Games I’m Looking Forward To: World of Warcraft – Mists of Pandaria

BlizzCon just got under way today out in California and they’re not wasting any time in making the big announcements including the next expansion for WoW: Mists of Pandaria.

Check it:

A lot of fans have been waiting a long time to be able to play the Pandarens and at one point there was talk it wouldn’t happen due to China’s sensitivity on how pandas are portrayed (WoW has a huge subscriber base in China). Apparently this will be the only new race in this expansion and it’ll be playable by both the Alliance and Horde. They bring with them the new Monk class which you can see a little of in the trailer above.

The other new features sound intriguing as well. A pet combat system? I’m assuming this is for the companion pets as only a few classes have pets capable of combat (e.g. hunter, mage, warlock). An entirely new talent system is a bit of a surprise considering how major the last revamp was. Raising the level cap by 5 seems like the new standard for expansions so no surprise there. Dungeon challenges sounds like it could be fun, though we kinda have that already with the achievement system. Obviously there’s still a lot of details to be filled in, but it should help to keep my interest in WoW chugging along.

Games I’m Looking Forward To: World of Warcraft – Cataclysm

WoW has been dominating the MMORPG genre for over 5 years now — it turns 6 on November 23rd of this year — and despite its age it still retains its dominance and recently reached the impressive milestone of 12 million subscribers. Needless to say it’s a lot of work to keep the game interesting after so long and with two expansions under its belt the folks at Blizzard decided it was time to shake the world up a bit.

And they mean “shake the world” quite literally:

That’s Deathwing the Destroyer. He was last seen in Warcraft II Tides of Darkness all the way back in 1995 when Warcraft was a series of real-time strategy games and not the 800 pound gorilla of MMORPGs. If you really want to know you can read up on his lore at his WoWWiki page, but suffice it to say that he’s the Lord Voldemort of the WoW story in that he’s an incredibly powerful dragon aspect originally tasked with dominion over the earth and the deep places of Azeroth who was driven mad by the Old Gods and ended getting his ass handed to him by the good guys when he tried to intervene in one of the great wars.

As you can see in the video, he’s back, he’s pissed, and Azeroth will never be the same again. Almost the entirety of the original game, what you would experience in progressing from level 1 to level 60, is being revamped in every way. Everything from how the various classes play to the quests you’ll do to the geography of the game itself is being modified with some of the changes already live in the current game (classes, talents, and glyphs have had a major reworking on the live servers). The changes are major enough that I’m surprised this isn’t being released as World of Warcraft 2 as that’s what usually happens when an MMORPG is changed this much from its original version.

The whole world is going to hell and I can’t wait to experience it.

Please, think of the Murlocs and give generously.

And now an important message from the Save The Murlocs Foundation: – The Save the Murlocs Foundation aims to preserve and protect these majestic creatures. Through numerous awareness and outreach programs, we work to outlaw Murloc cruelty, help rebuild villages, protest part harvesting, and find homes for poor orphaned baby Murlocs.

Update: Yes, I realize this is a pretty clever bit of marketing by the folks at J!NX to sell plush Murloc dolls. It’s well done, though, and the dolls are cute. If somewhat on the pricey side.

“World of Warcraft: Cataclysm” is literally a game changer.

I’ve been playing WoW since shortly after it was released and I still play it regularly. With each new expansion it’s clear that Blizzard has learned a lot as Burning Crusade brought in a much evolved questing system and Wrath of the Lich King made heavy use of phasing for story telling. The last two expansions have been so good, in fact, that it made the problems with the original content stand out like a sore thumb. Which wouldn’t be a problem except that if you start a new character that isn’t a Death Knight then you have to go through 60 levels of the old stuff before getting to the better stuff. I’ve been arguing that they needed to revamp the “old world” for a long time. It’s been five years and the people rebuilding Westfall haven’t made any progress at all. Plus there’s all these zones they had set up for future expansion that never got finished. Not to mention the fact that you can use flying mounts in Northrend, but not Kalimdor or the Eastern Kingdoms just seemed silly.

It appears someone at Blizzard must have been thinking along the same lines as the new expansion will literally remake the world. Check out the trailer they’ve released for it:

As it turns out, though, the changes go far beyond just revamping most of the original content and fleshing out the areas that have never been finished before. According to the Class, Items, and Professions panel quite a lot of the game’s mechanics will be changing as well. Both in terms of new stuff (Path of the Titans) and the current stuff (Hunters will no longer use Mana for their special attacks). The breadth and width of the changes will have the hardcore crowd scrambling to figure out how things work. All in all I’d say this is a much needed and anticipated revamp. I know I’m actually looking forward to starting a new Level 1 character (probably a Worgen of some sort) just to experience all the new content.

Alas it’ll be sometime in next year before it’ll be released. Current guess is by Krismas, though if we’re lucky it’ll happen sooner than that.

I love how anachronistic “World of Warcraft” can be.

Where else can a Dwarven Hunter with a cat-like Spirit Beast run around with a pole arm and rifle while driving one of these:

Click to embiggen!

My main character, Balfour, would fit right in with any biker gang. Best of all it has a fold-out sidecar so I can take folks for a ride.

The really sad part is that instead of just saving up the 15,000 to 18,000 gold they go for and buying one off the game’s Auction House I opted instead to take up the Engineering trade skill and level it all the way up to 450 (maximum), do hundreds of quests needed to get the reputation with a certain faction just to buy the plans, then spent 12 days making the titansteel bars (can only make ONE A DAY), and still had to spend 12,500G for the parts that I can’t make myself, just to have that silly mount. That says you can pretty much count me out for ever helping to find a cure for cancer.

Still, the ladies do like a man on a motor bike!

On the subject of torture in “World of Warcraft.”

So I managed to ding to level 80 the other night with my main character, a dwarven hunter named Balfour, and along the way I’ve done several hundred quests one of which stuck in my head.

As it turns out it’s stuck in a few other people’s minds as well. Folks like Richard Bartle who blogged about it and started quite the discussion across various gaming websites. The name may not mean much to most folks, but Richard was one of the people instrumental in the development of the precursors to Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGS) as we know them today. He was one of the guys who developed the first Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) game which was entirely text based and the coolest shit on the Internet back before everyone and their cousin started using it. You can read a little of his background here. His work laid the foundation for what was to come and for that gamers everywhere owe him at least a beer or two.

The quest Richard blogged about comes fairly early in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion that Blizzard just put out, or at least it does if you start in the Borean Tundra zone, and it involves torturing a bad guy for info on the location of another NPC. The title of the quest is The Art of Persuasion and the quest text reads as follows:

It is fortunate you’re here, <race>.

You see, the Kirin Tor code of conduct frowns upon our taking certain ‘extreme’ measures – even in desperate times such as these.

You, however, as an outsider, are not bound by such restrictions and could take any steps necessary in the retrieval of information.

Do what you must. We need to know where Lady Evanor is being held at once!

I’ll just busy myself organizing these shelves here. Oh, and here, perhaps you’ll find this old thing useful….

At which point you’re given an item called the Neural Needler which has a text description of: Inflicts incredible pain to target, but does no permanent damage. Now take a moment to consider what this quest is requiring you to do. If you’re playing an Alliance character, which I am with this toon, then you’re a “hero” or “the good guys” and you’ve just been asked to torture someone to retrieve urgent information.

It’s the first time I’ve ever paused to consider the quest I was about to undertake as I was surprised by it. Richard was as well:

I’m not at all happy with this. I was expecting for there to be some way to tell the guy who gave you the quest that no, actually I don’t want to torture a prisoner, but there didn’t seem to be any way to do that. Worse, the quest is part of a chain you need to complete to gain access to the Nexus, which is the first instance you encounter (if you start on the west of the continent, as I did). So, either you play along and zap the guy, or you don’t get to go to the Nexus.

I did zap him, pretty well in disbelief — I thought that surely the quest-giver would step in and stop it at some point? It didn’t happen, though. Unless there’s some kind of awful consequence further down the line, it would seem that Blizzard’s designers are OK with breaking the Geneva convention.

Well they may be, but I’m not. Without some reward for saying no, this is a fiction-breaking quest of major proportions. I don’t mind having torture in an MMO — it’s the kind of thing a designer can use to give interesting choices that say things to the players. However, I do mind its being placed there casually as a run-of-the-mill quest with no regard for the fact that it would ring alarm bells: this means either that the designer can’t see anything wrong with it, or that they’re actually in favour of it and are forcing it on the player base to make a point. Neither case is satisfactory.

Now I admit that I didn’t have quite the same reaction as Richard. I was taken aback, but I did the quest and moved on and didn’t really think about it much until later. I suppose you could claim that the countless hours I’ve spent killing zombies, Nazis, and thugs in horribly violent video games over the years has desensitized me, but I don’t buy that because out of the hundreds of quests I’ve done on the way to level 80 this one sticks in my mind in an uneasy way. Why? Because it’s completely out of context and the fact that you can’t progress the quest line without doing it.

I’m not saying that torture shouldn’t be depicted in a video game. WoW has other quests that involve torture, murder, and even genocide and while a good chunk of them are on the Horde side there’s a few on the Alliance side as well. The difference is the context. For example if you start a Death Knight, the one new class with this expansion, during the course of your first two levels you’re under the control of the Lich King and are technically a villain. There’s a long quest line that eventually has you freed from the Lich King and along the way you’ll have to do a quest, amusingly titled How To Win Friends And Influence Enemies, that has you beating several NPCs to death with red hot pokers until they give you the information you need. I had no problem with that quest because I was, at that point, playing a baddie and torture is something baddies do. It fit the context. In comparison my dwarven hunter is a hero and has done many heroic things in the course of the game and as such the torture quest seemed really out of context and not the sort of thing my hunter would do at all. Even if you went with the Bush Administration’s flimsy rationale for torture sometimes being necessary, the threat of immediate catastrophic harm, there’s nothing in the quest line to suggest that would apply in that case. It basically boiled down to a lazy NPC turning to me to do the dirty work he wasn’t willing to sully his own hands over.

Now it’s possible the quest designers at Blizzard were trying to make a larger point about torture and I, and other folks like Richard, are failing to see it. If that were the case then I’d feel a little better if the torture weren’t successful in extracting the needed info. Torture never works in the real world and while I know that WoW, and wherever it is the Bush Administration governs from, isn’t The Real World it’s still annoying that torture works there in the same way that it’s annoying that it works every time Jack Bauer does it in the TV show 24. In a game as well written as World of Warcraft this one quest seems particularly jarring to me otherwise I doubt I’d still be thinking about it after so much time has passed from doing it.

Ultimately I would be pleased if Blizzard decided to modify the quest in some way, but I won’t quit playing WoW if they don’t. It is just a game, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value to be had in discussing things like this.

Ozzy versus the Lich King.

I’m not a huge Ozzy Osbourne fan, but I thought this WoW commercial featuring him was pretty funny:

“World of Warcraft” breaks 11 million player mark.

The 800 pound gorilla of MMORPGs continues its phenomenal growth with Blizzard announcing today that they’ve broken the 11 million player mark:

IRVINE, Calif. – October 28, 2008 – Blizzard Entertainment, Inc. announced today that the subscribership for World of Warcraft®, its award-winning massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), now exceeds 11 million players worldwide. This milestone was reached as the beta test for Wrath of the Lich King®, World of Warcraft’s second expansion, nears completion. Wrath of the Lich King will launch in several regions around the world starting on November 13.

“It’s been very rewarding to see gamers around the world continue to show such strong support for World of Warcraft,” said Mike Morhaime, CEO and cofounder of Blizzard Entertainment®. “We remain fully committed to responding to that enthusiasm with a high-quality, constantly evolving game experience.

That’s active subscribers, by the way, which Blizzard goes out of their way to mention:

World of Warcraft subscribers include individuals who have paid a subscription fee or have an active prepaid card to play World of Warcraft, as well as those who have purchased the game and are within their free month of access. Internet Game Room players who have accessed the game over the last thirty days are also counted as subscribers. The above definition excludes all players under free promotional subscriptions, expired or cancelled subscriptions, and expired prepaid cards. Subscribers in licensees’ territories are defined along the same rules.

If WoW were a county it would rank in the list of countries by population at 75 out of 221 right between Greece (11,215,000) and Chad (10,781,000). Growth has slowed quite a bit since the first couple of years, but they still anticipate adding another million to the list within a year’s time now that they’ve launched in Russia and Latin America. Gotta admit, that’s mighty impressive.

Notes from a fantasy filled weekend.

It’s Monday already? Damn, was hoping I still had more time in my weekend. Which is saying a lot considering I took Friday off to go to my sister-in-law’s wedding.

Another of Anne’s sisters has taken the matrimony plunge and did it with style having a Fantasy themed wedding with dragons and castles aplenty. So rather than dressing up in formal clothes we ended up busting out the Renaissance Fair garb and going as a merchant and wench.  Courtney was in the wedding party as a bridesmaid and as such had a custom costume made for her ahead of time. The groomsmen rented knight costumes from a local costume shop and we even had at least one relative of the groom show up in full knight regalia (he was a SCA member). It made for an odd site with most of the guests in traditional formal clothes and the rest of us looking like extras from a bad dragon movie. I have to admit to being very impressed with the reverend who did the ceremony, though, as in addition to the traditional Christian style marriage he also performed a fairly decent – and very pagan – handfasting! Either he’s very progressive or fairly ignorant of the significance of a handfasting, either way it was a pretty cool addition to the ceremony.

Spent a good chunk of the rest of the weekend hopping in and out of World of Warcraft as the zombie invasion world event they’re running to herald in the upcoming release of the expansion has grown progressively more complex. By the time I went to bed on Sunday the amount of time between being infected to becoming a zombie had diminished from 10 minutes to one minute and many of the Argent Dawn healers that were curing folks had left the cities as the Lich King’s necropolis started appearing near the capitol cities once again (this happened once before with the opening of the Naxramas raid dungeon). New argent dawn NPCs have shown up in the cities handing out quests, some of which hint at a cure, and flying scourge fortresses are showing up in several high level areas such as Winterspring, Eastern Plaguelands, Tanaris, etc. that require players to go battle the invading scourge. The zombie problem has gotten so bad that small towns are completely overrun and even the capitol cities are in danger of being wiped out of NPCs. Needless to say this is making questing for the lower-level players a lot more difficult as even if they manage to make it into a town without being killed by the wandering zombies they may find they can’t turn in a quest because the quest giver is dead and hasn’t respawned yet. Needless to say some people are complaining it’s gotten out of hand, but it’ll improve over the coming days as the story progresses so their pain shouldn’t be too lengthy. [Minor Update: It appears the zombie plague will be ending around 12 noon PST today. It’s not the end of the world event, but the cure appears to have been found.]

All of that is going on at the same time as the Hallow’s End holiday event. So in addition to zombies all over the place players are contending with frequent visits from the Headless Horseman setting various buildings on fire in Goldshire and other newbie zones as well as trick or treating and making the trek to the Scarlet Monestary to put down the Horseman where he sleeps. Toss in all the changes to the game from the new 3.0.2 client and things like the new achievement system and it makes for a lot of chaos in the game at the moment and I’m having a blast with it myself.

As if all of that wasn’t enough we had good friends Bob and JethricOne out on Saturday night to watch a couple of fantasy themed DVDs: The Gamers and The Gamers: Dorkness Rising. Both are very low-budget comedies about a group of pen and paper role playing gamers playing through a campaign. We see not only the players playing, but also their characters as they act out what’s happening in the story. If you’ve ever played Dungeons and Dragons or any other RPG with a bunch of hardcore gamers then you’ll find a lot to laugh at in these movies. It’s geek humor at its low-brow best.

So it probably goes without saying that I’m way behind on what’s going on in the world this morning. On booting up Google Reader I noticed that my “Friend’s Shared Items” was up to almost 70 entries let alone the rest of my RSS feeds. There’s probably lots I’ve missed so if I post anything that’s a few days old, well, now you know why.

“Wrath of the Lich King” hits stores on November 13th.

The official release date for the next expansion to World of Warcraft has been announced:

Anne and I have been playing in the beta for awhile now and I can say that it’s going to be a major change to the game. Not just in new content, but in how long-standing features and various class spells work. For example there’s been a lot of effort put into reducing how much stuff uses up bag space. It used to be that if you wanted to collect non-combat pets, of which there’s already a stunning number in the game, you ended up devoting a lot of bank slots to store them and bag slots if you wanted to actually carry them around with you. The same is true for mounts. Balfour, my level 70 dwarven hunter, has three epic riding mounts and three epic flying mounts that I keep on him at all time using up six bag slots in the process. I only need one of each, but I keep three of each so I can randomly chose which of the three I want to use. There’s no advantage to one over any other other than it’s nice to have some variety, but I have to give up four more bag slots to do it. However, in WotLK I won’t have to give up any bag slots as all mounts and non-combat pets become spells I can learn. This will come in very handy when I’m grouped with people who don’t have their epic mounts yet as I’ll be able to use my non-epic mounts to match their speeds. I still have the non-epics, I just don’t tend to carry them with me all the time.

Plus Death Knights will finally be available on the live realms. We’ve been having a blast playing the DKs in the beta. In particular the storyline you go through after character creation has been done remarkably well. When you first created a DK it starts at level 55 with a full set of decent gear and you’re still enslaved to the Lich King, Arthus. You’ll go through a series of quests that teaches you how to use your abilities, slowly gives you all your talent points for the level you’re at, and upgrades your equipment to a decent set of blues. The cool part is that the quests are phased so that the environment changes as you make your way through them in a manner similar to the phased quests in Lord of the Rings Online. There’s been lots of updates to the user interface as well that’ll eliminate at least a few of the mods I regularly use. A built in calendering system for scheduling events and raids as well as keep tracking of in-game events such as the holidays, a built-in threat meter, and a whole bunch of other improvements. 

Going to have to start saving our pennies now if we hope to pick it up on launch day.