanians, but MMORPG services to there are not likely to improve anytime soon, no matter how long the thread on the WoW forum gets.
Playing old games

Some people made the totally justified comment in the DRM discussion that a DRM system could in some circumstances prevent you from reinstalling and playing a game in a couple of years. Yes, that is totally possible, and DRM systems should be designed to to expire, so this doesn't happen. But then the discussion got me thinking about my experiences with reinstalling and playing old games, which was universally bad. I have over a quarter of a century of computer game memories, and the nostalgia is strong, but trying to play an old game again is rarely a success.

The first problem is hardware. My first computers, in that order, were a ZX81, a ZX Spectrum, and an Amiga 2000. They simply don't exist any more, and it would be extremely hard to still find a working machine anywhere. The only way to play old games from these is to run some emulator software on your PC, but even then you can't use the game discs you bought back in the day, but need to find a pirated emulator ROM copy of the game. My first PC games came on 5¼-inch floppies, and it's hard to find a computer with such a drive nowadays. Hey, many new computers don't even have 3½-inch floppy drives any more!

The next problem is operating system and software. Not every DOS game can be made to run under Windows XP, even less Vista. In one hilarious experience I installed an old game once and found that the speed of the game was linked to the clock speed of the CPU. But as a modern CPU is several hundred times faster than an old IBM AT computer, and with the sprites moving hundred times faster over the screen the game was simply unplayable.

Even once you get an old game up and running, you are likely to be disappointed. One time I found my old disks of Master of Magic from Microprose back. Great game, I played it for hundreds of hours. But when reinstalled it, I simply couldn't stand the blocky 2D pixel graphics any more. Even gameplay has evolved over time: why would I want to play the first Civilization when I could play Civ IV? Many great games of the past have more modern equivalents, and even if some remakes go bad, a good number of them are equal in gameplay and better in graphics.

MMORPGs only go 10 years back, and games like Ultima Online or Everquest are still around. Some people even went back to EQ out of nostalgia. But personally I don't think I could play UO or EQ any more, the general quality of MMORPG gameplay and user-friendliness has *much* improved in those 10 years. I'm not going back to naked corpse runs, hell levels, and forced grouping.

My final problem with old games is that there are so many new games, and so little time. Especially with games like World of Warcraft taking up so much of my available computer game time, I simply never get around to go back to the old favorites. So when Van Hemlock said "I don't rent games", I had to admit that me, I do effectively just rent the games I buy. I buy them, install them, play them for a while, uninstall them, and never look back. In most cases that is still not such a bad deal, depending on how many hours of entertainment I got out of the game. And most books or DVDs I own I also read / watched just once. I have physical ownership and the theoretical possibility to reuse all these games, books, and DVDs, but in practice I never do.
Age of Conan early access

All is not well in Hyboria. It turns out that the early access offer which allows you to start playing Age of Conan already on May 17 was a limited offer, and is sold out. That left a lot of angry customers holding a valid pre-order key, but without early access as promised. The reason given for the limited number of early accesses was that the Funcom servers couldn't handle more people downloading the 14 GB client. Funcom could have solved that easily by offering people who already had one of the various beta clients installed a way to patch that client to the release version. But no, that wasn't possible, you had to uninstall the beta and download and install the huge early access client again.

Next problem was that the Funcom early access downloader resulted in many people having corrupted downloads, and receiving "ERROR: Filesize incorrect" message when installing the game, leaving them with a non-functional client installed. That can be fixed, but you need to know how to do it: Go to the directory where you installed Age of Conan in, find the SimpleConfig.exe program, and run it. Click on the Verify / Repair button, check the repair checkbox, and start verification. That verifies all the Age of Conan files, and downloads correct version of corrupted files.

Once you got all files in order and start the game, there is a good chance that you will only see a black screen. In that case you need to stop the program, and run SimpleConfig.exe again. This time go to the graphics tab and check whether it is set to DirectX 9 or 10. If it is 10, it won't work, so set it to 9. If the screen remains black, try changing the resolution in the SimpleConfig.exe program to something lower. That should fix the problem. Once you see something, you can change the resolution back to high with the Settings button when Age of Conan is running.

I got the early access client downloaded, installed, and fixed, but it took me two days to do so, including several visits to the AoC Technical Support forums, where I received some good solutions from other players, but never saw a Funcom tech responding. Needless to say that up to now I'm underwhelmed by the technical excellence of Age of Conan. It isn't as bad as Funcom's last release, Anarchy Online, but still far from smooth. And from a marketing point of view having early access only for a limited number of preorder customers sounds like a rather bad idea to me.
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Unable to comprehend the Spore DRM controversy

I'm not really surprised that Heartless, being Heartless, uses rather strong language on the announcement that Spore will have some DRM (Digital Rights Management) features to prevent piracy. I was a bit more surprised when Darren, normaly a Common Sense Gamer, chimed in and likewise declared he wouldn't buy Spore just because it had that protection. Both of them happily (or in the case of Heartless unhappily) play MMORPGs all the time, and every MMORPG by its very nature has an even stronger DRM protection than Spore announced. You simply can't play World of Warcraft if you aren't logged in. Why would I object against Spore having to log in every 10 days? My computer is online all the time anyway, and if I had a 10+ day internet outage, Spore stopping to work would be the least of my problems.

Gaming Steve has news from Maxis on Spore DRM, pointing out the obvious advantage of online DRM compared to previous piracy protection methods: You can play Spore without having the DVD in the drive. Woot! Yippee! I find that is a *huge* improvement. I don't see why I should be annoyed about having to authenticate myself when I want to download new content, patches, or online feature. You *can* play Spore offline, and you *can* install it on multiple computers.

I really hope that this new DRM system manages to diminish software piracy a bit. Some people think of piracy as a victimless crime, but that isn't true. There are several good game studios that have gone under or been forced to sell out because while lots of people played their games, less than half of their players had actually paid for them. If you are playing a pirated game, you are effectively stealing the companies development budget for the next game.

Software piracy is also a huge influence on the old "PC games are dying" discussion. Game companies report that the same game sells 4 to 5 times more on consoles than on a PC, just because it is so much harder to pirate a console game. Crysis was pirated so often, that the makers of the game Crytek declared they would stop making PC-only titles. When people say that making PC games is still profitable they automatically cite World of Warcraft, which as I already said above has a DRM which is a lot more stringent than Spore, and installs a lot nastier hidden software on your computer than SecureROM. PC gaming is profitable because of DRM. Yes, DRM can be annoying to legit buyers sometime, but I much rather have a online-based DRM system than a disc-based DRM system.

So I really can't understand people who won't buy a game just because it has DRM. But if they don't buy it, it still doesn't matter, because for every copy of Spore that isn't sold because of DRM protection, there will be 5 copies that are sold because somebody else found that he couldn't pirate the game.
Age of Conan announces 250 hours to level cap average

Via Massively I got the news that leveling a character from 1 to 80 in Age of Conan will take 250 hours on average. For comparison the orignal Everquest was considered to take about 2,000 hour to reach the level cap, and the average number of hours to reach level 60 in World of Warcraft when it came out was 500. So the announced number of hours for Age of Conan appears rather short.

Of course it is questionable to talk of average hours to level cap at all. My first level 60 character in WoW took 500 hours, but my latest WoW character went all the way to level 70 in under 250 hours. Leveling speed changes with patches, but more importantly due to players having learned how to play better, and due to twinking, that is the first character handing virtual currency or gear to the alts. But lets assume that Funcom is talking of everyone's first character. Is 250 hours to the level cap too short, just right, or still too long?

To answer that, we first have to look at what a level cap actually is. It is not the end of the game, it is not even the end of character development. The level cap is more accurately defined as the point in a character's career where his power development slows down significantly. You stop receiving xp, and only by acquiring better gear can you still improve your character, but that is much slower than gaining power from leveling. Due to this slowdown point, at the level cap there are the most characters of similar power level. And as similar power level of characters is useful for playing either together (e.g. in raids) or against each other (PvP), the level cap is the point where all the raiding and most of the PvP takes place. The gameplay changes at the level cap, from the leveling game to the end game.

So whether a short time to the level cap is good depends on what type of gameplay you are after. Age of Conan is supposedly about PvP, so getting everybody to the point quickly where they can fight for battlekeeps makes sense. But for many players of World of Warcraft the leveling game is more fun than the end game. When my wife reached level 70, she quickly abandoned the character and started a new one, because she neither groups nor does PvP, and the WoW end game wasn't attractive at all to her. World of Warcraft is an ideal game to level up alts, because there are now 8 different newbie zones, and you can reach level 60 with at least 4 different characters without doing the same quest twice (the path from 60 to 70 is considerably narrower). Age of Conan only has one newbie zone from 1 to 20, and we don't know how many ways from 20 to 80, although probably not more than 3 (one for each race) at any given point.

The other important question is how much time are you going to spend in the end game? According to surveys the average WoW player plays over 20 hours per week, that is 1,000 hours per year. If it takes 200 hours to level up in every expansion, and then you need to wait nearly two years for the next expansion, you spend 90% of your time in the end game, unless you play a lot of alts. Again that is nice if the end game is all you like in a game, but for many players the end game feels more repetitive than the leveling game, and they burn out after spending too many hours there.

The real danger of a short time to level cap for a game company is that the average player reaches the level cap in 3 months, decides he doesn't like the end game after a short while, sees that leveling an alt would just go over the same content again, and thus quits to play another game. Because in the end it is not the time to level that is really important, but for how many hours there is non-repetitive content in the game. If I understood the Warhammer Online video podcasts correctly, WAR will have 6 completely separate ways to level a character up to the level cap, one for each race. I have no idea of the time to level cap in WAR, but even if it is just 250 hours, an average player could still play for a year and a half before having seen it all. That is why Warhammer Online looks pretty attractive from my limited knowledge and PvE-fan point of view. I will buy Age of Conan, Warhammer Online, and Wrath of the Lich King, with all three boxes costing similar amounts of money. But if I just look at how many hours of non-repetitive content there are in each of the three boxes, WAR looks like the best deal here.
Guild housing in WoW

Player housing for World of Warcraft is one of those features where the developers said they would be interested in introducing it, but haven't gotten around to doing it. It is not a trivial problem to get player housing right. But by looking at how housing has been done in other games, I had an idea how housing could be great in World of Warcraft. So lets look at the history of MMORPG player housing.

My first experience of player housing was a bad one, in Ultima Online, when I could afford a deed to place a house, but in two weeks of searching high and low couldn't find a spot where to put it, because UO didn't have enough housing spots for all players on a server. The other big disadvantage of the UO system was that houses could be placed anywhere where the ground was flat, so that areas which were meant to be adventuring wilderness suddenly turned into huge cities, with the monsters still running around between the houses. It is clear that World of Warcraft cannot go that way, just imagine the Barrens getting filled with houses as far as the eye can see! Wouldn't look good, wouldn't feel right.

So games like Anarchy Online or Final Fantasy XI or Everquest 2 went with instanced housing instead. You go through a door somewhere in a city, and you are directly inside your appartment. As appartments thus take no space at all, you can have one for every player, even in various sizes. But houses also lose a lot of their purpose that way: Nobody walks past your house and sees what a nice castle you got, or sees the NPC vendor you placed on your porch for selling your crafted goods like in UO.

Open world housing did work for Star Wars Galaxies, for the simple reason that this game had far more square miles per player. And one of the really great features in SWG was that guilds could choose some empty spot somewhere, all build their houses there, and start a player-run city. They could vote for a major, and get utility buildings like star ports (flight point) for their city.

When Lord of the Rings Online introduced player housing last year, they tried to get the best of both worlds, by making housing both instanced and visible to your neighbors. The LotRO housing instances are not just one appartment, but a complete neighborhood with several housing spots, for everything from small houses to large guild halls. Up to 30 houses can be built in one neighborhood, and new neighborhoods open up when the old ones are full. But the system still has a couple of issues: Every neighborhood had exactly 4 kinship (guild) houses, 10 deluxe houses, and 16 standard houses. But the standard houses sold a lot faster than the others. It would have been better if there had been "slots" for sale, on which any sort of house could be build, not already pre-built houses of a fixed size. I also found the instances a bit too large, so you didn't meet your neighbors often enough.

So for World of Warcraft I was thinking that a system similar to that of LotRO would be best. If you explore cities like Stormwind, you'll find places that look suspiciously as if there is a portal to instanced housing already planned there. You walk through that portal, and get a selection of neighborhoods, with initially empty housing spots, on which various sorts of houses in various sizes can be built, depending on your financial means. And now comes the kicker: Guilds can reserve for themselves special neighborhoods, with a guild hall in the middle, and the housing spot around it, with enough place for every guild member to build a house. Voila, instanced player-built guild cities! The guild hall would have the guild bank in it, and have a trophy room where for every raid boss kill the head of the boss could be mounted on the wall. Player houses would have some functionality too, for example for storing armor sets on mannequins, and like in LotRO with an added possibility to teleport back to your house from anywhere. So with players having some reasons to visit their house and their guild hall, guild members would constantly meet each other in the guild city. It is a lot nicer to meet guild mates in virtual person than just see them as a name in guild chat. Guild halls could also serve as portals into raid dungeons, so meeting up for raids would happen in the guild hall instead of in front of the dungeon. Guild cities would become a veritable hub of guild activity, and thus foster guild cohesion.

What do you think? Would you like to see such guild housing in World of Warcraft?
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
AoC is to WAR what EQ2 is to WoW

Would you trust my opinion on a PvP MMORPG? I can only advise you to take anything I say about PvP-centric games with a large grain of salt, because it is no secret that I don't like PvP. Thus my dislike of PvP could possibly prevent me from recognizing good PvP over bad PvP, because I'd always tend to prefer carebear PvP à la WoW to any form of impact PvP. If you want an unbiased opinion about a PvP game, you're much better of reading the blog of somebody who really likes PvP. Keen and Graev for example. And Keen isn't happy about Age of Conan, and he doesn't like the graphics. Now that happens to be the same that I was thinking, but Keen is definitely the one to listen to here.

One interesting thought about AoC graphics is the parallel of the AoC / WAR situation to the EQ2 / WoW situation. Of course that is a simplification, EQ2 has other problems than just bleeding-edge tech graphics. But the basic truth that more existing PCs will be able to run WAR than can run AoC, just as more PCs back then could run WoW than EQ2, remains. I haven't played WAR yet, but I'm already pretty certain that WAR will sell a lot better than AoC, just by comparing WAR videos with AoC beta gameplay.

Keen also had a very good list on why I won't be playing on a PvP server in AoC:
  • Rez point camping - People would literally camp the rez points and gank people before they could load in. This NEEDS to be addressed. I spent 15 minutes trying to get away from the Stygian rez point.
  • Griefing Questers - Griefers wait until you initiate a conversation with a NPC then gank you while you’re stuck in a quest dialog.
  • Everyone stealths - *facepalm* Much more annoying than I ever thought possible. Having a caster stealth up and drop a nuke on me is… indescribably dumb.
  • Ganking - Level 80’s can attack level 5’s and camp their rez points. In OB today level 26’s were camping level 20’s. So stupid.
This is *exactly* the sort of PvP I hate to the bone: Ganking, griefing, corpse camping. If a game allows it, these activities will happen. I totally realize that WoW battleground PvP is repetitive and has no impact on the world whatsoever. But I have yet to see a PvP system that provides the impact while simultaneously preventing all possible abuses of PvP for griefing purposes.

If I wasn't bored to death waiting for WAR and the next WoW expansion, I wouldn't even try Age of Conan. Kudos to Funcom, the one thing they got right about Age of Conan is the release date, which is spot on. But when WAR and WotLK come out, I predict AoC will take a big hit.
My interview with Tigole

... isn't going to happen. Using all the addresses I could find and those suggested by readers, I still got absolutely no reply from Blizzard to my request of getting something like a press pass for the 2008 Blizzard Invitational. Not even a "No", just stony silence. So I'll just go there as a regular visitor, and won't get to talk to anyone. Too bad, I would have liked to interview one of the developers of World of Warcraft. But hey, if silence is all the response I get anyway, I can easily simulate a whole interview with Tigole, just asking my questions and putting <silence> as response. So here we go:

Tobold: Today we have with us Jeffrey "Tigole" Kaplan, Lead Game Designer at Blizzard Entertainment, responsible for "world design" for World of Warcraft. Tigole, thank you for joining us in absolute silence. Tigole, before you got the job at Blizzard, you were guild leader of Legacy of Steel, one of the top raiding guilds in Everquest. It is said that game developers create the games they would most like to play themselves. Is that true in your case? Would World of Warcraft have been a much different game if you had been lets say guild leader of a PvP guild in Dark Age of Camelot instead?

Tigole: <silence>

Tobold: Let's talk a bit more about PvP. Everquest had no PvP at all on most servers. The Warcraft lore would have fit well with a more PvP-centric game, but the various PvP systems like honor points, PvP rewards, battlegrounds and arenas have only been patched in later. You're on record as calling PvP rewards "welfare epics", is it fair to say that you aren't a big fan of PvP personally?

Tigole: <silence>

Tobold: Last question on PvP: The PvP part of World of Warcraft is apparently perceived as a weak spot in an otherwise immensely successful giant of a game, and several competitors are coming out with more PvP-centric games this year. Do you perceive Age of Conan or Warhammer Online as a threat? Do you think that World of Warcraft's subscription numbers will take a visible hit when these games come out, that the population at least of WoW's PvP servers will drop noticeably?

Tigole: <silence>

Tobold: Agreed, World of Warcraft beats all other games in excellence of execution and craftmanship, the term "polish" has entered the MMO design vocabulary because of WoW. But then Blizzard seems to be unable to produce this polished product in a timely manner. The second expansion of World of Warcraft will presumably come out close to the 4th anniversary of WoW, two years per expansion on average. What prevents Blizzard from keeping an earlier promise of releasing one expansion per year? And no, one expansion in early 2007 and the next in late 2008 doesn't count.

Tigole: <silence>

Tobold: So will there be a third expansion in 2009?

Tigole: <silence>

Tobold: Will the feature list of that third expansion mainly consist of raising the level cap to 90, a new continent with level 80 to 90 content, one more hero class, and one more crafting profession? Or could you imagine expanding WoW in a different dimension, like creating a new continent with new races and level 1 to 80 content, or adding totally new features like player housing?

Tigole: <silence>

Tobold: If you introduce player housing, the step to guild halls isn't a big one. Are there any plans to introduce more features for guilds, like guild ranks, guild halls to hang up trophies from successful raids, a guild loyalty and reputation system, a guild event calendar, or better web support for guilds? Would you say that creating better social systems can prolong the longevity of a MMORPG, because people want to stay in the game their friends are in?

Tigole: <silence>

Tobold: Back to your main area of expertise: raids. In the Burning Crusade there was a distinctive trend of increasing the power of players, and decreasing the difficulty of raid encounters with every patch. All attunement requirements have been removed, some bosses like Magtheridon have been considerably nerfed, and getting epic gear by various means has been made a lot easier. Was that a deliberate plan from the start, or was that a learning process in which you adjusted the accessibility of raiding in function of the progress the players showed? Will the first raiding dungeon in Wrath of the Lich King be easier than the original Karazhan?

Tigole: <silence>

Tobold: Do you think that there is value in making raid content more accessible to the average player? Is there value in having extremely hard content which only a very small elite of players can access? And do you think you can combine the two with your announced new concept of having all raid dungeons in WotLK have an easier 10-man version and a harder 25-man version?

Tigole: <silence>

Tobold: Final question: History suggests that MMORPGs decline in subscription numbers after a couple of years, because players get bored of playing always the same game, and newer games becon with new features and advanced graphics. Do you see World of Warcraft as still growing, stable, or slowly declining? Do you think that WoW can keep up at 10+ million subscribers by adding regular content patches and expansions, or would it be better for Blizzard to concentrate on creating a next-generation MMORPG?

Tigole: <silence>

Tobold: Thank you for your continueing silence!

As you can see you can ask much more daring questions if your interview partner is absent and silent. Of course Tigole is invited to send me his responses and I'd insert them in this interview, but somehow I doubt he will do so. I'd continue this series of silent interviews with a Warhammer Online interview with Paul "Bears, Bears, Bears" Barnett, but had to cancel the idea because nobody can imagine Paul Barnett to be silent for that long. :)
Monday, May 12, 2008
Games without guides

A reader wrote me to ask why World of Warcraft was considered to be so friendly to new players, when there are still so many things the game doesn't tell you. For example new players can easily overlook getting their first talent point at level 10. And who hasn't used third party guides or websites to find out where he has to go to get certain character improvements? Even with 3 level 70 characters I'm still constantly on sites like WoWWiki for example to find out where I can get new enchanting recipes for reputation, and to what dungeon I would have to go to gain that reputation. Where in the game is it explained that Warsong Gulch is a capture-the-flag game?

My only answer is that World of Warcraft is considered to be new-player friendly, because most other games are doing considerably worse. If you are slightly confused in WoW, you'll be completely lost in Everquest 2, where nothing is explained in-game. EVE Online is 5 years old now, and now gets lots of praise for finally improving their tutorials in a way that they actually explain the basics to new players. For Age of Conan I don't even know if they'll have a tutorial in the game for release, for the recent beta you had to download the tutorial videos from Fileplanet.

I wish that in the future game developers realize that having a game which can't be played without outside help is not a good idea. MMORPGs should have much better tutorials, and NPCs explaining you every detail of the game. MMORPGs should have sages and libraries, which fulfil the same function as sites like WoWWiki do now. If you market your game to the multi-million player mass market, you can't rely on all the players being connected enough to find out everything they need to know for themselves.
Sunday, May 11, 2008
Will Order or Chaos prevail in WAR?

I'm reading about Warhammer Online, and stumbled upon one interesting fact: even when doing PvE quests, you contribute to the points for the RvR conflict. Which means that even players who don't want to participate in PvP have an influence on the outcome. That made me think of World of Warcraft, where Alliance outnumbers Horde on most servers by 3:2 or even 2:1. Even if the more numerous faction has lots of casual players who chose their side just because the characters were prettier, in a system like WAR these players would still add a lot of RvR points to their side. So the less numerous side had it even harder to overcome the numerical disadvantage.

Of course this will all depend on how casual player friendly WAR will be. The hardcore players will probably distribute pretty evenly over the 6 races and 2 factions of WAR. But the "I want to play a pretty elf" type of players are probably going to play Order more often than Chaos. And up to now the guys from EA Mythic are mumbling in their beards about being aware of the possible problem, but haven't come up with a good solution yet. Combat boni for the less numerous side? Seperate login waiting queues and population caps? All these have both advantages and disadvantages. Players neither want to be forced to play one side, nor do they want their side to constantly lose because of being outnumbered.

So what do you think? Will Order dominate WAR in a similar numerical imbalance as Alliance outnumbers Horde? Or will the forces of Chaos prevail, or at least draw even, in Warhammer Online?
Saturday, May 10, 2008
The news about Wrath of the Lich King

Again thanks to all the readers who sent me links. Blizzard went on a publicity spree and distributed new information about Wrath of the Lich King to every major gaming site: IGN Gamespy,, Tentonhammer, WoWInsider, to name just some of them. The news are mostly about three things: the new zones of Northrend, deathknights, and changes to raiding. I'm not going to talk about the zones, for the simple reason that I on purpose skipped reading about them, I'd rather see them from playing myself. But here are the major points on deathknights and raiding:

The only requirement for playing a deathknight is that you already have at least one character of level 55+. That's all, there is no unlock quest or any sacrifice of a previous character to become a deathknight. You can install Wrath of the Lich King and make a new deathknight right away, of any race, with the only limitation being that you can only make one per server. Why only one per server? Because the deathknight starts at level 55, and if you could make lots of them, they would become everyone's favorite crafting alt. Deathknights don't start naked, they come out in a mix of green and blue quality level starting armor and with a normal ground mount. They all have the plaguelands as starting zone, where there will be deathknight-specific quests to gear up and get an epic ground mount. I do expect this to get ugly, because most players on every server will want to try a deathknight, and with both factions and all races having the same zone as starting area and required questing area, there will be endless lag and kill-stealing.

Deathknights are designed as anti-caster tanks with high melee dps, which will be incredibly useful in PvP against mages and warlocks. They can also transform a corpse into a ghoul, and if that corpse belonged to a player, that player is given the option of controlling the ghoul. They will be wearing plate armor. Whether deathknights are good enough PvE tanks for regular dungeons is anyone's guess, but I'd expect the big raid guilds to stick to one or two protection warrior main tanks, using deathknights for caster bosses or as dps. But as only few warriors got a main tank spot in a raid guild, you can expect the number of warriors played to drop dramatically. Deathknights have blood, frost, and unholy talent trees, corresponding to the three types of runes they can use for their unique rune magic, so apparently they don't suffer from having to respec between a protection tree and a dps tree every time they join or quit a group.

On dungeons and raiding, Blizzard is expanding the heroic dungeons concept: Every 5-man dungeon in WotLK will exist in a normal and heroic version as in TBC, but now the two versions get completely separate loot tables. And now every raid dungeon will also get two different versions with different loot tables: a 10-man version and a 25-man version. So yes, even a small guild can visit every single raid dungeon in WotLK with just 10 raiders. Although obviously the loot for 25-man raids will be better, at least it will be easier to get to see everything. And again of course the devil is in the detail, we don't know yet how easy or hard these 10-man dungeons will be. But as a basic concept the idea is commendable.

No news on a release date, which is still scheduled at "when it's ready". And it doesn't look as if it will be ready anytime soon. I'm still hoping for November, but that might be optimistic. There will be a beta, and Blizzard is handing out beta access a prize for their latest artwork contest. I hope that I can get beta access by going to the 2008 Worldwide Invitational in Paris end of June, but there is no guarantee, I might only get the chance to stand in a queue for 4 hours to play WotLK for 10 minutes.
Friday, May 09, 2008
Strategic release of WotLK information

Thanks to all of you who wrote to tell me that Blizzard has released a bunch of information about Wrath of the Lich King: Deathknight details, including the fact that all races can play one, yay gnome deathknights! Details on dungeons and raids in Wrath of the Lich King, including the plan to make the every raid dungeon into both an easier 10-man raid as well as a harder 25-man raid with better loot and a separate timer. Lots of stuff, I'll still need some time to process it all before I can write about it.

But what I would already like to remark is the curious fact of how Blizzard remained ultra-silent and secret about everything related to Wrath of the Lich King for so many months, and then suddenly floods us with a deluge of new information less than two weeks before the release date of Age of Conan. I can't help but think of that as a strategic defensive move. Blizzard's game development department might be slow, but their marketing department apparently owns a calendar.
Games for non-gamers

Looking a bit beyond the horizon of MMORPGs, I find that there are two games coming out this summer that I would like to play and which aren't online roleplaying games, at least not in the traditional sense: Battlefield Heroes and Spore. And comparing those to Age of Conan, I can't help but think that these games are going in a completely different direction than AoC is. Age of Conan is a game for gamers. You need a gamers PC to run it, the controls are complicated and button-intensive, and gameplay is only intuitive to people who have played similar games before, there isn't even a tutorial yet. Plus some financial dedication is required too to play Age of Conan, as you have to not only buy the game, but also pay a monthly fee.

We don't know exact system requirements for Battlefield Heroes and Spore yet, but they will definitely be lower than those of Age of Conan. Gameplay for both games with be comparatively simple, Battlefield Heroes officially announced in their trailer that this game is about "not getting shot in the fae repeatedly by a swearing, ultra skilled 15 year old boy who plays the game every day for 8 hours", and early reviewers found it to be very accessible. Spore is likewise said to be very simple, with no way to actually lose the game, just a fun collection of mini-games. And Battlefield Heroes will be free-to-download, free-to-play, while Spore only costs you the price of the box, no monthly fee required. Nevertheless both games offer extensive online services, Battlefield Heroes is a pure online game, and Spore will have an online community exchanging creations.

Especially important is that both Battlefield Heroes and Spore are designed to minimize player frustration. Yes, Battlefield Heroes is "PvP", an online multiplayer shooter. But it works with a ladder system, so if you keep losing, you'll get paired against lesser skilled players in your next game. That is a feature that is sadly missing in MMORPG PvP, where you can lose constantly for various reasons like the enemy being more numerous (outside battlegrounds), higher in level, better equipped, or more skilled. The swearing, ultra-skilled 15 year old boy who plays the game every day for 8 hours WILL kick your ass in Age of Conan; not only because he is higher skilled, but also because he will have better gear, and a better-organized guild. Obviously the ultra-skilled with too much time on their hand will be thrilled by that, but for the regular and casual players Age of Conan PvP will be incredibly frustrating. A game like Spore is much more suited for a casual player, who just wants to have some fun after a hard day at work, and who doesn't operate under the illusion that beating other people in an online game makes him a superior person.

So I'm calling games like Battlefield Heroes and Spore games for non-gamers. With of course non-gamer not being somebody who never plays games, but somebody who plays games less regularly, less intensely, and more for fun than achievement. While these people don't rate high in "street cred" with the gamers, there happen to be much more non-gamers around than gamers. Raph Koster doesn't tire of pointing out that more people play online games like Club Penguin or Habbo Hotel than are playing WoW. While I don't think that is a valid point for WoW, which is nevertheless still the most user-friendly MMORPG and makes tons of money, I do think he has a point when looking at games like Age of Conan. There is no doubt that Spore will sell much better than Age of Conan, and even Battlefield Heroes might make more money with advertising revenues and selling fluff by microtransactions than Age of Conan ends up making. And I believe that the success of Warhammer Online in terms of subscription numbers will ultimately depend on how non-gamer friendly WAR will be.
Thursday, May 08, 2008
Age of Conan costs $23 per month

for Europeans. Funcom announced their price structure, and Europe gets raided by barbarians: While AoC costs $14.99 per month in the US, it costs €14.94 per month in Europe, which at today's exchange rate is over $23. Note that this makes Age of Conan more expensive in Europe than World of Warcraft, with nothing to suggest that this higher price is in any way justified.

I wonder if I could import a US version of AoC and pay just $15 per month instead of over 50% surcharge for being European. But I guess that won't work, Funcom probably won't accept a European credit card paying for a US account.

Well, with prices like these I doubt I'll play after the "free" month coming with the box.
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