Arithmetic with Factions

When the combat revamp came along in September, Illusionists suddenly became quite solo-capable. And it was about that time that I made level 45, and could access the highest tier of city writs. Since that time, I’ve been averaging about 1 writ per day, strictly for the Concordium, in an attempt to boost my faction with the Concordium to something higher than indifferent. I’m still not there.

I estimate that I have killed perhaps 1500 mobs in Lavastorm for Concordium writs. Had I killed that many gnolls in Antonica, I suspect that the Centaurs in Thundering Steppes would be quite fond of me. However, the Concordium is still indifferent to me.

In mid-August, the persona window had a faction tab added that showed all the factions that you had gained the attention of, for better or worse. This was a good thing, but it was quite a shock to find that I had gained virtually nothing toward any of the city factions with any of my toons, including my bruiser, who leveled from 10 to 15 doing nothing but Freeport Militia writs. And furthermore, it is often the case that completion of a writ does not move the faction bar by even a single pixel.

Of course, I’m interested not only in faction but in leveling my guild. So at lower levels, I would gather up writs from all the city factions and go out and pound them out. However, doing one factions writ makes you lose popularity with the others. So if you’d like to ingratiate yourself with the Concordium, you must shun the Qeynos Guard, Celestial Watch, et al.

Our guild is finding it very challenging to level these days. We have maxed out the divisor at 24, and we just hit level 25. Currently, completion of a heritage quest gains us about 2 percent toward a level. At that rate, it will take 250 heritage quests completed to get to level 30, which we’d like for the sake of the 7 room houses.

So it appears that the best way to do this would be to form writ groups of 6 toons that all do the same writ, thus multiplying the guild experience for killing the same mobs by six. There are some serious impediments to that, though.

First, the writs change with your level, and there are several writs from each faction per half-tier. So to get the same writ as your mates, you must be in the same half tier, and you must turn down a bunch of writs until you get the right one. Furthermore, you must not care about the fact that doing writs from that faction will hurt your standing with other city factions. As a result, most writ grinding is done solo.

And there are a few writs that can’t be done solo. Sometimes the mobs themselves are heroic, while other times the place that they can be found is simply guarded by heroic mobs, often ones that see throughinvisibility. But a guild can coordinate this via a website.

SOE is planning some changes in this area. On test server now, there are new writs for level 50 and beyond. This reduces the pressure on the 45-50 writs, which can be overcamped. On the other hand, it will again make it harder to collaborate with others. But this is probably the right approach, since writs can be done for meaningful experience and appropriate level of challenge.

Also currently on the test server, writs will no longer lose standing with other city factions. This is wonderful. It will make it so much easier to collaborate with others and grind multiple writs, while still advancing your status.

Finally, the faction tab will be changed to display your current status (indifferent, amiable, threatening, etc.), and progress within that status displayed thermometer-style. This will grant quite a few more pixels of resolution to the progress, making progress toward the next rank more visible. I expect this will encourage writ grinding, since it will make the reward more visible, and behavior that is rewarded will grow.

One other thing mentioned is that there will be solo and group writs. Does this mean more than a simple labelling of existing writs? I’d like the players to get a little more control over which writs they are assigned, or at the very least, allow a group to all receive the same writ. We’ll have to wait and see on that.

These changes are quite welcome. I still believe that overall faction progress is too slow compared to other aspects of the game. But the patch notes on test state that other changes to faction are in the works, so it appears that SOE may be of the same mind as I am, which some may consider a scary thought.

Another Kind of Root (Kit)

Usually when I write about roots, its to complain about how poorly mine works. But we have a different sort of root in the news, and it’s related to Sony, trojan horses, and online roleplaying. So let’s depart the world of Norrath for today and talk about the Real World ™.

News broke last week that hackers had used a spyware program that is part of Sony’s digital rights management system for music CD’s to compromise World of Warcraft.

Let’s try to sort out the details of this as it pertains to Everquest II. If you loaded a music CD into your computer during the last year, you may have seen a EULA pop up and ask for your agreement. The EULA stated that additional software would be loaded on your system. It did not state that this software would be hidden, uninstallable, nor that it would contact Sony via the internet. It did all of these things. This software is now known as XCP, and was made by a third party, a company known as First 4 Internet.

This software used a technique called a rootkit. This technique intercepts basic system functionality to make certain sets of files disappear from view on your ystem. This, of course, makes it difficult to delete them, which is why it is used. In the case of Sony BMG, the rootkit hid all files and processes with names beginning with “$sys$”. Furthermore, the Sony rootkit altered the operating system in such a way that anytime you want to see all the files in a folder and other such basic functions, code contained within the files loaded and hidden was run. This was in order to filter out the files that were being hidden.

But there’s the rub. First of all, they filter out ANY files with names begining with “$sys$”. So some other person, with arguable fewer scruples, could then conveniently hide their software simply by giving all their files names that began with “$sys$”. You wouldn’t need to bother with checking for the root kit first, you might just use the names and get the benefit whenever your trojan horse happens to land on a system with Sony’s root kit. After all, one estimate places the number of name servers which have been queried by XCP at well over half a million compromised systems.

For the unintiated, a name is something which translates a name like “toldaintalks.blogspot.com” into an internet address, which is something like 192.168.1.240. Computers address each other with these numbers, and name servers tend to service fairly large computers. Since there is very likely more than one personal computer with XCP installed for each of these name servers, that means more than a million, possibly several million compromised hosts.

Furthermore, if you are lucky enough to learn about this vulnerability by running some unusual software that can detect hidden files, simply removing these files will make your system unusable. Why? Well, do you remember when I said that certain basic system functions now used the new files (which were, by the way, hidden)? Well, if you remove those files, those basic functions will now no longer work. Your system won’t go back to the old, system-installed definitions all on its own. Instead, these functions will fail in very messy, ugly ways whenever you try to use them. Such as when you try to look at the files in a folder using Windows Explorer.

How does this impact Everquest 2? Well, first of all, XCP was promulgated by another branch of Sony, Sony BMG. It was part of their digital rights management scheme, intended to prevent users from ripping music off of CD’s. I’ve seen no sign that SOE has made use of this technology. Nor have I read any reports of cheat programs for Everquest 2 that use this technology. Of course, WoW has a launcher which looks for cheat programs and, as far as I know, SOE does not. Or perhaps SOE is smarter about how they gather and use information. So Everquest 2 appears to not have any direct impact from this.

In any case, I highly recommend that you stay far away from any copy-protected CD’s, especially on any computer that is connected to the internet.

I’d say that Sony blew it in several ways. First, they relied on “security through obscurity”, the idea that if they just didn’t tell folks how something worked, or what it did, no one would be able to figure it out and exploit it. This idea never really works.

Second, they got permission to install software from the EULA, to be sure. But there was no notification that this software would a) phone home to Sony, and b) not be uninstallible. This is a serious abuse of the customer.

Finally, it was a sloppy job that introduced a big vulnerability. It doesn’t surprise me that it was done under contract with a third party. I’ve known some Sony engineers, and they would have seen the problems involved with XCP immediately. Who knows, perhaps they did oppose it, and were outflanked by executives who didn’t want to spend the money? It’s happened before. I am not against companies protecting their IP, but this scheme was clearly done on the cheap. Now how much is it costing them?

It appears that Sony has started to realize what a big problem this is for them and is trying to reverse course as well. There is news that they are working with the virus protection companies to add removal software. But I’m not overly optimistic. Uninstalling patches like this have a way of interacting poorly with other system upgrades, such as Service Paks, and special device drivers that may have been loaded. The functions that XCP alters are fairly stable and few programs will play with them, so there’s hope there. Because if it doesn’t work, users will have to reinstall everything from scratch or buy new computers to get rid of it. Let’s hope that’s not what happens.

Mods 4 the Win!

With Live Update 16, the standard UI now contains a checkbox that allows a user to enable or disable the display of waypoints submitted through the map updater, which is probably the most popular mod for EQ2 ever.

There are of course, many UI mods avaliable, though most of them focus on aesthetics and screen arrangement. The map updater allows collaboration at its internet finest. Members of the eq2map community can submit waypoints with short descriptions and they will automatically show up on everyone’s in-game map.

Sony doesn’t consider this a cheat, they like it a lot. Though the purists may wish to try to explore certain dungeon areas without consulting a map first.

What’s really interesting about the recent development though is that it highlights the relationship between SOE, a commercial enterprise, and the modders, which are not. Game developers have realized that it’s good for them to allow modding. When a third party makes the game more playable and enjoyable for some slice of the customer base at no cost to the game developer, that’s a good thing for everyone.

The basic fact of life for a software company is that development costs the same regardless of how many people use it and pay for it. Which makes developers shy away from taking big risks, or working on features that won’t be widely used, or are not seen as contributing to selling the product.

Which is why the modders can exist. Most UI mods are made by hobbyists that really only are out to please themselves. And frankly, not all of them do even that. But there are some that manage to make things that other people like, and overall, it gives people more of a sense of ownership of the game, which keeps them as paying customers longer.

When a mod such as the map updater becomes highly successful, it raises a question as to what the game developer should do about it. Should they copy the mod? Try to buy it? or continue to ignore it altogether? Let’s go through the options one by one.

Should they copy the mod, they will engender bad will from the modders. One of the primary motivations of a modder is public credit. They don’t do it for the money, they do it for the satisfaction and recognition. Someone who did something to make their game more appealing to the customer base gets cut off at the knees. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but unless the game developer can add significant value to what the modder has done, they will be seen as a corporate giant squashing people who were trying to cooperate with them.

Buying a mod isn’t feasible, because mods are usually distributed without any intellectual property rights. Furthermore, why should you pay for the cow when you can get the milk for free? So it’s good to have fairly clear boundaries about what things you’re going to handle as a company, and what things are going to be left to modders. In short, you need an interface, which EQ2 has, in the form of a bunch of XML files deep in your Program Files/Sony/Everquest II/UI/default folder.

Unfortunately, this interface changes periodically, and when it does, some of the modded user interfaces will stop working. Many modders will keep on top of the situation and have new versions available within a day or so that work correctly with the new interface.

But SOE didn’t quite ignore the map updater, it put in a checkbox. This is interesting in that it marks the beginning of a symbiotic relationship that was parasitic before. The standard EQ2 interface now can enhance the utility of the map updater. That says a lot about how useful and pervasive the updater has become.

I highly recommend it. Either Google “eq2 map updater” or go directly to http://maps.eq2interface.com.

What is Root for?

The latest update has given me lots to talk about. It also gave me four shards. It could be argued that at least one of them was due to my stubborn persistence, but the other three were due to the changes in my highest level root spell, Lock Mind.

Just to bring non-mage types up to speed, a root is a spell that locks the mob down to one spot preventing them from moving. Lock Mind also had a stifle effect, which prevented most combat abilities. (There are a few that can be used even when stifled.)

One of the tasks undertaken in this LU is cleanup of the massive changes of the combat revamp. Several spells for all classes were tweaked and the notes say this about Lock Mind.

Lock Mind now makes resistance checks less often, but has a small chance to break when taking damage.

Well, my experimentation indicates that a “small chance” is a very subjective thing. I cannot use this spell while doing any real damage to a mob, it breaks too often. I have no use for the spell as it now stands. Why? Well, let’s go through standard Illusionist tactics. As an illusionist you have a good set of mesmerization skills. These break when the mob takes ANY damage. So they are good for dealing with multiple mobs — mez all but the one currently being killed.

But for a mob that is being killed, different tactics must be used. I can go toe-to-toe with solo mobs that con blue or green or gray, but I can’t really stand up to any heroic mob that’s even high gray. With maybe 20 levels on the mob, they have a real hard time hitting me.

So, if you want to tackle anything tougher, you have to find something else to take the hit. We got a new pet in the update, and it’s very welcome. The pet is a duplicate of us, though, so it can’t be expected to stand up to a tough mob for all that long. The good news is that when it dies, you are out very little but the power it cost to cast it half an hour ago. Not a big deal.

Or you can get a tank to take the hits for you, which is, of course, my favorite method. But if you want to solo stuff that’s harder, you have to come up with a way to do damage to the mob while not taking any. And the changes in root after the revamp gave us a way to do it. The mob would be rooted, and all dots applied to it, then you would stand back and watch the mob’s health slowly melt. You needed to be careful to keep the root going, or things could get ugly, especially since I found that this technique worked quite well on green+++ heroic mobs.

Bear in mind that such mobs could kill me in about 3 hits. Or if they got a dot on me, it would probably kill me, too. But this change meant that I was highly solo capable. Frankly, Illusionists were capable of soloing stuff that the designers didn’t intend to be soloable. Hence the nerf, which I expected to come at some point. But how did it work?

Illusionists can do a fair amount of DPS, but it comes in small chunks. Unlike the slow big hits of a wizard or warlock, we do DOTS, we have procs that proc with damage or spells, and we have a fast-casting direct damage capability, that doesn’t do a lot but can be recast in about 2.5 seconds.

Consider how this applies to the change to root. We’re doing lots of little chunks of damage and each one gives the root a “small chance” to break. A small chance over lots of attempts equals a big smackdown. For example, 10 trials of a ten percent chance yields an almost two-thirds chance of the root breaking. If a “small chance” is a 20 percent chance, then it only takes three hits to get a fifty percent chance of root breakage, and five hits to get to a two-thirds chance of breakage.

At that rate, the root is breaking before it’s recast time is done, and it’s ready to be cast again. In short, I can’t use dots, because I can’t control the situation when I’m using them. Root will break too fast. But if I can’t use dots, then I might as well mez the mob as root it.

So, root is off of my hotbar now. I’m sorry to see it go. Was it too powerful before, where the chance to break was based on a timer, rather than taking damage? There’s a case to be made, after all, I could solo heroics, something that isn’t supposed to be possible at level 50.

But here’s the thing: Yes, I could solo a green heroic, but it turns out that it still took so long that I would prefer to solo mobs that are solo-rated. And it gave me a way to solo high gray heroic mobs, too. Something that I can not now do, which is quite frustrating. Is the experience/coin gain over time really all that out of line? It doesn’t seem like it to me.

As it stands, the spell has no place on my hotbar. I have no tactical use for it that isn’t better handled by mez. If the game designers are determined to nerf it, could we have some other spell that actually does something we can make use of? Otherwise when you level up and get root, I will kind of feel like Charlie Brown on Halloween: I got a rock.

Oh, and one more thing. There is still a way (though very slow) for me to kill heroic mobs using mez: Mez them, stun them, do damage (but no dots) while stunned, then mez again and wait for the stun recast timer. This is very tedious, but it works. So it is still possible for me to solo heroics, nerfing root didn’t get rid of that.

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Now that I got that out of my system, I think I’ve realized why root had to be nerfed. It wasn’t because of our solo capability, but because a good root makes tanks (and to some extent healers) superfluous. A group of mages and scouts (especially rangers) could root a nasty named, and all stand off and shoot. I’ve even done this, when we could not find a tank.

I have more sympathy for this design choice. It’s important to preserve the role of tanks in groups. Still, I’d like to see the root line for illusionists turned into something else that has a place on my hotbar.