Interviews over at Massively

I’m always proud and excited over doing interviews, even if they aren’t always the pageviews blockbusters that I’d hope they’d be.  Anyway, I’ve done two recently that I wanted to share with you:

RIFT: Life in the fast lane

After two crazy weeks of work, I finally had a respite this past weekend — and some much-needed time to myself.  When it came to gaming, I decided to have fun and throw all my chips into one basket to see what I could do.

In this case, it was a weekend of playing nothing but RIFT.  As I’ve said in the past, I feel the pressure of the expansion growing, even though we don’t know when it’s coming.  What I do know for sure is that it’s (a) in the fall and (b) Guild Wars 2 is launching at the end of August.  That means that I need to get serious about getting this character ready for expansion content in the span of a month before a fourth title comes along to compete for my time.

If I’m making this sound dire and work-like, it’s not; I like a challenge, and it’s enjoyable to push my character out of a lackadaisical leveling pattern to something with a strong purpose.  My current goals are:

  • Hit 50
  • Finish up the last five zones of quest content (Droughtlands, Shimmersands, Stillmoor, Iron Pines Peaks, and Ember Isle)
  • Get cranking on Planar Attunement
  • Gear up in a few dungeon runs — nothing serious, but enough to tackle Ember Isle
  • Do the saga quests (like the Water Saga)

It’s a hefty to-do list, that’s for sure.  So with my weekend, I wanted to cross off one, if not two items from that list.  I decided that on Saturday, I would do ALL of Droughtlands in one go.

Considering that there’s over a 100 quests in this one zone, it was kind of crazy.  My big advantage was that I was about four or five levels above the content, so I could breeze through mobs rather easily.  I started the day by gobbling up all of the quests I could find, then began running them like a madman.  It was crazy.  It was fun.  It felt like a shopping spree where you’re trying to grab all you can before a time limit ran out.

I didn’t quite accomplish an entire zone in a day — but I made serious progress and finished the rest on Sunday.  A casual playstyle means that I rarely finish a whole zone — particularly in the elder game — this quickly, so it felt like a neat accomplishment.  Big thanks goes out to two guildies who lent a hand for a few group quests that I couldn’t solo.

So Droughtlands is officially behind me.

During this experience, two significant experiences happened.  The first is that I began to strongly fine-tune my Cleric’s Druid build so that it would be a lot more durable.  That meant ditching my Sentinel soul, scaling back on my Shaman talents, and weaving in a very strong dose of Justicar.  It’s created a really fun hybrid that is flexible on the spot.  With a few button clicks, I can go from a tank with a pet healer to a DPS machine with a damage pet.  The melee aspect of it is quite enjoyable as well, although I do still love my Inquisitor from time to time.

The other experience is that I jumped into high-level Instant Adventures for the first time and saw my XP bar practically shoot through the roof.  Questing is steady, slow progress on the XP front; IAs seem almost criminally overcharged when it comes to the XP that’s raked in.  Between a handful of IA sessions and finishing Droughtlands, I went from level 42 to 48 in a weekend.  For me, that’s huge.  With level 50 in sight, I’m going to be pushing even harder this week to hit that mark.

Plus, IAs are just a lot of fun as a whole.  I like quests for what they are, but IAs are instant grouping with rapidly changing goals and activities that just chain together.  It almost feels like a cheat mode for the game.  Plus, I’m getting just huge chunks of planarite and other special currency to spend on much-needed gear.

So even while one juggles MMOs, it’s still cool to put all but one aside for a big marathon session from time to time.  I love the feeling of accomplishment that came out of this weekend, and I feel like I’m actually getting there with my character’s progress.

Thanksgiving in July!

You know how they have Christmas in July for some insane reason?  Like brain worms or a global conspiracy or something?  I’ve decided that today’s going to be my personal Thanksgiving in July.  I just feel kind of thankful today for a lot of reasons regarding gaming and blogging, and wanted to make sure I gave some sort of public acknowledgement to those who make my life brighter.

First of all, thanks to my coworkers at Massively — great folks, all, and a reason that I feel like I’m part of a team and not just flying solo there.  We may not all see eye-to-eye on every topic and game, but their passion for MMOs keeps mine roaring.  Special thanks to my editor-in-chief Shawn, who constantly gives me creative reign in columns and has to deal with us writing monkeys.

Thanks to my co-hosts on Massively Speaking and TL;DL, Bree and Dodge.  I look forward to recording both of these podcasts every week because I get to chat with each of them for an hour or so, and they’re always a lot of fun to bounce off of.

Thanks to those who’ve inspired me to go on a diet this past month, namely Professor Beej, Moxie, and Dodge (among others).  I’m 10 pounds down and feeling that there’s hope for the first time that this might actually work.

Thanks to Bio Break’s commenters, who often come up with excellent counter-points, ideas, and conversations.  This blog would feel dead without them.

Thanks to the many excellent MMO bloggers out there who keep my feeds full and lively every day.  I always regret that I don’t call out individual blogs often enough for entertaining and enlightening me, and I’ll try to do better about that in the future.

Thanks to MMO Melting Pot — a great topic aggregator that’s featured Bio Break more times than I can count.

Thanks to my guilds, especially those who put up with my constant questions and are there to lend a hand when needed.

And thanks to the MMO devs and CMs who obviously work on these games because of a shared love of the genre and not because they thrive on non-stop criticism and fanboy rage.  Special thanks to Trion Worlds for being one of the hardest-working studios I’ve ever seen; ArenaNet for taking the path less traveled; Turbine for putting up with my interview questions; Cryptic for forging ahead through the backlash; and for devs who’ve lost their positions or jobs but keep sticking it out because this is what they love to do.

The Secret World: Beefing up

Continuing from my rant yesterday on frustration with TSW’s slow combat, I decided to buckle down and figure out a better way to go about my business.  Since The Secret World is, at least to me, an adventure game first and foremost, the combat takes a distant second in my interest.  It’s there as a way to slow my progress through the story in addition to puzzles, so it’s important to me that fighting not be aggravating.  One-minute-per-kill is aggravating.

So I took some of your suggestions — Lick Your Wounds is an excellent skill, thank you — and dove into the forums looking for a good all-around build.  What I’m looking at now is a blade/chaos build that focuses on penetration, DPS, and lots of health regen.  Perfect for my purposes.

Of course, just blithely switching over is more easily said than done.  I needed to invest skill points (of which I had just one) to allow me to use these two new weapon types, and I needed to grab several skills with AP to construct my new hotbar.  So I decided to do this in phases.  I’d ditch my elementalism first, keeping my shotgun for the time being (the turret is nice, and the shotgun is QL6 blue).  I turned to a quick bout of PvP for some additional SP and AP, and after a half hour, I got 3 SP and 10 AP — enough to get started.  Finally, just when I was despairing about getting a blade that would work, I got not one but two during a couple side quests I wrapped up.

All in all, I bumped my Blade skill from 0 to 4 in the course of an evening, equipped a QL5 green blade, and then grabbed ten new skills.  Before I knew it, I was in a completely different world of fighting — just with these skills, I was whittling beasts down a lot faster, and the health regen made me happy.  Part of me always feels bad for using swords in a contemporary or scifi setting (pistols are so much cooler), but I know that it’s always an option for the future to switch, so I’m not freaking out about it.

Anyway, for right now I’m happy.  I think the fact that you can use ANY passive skill, no matter if it’s for a weapon you have equipped right now or not, is one of those eye-opening moments in your journey.

Hm… now I really want blades/pistols… darn my indecision!

Time-to-kill

It seems like every studio developing a new MMO gets a bee in their bonnet about a particular game design mechanic or topic.  Sometimes it’s more than one, but you’ll end up hearing lots of talk on this one subject that will hardly — if at all — be mentioned in any of the other MMOs out there, in development or released.

One of these topics for Warhammer Online was the concept of “time-to-kill” — in other words, how long it took the average player to kill an average mob.  Seriously, TTK (as Mythic called it) was like a major subject worthy of numerous posts and quotes, but it’s something I’ve also heard zilch about in other titles.  Do studios consider how long it takes a player to dispatch an enemy?  Probably, but I’m guessing it’s not the centerpiece of design, either.

In any case, the reason I bring this up is that time-to-kill has stuck in my head over the years.  I actually do notice that in Game A it takes a lot longer than Game B to kill a critter (all things being equal — levels, gear, etc.).  Right now, time-to-kill for me in The Secret World is absurdly high.  Fighting white or yellow single-dot mobs with my QL6 shotgun and elementalist magic, I can expect to spend a minute trying to burn that puppy down.  If there’s more than one mob (unless it’s a swarm), I have to flee.  Maybe I’ve really gimped myself and my build, but I don’t think so.  Or it could just be that this combination isn’t great for single-target stuff.  Or I’m just at a tough point in the game and my power level will start to grow from here.  I have no idea, but every quest is a slow slog through mobs that I’d much rather be killing in 15-20 seconds than in 60.

LOTRO’s pretty bad with TTK as well.  At higher levels, those mobs don’t fall down that quickly, and even though my Captain is highly specced for damage, with an archer out and sometimes even my landscape soldier, I never feel like I’m killing as fast as I’d like to be.  This is especially noticeable when trying to complete slayer deeds.

On the flip side, I adore RIFT’s time-to-kill.  Battles feel quick and breezy, and I’m rarely stuck with a stubborn enemy that refuses to budge a single inch on its health bar.  This has a trickle-down effect on quests: I can just throw myself into the fray and not worry as much that getting through an enemy camp is going to take the better part of a half-hour.  Guild Wars 2, as well, seems like it has a good TTK rate, although I just saw content through level 15, so who knows.

SWTOR is a good example of how TTK can work both for and against a game.  There are pretty much three standard mobs in the game: packs of 2-4, solo tougher guys, and solo elite guys.  The packs are always lightning-fast battles and lots of fun.  The semi-tough guys are acceptable and usually what I consider a standard MMO fight.  But dang it if I didn’t try to avoid them or especially the elites, not because I couldn’t kill them, but because the trade-off in time was usually unacceptable.

So if there’s any great conclusion to all this — and there isn’t, trust me — it’s that I prefer faster fights that might come more often to compensate.  And I really wish I could figure out a better way to take down these @%#^ bug mobs in TSW’s Blue Mountain.

Too Long; Didn’t Listen episode 33 is up!

Dodge and Syp take on the Big Four fantasy races in one of the most abstract, silly, and passionate shows you’ll ever hear.  Come one, come all to soak in their wisdom on humans, dwarves, gnomes, and — yes — elves.  Justin constructs brand-new swear words to deal with the last one.

Two topics in 30 minutes or your next podcast is free. You know you would listen to all this if it just wasn’t so… long!

Listen to episode 33 here!

Guild Wars 2: Progress doesn’t always mean better

On the whole, I think Guild Wars 2 is a smashing game from what I’ve seen.  That doesn’t mean it’s impervious to criticism or faults, of course.  Developing a game over five years now has to lend itself to a few mistakes in judgment.

The more I think about it, the more I agree with several bloggers out there who are expressing dissatisfaction with the skill system and hotbar setup.  It’s not impossible to figure out, but the game doesn’t go out of its way to explain what is pretty unique to the mechanic (different weapons/items radically change the skills on the hotbar).  I really, really disliked having to “unlock” skills every time I’d pick up a new weapon type.  This might be okay for the beginning game, when you’re slowly learning things, but when I’m level 12 and happen to pick up my first pair of pistols, I don’t want to be struggling through a couple dozen fights before I get all of the standard skills that I should be using.

Like my fellow bloggers, I totally didn’t understand the chain skills or combos, only picking up some of those after experimentation.  Oh, I don’t need to keep jamming on the 1 key so that my three-skill chain goes off?  The game just automatically does these once I hit the key a single time?  Thanks for letting me know!

I understand that this format is in response to the craziness that Guild Wars 1’s anything-can-go skill builds created, particularly after a couple campaigns were added and balancing became impossible.  But it feels like the pendulum swung too far to the other side, to the point where we’re not allowed to customize half of our hotbar.  Is this progress?  It looks like linebacking to me.

In 2007, maybe this was a good idea.  Today we have a bevy of MMOs that allow players so much flexibility when it comes to builds and attack rotations that it comes off as needlessly antagonistic toward the player.  I’m all in favor of a simple hotbar with 7 or 8 skills.  But in The Secret World, I can mix and match between a whole bunch of skills to make up my rotation, whereas Guild Wars 2 gives me four slots and tells me I should be happy.

It’s probably a moot point to complain about this now; there doesn’t seem to be any obvious way to change this system without a major overhaul.  I even kind of like the fact that there are weapon-specific skills, but I’d be a lot happier if these were limited to just one or two, giving us the rest of the hotbar for our own build.

Maybe it’s too early to pronounce judgment on this as well.  GW2 does give you different weapon slots so that you can swap between them, and that does give you some flexibility between the preset builds.  Changing weapons on the fly might be interesting and key to unlocking the fun here, but I didn’t get into that in the beta.

The three-quest rotation plan revisited

I promised you that I’d come back and report on my new plan to juggle several MMOs by playing about three quests apiece before rotating to the next game.  I was a little surprised that there was some negative comments on this plan, so I wanted to address the questions I’ve gotten and talk about how it’s gone.

First of all, I’m just experimenting with different ways to handle multiple MMOs without losing focus in any particular one.  This is for me, not necessarily for anyone else; I’m just sharing my gaming journey, as always.  I’ve noticed that I personally have a tendency to (a) want to play multiple titles at once and (b) allow one of these games to dominate my play time, usually based on newness (or how new it is to me).  My goal is simply to balance things out a tad and introduce a little self-discipline to my play schedule.  When you have limited time to play every day, I think you have to have a plan to parcel that out or else just stick with one game and be done with it.

So the three-quest plan was definitely interesting.  The first night I played it, I went through all three MMOs twice, like so: 3 quests in LOTRO, 3 quests in RIFT, 3 quests in TSW, 3 quests in LOTRO, 3 quests in RIFT, and 2 or 3 quests in TSW.  The next night I only had time for one such rotation.

What I quickly found is that a quest is not a quest in all games.  An epic storyline quest in LOTRO is perhaps worth 3 standard task quests in the same game.  The Secret World’s quests typically take much longer, especially the non-side quests (which have multiple tiers, each of which can be considered its own quest).  RIFT was perfect for this plan, especially since the game gives you between 2 to 4 quests at a time through its hubs.  So even though each game was getting three quests’ worth of progress, the time investment was wildly varied.  It kind of became one of those things where I’d have to eyeball each title individually and figure out an equivalent that kept things competitive.

So I’ve been asked if this was annoying, to log out and log back in constantly.  Yes and no; it could get ridiculous, as in the first night, but I tend to use logging in time to check email and do other small tasks, so it’s not a waste.

Another question was, “Won’t you be hurting yourself as you just start to get into a game and then you force yourself to log out?”  Actually, for me this was a “no.”  My problem was that when one game starts to grab my attention, the other titles I’m playing — as much as I like them — suffer strongly.  I stopped playing everything, including LOTRO, for a good month or two when SWTOR came out.  I didn’t have a plan in place to encourage me to keep up with my regular squeeze, and let all the excitement of something new dominate.  So what I found was that this plan worked akin to starting a strict exercise regimen or becoming way more organized at work.  By making it highly structured to start with, it broke me of the dominance and made me more relaxed when it came to entering and exiting different games.

In the end, I’ve transitioned from the three-quest plan to the time block one.  Every night now I’m giving each game a set amount of time based on what I learned from the three-quest experiment.  LOTRO gets a good half-hour, which is definitely enough time right now to push my character through the last couple of hubs before the expansion.  RIFT is assigned a full hour or hour and a half, depending on my available time.  Whatever’s left goes to TSW, because I’m definitely not playing that game with an agenda (like “prepare for the expansion” or “get to endgame”).

Really, when it comes to MMO juggling, you just have to find what works for you.  For me, it’s having a little bit of discipline and structure without becoming draconian about it.

Final thoughts from a final Guild Wars 2 beta weekend

I’m back!  It always feels utterly weird to take a full week off writing, but it’s refreshing as well.  Recharges the batteries, y’know?  Anyway, I want to sincerely thank the legion of guest posters who filled Bio Break with great discussions last week.

So I got home on Friday and was prepared to do my usual digging-out-of-blog-posts and MMO catch-up.  Then a little birdie said, “Guild Wars 2 beta weekend!” and all hope was lost for me.  I actually wasn’t planning on playing it, but I had a personal project I was hoping to complete over the course of the weekend (which I may tell you about some day), so I spent upwards of 10 hours in GW2.

Might as well write about it, right?

Thoughts on Sylvari

Ah, the Sylvari.  ArenaNet’s “They’re totally not elves even though they live in trees and commune with the earth and ride around in giant poofy plant pods!”  It’s the race I’m the least likely to play on launch — I think this weekend locked in the Asura for me, they’re so dang cool — so exploring them in beta was a no-lose proposition.  All the game could do would be to win me over, somehow.

It didn’t quite do that, but I was very impressed with just how beautiful the starting area is.  I mean, all of GW2 that I’ve seen is visually gorgeous, but this is right up there.  Splashing streams, underwater ship graveyards, ruins, jungle-lite — it’s nice.  Hard as anything to navigate at times, but easy on the eyes.

My character ended up with a mushroom for a head, which was a… unique character creation option.  She ended up looking like a Chinese farmer because of it, and from a distance didn’t look any different than a typical human model.  Some of the other Sylvari were a lot more diverse.

Thoughts on the Mesmer

I picked the Mesmer because it’s a class that I honestly did want to be swayed toward — pleasantly surprised enough to abandon my top two choices of Engineer and Ranger.  After 10 hours with it, I have to say it’s in my top 3.  If you can get past the purple-up-your-nose and butterfly aesthetic, it’s a much different-feeling class than you’d find elsewhere.

A lot of the Mesmer’s abilities revolve around illusions (clones of yourself that do different things) and messing with the enemy’s ability to function properly.  You can have up to three illusions out at any given time, although they just last for one battle and have to be summoned again for the next one, and you can sacrifice them to gain a strong effect like confusing the enemy for five seconds.  Like most everything else in GW2, your weapon choice impacts your core skills, so in this case it changed what kind of illusions I had going on.  Pistols would allow me to summon an illusionary pistoleer, while other weapons gave me a tanking illusion or a warlock illusion.  I actually got pretty good with this class in the time given, and while it’s definitely squishy, it can be devastating if wielded properly.

Thoughts on underwater combat

Originally I poo-pooed Anet going bananas over underwater combat — you know, we’ve been there, done that so many times in MMOs, and so on — but I gave it a lot more attention this weekend and swam away highly impressed.  There are a few things that elevate this sphere of combat above the typical MMO underwater stuff, such as follows:

  • The movement is very fluid (har!) (please stop me), and you move fast enough so that it doesn’t feel like a slog
  • There’s a lot to see, and some of the underwater vistas are incredible — perhaps more so than what you see on land
  • I really like the fact that you use a different weapon with different skills, which changes things up
  • The underwater city with the Quagaan (or however you spell their names) was one of the highlights of the beta for me

Thoughts on the overall play experience

While I went through the personal story, I kept skipping the cutscenes so I wouldn’t spoil it for that bizarre future when I actually play a Sylvari.  The personal missions were pretty challenging, yet I could keep rezzing to give them another go.

So from what I can tell, if you shy away from PvP, the flow of the game will be something like this for  you:  Intro –> Couple heart areas / events –> next step in personal storyline –> more events/hearts –> next personal storyline quest –> etc.  Your personal storyline has specific levels attached to it, so if you try to head into one before you’re that level, you’re going to struggle or probably fail at it.  So it’s good to keep things diversified.

What I found was that grinding mobs was a waste of time/XP gained, while doing hearts, events, and exploring points of interest did the most to level me up.  I’d often just head to the next heart area, start doing whatever jobs there were, and pay attention for events around me.  Events are almost always worth doing, especially since they seem to scale up and down based on participants, and they do have that RIFT effect of making the world feel more dynamic.  I like how easy it is to be doing cooperative activities alongside of others without having to fiddle with grouping or any of that, and every time I’d be downed in an event, someone leaped to revive me.

After a few of these beta events, I feel that I have a good feel for the basics of Guild Wars 2.  I think it’s going to be an excellent entry into the MMO field offering strong visuals, a slightly different way to play (less questing, more reacting to the world around you), and many small improvements over what we’ve seen in this genre so far.  For some it’ll be the one MMO to rule them all, for others it’ll be a fun side diversion.  Both are acceptable in my book.