Thursday, April 30, 2009

Free Realms vs. EQ2: Impressions from the FR Beta

All the blogs are coming out with reviews on Free Realms. Heck, Massively Speaking #50 turned into the Free Realms Fanboi podcast. I’ll admit for the short time I played in beta, I liked the game and found various things that could get me hooked if I wasn’t already involved in EverQuest 2. But when I’m writing, I like to come up with an unusual take on what I’m writing about. So I’ll take a different approach and compare Free Realms to a traditional Triple-A MMORPG title, EverQuest 2, based on my experience in beta.

Leveling? What’s that? In traditional MMOs like EQ2, players level their characters very quickly through the first few levels as they learn to play the game. Maybe I didn’t play the game right, but after 3 hours of game play in Free Realms I was still at level 1 with all my jobs. I found myself exploring the world looking for the tutorials (and bugs) and following quest lines to see what the next cool mini-game would be. In EQ2, I think I was either level 7 or 8 after about 3 hours into the game on my first character and I could probably be much higher if I were to create a new character today. In traditional MMOs, you have to level to get to the good content, which leads to the race to max level and whining about the lack of high level content by those players who refuse to stop and smell the roses. I really have the feeling that Free Realms has slowed down the race to the top.

Who needs alts? In EQ2, I have a character I adventure with and a small army (7) of crafting alts who made a lot of my equipment and advanced combat arts as I leveled up and still make my food, drink, ammunition and adornments. None of that infrastructure is required in Free Realms since your character can do everything. Okay, your character can do everything if you pay $4.99 a month for a member account, but you get the idea. But your character can do a lot even playing on a non-subscription account.

For those who like alts, you will have to pay for the privilege. Non-member accounts only get 1 character and member accounts can have 3. So if you want to have both a male and female pixie and a male and female human on the same account, you’re out of luck. Hmmm … reminds me of another game in which you can’t play all races and all character classes.

What’s a bot? A big difference I see between Free Realms and EQ2 is the absence of the ability to create macros. (Maybe I’m wrong, but I didn’t see the ability to do it.) Even though I love my macros in EQ2, I see this as a good thing. Think about it. Do you really want kids to play a game in which how good they are is based on the mods they are using? Yes, I’m thinking of my time in World of Warcraft where using some mods (like the late and sorely missed Decursive) were mandatory to be a good player.

When I’m playing EverQuest 2, I use macros that allow me to change into my fighting gear, my crafting gear, my harvesting gear, and into my running shoes when I have to go someplace in a hurry. But those are unnecessary in Free Realms. All you do is change your job and your clothes and gear change automatically. The mechanic is sort of like what happens when you change from fighting to crafting to diplomacy in Vanguard, except in Free Realms your avatar does a cool tornado-type twirl and your clothes are changed.

Another big difference on the scripting side of gaming is I really don’t see how people will be able to create bots to do things like crafting and harvesting. In EverQuest 2, I’ve seen people using harvesting scripts to go from point to point where resource nodes spawn. If you’ve ever been in the same area harvesting as one of those bots, you know how annoying bots really are. In Free Realms, you don’t have to worry about those annoying bots interfering with your game play as those activities are mini-games that require mouse movements. If you want to craft and harvest, I don’t see any way around playing the mini-games. In other words, players can’t cheat (at least that way) to get ahead in the economy.

Mommy, can I get a dog? Pleeeaaase??? Yes, you can use Station Cash in both EQ2 and Free Realms to buy a pet. But in EQ2 there are other ways to get a pet in-game. As a ranger, I have a tiger, bear, falcon, and water creature that can follow me around on my adventures that I either won or purchased with in-game gold. Did I mention I have a unicorn I ride? If all else fails, a player can get a pet just by worshipping a deity. And of course, there are a lot of house pets that are quest rewards.

Of course, in Free Realms pet training is one of the jobs everyone can do and you can train your pet to do really cool things. Just remember you need Station Cash to get the pet. And if you’re a kid how do you get the cash? Allowance? Mowing lawns? Shoveling snow? Chores? Hmmm … I wonder if the FR devs have taken into account the possibility of kids giving their parents in-game gold in exchange for Station Cash. Puts a whole different spin on real money transactions (RMT) in Free Realms, doesn’t it?

Another instance? Please make it stop! One of the features that makes World of Warcraft so great is that zoning from area to area is seamless. In EverQuest 2, running around Qeynos on my first character just about drove me crazy. Free Realms is chock full of mini-games. You go to do something, you load up a game. Or if you are used to playing traditional MMOs, you enter another instance every 5 minutes. I’m so glad the instancing in Free Realms usually goes quickly, or I’d bang my head on my keyboard. I really don’t want to do that because the keys glow in the dark and I don’t want to break it.

I’m going to leave off on the comparisons for now. I wrote this before I logged the live release version of Free Realms for the first time. While Free Realms will not be my main game, I’ll be poking my head into the game from time to time and might have some things to say in the future.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Free Realms Not Open Yet

Yesterday, a message was displayed on the Free Realms website indicating that the game would launch today. Upon further review, the message said "We'll be launching Tuesday". I just assumed that meant today. The message didn't really say WHICH Tuesday. My bad.

Update: Heard from Elquin on the Jethal Silverwing Show that no one is going home until the game is launched. Sounds like a long night for some folks in San Diego. Just checked the web site and it is still down.

Update 2: It's 11pm PDT and Laralyn on the twitter feed is indicating they are getting close. Well, I guess if they get it up in the next hour they technically launched on Tuesday.

Update 3: It's 11:30pm PDT and I'm at the character creation screen. So it was a Tuesday launch after all. Too bad I'm in Chicago where its Wednesday already.

Update 4: It's 11:55pm PDT. I finished the first couple of tutorials. Things look pretty good. But before I continue, I had heard something about if you have the SOE Station Pass that you are automatically a member. I'm not sure that's correct. At least, I don't see that happening. I'll wait til later today (yes, I stayed up til 2am waiting for the game to come up) to gather more details.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Free Realms Launches On April 28

Oh my! I got home tonight and decided to log onto Free Realms for a little kart racing. But instead of getting to log into the game, I got a message stating...

"The Free Realms website is undergoing maintenace in preparation for
launch. We'll be launching Tuesday and look forward to seeing you in the game."

That had to be the shortest closed beta in the history of gaming.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

What I've Been Listening To: April 19-25, 2009

Sometimes listening to podcasts comes in handy. At work this week, the programmer who introduced me to World of Warcraft told me he let his account expire because he was going back to City of Heroes. I immediately knew from listening to podcasts like Van Hemlock #47, Virgin Worlds #143 and Massively Speaking #49 that he was interested in the mission architect feature. Maybe I just work in the right place, but we have a lot of people at work who play MMORPGs (mostly WoW) and it's nice to be able to talk about games with everyone.

Here is what I've listened to over the past week.

Virgin Worlds #143 (Host: Brent) - Brent is back with a 30 minute podcast after last episode's marathon coverage of the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco. Brent talks about the City of Heroes mission architect, Love, more moves at Linden Labs, StarGate Worlds, the Eve Online expansion, Fallen Earth's upcoming rating, World of Warcraft in China, Paragon Games, and more. If you can't listen to a lot of podcasts but want to keep up with the news, this is a good one to listen to.

Van Hemlock #48 (Hosts: Tim Dale and Jon Shute) - Episode #48 found our intrepid podcasters talking about the upcoming closure of Shadowbane, upgrades in the U.K.'s internet infrastructure, another news outlet shutting down its Second Life bureau and more Jack Thompson news. In talking about Shadowbane, Jon came up with the term "PvP tourist" to describe one of the possible reasons for the games closure.

For the every-other-show topic, the hosts discussed regional servers and why regional servers are needed in on-line games. The discussion delves deeper into the subject than ping times and probably will introduce American listeners to topics that those in the European Union take for granted.

The twitter question of the week was about seasonal holiday's in games and which ones are the best.

Massively Speaking #49 (Host: Shawn Schuester) - Kyle Horner makes his second appearance on Massively Speaking. Shawn and Kyle discuss the MMO market in China, Darkfall, D&D Online, Fallen Earth, and the City of Heroes mission architect. Kyle was extremely excited about using the mission architect and if it is everything Kyle says, may keep CoH/CoV a viable game in the face of the upcoming games like Champions Online and DC Universe.

The Instance #142 (Hosts: Scott Johnson & Randy Jordan) - Would you believe the dog ate my notes? Okay, I was tired and just sat back on the train and listened to the premier World of Warcraft on the Interwebs. I do remember a discussion about Patch 3.1 and how Curse and WoWInterface are fighting back against WoWMatrix. Oh, and did I forget to mention that Turpster was on? Please guys, let's just call them fanny packs. The conversation was definitely not workplace safe.

Epic Dolls #64 (Hosts: Leala Turkey and Katerina) - Leala and Kat give their take on WoW's Patch 3.1 and I discovered that, among other things, planning raids for the first two days after the patch went live was not a good idea. The pair answered listener mail about fashion and fishing before Leala began a discussion about a blog post by Ralph Kostner about the way people play games. In episodes 62 & 63 Leala and Kat's discussion about WoW guilds transcended the game. In this episode the Dolls show they can discuss general concepts and relate them to WoW.

EQ2's-day broadcast from April 14 (Hosts: Dellmon and Zanadi) - Once again Dellmon titles a show "Death and Taxes" just because the broadcast day falls around the time everyone's taxes are due in the U.S. Besides talking about how death and taxes are implemented in EverQuest 2, the pair discuss the Lavastorm revamp.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Free Realms - Racing & Harvesting

I spent a little more time in Free Realms today, this time harvesting and racing. Anytime you do something in Free Realms, you wind up playing a mini-game. So for harvesting, you don't just wander around looking for resource nodes that you then stand around while your avatar makes harvesting motions. Oh no! You play a game sort of like Tetris, except instead of the matches automatically making the blocks disappear, you have to trace the matches. I was on a harvesting quest and I wound up playing the mini-game 3 times to complete the quest. The discouraging thing was I got a big red "You Lose!" after each game. Aargh!

The racing game is pretty fun. In a traditional MMORPG, it would be called an instance. In Free Realms, you are just at the track. You can create an instance and invite your friends and once they are all at the track you can start the race. I think I played for 30 minutes straight before I realized I hadn't done the tutorial. Maybe after doing the tutorial I'll be able to finish higher than 5th place.

While some people will complain about having to pay for content for a "free" game, if you get into the mini-games I don't think you'll have to worry about leveling your skills. Of course, I've only played the beta for 3 hours now. From what I've seen the game is very polished. There are bugs that need to be fixed, but the game is still in closed beta, so that is only to be expected.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Confessions of a Grey Shard Runner: Epilogue

In my previous posts, I have explored the world of those players (like myself) who used the mentoring mechanic in EverQuest 2 to complete the void shard missions in The Shadow Odyssey instances with mobs set 13 – 29 levels lower than themselves. I have provided my justification and motivation for doing grey shard runs. I also explained how the execution of performing shard runs took me a bit more effort than a lot of critics of the practice will credit. But the big question still remains: was it worth it?

If the purpose was just to get the void shard gear, the answer is yes. That said, I really don’t like the fact that SOE came out and basically announced to non-raiders that you must get this gear in The Shadow Odyssey or you are a n00b. In the Rise of Kunark expansion, I liked the fact that there were a couple of good pieces of gear for each slot I could shoot for and people would run around in different gear. In fact, people could debate which pieces you should wear based on other pieces of gear you can wear. Not in TSO. All I can say is I am glad that EverQuest 2 has appearance slots or I would get sick of looking at everyone running around in tier 2 gear. In RoK, I enjoyed the journey looking for and acquiring gear. In TSO, you are a rat in a maze trying to find the lever to get a piece of cheese.

Are doing grey shard runs fun? At first, yes. I found doing the missions interesting as we tried to figure out all the tricks the devs put into the content. But after the 10th time running doing a mission, I got bored. I enjoyed the company, but besides that, grey shard runs really are not fun.
Would I recommend to a player that they should do grey shard runs? No, because SOE has announced they are an exploit. But even if they were not an exploit, I would answer no. I have another path I recommend you follow.

If you are just reaching the Kylong Plains in the Rise of Kunark expansion, I would highly recommend doing all of the non-raid content you can, concentrating on earning as much alternate achievement experience you can. When you get to level 76, start doing the Moors of Ykesha content at the same time for a little variety. As you level, pay attention to anything that you will need to do your epic weapon quest. If you get the chance to join a group going into someplace like Deep Forge every once in a while once you hit level 75, do it. Just having a piece or two of shard gear waiting for you will make things so much sweeter when you hit 79 or 80. Aim to get the best gear you can. Some of the class forums have sticky posts that help a lot. This is advice I followed when I leveled from 64 to 80.

(Note: Yes, I started the Kylong Plains content at level 64. I was already a master alchemist, so no level restriction. Remember I wrote earlier about going to places a few levels lower than I should be? Plus, Kylong Plains really was made for rangers and my main is a wood elf ranger.)

Once you’ve hit level 80, start trying to acquire your class’ fabled weapon. You don’t have to make it your main focus. Just be ready for when a chance to do another step comes along. And then do the easy TSO shard missions. The librarian quest in Deep Forge is the easiest, although it looks like our guild is going to do whatever shard quest is in that instance. Yes, we are still going to do the TSO instances. We have guildies to equip and we took a new level 75 necromancer in for his first 2 shards Monday night. Taking on the mobs with the instance set at level 80 is much more fun. We were gimped by only having 5 members and no plate tank, but like my grey shard run partner said, “we’re going to do the run the big boy way.”

Update: On July 9, 2009, Kiara posted the following on the EQ2 forums...

Whilst grey shard runs are technically an exploit (in that we did not intend for the content to be used in this way) it's been part of gameplay for long enough that changing things now would simply be punishing to our players and a major buzz kill.

Going forward we're going to do our best to ensure that we prevent stuff like this, but we won't be "breaking" the current dynamic.

* puts the topic to bed *

Thanks all!

Previous post: Confessions of a Grey Shard Runner: Implimentation

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

NDA Lifted for Free Realms Closed Beta

Pex announced today that the NDA has been lifted for Free Realms today. I only got my beta invite Sunday morning, so I've only put in 2 hours of play so far. I like the number of jobs. It looks like a lot of game play for anyone who gets into the game once it goes live. I've been looking for bugs and submitted one bug report and put a couple of suggestions on the forums.

I'm glad I don't have to worry about what I say anymore. I worked in army intelligence back in the day, so I've got lots of practice saying things like "I can neither confirm nor deny" and "If I tell you, I'll have to kill you." It will be nice to be able to write about my experiences.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Confessions of a Grey Shard Runner: Implementation

One of the more amusing memes that circulated through the official EverQuest 2 forums is that players doing grey shard runs are expending no effort and taking no risk to get their tier 1 and tier 2 shard armor. I will grant that players with good gear and have kept up their combat arts and spells will experience little risk in doing the missions with the zones set so the mobs are grey (level 69 and below if you’re party consists of level 80 toons). During the time I was gearing up, I only died in combat 5 times. But no effort?

I performed 3 major tasks to get my shard gear. The first task involved getting all 4 of the Far Seas Strategic Pricing Guides to get the recipes I wanted. The recipe books are only found as chest drops when completing a trade skill instance. My guild found through experimentation that 3 member parties are the optimum size to do the instances, when comparing drop rates vs. time spent in the instances. The instances can also be soloed, although you really need to be good or you’ll be in the instances for hours. My first time soloing a trade skill instance took me over 3 hours. My fastest time to solo a trade skill instance is 2 hours 6 minutes while two members of the guild were able to do the instances under 1 hour 45 minutes. I’m estimating that I spent 15-20 hours doing the trade skill instances.

The next step in the process was to run the shard missions with the instances set to level 50-66. To do this requires what my guild calls a mentor bot. A mentor bot is a character that stays in either The Commonlands or Everfrost and is available to join a group to set the zone to a low level and is usually an alt of someone in the party doing the grey shard run. The mechanics of using the mentor bot run something like this. The party goes to the quest giver and gets the shard missions. The player with the mentor bot logs onto the mentor bot while the other party members go to the entrance of the instance. The mentor bot is then invited to the group, mentored and the party then enters the zone, setting the zone to the level of the mentor bot. The player with the mentor bot then logs into the adventuring character and the shard run can begin. We only had one problem: no level 50 mentor bots.

Do you remember in an earlier post that I mentioned that I am in a crafting guild? Well, when players were allowed into the beta for The Shadow Odyssey, all of our attention was on all the cool crafting content coming out. So the guild didn’t have a level 50 alt we could mentor to. I did have a level 31 character that we discovered could set the Befallen instances to level 50, but the instances in Everfrost required characters that actually were 50. For a while we mentored someone who was nice enough to stay logged in with his level 60-something character, but that ended once he turned 66 or 67. So while most people were fighting level 52-53 mobs, a good portion of the time my guildie and I were duo’ing level 63-67 level mobs. Let me tell you, those mobs were severely under conned! We finally stopped when we fought the named beholder in Anathema when it was green. We beat it after only wiping once (and neither of us with a full set of tier one gear or epic weapons!), but that was the end of mentoring our kind-hearted tier 7 guildie.

So that led to the third task: creating a level 50 alt. Remember how we were using a level 31 character to set the zones in Befallen? He was my paladin, and I wasn’t about to try leveling him without betraying him to Freeport to become a shadowknight. So I started to work on a level 22 necromancer that I liked. Notice I said I liked the character. That meant not power-leveling my necromancer and trying to get a good amount of alternate achievement experience. After 28 days and probably 30 - 35 hours played I finally had a level 50 mentor bot. Once we had our mentor bot, we were able to do 2-4 shard runs a night instead of 1-2 shard runs. Also, the shard runs went a lot faster, since we were fighting toons 12-15 levels lower than before. Believe it or not, even though the mobs were still grey, it mattered, and we noticed the difference.

So how much effort did I put into obtaining my shard gear? Well, first I spent 15-20 hours of the effort obtaining the recipes to make the shard armor. And I spent 30-35 hours leveling a mentor bot. The big question is how long did it take to do an average shard mission? Well, right before Kiara made the announcement of grey shard runs being an exploit, our group had grown to 5 people and with two of us with fabled epics and three of us in tier 2 armor we averaged 10 minutes a mission. That time includes travel between the instances and doing the mentor bot dance. I’ll use that average for the period when I was duo’ing (and occasionally trio’ing near the end) the content to get my void shards for the gear. So let’s see. To craft all 6 pieces of the tier 2 armor took 150 shards. 150 x 10 minutes = 25 hours. Add in the full set of Trueshot jewelry, the Gem of Farseeing, and a minor piece of jewelry I made and that time goes up to 35 hours. So what was my total time acquiring my shard gear? I’m estimating 80-90 hours. Did someone say I spent no effort obtaining my gear? I’m not claiming to have faced a lot of risk, but I expended no effort? I supposed you have some ocean-front property in Arizona you’d like to sell me too.

Previous posts:
Confessions of a Grey Shard Runner: Justification
Confessions of a Grey Shard Runner: Motivation

Next post:
Confessions of a Grey Shard Runner: Epilogue

Sunday, April 19, 2009

What I've Been Listening To: April 12-18, 2009

I've been interjecting parts of my life into my Sunday posts the last couple of weeks. I got the QQ out of my system yesterday, so on with what I listened to over the last week. I just have to add one thing I noticed. I listen to a lot of podcasts with hosts that have an Eve Online background.

Van Hemlock #47 (Hosts: Tim Dale and Jon Shute) - The Van Hemlock podcast has a unique format in which a major topic is discussed every other week. This week's podcast is the news/what we're playing podcast format. So the conversation ranged from Frank Herbert's estate taking legal action against Second Life to the mission architect features in City of Heroes/City of Villians. The hosts also had a look at the PETA protest in WoW and a list of games more popular than World of Warcraft. The Twitter question of the week was what technology innovation would be good for on-line games.

Shut Up We're Talking #45 (Hosts: Darren Love and Karen) - Darren & Karen were joined by Van Hemlock and Jon the Ancient Gaming Noob. As Kirith Kodachi (who Darren referred to) noted in the discussion thread on Virgin Worlds, 3 Eve players and none of them sure of how the wormhole mechanic works. But since I don't play, I liked the discussion.

The two topics for the show were blogger privacy and how companies dish out advanced information on upcoming games. I was rather relieved at Van Hemlock's reply on blogger privacy ("And yes, my name is Tim. Hello!" ) since I have been using his name in these reviews. And Karen actually went on a rant! It is a G-rated rant, but when Van Hemlock had to follow, his reaction was "Crikey!".

The other topic I liked and deserves a mention is talk about Karen's, Darren's and Jon's kids playing on-line games. I thought it was cute.

I'm not going to say I liked the episode, but I'm giving this podcast another listen while I'm writing this post.

Free Play Podcast #18 (Hosts: Riknas & Andras) - The hosts were joined in this episode by Darren from Shut Up We're Talking. And yes, Riknas and I think Andras play Eve. But for this podcast, the focus was on Maple Story. Andras showed up late and Darren left early, but I don't think that impacted the show, as I got to hear Riknas and Darren talk about the news, Riknas and Andras talk about playing a game Darren couldn't install, and then Riknas and Andras answer listener mail.

Through the Aftermath #7 (Hosts: Shawn Schuester and Jonathan Morris) - In episode 7 the hosts did a listener mail show. Back when I first reviewed Through the Aftermath, I wrote:
They also replied to the emails and posts they received. If the quality of
feedback the pair receives continues at the quality the podcast received
after episode 3, then this podcast will become a hit.

This episode demonstated the podcast's following is still present and growing. Can forums be far behind?

On the podcasters who've played Eve theme, I know Jonathan is playing the game now.

Spouse Aggro #72 (Hosts: Beau and Leala Turkey) - If Beau Turkey is involved in something, you just know he is going to want to do something cutting edge. So this episode was recorded in a diner over breakfast. That's cool, especially since they made it work! I did have a bit of a problem hearing Beau, but that's because I was trying to listen to the episode on a train.

To all the people who are going to copy this concept, just remember one thing. Gimmicks will get attention, but you better have some solid content to go with it. This episode had that. And now Beau has his diner podcasting achivement (/chuckle).

Channel Massive #85 (Hosts: Noah, Jason & Mark) - Real life is creeping into the life of the M team as Mark recounts driving his wife to the hospital in the middle of a blizzard and Jason gets the credit card he uses to pay for his games hacked. Other than that the M team take a look at the news in a bit of a subdued fashion in this episode. The podcast will be undergoing a format change, so I'll be wondering what the future holds for the Channel Massive podcast.

EQ2's-day broadcast on April 7 (Hosts: Dellmon & Zanadi) - In this episode, we find out about Dell's sad troubadour's failure to reach level 80 by the opening day of the baseball season. That's an oversimplification of the show, but the devs should put in some code so that Dellmon can never play a scout-class again. I'd hate to see what he'd do with a ranger.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

What A Saturday

This hasn't been the greatest week for me. Working hard is leading to drinking hard. But that part creates good memories and recalls others as long as I'm drinking with my co-workers and not by myself. The bad part was having part of my garage ceiling collapse because the unit over the garage had leaky bathroom pipes. I own my own place, but the rest of the folks who live in my building rent, and I got to deal with the landlords of the place with the leak. Seem to be nice people and the husband is a pastor. They are going to have their sons come over next Saturday and fix my garage. I'm pretty sure they will since that unit will get cold next winter if the insulation doesn't get replaced.

With that done, I had to log in from home and work for the next 5 hours. Ruined my whole afternoon for gaming, but it was worth $200. The question I have is, is $200 enough to keep you from being ticked off about not being to play your favorite game at a time you wanted to?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Explosion of Podcast Goodness

I got home late last night and did a little surfing the net instead of logging into EverQuest 2. I went over to Virgin Worlds to check out the latest news. Oh my gosh, Brent posted the latest editions of both Shut Up We're Talking and the Free Play Podcast yesterday. Reading the show notes made things even better. Darren from SUWT is on the Free Play Podcast and Tim Dale (a.k.a. Van Hemlock) and Jon the Ancient Gaming Noob are on Shut Up We're Talking!

Things got even better when I checked the RSS feed on the blog and saw that the M team put up a new Channel Massive podcast last night.

Then this morning, Brent posted a new Van Hemlock podcast!

So many podcasts, so little time.

And don't forget that Tuesday night on Online Gaming Radio features EQ2's-day from 7-9pm Eastern and The Jethal Silverwing Show from 10pm - midnight Eastern.

Monday, April 13, 2009

WoW Video - Who's The Tank?

I found a World of Warcraft-based video yesterday based on the classic Abbot and Costello comedy routine "Who's on first?" With the baseball season entering the second week, I thought I'd post both the original and the WoW parody. Both videos are workplace safe. Enjoy!

Who's The Tank?

Who's On First?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

What I've Been Listening To: April 5 - 11, 2009

Even as my time to listen to podcasts has shrunk of late, my favorite podcasts seem to get longer. Brent came out with a 2 ½ hour podcast and Van Hemlock and Sisters Julie and Fran came out with 1 ½ hour podcasts. Next week promises to be the same for me, with work still hectic and trying to write the last two installments of the “Confessions of a Grey Shard Runner” series. While I kept up with my podcast listening pretty well this past week, next week promises to be filled with lots of podcast goodness. So many podcasts, so little time.

Here is what I listened to over the past week.

Van Hemlock #46 (Hosts: Tim Dale and John Shute) – Another great podcast started with a review of the news. The news ranged from coverage of games in development like Warhammer 40K, Star Gate Worlds and Jump Gate Evolution to stupid politician tricks. The latest news came from Canada and Germany.

In episode 46, the hosts discussed The Daedalus Project. The project looked at MMO gamers over a 10 year period and recently went into hibernation. The results Van Hemlock and Jon talked about were fascinating. As someone who has worked in the market research industry for 12 years, I didn’t find anything too wrong with any of the duos analysis of the research methods. I do work more on the technical side, so some people might disagree, but I don’t think by much.

Virgin Worlds #142 (Host: Brent) – I’m just going to say this: 2 ½ hours of Brent covering the Game Developers’ Conference on-site with Shut Up, We're Talking's Darren Love in San Francisco. If you are into geeky technology and game industry news, give this podcast a listen.

The Instance #141 (Hosts: Scott Johnson and Randy Jordan) – 38 Studio chief (and former pitching great) Curt Schilling made an appearance on this episode as Scott and Randy discussed announced content being removed from patch 3.1 and Blizzard’s April Fool’s Day pranks. A real interesting discussion on whether Blizzard's April Fool's activities contributed to the patch 3.1 issues. A quick-fire response to email questions from listeners occurred and may become a new segment of the podcast.

Epic Dolls #63 (Hosts: Leala Turkey and Katerina) - Stompalina from the Rawrcast joins the hosts to discuss raiding. The trio discuss raiding from three approaches: casual (Leala) intermediate (Katerina) and hard-core (Stompalina). Once again, the Dolls have produced a podcast with a subject that applies to all games, not just the World of Warcraft.

No Prisoners, No Mercy #28 (Hosts: Sister Julie and Sister Fran) - The good sisters settled down a lot compared to their last few podcasts and I think produced a better podcast with episode #28. Sister Julie has always been a borderline shock jock in both her writings and the podcast, but I think she does better when she keeps the content on the edge.

The highlights of the podcast were the discussion of the announcements about the new streaming gaming technology coming out of GDC and a discussion on listener reaction to Sister Julie’s and Sister Fran’s reaction to The Watchman.

EQ2's-day broadcast from March 31, 2009 (Hosts: Dellmon and Zanadi) - The hosts discussed the upcoming SOE Fan Faire 2009 in Las Vegas and Game Update 51. Dellmon had a bit of a buzzing problem that diminished as the broadcast went on.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Confessions of a Grey Shard Runner: Motivation

Up until Kiara’s April 1st announcement on the official EverQuest 2 forums concerning the use of the mentoring mechanic to set a zone to level 50-60 characters so void shard missions could be done easier (a.k.a. a “grey shard run”), I honestly believed that the practice, while cheesy, was not an exploit. But as a guild mate pointed out to me, just because the devs allow a practice doesn’t mean you should do it. True. Also, if you’ve read the first post on The Nosy Gamer back in February, you know I stopped playing World of Warcraft partially because of the end game grind. So why would I engage in a practice that not only is cheesy but is the gaming equivalent of a rat running through a maze to poke a lever and receive a piece of cheese? After all, I play a wood elf, not a ratonga.

The first reason was simple. I had completed most of my crafting goals on my main and only had one more to accomplish: shard armor. While most of the server swarmed the Moors of Ykesha and The Shadow Odyssey instances scattered throughout Norrath, I, along with my guildies and a lot of crafters, swarmed over the new trade skill instances. This task was made a bit tougher due to bugs with the system that kept a lot of players (including myself) from entering the instances 2-3 days after the launch of the expansion. Eventually I did manage to acquire enough Far Seas Trading tokens to buy the limited use recipe books for alchemists, a complete set of crafting armor (although not the crafting jewelry), and the unicorn with the great harvesting bonuses. During this time I also completed the quest to get the Cloak of the Harvester, a cloak that not only gives harvesting bonuses but grants the wearer feather fall. But more importantly, at least as far as this post is concerned, is I acquired all four of the Far Seas Strategic Pricing Guides. The Far Seas Strategic Pricing Guides are the recipe books crafters use to make the tier 1 and tier 2 shard armor as well as jewelry, weapons, and charms. Once I discovered I could make my own armor, I determined that I wanted to run around in well-crafted armor with my name on it. In EQ2, the crafter’s name is displayed on armor, weapons, and jewelry. Cool!

The second reason is a bit more complex and goes to the differences in itemization between the Rise of Kunark and The Shadow Odyessy expansions. In RoK, I determined that once I stepped foot in the Kylong Plains that I would seek out and acquire the best non-raid equipment I could as I leveled up. I researched the various faction armor I could wear while progressing and found the sticky in the Ranger forums on the best non-raid tier 8 gear a Ranger could own. I was really pleased with that choice, not only because of the places I wound up visiting at a bit lower level than I should have, but with my performance. I didn’t realize how well I was doing until my guild joined into a raiding alliance with 2 other guilds and while level 75-77 was regularly outparsing the level 80 rangers in the raid and staying within shouting distance of a level 80 assassin’s dps. By the time TSO was released last November, the only piece of gear I wore that was not listed in the equipment list on the forums were my boots. Even though I could never get the Trooper Scale Boots to drop, I was really proud of what I achieved. Because of the hodge-podge of equipment I wore, I didn’t look like anything special, but an experienced player would know I packed a wallop.

The Shadow Odyssey is a whole different ballgame. Having the Far Seas Strategic Pricing Guides allowed me to see just how much better the shard armor was than my hard won RoK gear. The best non-raid gear was going to be found in the group instances. And the gear to get was the shard armor, which I knew would cost 38 shards to acquire the tier 1 set if I made it and an additional 112 shards to craft the tier 2 set. I also saw the writing on the wall for this expansion. In order to get into groups I was going to need to have at least a set of tier 1 armor and probably tier 2. Even those players who didn’t realize the importance of upgrading their spells and combat arts from apprentice 4s to adept 3s were going know enough about the expansion to know that shard armor is some of the best gear. While I’m a crafter, I do like to adventure on occasion and if I wanted to be able to get into groups six months after the launch of the expansion, I needed to get the shard armor.

I was already starting a month behind in the quest for the armor since I concentrated on my crafting. So how was I going to catch up, especially since I only had 60-90 minutes a night to play during the week? Simple, really. Since the devs had not declared doing the shard missions an exploit, I jumped at the chance to do grey shard runs when I was first invited about a month after the expansion launched.

I know I could have tried to get groups, but with so little available play time I figured the only groups I could get were guild groups and quite frankly, our small guild of tradeskillers and merchant adventurers didn’t have enough people to tackle the TSO instances at level. Back in November, we had 3 players with level 80 toons and no one had their fabled weapons. And at the time I started doing the grey shard runs, the guild’s level 80 healer left the game to play WoW because the launch went so poorly for the crafter content she bought the expansion to experience. Duo’ing the instances with the other level 80 in the guild just seemed the thing to do.

Before anyone tells me I should have left my guild for a bigger guild that would meet my needs better, I just want to say one thing. I’m in a high-end CRAFTING guild I have been a part of for almost 2 years filled with great people. A guild to which I have contributed almost 2 million guild status points to help level the guild to 76. And did I mention we have a tier 3 guild hall with all the amenities? If you think I’m going to leave my guild and the great people that make up my guild in order to play EverQuest 2 the way you think I should, you have another thing coming!

So why did I do grey shard runs? To make the best crafted gear I could make. To make gear not only for the joy of creating it, but to have cool gear I could wear that has my name on it. Cool gear that is amongst the best non-raid gear in the game that will help me find and join groups outside my guild when the feeling to plunge into an instance overtakes me. And to play the game in a way to allow me to stay in the guild where all of my on-line game friends reside.

Previous post: Confessions of a Grey Shard Runner: Justification
Next post: Confessions of a Grey Shard Runner: Implementation

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Confessions of a Grey Shard Runner: Justification

The reaction on the official EverQuest 2 forums to Kiara’s statement that running the shard missions in The Shadow Odyssey instances with the mobs grey is an exploit has been interesting. Instead of adding to the storm, I’ll post my comments here.

My first comment is I really don’t like the way SOE has handled the whole grey shard issue. I’m not talking about Kiara’s statement or the decision to declare using the mentoring mechanic to make mobs grey in the TSO instances to make getting shard easy an exploit. My problem is the statement was not made four months ago. If the devs didn’t know about the situation before TSO launched in November, that means they weren’t listening to their beta testers. Seeing the s***storm that has erupted on the forums the past few days, I think I can fairly say, “Epic fail, SOE, epic fail!” I really want to see how SOE will clean up the mess.

Why would I be upset with the developers waiting over 4 months to declare grey shard runs an exploit? Because I did them. Why would I engage in an exploit? Back in December a really good argument could be made that the developers wanted casual players and players in small guilds to do grey shard runs. The argument runs something like this. The devs did not want to keep casual players or players from small guilds from being able to get the really good non-raid loot. Heck, the devs wanted to give those players the ability to someday be able to do the instances. But at the same time they wanted to provide challenging content to the not-so-casual to hardcore players. The TSO instances are designed to be challenging to full (6-toon) parties of well-geared players with up-to-date spells. To give an idea of the difficulty levels involved, Runny-Eye 2 was considered to be a moderately difficult zone. The question was: how were the devs going to allow the casual player to get phat lewt while providing the challenging content the other players demanded? After all, if casuals and small guild members could get the gear over a long period of time, they would stay subscribed to the game longer and SOE would rake in the bucks. And quite frankly, casual players outnumber the hard-core raiders.

The answer seemed to be to allow players to form groups with level 75-80 players and then allow them to group with a level 50-65 character, mentor that lower level character to set the zone to level 50-65, then unmentor the lowbie and do the shard mission. A dev apparently even suggested players do this mentoring trick on the beta forums for the expansion. I didn’t actually see the post in question, and apparently all the beta forum posts have been destroyed. But I heard of the post, and the post coincided with some things I had heard on blogs and on the official forums from casual players lamenting the fact that SOE made the instances too hard and their only recourse was to do grey shard runs to get the phat lewt.

The concept of allowing players to do grey shard runs also made sense in another way. The only rewards for players doing grey shard runs are the shard, 15 gold pieces, a few percent of an AA level plus whatever silver drops from the mobs. Players doing the missions at level 80 can get a second shard from a chest, have the ability to see and gather shinies (collectables), get chest drops, and win more money from mobs. Not only that, but the alternate achievement gain is greater as well. So players doing grey shard runs could eventually get the nice shiny shard armor, but not gain nearly as much as players running the instances as designed. In my mind SOE, or perhaps just the developers who coded the expansion, actually intended for casual players to do the shard missions with the mobs 20 levels lower than themselves.

So while grey shard runs were cheesy, by themselves, they were not an exploit. However, grey shard runs were part of a really big exploit involving the selling of the otherwise no-trade (or bind on pickup) void shards. The scam worked like this. The exploiter, a level 75 to 80 adventurer and a level 79 or 80 tradeskiller who has all 4 Far Seas Strategic Pricing Manuals, would do a number of instances grey and be able to collect 6-8 shards in 60 – 90 minutes each day. That’s 40-50 void shards per week. The exploiter would then offer to make shard items using the commission system. The catch in the system is that instead of shards being an ingredient in the receipe, shards are considered fuel. That meant that the exploiter could actually sell the no-trade shards to the buyer of the armor, usually at 5 platinum pieces (500 gold pieces) per shard. Can you see how a person could become very rich, very quickly using this exploit? And since doing grey void shard runs makes the scam work better, I can understand the rationale for opposing the runs.

Did you notice I wrote “were a part of a really big exploit”? That is because in Game Update 51 the devs fixed the commission system so the shards cannot be sold. So there goes that rationale. But I still won’t do any more grey shard runs. They are an exploit; SOE in the form of Kiara have told us so.

Next post: Confessions of a Grey Shard Runner: Motivation

Sunday, April 5, 2009

What I've Been Listening To: March 29 - April 4, 2009

Last week was crazy at work. So crazy I didn’t log into EverQuest 2 on Thursday or Friday. So crazy that I didn’t even want to look at a computer away from work and started to read John Ringo’s The Last Centurion instead. The last few blog entries that I posted were written earlier in the week and I scheduled them to appear on Thursday and Friday. Reading that book got me excited to listen to the new episode of Through the Aftermath, so I’m back at the key board. Seeing the increase in traffic from the last few posts helps me to keep writing.

Below is what I listened to last week.

Van Hemlock #45 (Hosts: Van Hemlock and Jon Shute) – Listening to the commentary from the other side of the pond helped stave off the disgust of looking at my computer for a day. I could only listen to the podcast so many times before the desire to shut down my computer became too great and I picked up my book. Some things even the great Van Hemlock can’t stop.

The hosts didn’t have any great issues of the day to discuss; just news and what they were playing. The news covered ranged from Jack Thompson to the latest installment of “Are computer games dead?” to the Nerf Bat visiting Eve. I really enjoyed Van Hemlock’s description of his play time in City of Heroes. Circus characters!

Free Play Podcast #17 (Hosts: Riknas and Andras) – The Free Play Crew helped stave off my rage against the computer in the middle of the week with a very nice podcast. Riknas and Andras are no Jonathan Morris (see skits at the beginning of Through the Aftermath for examples of really good skits), but I liked the skit at the beginning of the podcast.

Riknas’ and Andras’ little podcast is getting mentioned this high in my podcast list because they bring the news of games that others overlook. If you want to know about F2P games, the Free Play Podcast is a good place to start. For instance, this episode’s news included subjects like same sex marriage in DOMO, voice-overs in Wizard 101, the popularity of Atlantica, Silk Road Online’s expansion, and a list of games that have entered beta.

Episode 17's reviewed game was BOTS. I won’t spoil the comedy involved in the review, except to say if you can’t get past the character creator, BOTS may not be the game for you.

The Instance #140 (Hosts: Scott Johnson and Randy "Delux" Jordan) - I should have known I was going to have a bad week when after working a 13 1/2 hour day on Monday listening to Scott and Randy didn't give me the same emotional lift it usually does. I don’t have a lot of notes from the show, but some of it seems important. For instance, is Gnome Soccer going to be the new in-game sport in World of Warcraft? And I think that the hosts offered a very important service in reminding all players that the United States Internal Revenue Service does not allow people to claim their alts as dependents. As the sole supporter of 7 alts in EQ2, I think that’s one Bush administration policy that needs to change!

Oh yes, and the pair offered up real news, like the changes in alchemy and how longs the effects of flasks last, speculation on whether Blizzard is developing a 5th game, and the news about OnLine that came out of the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco.

WoW Insider #83 – I decided that I was going to listen to WoW Insider for the first time this week. It was probably not a good week to start listening considering the way work was going downhill for me. The podcast had all the elements to be good. Patrick Beja from How I WoW and a contributor to The Instance and Alex Albrecht of Project Lore were guests. And the topics covered: alchemy changes, why players are leaving the Arenas and speculation about what is in the upcoming new battleground were good. I just had problems staying awake. Something tells me that the problem wasn’t boring hosts. Think the problem was me not getting enough sleep? I do. That’s why I’m going to listen to episode 84.

Through The Aftermath #6 (Hosts: Shawn Schuster and Jonathan Morris) – Yesterday when I finally got the urge to look at a computer again, I headed on over to Virgin Worlds and downloaded the podcast. Hey, there is a reason that farmers, raiders, and mutant hordes in the post-apocalyptic wastelands stop what they are doing to listen to Through The Aftermath.

The podcast took a break while Shawn went to San Francisco to cover GDC for As great as being the managing editor for a game site is, one of the drawbacks was Shawn could not play the latest Fallout 3 expansion, The Pitt. So Jonathan got to lead the discussion about Fallout 3 while Shawn relayed what he discovered about Fallen Earth, Earthrise, and Huxley at GDC. The podcast also features Shawn’s interview with the Earthrise team and Masthead Studios’ CEO Atanas Atanasov.

Just from listening to the podcast, I am now interested in playing Fallen Earth. If I am reading my notes correctly, the game sounds like crafters will have a key place in the game, and I’m all about the crafting!

Channel Massive #84 (Hosts: Noah, Jason & Mark) - I finished out the week listening to the M team talk about the latest news. The Channell Massive take on the news is a bit different than everyone else's, which makes it great for Saturday afternoon listening. Okay, the Channell Massive podcast is great to listen to anytime, but I digress.

This week's discussion ranged from what the creator of Pong is currently doing (EPIC FAIL?) to SOE's latest doings (game delays & women) to World of Warcraft news. The Blog-O-Steria segment was cut short due to real life issues. Mark's wife went into labor during the recording of episode #84. Congrats Mark on having a brand new baby girl!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Size Matters

Does size matter? When it comes to the size of a player’s inventory in an MMORPG, the answer is yes. Last week I wrote a post pointing out how much more “stuff” EverQuest 2 characters can own at one time than World of Warcraft toons. The question I did not answer was: what are the effects of this inventory design decision on the games?

The first effect I see is that WoW players are more likely to delete items from their bags than players in EQ2. From my experience in Vanilla WoW, I would start an adventuring session with one 16-slot bag empty and perhaps a few slot free in another bag. In EQ2, I never leave town without at least 30 free bag slots and often times with 50 free bag slots. So how does that affect the games? Well, WoW players can either have to delete items or they have to travel back to town a lot more often, especially since items like ore and plants only stack to 20 while similar items in EQ2 stack to 200. Not only do the inventory limits lead players in WoW to make more trips to town than in EQ2, but the decision also affects the economy in the games. Not only is it harder to gather lots of items to put up for sale on WoW’s auction house, but players can only list the item for sale for 24 hours before it is emailed back to the seller. Players not only can gather more stuff in EQ2, but they can list the items on the broker for as long as they have space in their sales crates and log in once a week.

The second effect I see is the greater use of mules in WoW than in EQ2. Mules are characters whose sole purpose in life is to serve as extra inventory slots. I didn’t use mules when I played WoW, but I know a lot of people who do. I know I had some issues with items at level 60; I can’t imagine all the things I would just sell to the vendor if I had stayed in the game and reached level 80. Of course, if I had used mules I could have kept more things. But mailing items to your mules has its own drawbacks. When I asked the mage at work if he wanted bigger bags, he told me no because managing his belongings was already such a chore. He also said he didn’t like putting items for sale on the auction house because his mail is already clogged with items he has mailed his mules and he doesn’t want to deal with the unsold items the auction house would send him.

In EQ2, I don’t need to create alts for extra inventory space. Yes, I do have 8 characters, but they are all mid-to-high level crafters. The items I put in their bags and banks are items they need for crafting. My alts aren’t mules; they are characters in their own right. They may not be able to fight very well, but my little crafting family can make almost anything I need in game. The important thing for me is that I don’t have to log in and out of my characters just to manage my inventory. I log in to play the character, not to sort through my bags and put items in the mail.

The question you may be asking at this point is why doesn’t Blizzard increase the inventory space? Two words: cost and performance. Quite frankly, Ron Pardo does not need to worry about competition from EverQuest 2, so Blizzard can worry about maximizing profit and ignore the competition from SOE. But the developers do need to worry about newer games like Age of Conan (don’t laugh!) and Warhammer Online coming onto the scene. In those battles, WoW relies on better game performance and faster executing SQL calls help capture market share more than giving players more inventory space. Also, because WoW keeps the SQL space used by each character to a minimum, the devs have the freedom to quickly add features in reaction to a competitor. For instance, WoW was able to add the Achievement system in response to Warhammer’s Tome of Knowledge.

I’ve mentioned the positives for WoW making the design choice of less inventory space. So what are the negatives for EQ2? The one that really bugs me is I only can have 7 characters on my account in the game. Seven? WoW players can have a total of 50 characters, with a limit of 10 characters per server. Think about how ridiculous only being able to have 7 characters in EQ2 is. EQ2 has 24 character classes and 14 character races! I guess I should be thankful that WoW beat EQ2 so badly, because at launch EQ2 players could only have 4 characters. With all the SQL servers going unused, SOE was able to give players 3 additional slots through the years.

I will have to admit the limit irks me more because I want to have all the crafting classes rather than the fact I can't have all of the adventure classes. As I mentioned previously, I have 8 characters, lacking only a carpenter. But I can have all my crafters on one account, if I pay more for the privilege. If you purchase the Sony Station Pass, not only do players get access to games like EverQuest, Vanguard and Pirates of the Burning Sea, but an additional 5 character slots in EQ2 as well. I have dabbled in Vanguard and PotBS, but I never made it past the newbie areas, so I guess that SOE has used the character limitations imposed by the large amount of inventory slots given to EQ2 toons lead players to try other games on the Sony Station Pass. At least it worked in my case.

So which approach is better, large or small? I'll let you decide.

Note to self: Aren't there 19 races? Failure to proof-read for the loss.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

EQ2 Warning: Grey Shard Runs Now Officially An Exploit

For all players who were using EverQuest 2's mentoring mechanic to set zones to level 50-60 in order to complete shard missions with the instances grey, please take note of the following post by Kiara (last entry in this forum thread):

This is an exploit and we are currently working on a fix for it.

I'd suggest not doing it.

Whilst you won't have the shards you've gotten via this method removed, it is something we are actively working on removing from the game.

At first glance, doing the missions in zones is an exploit. But the devs seemed to give their okay to the practice, although I could not find a post with a dev explicitly stating doing so was okay. My guild split into two factions on this issue. One faction considered the practice an exploit and refused to do any shard runs in greyed-out zones. The second faction took the position that SOE devs had come out in the forums and stated the practice was not an exploit, and thus allowed. In talking amongst the members of the guild in the second faction (of which I was a member), we decided now that SOE staff have declared the practice an exploit that we will no longer engage in the practice.

Our small guild has determined we should be able to do the missions in Deep Forge to help level and equip our up and coming guildies who currently are level 75-80. Doing the missions at level 80 will allow us to gather the shinies that are not available unless a group consists solely of level 80 characters. Needless to say, those items sell very well on the broker. Did I mention my guild is filled with tradeskillers and merchant adventurers? Cha-ching!

The other benefit is now that SOE has come out and made the announcement, we should see the wall that formed among some of the members of my guild lower. In other words, less cause for guild drama.

I do hope that SOE will publicize this decision. The thread was locked right after Kiara made the announcement. Maybe SOE will allow players to continue to do grey shard runs until a fix is put in place. Personally though, I wouldn't risk it.

UPDATE: On July 7, 2009 Kiara posted the following on the official EQ2 forums...

Whilst grey shard runs are technically an exploit (in that we did not intend for the content to be used in this way) it's been part of gameplay for long enough that changing things now would simply be punishing to our players and a major buzz kill.

Going forward we're going to do our best to ensure that we prevent stuff like this, but we won't be "breaking" the current dynamic.

* puts the topic to bed *

Thanks all!

Related posts:
Confessions of a Grey Shard Runner: Justification
Confessions of a Grey Shard Runner: Motivation
Confessions of a Grey Shard Runner: Implementation
Confessions of a Grey Shard Runner: Epilogue

EQ2 to copy WoW's Name, Gender change policy?

Given that yesterday was April Fools Day I'm a little leery about posting this. I logged onto EQ2Players last night and discovered that Sony Online Entertainment has decided to copy Blizzard's policy of allowing World of Warcraft players to radically change their characters, including changing gender and names. EverQuest 2 players will be able to go to the Station Marketplace and purchase a Potion of Amnesia to change their name, and either a Potion of Disgenderment or a Norrathian Witness Protection Potion to change appearance and gender.

Currently, EQ2 players can pay one gold piece to go to the barber and change their appearance. The official EverQuest 2 site did not mention prices for the potions. If this is not an April Fool's joke, then I'm going to have to be on the lookout for some of my "favorite" people changing their names.