The Mystic Forge Podcast – Episode 1 – Introductions

Welcome to the Mystic Forge podcast, a conversational podcast covering Guild Wars 2.

In our debut episode we take time to introduce ourselves, talk about the races and professions we plan to play when the game launches this weekend, and give an overview of each of the playable races. We pay particular attention to how ArenaNet has made each of these races unique and set them apart from races found in other fantasy MMOs.

Hope you enjoy watching as much as we did recording!

See you in game!

This podcast was recorded on Saturday, August 18th, 2012. You can download it here as a MP3.

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SW:TOR Announces Free-To-Play Option – With Several Restrictions

A little while back I wrote an article about why I think raiding sucks as “endgame”, and why it’s a manipulative, artificial way of slowing down the progress and reward acquisition of players of subscription based MMOs in order to keep them paying a monthly fee. I went into great detail about why Guild Wars 2, the soon to be released buy-to-play (you pay for a copy but no sub) MMO from ArenaNet doesn’t need this kind of endgame to be successful.

In subscription MMOs, raiding is a cooperative experience with very specific and intentional limitations built in to ensure players keep coming back week after week, month after month in order to repeat the same scripted, static content. That’s why only a few people receive loot of off each boss kill, and that’s why raids have lockouts that restrict the number of times you can defeat the same boss in a week. In many ways, it’s like gambling. You win once in awhile and get a rush, and then spend your remaining raid time chasing that high while pouring your time and money down the drain. And make no mistake, you NEED that loot to be competitive in a subscription MMO since the emphasis is on gear instead of skill. That’s why raids have new, more powerful gear to chase with each new raid tier. Without the promise of more power, who in their right mind would raid? Sure, the initial boss kill can be fun, like an unfamiliar puzzle you get to solve as a group. But who in their right mind would enjoy putting together the same exact puzzle time and time again without any additional reward, especially for a fee?

So what does this have to do with Star Wars: The Old Republic offering a free-to play option?

I’m glad you asked.

First, let’s take a look at exactly what that option is. Here is the breakdown as listed on the SW:TOR page:

Looks pretty good to me actually, considering I enjoy the Star Wars world enough to play in it for free now and then, but what I find really interesting are the restrictions and exclusions. I think it backs up everything I said about raiding in the first place and its dependency on the subscription model. Let’s break it down item by item:

1. Story Content  – Players can play their full class stories from levels 1 to 50.

This is perfectly logical, and some would argue it’s the only portion of the game SW:TOR really did right. BioWare has long said that playing this MMO is like playing several sequels to their Knights of the Old Republic games, and this line basically means that you get multiple single player story lines for the shelf price of the game. Looks great on paper, but we’ll get to the fine print on this later.

2. Character Creation Choices – Some character creation options, such as species, are limited to subscribers.

Interesting, but intentionally vague. Does this mean existing species/class combos are included but perhaps unlocking new combinations through the Legacy system is for subscribers only? What if you already unlocked species in your Legacy system? Will those characters be locked unless you pay a subscription? Does this mean that even less species will be available than there are today under the F2P model? What other options are limited besides species?  Had SW:TOR been build from the ground up as a F2P model, then things like species could have been offered as microtransactions. It will be interesting to see how they implement this, and how many people they piss off in the process if they remove existing functionality. If it were any other MMO, I could see them adding new species exclusive to subscribers, but given the thousands of lines of voiced dialog each species needs to be a playable race, this is unlikely. Unless they add Wookiees, and make all their dialog the same 10 subtitled Wookie growls over and over again like they did in KOTOR, adding new species is a long shot.

3. Warzones – Free players are limited in terms of how many Warzones they can play per week.

This is a fairly huge limitation, intentionally designed to get players to sub. SW:TOR is essentially WoW in space, and just like in WoW, gear is everything. PvP in SW:TOR, just as it is in World of Warcraft, is NOT fought on a level playing field. The guy with the best gear wins. The team with the best gear wins. If you only have a limited number of games per week to earn the currency needed to purchase your PvP gear, you’ll never be the guy with the best gear, meaning F2P players will always be at a disadvantage. People hate losing. People love winning. Winners will subscribe, and BioWare is counting on this. Unless you don’t care about SW:TOR’s PvP at all (like me), and have no intention of participating in it, this may bother you.

4. Flashpoints – Free players are limited in terms of how many Flashpoints they can play per week.

The same concerns about limited Warzones apply here, with one large exception. You’ll still suffer the same gear disadvantage that your F2P PvP counterparts, but at least they’ll be able to access the “endgame” of PvP. As a PvE player, your access to Operations is completely dependent upon your subscription status. Unless you don’t care about raids at all (like me), and have no intention of participating in them, this may bother you… a lot. More on that below.

5. Space Missions – Free players are limited in terms of how many Space Missions they can play per week. Aside from being a means of picking up a few easy credits, space missions in SW:TOR were a lot like raiding, only without the prospect of new gear: static, boring and on rails. Unless they add some incredible new elements to this corner of the game, I can’t imagine anyone caring.

6. Operations – Only Subscribers may complete Operations.

ONLY SUBSCRIBERS MAY COMPLETE OPERATIONS. This validates everything I’ve said about raiding, and we’ll get to that after these last few items.

7. Travel Features – Subscribers have access to all travel functionality, making getting around the world easier.

If this isn’t the most backwards thing ever, I don’t know what is. How about make it easier for EVERYONE to get around in your terrible travel system? The fact that it takes multiple load screens to travel from one planet to another, or even from just your ship to a planet’s surface, is just horrible design. Orbital Stations shouldn’t even exist. The Looking for Group system was a much-needed addition to the game, but even it fails to let you return to the planet you were on immediately after your flashpoint. Instead it dumps you back on the fleet. Does this mean they’re only fixing this for subscription players?

Even if Bioware wanted to implement a solution to this mess and only offer it to subscription players for free, a microtransaction option for F2P players would have been a bare minimum. There are probably a lot of players out there who’d pony up for a limited use item that would make travel between planets instant.

8. Game Login – Subscribers will always be in login queues ahead of free players.

Fair is fair. VIP access only makes sense in a dual payment model game.

9. Galactic Trade Network – Subscribers can post up to 50 auctions for sale. F2P players get “Extremely Limited Access”, whatever that means.

Until they release details, it’s hard to say what the hell they mean. If anything, it probably devalues crafting even more that it already is for casual, F2P players. If you can’t sell your goods, or if you can’t compete with sellers who can post more product than you can, then why bother? You really only need top end gear to compete in top end PvP and PvE, and since you can’t even access Operations under the F2P model, why participate in the time and credit sink that is SW:TOR crafting? Seems short-sighted to make an entire avenue of your game useless to a portion of your player base, but it’s far from the worst thing on the list.

VALIDATION OF THE RAIDING CONSPIRACY

By locking out F2P players from the PvE endgame of SW:TOR, they’ve only proven that raiding is a system entirely dependent upon, and entirely designed for, subscription players. If you aren’t raiding, and you have no subscription strings attached, then congratulations, you’re free to come and go from the game as you please. The only thing keeping you playing is if the content you have access to is fun and enjoyable, just like any other game you own, and just like any game should be experienced. If you are paying a fee, then you need to feel like you’re getting something for your money. With this model BioWare is giving you exclusive access to content and, more importantly to a gear-based MMO, the best tier of PvE gear in the game.

Of course, you only need that gear to access the next set of raids, and so the cycle will continue ad infinitum. Enjoy your run on the hamster wheel.

This is what kills me about the current generation of MMO players. Raiding isn’t doing you any favors. It isn’t the alpha and omega of MMO endgame. It’s just a time sink, and by association, a money sink. Sure, there is the initial thrill of overcoming an obstacle and seeing new content, but your perpetual need for gear, coupled with the intentionally gated method in which raiding awards that gear, chains you down to that same content over and over again until you dread logging in. It dictates how you spend your time in-game, and with whom you spend it. Raiding leads to dedicated rosters and schedules, where you can lose your spot unless your attendance meets standards. It leads to loot systems to manage loot drama over the randomized loot that may or may not even drop. It leads to resentment when people can’t attend or when someone “less deserving” than you gets the loot you wanted. It leads to guild applications with more questions on it than you’ll find in many job interviews. In may ways it is just as much the opposite of fun as the grind fests that older generation MMOs used to be. Yet where most players have realized that the evolution of MMOs means freeing yourself from those terrible grinds, thousands and thousands of those same people can’t even imagine a successful MMO without raiding at its core.

It’s mind boggling.

In many ways, trying to talk to people about it feels like being in the Matrix films and trying to convince them to wake up from the system that enslaves them.

But hey, at least with SW:TOR, players will have a choice. They can still experience almost everything the game has to offer, including multiple characters and story lines…

Or can they?

Remember that fine print I mentioned earlier?

From the FAQ on the official site:

Q: What happens if I decide to change from being a subscription player to a Free-to-Play member? What will happen to my credits, inventory, bank items, and characters?

A: Your account will automatically be downgraded and it will operate under the Free player restrictions. You will need to choose what items to keep with you within the restriction levels of the free access. Furthermore, you will be able to see, but not use, your excess credits, inventory slots, bank tabs, and extra characters.

I’m not sure what the BioWare means by “extra characters,” but it sure seems like F2P players won’t be able to enjoy as much of the story portion of the game after all. It’s one thing to offer a number of character slots with purchase and then offer additional character slots for a small fee, but it is something else entirely to lock players out from using characters they already have. The same thing goes for inventory slots and bank tabs.

And what does “excess credits” mean? Does it mean that F2P players can only have so much wealth? If so, then that’s a whole other explosion waiting to go off in BioWare’s face.

I enjoy SW:TOR from time to time because I enjoy the Star Wars universe, and I’d continue to play it under the right F2P model, but I’m very skeptical about how all of this is going to shake out. While I’m certain that offering a F2P model within a year of release isn’t what anyone at BioWare or EA intended, half-assing it could be worse for the game than not offering it at all.

To me, this looks less like a free-to-play model and more like an extended trial.

Guild Wars 2: Structured PvP Penalizes Small Groups

I love Guild Wars 2. I truly do. I’ve pre-purchased the game, I’ve participated in every beta weekend and stress test, and I even write the Guardian profession column for Guild Wars Insider. I find the game absolutely revolutionary in many respects. When I encounter other players in the PvE world, I don’t see them as competition trying to tag my mob or steal my copper ore node. Instead I help them out reflexively, cooperating with them for our mutual benefit. In WvW, we have a battle of THREE servers that goes way beyond any stale dual faction offering found in other games. In structured PvP, all gear has the same stats. There is no gear grind. You’ll unlock new armor as you progress, but it is completely cosmetic in nature, meaning winners are determined by skill and execution instead of who farmed up the gear with the best stats.

WHY HOT JOIN SUCKS

Unfortunately, not everything is hearts and flowers when it comes to the game. I think the current state of structured PvP sucks, and is in dire need of changes if it wants to succeed at and after launch. Currently there are two experiences that you can find in sPvP: Hot Join and Tournaments. These are polar opposite experiences, and the only thing they have in common are the maps they take place on.

Hot Join is set up for 8v8 play of random players or pick-up groups (PuGs). You can’t form teams in this game type, not even partial ones. Well you CAN, technically, but you aren’t supposed to be able to. So if there are one or two friends you’d like to play with, you’re completely screwed from enjoying this more casually focused style of PvP. I’ve already recorded a video commentary on Guild Wars Insider detailing why I think all sPvP should be 5v5, but this goes way beyond all that. Currently, the only way to play with your friends is to click on the “Join Friend in PvP” option you get if you right-click on their portrait in the party interface. That sounds great until you’re put on the opposite team by the game’s simplistic auto-balancing system. While I understand the need for teams to be as balanced as possible in any kind of PvP, why the system doesn’t take into account that “Join Friend” means “I’d like to play WITH this person and not AGAINST them” is a mystery to me.

I addressed this in the video I made, and during the interview Guild Wars Insider had with Jonathan Sharp, the PvP guru at ArenaNet. A lot of the responses I get on the subject, including Mr. Sharp’s, seem to be that Hot Join is training mode for casuals to learn the game, and that any sort of grouping mechanic will somehow totally obliterate the sanctity of the system’s inherent randomness. While I agree that fielding a full team of 8 players against 8 PuGs doesn’t make for a fair or enjoyable experience, no one can seriously tell me that there isn’t some sort of middle ground out there. The party line at ArenaNet is that Hot Join is centered on 8v8 because, as Mr. Sharp puts it,

“If PvP was just limited to 5 on 5, new players would be taking away 20% of their team’s power if they are standing still or are just trying to get a feel for a profession.  If it’s an 8 on 8, players can learn at their own pace, while having the majority of their team still playing.”

So… if you’re adding 16 people to a 10 person map in order to compensate for keyboard turners, AFKers, and new players, then why is anyone seriously concerned with a group of 2 or 3 people playing on the same team? By the logic Mr. Sharp offers, we’d just be compensating for 2 or 3 other people who can’t manage to find their way out of the starting spawn. That is a far, far different thing than rolling in there as a full 8-man hit squad. The infuriating part for me, I mean the real anger-inducing aspect of this whole subject, is that you CAN ALREADY FORM UP AS A SMALL, 2-3 PERSON GROUP if you are patient enough to exploit the system.  In fact, during the final beta weekend I ran into more than one 8-man pre-made comprised of members of a single guild.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Have your friend join a random game.
  2. Use the “Join Friend” option to join that game.
  3. Did you spawn on his/her team? If so, awesome! It’s working as it SHOULD be intended. If no, then proceed to…
  4. Both of you leave the match.
  5. Repeat step 1.

While this aggravating process becomes more and more time consuming the more people you try to bring onto your team, it’s well worth it if you really just have one other person you’d like to play with. After 10 to 15 minutes of jumping through this completely unnecessary hoop, you’ll potentially be rewarded with an hour or more of PvP together until the terrible matchmaking system auto-balances one of you to the other team. (More on that later.) If someone argues that this is somehow against the spirit of Hot Join PvP, then I say they’re dead wrong. I’d counter that the current restrictions go against the entire design philosophy of Guild Wars 2. Every other single aspect of the game makes it easy for you to play with your friends. From down-scaling your level so you can always revisit lower level zones with your buddies, to the very nature of dynamic events and how they encourage everyone to come together for a common purpose, everything is centered on facilitating group play. Hell, even in the Guild Wars 2 Design Manifesto Mike O’Brien clearly states that,

“MMOs are social games. So why do they sometimes seem to work so hard to punish you for playing with other players?”

Great point, Mike. I couldn’t agree more.

If you’re going to argue against grouping as something which upsets the balance of Hot Join PvP, then you’d be better off leveling criticism at the horrible matchmaking system which routinely ignores vacancies in active games (some with uneven teams) and places players in game servers where there are completely alone, 1v1 or 1v2. While I would appreciate the addition of an Explorable Mode where I could run around maps solo in order to learn them, when it happens accidentally, it’s a problem. When I can cap every point by myself and get a “win” without another player even entering the game, something is broken.

Moving on…

WHY TOURNAMENTS AREN’T THE ANSWER

So now, after I’ve made the case for being able to group in Hot Join, someone will invariably point out that team-based play is already available in the Tournament system. I even had an ArenaNet employee who was PvPing during the final beta weekend tell me the same thing. For the uninitiated, the Tournament system in sPvP allows you to form a team of 5 and compete in a single-elimination tournament against 7 other teams of 5. This is an amazing form of PvP for dedicated teams. It’s a potentially very hardcore experience, and is the beating heart of the eSport hopes that ArenaNet has for the game. For people looking for that kind of experience, it’s wonderful.

The problem is that it’s absolutely terrible for a group of casuals, or for a partial group of say… 2 or 3 players. Sure, you’ll be matched up with others to form a full group, but it isn’t anywhere close to the same thing as playing on a dedicated team.

The first major problem is that there is no ranking system present in the current Tournament system. There are different divisions, but for people who just want to get together and play, they don’t mean much.

  • Pickup: single-elimination tournaments wait for 8 teams to join before starting. This tournament has 3 rounds of eliminations, with winners receiving qualifier points.
  • Monthly: Require an amount of qualifier points from the pickup tournaments to join.
  • Yearly: These grand tournaments feature the winners from the monthly tournaments slugging it out for the right to call themselves the best PvP players of the year.
  • Player-Run: customized by players, these tournaments allow for great flexibility and unique bragging rights.

The only two that apply to casual PvPers without dedicated teams are Pickup and Player-Run, and only Pickup allows for partial groups. The downfall of this system is that you’re going to be placed against teams who are anything but casual, and who are only participating for the qualifier points.

This leads to the second major problem, in which your PuG team waits in the Mists for 10-15 minutes (or longer) for the full tournament roster to fill up and start, and then you get completely obliterated in the first round by a dedicated team. The end result is you spend more time waiting to play than you do actually playing, and that’s not fun for anyone. Without a matchmaking system in place, and/or without a true Pickup tournament category that only rewards Glory without any qualifier points at all (one that holds no incentive for dedicated teams), it’s going to continue to be a very disappointing and frustrating experience for casual PvPers.

When you combine the deficiencies of the current state of both Hot Join and Tournament play, you’re left with two basic decisions that are at the polar opposite of one another:

  1. Play in Hot Join solo
  2. Play in Tournaments with a dedicated team of 5

The fact that there is no middle ground is almost inexcusable, and it is a glaring exception to Guild Wars 2 design philosophy.

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS

I try to never complain about something without offering a solution, and this topic is no exception. I firmly believe that ArenaNet can and will implement some sort of fix to this current problem, and I have all the faith in the world in them as developers and designers. If I were invited to their offices to offer my potential solutions, they would be as follows:

  1. Allow for small groups to participate in Hot Join. A party is 5 people, and if you have 5 people, then maybe Tournaments are the place for you. But… if you’re only in a group with one or two other people, then you should be able to queue for Hot Join with those people.  This should maintain a sufficient level of randomness in the Hot Join system while still giving players a convenient way to play together.
  2. Implement a matchmaking system that accounts for group size, and intelligently fills those slots. There is no reason to place two players on a brand new server when there are games with three open spots. If players are grouped and queue together, then the system should account for this and lock them together – even during auto-balancing.
  3. Create a true Pickup Tournament category, and rename the current one to “Qualifying” since that’s its main goal. This allows dedicated teams to go where they’ll find the hardcore competition they’re looking for while creating a space for casual groups and PuGs to play.

That’s it. Do those three things and the state of structured PvP would be much better and on par with the rest of the game.

I think ArenaNet has created something special with Guild Wars 2. It really feels and plays like MMO 2.0, and I cannot wait for the game’s release on August 28th.  I just want the experience of structured PvP to be as awesome as everything else the game has to offer.

The Vanguard: Guardian Structured PvP

My weekly column is up on Guild Wars Insider!

The Vanguard: Guardian Structured PvP

 

This week I look at Structured PvP with the Guardian, and provide readers with three different builds and three corresponding videos which highlight them.

Stop by and check it out!

The Vanguard: Guardian Utility Skills – Meditations, Shouts & Signets

The Vanguard: Guardian Utility Skills – Meditations, Shouts & Signets

My weekly column is up on Guild Wars Insider!

This week I go in depth with each of the Guardian meditations, shouts and signets, including videos showing off their animations and effects! Come by and check it out!

The Secret World: Gameplay & Overview

A followup video to my first impressions video, this one shows actual gameplay footage.

While I’m not a fan of the game, or it’s dated graphics, boring combat, terrible dialog, general lack of maturity, poor quest design, and so on – there are some things the game does right.

The freedom of having no actual classes is a pretty fun. You can customize your character’s combat abilities far more than you can his/her actual looks.

The Deck system provides you with character class archetypes that can act as guidelines for building out your character, providing a little order to the chaos.

The ground effects used to telegraph enemy abilities are well done, showing not only the area of effect of abilities, but also showing a countdown timer at the same time.

Other than that, I didn’t find a lot to like. Maybe after it goes free-to-play (which is a certainty), and after they work out the kinks… MAYBE I’d be tempted to play it. As it stands, there is no way I’d pay $15 a month for this game.

It’s pretty bad.

The Secret World: Intro & First Impressions

My initial impressions on The Secret World, the modern day, secret society MMO from Funcom that should have stayed a secret.

I really wanted to like this game, but I don’t. At least not from what little I’ve seen.

The premise made me hopeful for a game that would echo all those X-Files episodes I loved so much. I wanted intrigue and betrayal. I wanted a mature MMO with intelligent dialog.

This is not that game.