The Breezes of Change

I’ve been looking into the combat revamp some more. Bear in mind that I’m not a beta tester myself, I’ve been digging through the official EQ2 Forums. In particular, there was a very nice post by Cedrian about how the changes had affected his level 50 paladin, backed up with extensive data.

One of the primary goals of the revamp seems to be making autoattack more important, and spells and combat abilities less important to a fight. First, let’s see what the specific changes are that affect this.

Auto-attack DPS is lowered for many classes somewhat, however, mob hit points have been lowered, too, and the net result seems to be that a mob will actually die a little faster to auto-attack in the new system than it did under the old. The amount of damage done (and healing) has been rescaled, and in some cases the numbers get bigger and smaller. However, the theme that emerges across the reports of many classes is that the combat abilities and spells can’t be used as often. Usually this is due to power costs, which have become quite a bit less efficient (bear in mind that the size of your pow pool may have changed too.) Casting times have altered as well, the recast timer on mez is quite a bit longer than it used to be, for example.

What’s the effect of this? Before the changes, auto-attack would typically account for perhaps a third of all damage done to and by a mob. Which meant that haste and slow effects(which only affect auto-attack damage) didn’t mean much, and conversely, stifle effects and pow draining were huge(which affected spells and combat abilities) were very important. By rebalancing auto-attack and CA/spell dps, players now have to choose when to use the combat abilities, and which ones. Damage spells cannot be spammed.

It seems as though a normal experience group can deal damage under the new system at an instantaneous that is close to what it could under the old, at least after normalizing for the mob’s HP. BUT, under the new system, the group may run out of pow before the mob dies, which is a rare occurence these days. At level 41, I have two, stackable Breeze-type effects, and with them both up on all party members, we can more or less fight continuously and maintain full power. Without an enchanter, groups will have to rest a bit between fights to regain pow, but can fight at full speed without running out. (All bets are off for Epic encounters, though.) I’m not complaining, but I don’t think that’s how it was meant to be.

If I’m right about the effect of the changes, it means that instead of affecting down time, Breeze will affect actual group DPS. To be more precise, the instantaneous DPS (what the computer geek in me would call bandwidth) doesn’t change but the damage capacity does. You will run out of pow if you cast at full speed, but it will take longer, you’ll do more nukes, and thus more damage.

The down side to this is that it seems as though fights will last somewhat longer. The short, intense fight was kind of fun, and I’ll miss it. Of course, as an enchanter, I tended to act to slow down fights anyway, since that’s how my class works. Intriguingly, this slowing down may act to bring the (now widely disparate) solo capabilities of classes more in line with one another. And some classes (such as the Illusionist!) are getting some new spells to help them solo.

A word about the change to Breeze seems in order. Breeze is currently an individual buff, which can be cast on any raid member, with a fairly long recast time and a duration of 15 minutes. (it started with a duration of only 3 mins.) It was never meant to always be up on every member of a group. It was meant to pose an interesting choice to the enchanter: who to breeze and when? But since it COULD be kept on every member of a group (even though it kept the enchanter busier than a caterpillar with athlete’s foot), it was. No choice involved.

SOE has accepted this now, and has changed Breeze to be a group buff with no duration and 3 Concentration. However, the new Breeze doesn’t affect other members of the raid not in your group, making Breezers more valuable on raids (Troubadors have something similar). There are some other new abilities, including a pet for soloing, which also take concentration.

And by the way, every melee class will have an offensive stance and a defensive stance which each take 3 Concentration and are thus mutually exclusive.

The changes I’ve highlighted, if they work like I think they do, will mean that players will be faced with more interesting choices. And in my book, that’s a good thing.

On Death and Killing

There are many big changes in the works for Everquest 2 coming down the pike. Today, we’re going to talk about just one of them, changes to debt and combat locking.

Yes, that’s right, combat locking, one of the hallmark design decisions of EQ2, is being altered. Gallenite posted a lengthy article about it in the official EQ2 forums a couple of days ago.

In short, the debt changes were announced as:

* There is now a 50% cap for both adventure and tradeskill experience debt. You can no longer accrue more than 50% of your level in experience debt.
* If you have more than 50% experience debt when you log on after this change, any experience debt greater than 50% will be removed.
* You will no longer share experience debt for the deaths of other members of your group. Only the person who dies will gain experience debt.

The end of shared debt is a shame, really. I really enjoy teamwork, and this feature enhanced it. In the current game, it is typically the tanks job to stay put while the other group members run. Usually, we have to teach other group members to run when the tank says to run, in order to save us all some debt.

This will be no more. Gallenite didn’t directly address this in his post, but I believe the thinking is that shared debt is scaring folks away from grouping. It’s bad enough to have pickup members that don’t match your play style and lack focus, and the debt just compounds things.

However, the few players that I have talked to believe that it isn’t debt that keeps them from pickup groups, but the likelyhood that they will group with players that aren’t very good at playing, or are incompatible in terms of play style and manners.

On the other hand, the group game has suffered enormously over the summer. It is very difficult to find a pickup group these days, though perhaps August vacations and summer doldrums might have something to do with that as well.

The other change, which is also intended to have a social effect is the change to combat locking:

Encounter locking restrictions have been relaxed for non-raid encounters. Non-raid encounters have been changed as follows:

* There are no longer lock icons on you or your enemies.
* The first group or person to attack a creature will receive any reward it grants upon death, including loot and experience.
* Other players can assist in your fight by damaging your enemies or healing you.
* You will receive a reduced XP reward if your group contributes less than 50% of the damage needed to kill something.
* You can change group options and add/remove people from groups while fighting (note that fighting raid encounters still prevents this).
* Damage credit is correctly tracked if you add people helping you to the group before something dies.
* Any faction increase or decrease the creature grants will be applied to everyone the creature hates when it dies.
* In an upcoming update: If a group prefers to play by the old rules, they may make their targetted encounter exclusively locked (thus preventing help unless asked for).

I’ve discussed this issue before. In general, I like the fact that mentoring and combat locking means no powerleveling. But it comes at a fairly high price, in two areas.

First, it breaks verisimilitude. It is very obviously a game mechanic, with no in-game explanation, and it doesn’t mesh with most peoples idea of what should happen.

Second, it prevents a set of non-group positive player interactions. The “driveby buff” was a staple of EQ1, and kinda fun. It made for a much richer player-to-player interaction space. You could group, driveby buff, drop a nuke, or heal someone in a fight. You could also kill steal, train, heal the mob someone was fighting or otherwise grief them.

So, it appears that the combat team feels that this was not, in the end, a good tradeoff. They are thinking long term, as I’ve always said, and feel that stronger communities on the servers and better replay value is in their interest. And they contend that the form of powerleveling now permitted by the game adds to replay value. I’m less convinced by the better replay value argument, but I’ll repeat it here so you can make up your own mind.

The feeling is that many players wouldn’t mind having a second high-level toon (or a third or a fourth for the really hard-core.) But the prospect of having to level them up from scratch is too daunting. It is also very difficult to get groups at levels 1-20, and for armor quests as well.

So by allowing some powerleveling, more people will be encouraged to play the game longer. The big question is whether those people playing the game longer will make things better or worse for everyone else.

And of course, the new rules now invite a host of abuses. Kill stealing is possible, but the initial tagger still gets the loot, quest credit and some exp, so in fact, the kind of KSing allowed is potentially a positive thing for for the people being “stolen” from, since the mobs may be dying much faster.

Other abuses involve feign death training, where the monk tags a mob, drags it to others, then feigns, and goes afk and gets a can of his favorite soda. The other group gets aggro, kills the mob, and the monk in question gets the loot and some portion of the exp. Not that this really seems likely to go faster, but it’s annoying to those doing the fighting, nonetheless.

The possiblities for abuse don’t stop there, either. Farming for plat becomes a strong possibility as well, since the lower level toon can “green” the mob that the high-level warlock can one shot.

So, how does one handle abuses in a MMORPG? Via game mechanics or via “police action”? Given the mechanics to prevent abuses are going away, I’m hoping that SOE will be agressive about following up reports of abuse and griefing.

The ability to add or remove group members during a fight is probably on balance a good thing. Who hasn’t had a linkdead group member come back in the middle of a fight, to bad consequences?

I have a technical concern, though. One of the best ideas in EQ2 is the notion that stuff works differently depending on whether you are engaged in combat or not. Your run speed is different, regen ability is different, and some spells don’t work in combat. This allows a huge reduction in down time while allowing for combats that are still challenging, while reasonably brief and intense.

Being a software developer, I see the potential for the concepts of combat locking and combat mode to have become intertwined in the code. So turning off combat locking may have some unintended consequences for combat mode, and some just plain bugs. I hope they get this worked out.

Several big ideas in Everquest 2 have now been relegated to the dustbin. Guild status decay is gone now, as is tradeskill interdependence, access quests to higher zones, and now combat locking. That, and the combat system is being revamped. There were stories of the original EQ1 design team parting ways with SOE and writing its own game – Guild Wars. In my experience, these breaks are caused at least as much by personality conflicts as anything, but I wonder if any of these design decisions, which are now changed, were behind the breakup as well.

Better is Worse

There is a saying here in Silicon Valley (and perhaps elsewhere) — “Worse is better”. This is meant to convey the notion that it’s often a bad idea to spend a long time perfecting a technology or new invention; it’s usually better to get a new idea out into the marketplace quickly, even though it may have imperfections.

This idea shows up in Everquest II, in that the game was pretty clearly rushed into production, and there have been pretty serious changes in the game design over the last 9 months. Still, overall, the game has several design concepts that I like and endorse, and overall, I’ve enjoyed myself. Also, SOE has been making money at it, which is necessary for me to be able to play. Worse is better.

In this post, I’d like to address another design idea that I now think was a mistake. I call this design idea, “Better is Worse”.

As a character gains in level, the game designers want to slowly raise the difficulty level of the game, presenting the player with greater and greater challenges. As far as that goes, that’s appropriate. The mechanisms that they’ve chosen to do this create a problem though.

Whenever a character gets a straight upgrade to a spell, the new spell is typically not as effective as the old one, particularly when normalized for level. Healers often notice that their new upgrade doesn’t heal for any more than the spell it is replacing, which is gray. Often, this comparison is unfair, since the new spell is apprentice I, and the old one is often Adept I. Of course, the new spell will be orange, and thus allow skill increase, and will improve as you level, which the gray version will not. Of course, if you gain a few levels, and upgrade to adept I, the new spell will do more healing, or more damage.

But in the meantime, the mobs are getting tougher, too. They have more hitpoints, and do more damage. Your new nuke might do more damage, but is it probably doing damage that is the same as or smaller relative to the health of a “typical” encounter of your level. Unless you are a warlock. But at least it looks like you are getting better.

As an illusionist, its even worse. A stun that lasted 15 seconds (Daunting Gaze) has been “upgraded” to a stun that lasts 8 seconds (Uncertainty). This isn’t a direct replacement, since they don’t use the same icon and aren’t on the same recast timer. However, Daunting Gaze stops working on mobs above level 31 or so.

Likewise, the higher level illusionist root, Lock Mind, has an upgraded capability ( a chance to stifle, as well as root), but it breaks entirely too often to be of much use, much more frequently than the lower level version, Binding Light. Binding Light also has the useful property of slowing the movement of its target after the root breaks. Still, I’d much rather use Binding Light than Lock Mind, but on mobs above level 35 or so, I can’t, because it doesn’t work.

This feels very heavy-handed and intrusive to me.

Now I’m all for making the game more difficult as you gain levels, but I think that this kind of mechanism is a mistake. It puts a player in the position of working, sweating, and enduring debt and bad pickup groups in order to level, and as a reward, he receives a spell that isn’t as good as the one he has, and the only reason to use it is because the better one doesn’t work any more. And that isn’t fun.

Everquest 2 may be a way of life for some of us, but it’s important to remember that it’s a game, too. Players want to feel rewarded by the game for leveling, not punished.

To me, the standard for whether a spell is an upgrade or not is whether I would use it to fight low level grays or not. Most of the damage spells pass this test, after all, they do more damage. But certain classes of spells, notably the stuns and roots, do not. Mesmerization seems to merely tread water, with the new replacements working about as well as the old, only the old ones do not work on mobs above a certain level.

So, as an illusionist, I have the feeling of being punished for leveling, or at best being put on a treadmill. I suspect other classes have the same feelings, the complaints from wizards and warlocks resulted in a big upgrade to their higher-level damage dealing last spring.

Making people feel bad about leveling is a good way to kill interest in the game, and as such is contrary to SOE’s interests. However, they’ve kind of painted themselves into a corner, a complete revamp of spells and combat arts would be very disruptive. They are talking of a new “combat concept” though I don’t know when or if that’s scheduled, or what form it will take. But I do think it’s needed.