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For those that don't know, this won't make much sense: but people will still be talking about Trials of Atlantis, the expansion that killed DAoC, ten years from now. That's a major achievement. Let me summarise the experience.

You 800 people climb to the top of that mountain and sit down. Just sit there, although you will occasionally be forced to stand by randomness. (Note to Mythic: 'random' is not synonymous with 'awesome'.) You will sit there whilst three people do something incomprehensible. In a boat. If you are randomly attacked, don't heal yourself. That will lead to a total party kill. Instead, die, respawn, and hope to run back before the incomprehensible thing is over. Don't worry, this will only take two hours. Although you can bet real money on it suddenly being over in the ten-minute window you're running back from a random death. Never mind, perhaps there'll be another raid next week. Perhaps you're fed up? Well: not as fed up as you'll be when the person holding the only item that will let us progress dies, respawns an hour's travel and combat away, and decides not to come back.

My claim is that Warhammer Online is actually worse than this: it plumbs a new nadir in game design.

That sounds like a hefty claim. Let me defend it.

Firstly, ToA had a kind of absurdist humour to it. I spent eight hours sitting in a boat whilst two people did something that we couldn't see or help with. Every time Ruth popped up to see what was going on, I was still sitting in a boat. Occasionally the two people drowned. You honestly couldn't make this shit up. If I'd propped a painting of a Firbolg sitting in a dinghy with twenty other people in front of my monitor, it would have been about as much fun.

And ToA came with challenges: one of my favourite collection of memories (which are obviously rose-tinted) was when our regular Wednesday-night group picked up a 150-man raid and ran it with a fist of iron. Often because the people who had 'organised' the raid to begin with had no idea what they were doing. Herding 150 twelve-year-olds is a real challenge, but one we rose to.

Let me explain further. They weren't really twelve. They were probably twenty- and thirty-somethings, but by Christ they whined like mules. And occasionally a group would crash out or die and we'd have to repeat a stage. Here's an excerpt of my management style in action:

jan: No, we are all going to go back and do that again. With all of us. It'll only take five minutes. These people have been here for two hours, we owe it to them to get them through that stage.
whiner: why should we? I have the stage token.
jan: I will not brook 'no' for an answer. If you do not comply, you and your whole group are out of the raid. No second chances. Are you coming? May I remind you you're making a decision that will invalidate fourteen hours of other people's time if you do not bend to my unshakable will.

After you kick the first group it works like a charm.

So, that was ToA.

Warhammer Online is worse than that.

That's one hell of a claim. And don't get me wrong: there's lots of good stuff in WAR. The PQ system is great (if you could find anyone to quest with). The Warhammer tone is great. There's lots of little detail knocking around in the countryside. But despite all this, as far as game design goes, WAR represents more of a failure than ToA.

Mythic have created a PVP endgame where the objective is to run away from PVP as fast as possible.

That's right. The economics of the keep take system, the 'renown' system mean that players are hunting out undefended keeps to take. And defending a keep is a bad thing to do - you score nothing for it, your creeping death bar of 'renown' does not advance. You don't get a chance at the (random, obviously) gear drops. And if the enemy is trying to capture a zone using the baroque victory-point mechanics, you will only further their efforts if you turn up to fight them. If you want PVP, you have to fight in scenarios - only one of which appears to be popular. (Mythic's 'fix' for this situation is to lower the rate at which the popular PVP scenarios pop.) Yes, I'm sick of people who will scream abuse at their fellow players and then fall back, and fall back, until they are camped right up against the spawn point. Perhaps Order does lack tanks. They certainly lack balls. They're eight years older, perhaps, but they're still twelve. I'm more sick of the scenario maps that inexplicably have bits of ground that you have to jump over, lest you spend five minutes trying to disentangle yourself from a six-inch step.

Rather than merely complain, let me offer fixes.

Appropriate levels of incentivisation

My first fix would be to remove levels and gear from the game. People are grinding creeping-death bars. Why? Is 'renown rank' 62 that much better than RR 38? You might be able to bump a stat by 10. Ooh. One of the nice things to realise is that the upper levels are close to each other. You might be grinding, but your character is imperceptably 'better' than someone of level 38.

My second line of attack would be to permanently ban the account of anyone who suggests that not travelling to the zone that the enemy are trying to lock down to defend it.

People should be incentivised solely by compelling gameplay. When you kill a character, across the internet, someone is banging their keyboard in frustration. Is that not excitement enough? Perhaps a character's second death should be permanent. However, that inevitably not being enough, here are my proposed alternative fixes.

Fixing renown

'Renown' is an odd term for something that you get the most of by attacking undefended keeps then running away before the enemy turn up. This is some kind of dadaist Flashman nightmare definition of 'renown'.

Fixing renown in scenarios

I feel strongly enough that this should be a team game that I've written a mod that chases the selfish idiots who move to 'solo groups'; it repeatedly joins their group. Why do they do this? For two reasons. Firstly, to maximise their own creeping-death progress; secondly, to remain in a group so that they benefit from the healing and assistance of others using the Squared mod. It was a productive 20 minutes of coding and I really hope that in using it I've ruined the afternoon of several morons. That makes me feel good.

Here is how to make it all better:

There is a fixed pool of renown and XP. That gets awarded at the end of a scenario, being divided up evenly amongst characters on the winning and losing sides. The split of reward between the two sides should be directly proportional to their respective scores.

You may object. You're wrong. I'm right. Let's move on. Not enough? Ok. By making it a linear relationship between a side's score and the reward, there's no 'hurry up and let them win'. Every effort, no matter how late in the match, has value. By making the rewards divide evenly, then by leeching off your team you're lowering their chances and thus lowering your own gains. By trying hard and playing by a team, you are not only increasing your reward but decreasing the reward of the other side. This is an important incentive for twelve-year-olds. Finally, there is a reason to actually try to achieve the scenario objectives rather than just farming kills: you will get a higher score, faster, and a larger proportion of the rewards.

There. Fixed. That took five minutes.

Fixing renown in open RVR

You only score renown for actions where an enemy player is present: either defending or attacking keeps. That is what 'renown' means to me, anyway.

That incentivises keep defence, keep offence, and most importantly, not fucking running away from a fight.

Keeps should offer tangible benefits from holding them. Not overlarge, just tangible.

whiner: but I cannot grind my renown with no enemies to fight
jan: look at what you just said. Why do you want to improve your renown if not to combat the enemy?

Fixing victory points

Keeps and battlefield objectives should generate victory points over time as long as they are held.

The major complaint here is that turning up to fight the bad guys speeds their victory - or so it is perceived. So, the obvious answer is to arrange it so that turning up to fight - even if you're just being farmed - should slow your opponents' VP gain toward locking a zone. Here's one example how this might be done. The goal is to make both attackers and defenders want to be in the same place.

A side that owns a keep should gain VPs steadily. Any combat in the keep vicinity will lower the rate of VP gain. An unoccupied keep will generate VPs unbelievably slowly. An occupied but unattacked keep will generate VPs at the fastest rate.

That is all. I don't offer details to this design because I'm not being paid to do game design. But the quick panic fixes we're seeing don't show any sign of awareness, or the ability to stand back and ask what's going wrong. Currently we're getting close-to-the-coalface twitches, not fixes.

Fixing the bridges

Send a dwarven sapper team to flatten those six-inch bumps in Grovod Caverns. They're a real trip hazard.
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October 2011

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