Tag Archives: Rambling Detected

Quests, Missions, and Return on Investment

One of the great compelling aspects of MMORPGs is progression, progression being defined as doing something… gain a skill, earn some gold, gain some experience, advance a story, open up new zones or dungeons… that advances you towards a larger goal.  I was all over that, along with what was meaningful and what might not be, last week.  Or, at least I strung together a bunch of words alleging to be all over that.  The rather subdued response could mean I sent everybody away to think… or that I just sent everybody away.

I am back for more.

Part and parcel of whatever variation of progression you choose, at least in PvE, is knowing that the time you spend gives you an expected return in the coin of the realm, be that gold, progression, faction, or whatever.  Knowing you can log in and do something in a given amount of time for a set reward can be a powerful thing.  But it can also be a limiting thing.

In a discussion in a comment thread a while back about PvE in EVE Online there was the usual gripe about the dull and repetitive nature of PvE in New Eden, accompanied by the call for CCP to make PvE more challenging, dynamic, exciting, or whatever.  Those words always play well, in part because they are just vague enough without solid context to mean just about anything.

However one person called bullshit on all of that in a comment.  His assertion was that what mission runners valued above all was the consistency of both knowing what they were going to get for their efforts and understanding what it was going to take to complete the task at hand.  It was the surety of the return on the time invested that kept people going after they learned enough of the game to move forward.

Great moments in PvE, two explosions at once… I clearly split my guns

And while I wasn’t on board with everything he had to say, I had to agree strongly that the almost guaranteed return on the time invested was likely the bedrock on which many a mission runner career ended up being based.  In the absence of broad scale progression like levels, the reward in ISK and LPs was about all one can hang their hat on when it comes to New Eden PvE.

There is a reason that bounties in null sec are the biggest ISK faucet in the game.  Anomalies are repetitive in the extreme, don’t really have much of a fig leaf of a story to cover your reasoning to warp there and shoot everything in sight, and the big excitement is that maybe you get an escalation at the end.  And even escalations, not all that common back in the day, have gotten much more rare as CCP attempts to put the reigns on the faction battleship supply.

Furthermore, as I noted on Talking in Stations a week or so back, the escalation option for many players is to sell the bookmarks to a group that will run them and split the rewards with you so you don’t have to step out of your comfort zone and have your payout expectations set in advance.

There was a skit with Bill Murray on Saturday Night Live way back in the day where he was on stage with another performer ( I forget who at this point) who would give him a treat every time he did something on stage.  Then, after one action, he didn’t get a treat, at which point he stopped to point out that he was expecting a treat.  He’d been given a treat for every action in rehearsal and during the warm up before the show and for every action up to that point, but now suddenly he didn’t get a treat when he clearly expected one and had to find out, mid skit, what happened.

This is sort of the dark side of MMORPGs, the conditioned behavior, in that we expect to get a treat… experience or gold or achievement or whatever… for every action.  We expect that our time invested ought to be rewarded and can get upset or demoralized when it does not.

I am reminded of spending a whole evening grinding mobs with a group back in early EverQuest and then having a bad spawn or a mob wander up or get trained onto us, getting killed, and essentially losing all of the progress I had made.  That was always a disheartening moment.  For all the arguments about having enjoyed yourself up until that moment, the loss of what you had played/worked for tends to cancel that out and then some.

MMORPGs have tended to mitigate that since the early days of EverQuest.  In World of Warcraft death’s sting is pretty light, no progress is lost, and you can run back and try your hand at things fairly quickly.

In New Eden however the destruction of one’s ship can still represent a setback in the only progress a lot of people use, ISK accumulation.  One of the hardest things to get used to in EVE Online is that losing a ship is something to be expected, a normal part of the game.  It took me a long time to get past that.  I have seen people argue that they would never play EVE because they equate a ship in New Eden with gear in WoW, and the idea that you could somehow lose all of your hard earned purple raid gear is anathema to some people.  The whole “only fly what you can afford to lose” is nonsense talk to people who come from worlds where you never lose anything.  That there is a whole complex economy happy to sell them replacement ships doesn’t matter, loss is bad.

And even when you have accepted that ships are temporary, there is still that ISK setback and the inconvenience of getting a replacement.  So PvE in New Eden tends to be the pursuit of the optimized ISK gathering experience, and null sec anomalies win on that front.  Missions are arguably at least mildly more interesting, but a boring anomaly is very consistent in reward and difficulty and you don’t have to travel to find one.  With no real progression outside of ISK accumulation, people tend towards the easiest path.

But that is setting up for failure if your primary focus in PvE.  Anomalies are deadly dull.  I will never be really space rich or own a super capital ship because I cannot bring myself to run more than one or two on any given day.  Instead I use them to fill in the gap between alliance ship replacement payouts (you never quite get what you paid, or for peacetime ops you only get a small payout), to buy new ships when doctrines change, and to cover my own losses when I am off doing dumb things just to see if I can. (I was told I was very dumb for flying my Typhoon back from the deployment, fun and/or challenge not being a mitigating factor in the minds of some.)

In a sandbox game like EVE Online which lacks what I would consider long term, meaningful progression, how do you build “better” PvE for players?  What does “better” even look like given that, for many people, additional complexity or difficulty is often viewed as a negative and the accumulation of ISK or LPs are the only real long-term incentives?

Even people who choose more difficult content like burner missions optimize for them, so that when CCP changes something without mentioning it in the patch notes it can cause some heartburn?

And where does that leave CCP’s ambition to convert new players from PvE to PvP?  Because the return on investment… measured in fun, excitement, or kill mails… for PvP in New Eden can be even worse than PvE.  Much worse.

EVE Online Curse

Sitting in a bubble during a gate camp and waiting…

The problem with sandbox PvP is that it depends on other people, and we’re all notoriously unreliable.  And all the more so in New Eden where you can’t just pop up again at the nearest respawn point fully equipped and ready to have another go.

Yet another on the list of reasons I fly in null sec is that not only do I see some of the more large scale PvP battles, but for the most part somebody else does the work of figuring out where to be and when, then just calls on people like myself to come and help make it happen.  People like Asher Elias and Jay Amazingness and a host of other people put in a lot of effort to find fights that will keep us all happy to hang around and respond to pings.

Even then I would say that maybe, possibly, very optimistically one in four operations end us up with us shooting at hostiles, leaving aside structures and the occasional passing target of opportunity… which usually gets scooped up by the guy not running the doctrine fit because he has two scripted sebos in his mids for just such an occasion.

And even then, actually getting the much worshiped “gud fight” is a rare bird indeed.  Most roams or gate camps or whatever tend to end up as ganks of singletons who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and can’t quite get away.  It is no wonder that final timer structure shoots tend to get a good turnout.  At least we all get to fire our guns and a kill mail is almost guaranteed.

So I ask, in the context of the progression the game offers, the tendency for players to optimize for the desired outcome, and CCP’s fantasy about turning PvE players into PvP players, what does better PvE look like in New Eden?

In Search of the Thousand Dollar Video Game

Last night Keen saw fit to retweet this gem, which is the sort of statement than makes me shake my head in dismay.

There it is again, the false comparison between lattes and video games, with a game dev angry that people are not paying enough for his product.  Even the go-to comic from The Oatmeal to cover this is more than five years old now. (Clicking on the image will bring you to the full comic, complete with the coffee comparison.)

The comedic exaggeration of the concept

The argument here, salted with jealousy, seems to be that all luxury goods are equal, so your baseline for deciding where to spend you money should be solely factored on the value one gets in return.  In that world, the fleeting experience of a latte pales in comparison with the many hours of enjoyment a video game can bring.

Except, of course, that is specious at best and more akin to complete bullshit for most people.

The buying decision for a latte is never formulated as “What is the best value for my money today?”  In my experience the situation is more akin to, “I NEED coffee NOW!”

I don’t actually drink coffee, so I might not be the best person to make that assessment, but that is what it looks like from the outside.  I have seen developers get panicked and upset when they mislay their coffee mug and I am keenly aware how often we have to stop at Starbucks so my wife can get her favorite coffee beverage. (She prefers a “soy caramel macchiato,” which might as well be a magic incantation so far as I am concerned.)

Anyway, video games likely never come into the buying decision.  The latte experience is so different and so removed from video games that comparing the two is… well… I already used the words “specious” and “bullshit” didn’t I?  That.

So whining about people buying lattes instead of your video games is just a self-serving attempt to blame other people, including your customers, for your own problems in a cheap attempt to milk some guilt out of them.

And what are your problems if you’re a video game developer?  I think a lot of that has been covered elsewhere.  But then there is the video game market itself.

The video game market is overloaded with choices, most of which are uninspired imitations or direct knock-offs of worn-out concepts we’ve seen many times before hidden behind a series of horrible user interfaces that defy people to actually find the gems in the huge steaming stack of dung that is the video game market.

Imagine if Starbucks was run like Steam.

You’d have thousands of different lattes, each with a name that might or might not relate to what was actually in them, vaguely described, with mashed-up references to sub-genres of coffee drinks.  You would have to order them from a computer screen where you could only see 20 or so at a time.  Oh, and some of them aren’t compatible with your coffee cup, while others say they might be, but probably require you to upgrade your cup in order to enjoy them fully.

How is that for an analogy?  Let’s push it even further.

You can… slowly… look at latte reviews, but some of the positive ones are from people who were given a free latte, while some of the negative ones involve aspects outside of the latte experience.

Meanwhile, every previous latte you ever ordered from Starbucks is still available to you.  You can look in your latte library and see them all.  There are some in there you really liked, but probably a lot more that you barely even took a sip from.  Sure, you might be a bit tired of the ones you like, but they are reliable, certainly more palatable than most of your attempts to find a fresh new latte.

Oh, and then there is the Starbucks Summer Latte Sale and the Starbucks Winter Latte Sale, during which many lattes are marked down from 25-to-75%.  If you aren’t dying for that specific latte right now, you can wait and it will probably be cheaper.  Seems like a good idea, unless all of your friends are simply raving about some new latte.  You’ll buy that one right away.

I’m tempted to bring GameStop into the picture and examine the situation where you can return your latte for credit on a new latte, but I think I have pushed the envelope of absurdity far enough to make the point that comparing video games and lattes is an argument for the dim, desperate, or drunk.

While I too scoff at people putting down five bucks for a latte, connecting that to video game sales seems ludicrous.

Instead, they are a form of entertainment.  Video games are fun, not food.

As such, they compete with other forms of entertainment.  Here, the original tweet claims the entertainment value for video games should be $20 an hour.

That would make video games a pretty expensive form of entertainment.  My immediately to-hand similar comparisons:

  • Movies – $20-25 per person for 90-180 minutes of entertainment, including popcorn and a drink.
  • Books – $12 for a paperback, $30 for a new release hardback, 4+ hours of entertainment
  • Audiobook – Varies, but I just wrote about an $18 book that is more than 7 hours of entertainment
  • TV – Even being gouged by Comcast, probably close to a dollar an hour as much as our TV is on
  • Netflix – $12/month, used enough to be under a dollar an hour
  • On Demand – HD movie, 90-180 minutes, anywhere from $4-12, whole family can watch

At $20 an hour, the value proposition for video games doesn’t look so hot.  When you’re argument is undercut by Comcast, you’re on the wrong side of history.

Which is not to say I do not see the entertainment value in video games.  My Steam library runneth over, my history with them goes back more than 40 years, and I write a video game blog for Pete’s sake.  I love video games.

But if you think playing the bitter game dev, shaking your fist at your customers (and potential customers) and blaming them for not giving you what you feel you deserve, I have to say that you’re not doing yourself any favors.

And, after all of that, I have to admit that I did find a video game that hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people have paid over $1,000 to play.

It is called World of Warcraft.

I know I have spent more than that much, counting the base game, the expansions, subscription fees, and the occasional cash shop item.  Blizzard was just smart enough to not ask for all the money up front.

Of course, the Gods of Irony must be paid their due.  This shining example of a video game that many, many people are willing to spend that much money on… is the sort of game he disdains in a subsequent tweet.

So most gamers just give up and keep playing League of Legends or World of Warcraft and forget about trying to find anything new.

There is the problem.  It isn’t that we’re not willing to spend that much money on a video game.  It is that we’re not willing to spend that much money on the “right” video game.

I think somebody in the comments on the corrupt developer post made the music comparison.  A lot of people want to get into music, be a rock star, and live the lifestyle.  But there is only so much room at the top.  Likewise, in the video game business you get a few really successful games, and a few devs rich enough to afford to become space tourists, while the rest labor on, never achieving fame or fortune.

Anyway, cranky rant over.  I’ve been down this path before, more than once.  It is a pet peeve of mine.  Keen posted about this as well in his more optimistic tone.  You might prefer that.  I’m just too jaded to buy this sort of blame shifting.

The Man from Annuminas

In preparation for the coming Mordor expansion, and specifically what plans our potential group should have come the launch, I have been back and playing in Middle-earth.

It is the usual mixture of wonder and exasperation.

I got out a champion in our guild who was in the midst of Evendim, one of my favorite zones in the game.  Sigwerd the man champion, for men are men and human isn’t a word of Middle-earth, still dressed up in a selection of cosmetic gear from past expansions and the Lone Lands.

Sigwerd in Evendim

The chest piece is clearly from the Lone Lands… dyed olive green… but I cannot remember where the hooded fur cloak came from.  Just don’t tell PETA, they’ll sue me claiming the former owner of the pelt holds its copyright.

Anyway, the idea was manifold.

I wanted to get back into the game itself, with its various quirks.  I wanted to get a feel for the state of the game.  I wanted to try out a class I might play going forward.  I wanted to work with the new talent tree thing.  I wanted to get a sense as to how quick levels were given that one of the possible plans was essentially “walk all the way to Mordor.”  And I wanted to enjoy myself.

It is no doubt a telltale of my somewhat conservative nature that I like to go back and run through enjoyable zones and quest lines.  As I have noted in the past, nothing makes you feel more like a ranger… or in this case a champion… of Middle-earth than going through a zone like you own the place.  This is as opposed to wandering about the place half lost with the map up and muttering something about, “If that is the goblin camp over there, then the wolf den must me off to the left.”

I must have more than a dozen characters beyond level 30, so the Lone Lands is like a second home to me, with Evendim not far behind.  Once a zone known primarily for the amount of swimming you had to do in order to get around, it was revamped and given a boat transport system and a re-work of quests, all of which turned it into a great zone.

Looking out on the lake

I picked up where I left off with Sigwerd… left off about six years ago… with him picking up the quest trail in Ost Forod.  He was level 35, so ready for the quests there.  I ran through those, then the quick set on the island of Rantost, then up at the north end of the lake, before picking up at Men Erain and what I consider the start of the grand finale of the zone.

Evendim map

Men Erain starts in with tombs of the Kings of Arnor and leads you into Annúminas, the highlight of the zone.

The ancient fallen city, once the capital of Arnor, is such a great area.  When you arrive there are not many quests handed to you, just a couple of general ones that will take you about the area.  But one of the quests teams you with the ranger Orchalwë.  He travels the ruins with you and, as you reach certain points, give you additional quests as well as assisting you when fighting.

Sigwerd and Orchalwë in the ruins

The whole thing is so organic in its way that really puts me in the game.

And you need the help of Orchalwë.  Many of the mobs you face are elites.  While they aren’t too tough… you can solo one, though it takes some effort… they often come in groups of two or three and singletons wander about leading to surprise adds.  Three at once was a tough fight for me, even with Orchalwë throwing me a heal now and with me having taken the Martial Champion spec, which is a damage dealing tank.  Any mistake and the wheels come off.

However, the elites do not become locked encounters, to use the EQII term, when you tag them. (Also similar to how WoW handles named mobs in Legion.)  This is very handy as it encourages casual group efforts.

Sigwerd versus an elite

At a couple points I was standing, looking at an objective when another player of showed up, their own copy of Orchalwë in tow, and we were able to take on the area and finish the local quests.

The whole thing is so well done, perfect for a small group like our, it makes me wonder why more of the game isn’t like this.

Not that there are not flaws, the first of which is that Orchalwë goes away if you finish his main quest, something that left me in the lurch before I was done with the zone.  That is the reason I am soloing the elite in the screen shot above.

Finishing up in Annúminas, though without having hit all the possible quests, left me almost level 41.  I learned a few things along the way.

The first was that after picking a spec I really should have assigned points to the skill tree.  That would have made life easier.  Still, I managed to muddle through with a small set of default skills.  Once applied my available points my options on the hot bar expanded.

Champion skill at level 40

The icons haven’t changed much since I made my humorous/mocking post about them over eight years ago.  They are still hard to see and when I can see them they still don’t tell me what a skill really does.  The one with the box communicates, as does punching Amy Tan, but the rest still could mean any number of things.  As I understand it, the fact that I have what might be termed a “vintage” monitor means that it isn’t as bad as it could be.

And second, don’t hit the “x” key or your camera will lock in on whatever you are targeting.  I did this by accident during a fight and spent the next 30 minutes trying to figure out why I had lost control of the camera.  I had to Google the issue to fix it and then unmapped “x” from that function.

On the key mapping front, I had to map both “b” and “i” to open my bags because by this point I can never remember which game uses which and my brain seems unable to cope with this.  LOTRO uses “i” by default, but I kept hitting “b,” so I changed the key… and then I kept hitting “i,” so clearly I have some bad wiring as well.

However, I remain impressed how often I end up getting LOTRO Points for completing deeds.

Hey, more money!

But while the world is still quite worth touring, I did run into more graphical glitches than I expected.

The haunted pixellated forest looms!

More on point to planning, I did get a bit of a feel for leveling up.  With VIP blue bar daily and a 25% experience booster from a past expansion in the pocket equipment slot it was easy enough to get a level a day with a reasonable play session of about an hour.  The blue bar goes away pretty quickly, so doing two levels a day means more than double the play time.

Also, I did this under ideal circumstances.  As noted, I feel like the hero in Evendim and I know where to go for any given quest more often than not.  So, operationally, I was very efficient.  That efficiency drops off considerably past Evendim however.

That means going will be slow, or slower, past a certain point.

I think we could, as a group, power on through to level 50 by doing every last thing in Evendim, including the three person version of any instance, picking up the latter half of the Trollshaws, and then pressing through the Misty Mountains.  The last has Goblin-town, which is another ideal place for a small group.  We’d still probably need to hit Angmar or Eregion to get to 50.

At 50 we could decided to try Moria or get a discounted Blessing of the Valar boost to level 95.

Going much farther than 50 however means postponing Mordor for a long time, and getting there through all the content between there and where we stand would likely test our stamina as a group and the life expectancy of the game.  There are a lot of zones between us at level 40 and Mordor.

And even the ten levels between the Blessing of the Valar and Mordor might be a challenge.

Anyway, the plan is still under discussion.  We have at least another week before the expansion lands, and maybe a bit longer given the tentative launch date given with the pre-order.  I likely won’t feel pressed to buy anything until this coming weekend.