Friday, 15 April 2011

3D gaming, is there a WOW factor?

3DTV3D is one of the buzz words around the media industry, lead by the film industry, the big broadcasters are slowly starting to come on board as 3D TV sets become more affordable.  In the UK Sky is regularly showing live sports events in 3D and has recently followed that with movies, entertainment and documentaries all in 3D.  I’ve worked, until recently, leading a research team who’s remit was the ‘connected home’ focussing mainly on media & entertainment provision to the home.  Clearly 3D is one of the topics on the agenda here so I’d like to hope I can claim to know a little about it.

3D works, very basically, by tricking your brain into thinking a projection has got depth to it.  In years gone by this was done through those hideous red and green tinted glasses.  Unsurprisingly these never really took off.  Fast forward a decade or two and you have two prominent types of 3D viewing sets available to consumers, those using passive techniques, using inexpensive ‘passive’ polarised lenses which is the one your probably more familiar with from cinemas, or the active alternative which utilises battery operated  shutters in the lenses which fire faster than the eye can detect (and cost a fortune).  It is possible to get a 3D viewing experience without glasses, I’ve seen and used a TV set which gives you 3D but these give no where near the depth of the alternatives which use glasses and there are a few oddities caused by the technology which mean at certain angles you can’t see a picture.

I firmly believe that 3D has a place in entertainment, but until it’s without glasses, it’ll remain pretty niche, this will happen, but it’ll clearly take time.  I can however see certain specialist areas taking advantage of 3D technology, gaming being one of those areas.  Before I go into gaming specifically, I think it’s help to make a few observations about 3D technology, and point out a few pet hates.

Firstly, I’m sceptical that the ‘customer’ is currently at the heart of the drive behind 3D, think of the one thing which terrifies the movie industry…. have you got it yet?… that's right, piracy.  Now next time you go watch a 3D film, take the glasses off and take a look, blurry isn’t it? So anyone stood there with a conventional camcorder will get the same.  Even if you get a physical disc with a 3D film on, you’d have a hard time copying it (and finding anyone with a 3D TV to watch it); this will become easier over time, but currently it’s a great way of foiling the pirates.

My second complaint is the seemingly mandatory requirement for all films to be in 3D regardless of whether it adds anything to the experience (and the additional 3D ‘tax’ added to the already extortionate price of a cinema ticket).  Yes there are some great 3D films, Avatar and, ahem, Piranha 3D…. ok, so perhaps just Avatar, but there are also some absolutely pointless 3D additions where 3D has been added as an afterthought for the simple reason of adding 20% extra to the entry fee.  Clash of the Titans is one such film, there’s literally one 3D effect, a coin toss, in the whole film, which is completely and utterly pointless.  Similarly with football (soccer to all you American types), I’m lucky enough to have a local boozer (bar to you American types..) which has a 3D TV and regularly shows 3D footy, this TV happens to be situated in between two normal TV’s so, purely by luck, the viewer gets a stark comparison of the ‘normal’ versus the 3D coverage, and I’ve got to say the 2D version is far better!  More often than not, when you’re getting a replay of a crucial piece of gameplay, or some insightful analysis of the game on the 2D broadcast, the 3D TV is showing some non-descript tackle which happened by the corner flag for the sixth time because it ‘looks good’ in 3D; the coverage has lost the whole point of why people watch football or films – the entertainment of the subject matter, not the 3D experience, yes 3D can compliment that experience, but it shouldn’t be the focal point; until the media industry ‘grows up’ and realise this 3D is destined to be niche.  This is really exemplified by the number of punters in my local who ditch the 3D glasses after a game or two and revert to watching the 2D broadcast (and I realise my American reader’s head has probably now exploded with the amount of colloquialisms I’ve used in this last paragraph).

So, “what's this got to do with WOW then?” I hear you say…. well just this; is WOW something which is suited to 3D? on balance, I think it could be, you’re view of the world is centred around a focal point (your character) with players, monsters and all of the other ‘stuff’ spanning spanning out from there.  Giving a depth to instances, for example, could really enhance gameplay.  That is providing its used to enhance gameplay, and not replace it; we’ve already seen ‘uber’ graphics replace most of the actual gameplay time and time again as gaming power has improved over the years.  I’d almost be excited about the prospect of 3D in WOW if the cynic inside me didn’t keep telling me that it would lead to a subscription hike (well 3D is more difficult you know, so cost more! yadda yadda yadda) and that because it’s more difficult to develop would almost certainly lead to less content.

The thing about 3D which, in my experience, has really got the design geeks going isn’t the content at all, it’s the possibilities it exposes in the user interface design.  Any of you who’ve ever seen Top Gun will know what a heads up display or HUD is, imagine the possibilities for your UI if you had multiple layers unfolding before your eyes in the same manor a fighter pilot has with their HUD.  Even better if you’re able to interact with that display on a 3D level (clearly that's a long way off).

Recently I posted about the possibility of truly mobile gaming, one of the barriers to using a mobile for WOW which I identified was the screen space available.  If you suddenly have the ability to layer your UI in 3D it suddenly opens up a whole host of possibilities.

Clearly there's a long way to go before 3D gaming comes to the masses, the Nintendo DS already manages it (kind of) by making use of it’s dual display, so there’s clearly already some development going on in the area.  But how soon before we get a 3D WOW experience? your guess is as good as mine, I’d wager it’ll be later rather than sooner.

Monday, 11 April 2011


lucifronI’ve been having a look back over my posts over the last few weeks and it struck me I’ve not mentioned my primary topic; priests, nothing, nada, not a drop.  Possibly something to do with priestly ways being done to death by the blogsphere until the next patch drops, and possibly something to do with me playing alts more, and being generally slack…. so in an attempt to redress the balance a little, here we go, a post on dispelling for Shadow (and any other) Priests.

Dispelling (and decursing or curing poison etc. I’ve decided I’m going to use dispel from now on to cover every generic kind of ‘remove something’ simply for my sanity, don’t come whining to me ok… deal with it) like interrupts have made a bit of a resurgence since Cata, yes they were used in previous versions of WOW, but I can’t ever remember an occasion when they were needed so heavily.  Yes, back in the days of Molten Core and Lucifron as a mage(which I was at the time) you’d find yourself decursing 40 people.  Back when decursive was ‘legal’ you simply mashed the button 40 times and carried on.  Then it was outlawed and there was uproar; dispelling classes would have to do more than just mash keys, oh the pain!! to placate people (I assume, or perhapse they realised that, actually, selectively dispelling tens of people was quite hard, and actually VERY dull).  Blizzard introduced mass descurse/spell/poison Prior to Cata there was the occasional boss fight which required this, but it was occasional, and it was generally restricted to raids, not 5 mans, and you’d generally have a designated mass dispeller who did nothing but dispel.  In Cata, as a healing priest, I constantly find myself dispelling nasty crap, even on trash, to mitigate healing needs, there’s some quite nasty stuff which gets thrown about.  In Grim Batol, Throngus really needs to be dispelled, the end boss, Asaad, in Vortex Pinacle is one example who requires the use of mass dispel, and a whole host of others.

Gone are the days when dispelling was the sole responsibility of one unfortunate in a raid, and gone are the days when only the healers are responsible for dispelling.  I still occasionally see the ‘we always used to do it that way’ from the DPS, but I’ve found more and more that when I’m shadow, I need to dispel to help my healer out.  It’s quite polarising actually, the good DPS players tend to be those ones who know how to use their classes secondary abilities like interrupt, dispel, and to some extent crowd control (though most classes have had some form of crowd control for years so are generally quite comfortable with it).

I use healbot when I’m healing, binding my most used healing spells to direct mouse clicks, my lesser used spells with a shift-click and my dispel abilities an alt-click.  I replicate this across my alts, so on my druid my most usual heal is the left click, my ‘panic’ heal is shift right click, my dispel mechanic is alt-click and so on, this really helps (I find) with the muscle memory.  I used to disable healbot when I was playing DPS to give me more screen space, but recently I’ve kept it active so I can see when people need dispelling; if the healer is doing it (and not struggling) I’ll ignore them and melt away.  If we’re having problems then theres an easy indication both because the debuffs are highlighted and I can see peoples health bars more clearly. 
I’ve actually since re-skinned healbot so it’s not so big when I’m playing DPS, I still have all of the same keys bound so I can not only dispel, but also drop out of shadow form and start healing if I’m needed.
More generally, I’m not a big fan of mass dispel (in heroics) there’s for the bosses like Asad in Vortex Pinnacle where several classes can get out themselves, and anyone with any nouse is able to jump to avoid the debuff in the first place so dispel is simply used to pick up the stragglers.  In most other scenarios its simply a case of knowing the debufs that mobs dish out on knowing whether they’re worth getting rid of; for instance a melee speed debuf on a caster can be left.  This has got me wondering if there's any intelligence built in to healbot (or any other mod) or any other add to tell you if you really need to dispel someone.  I’ll have to break Google out when I get home.  Clearly in raids it’s a different story, its a case of choosing the most efficient method, be it mass or point dispelling. 

I think my point is, as a class who can dispel, you should always look to dispel, if possible, (and beneficial) whether you’re the healer or DPS; don’t assume someone else will do it, they’re probably assuming you will.  Know your debuffs too! know what might be coming, and be ready to deal with it.  Oh and when some muppet spams the DPS meter at you, spam the interrupt / dispel count back at them.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Can Warcraft go Nomadic?

nomad38 years ago today (well possibly yesterday, or the day before, depending on when I get round to finishing this post), the first ever public mobile phone call was made.  A guy called Martin Cooper wandered the streets of New York with what is akin to a brick with an antenna sticking out of the top held to his ear.  Unsurprisingly this caused a bit of a stir, people quite literally stopped in their tracks and pointed.  Fast forward 38 years and you’d be hard pushed to find a single person walking the streets of New York, or any other city in the developed world, who isn’t carrying a mobile.  They’re not just mobile phones now either, they’re cameras, GPS, web browsers, email clients, MP3 players, games platforms, RSS readers and much, much more.  Even the plain old SMS, the text message, hadn’t even been conceived back 38 years ago, in 2010 6 trillion were sent globally.

How people use mobiles has changed drastically over the years, those of you who had one of the earlier mobiles may have been lucky enough to have the ability to send texts, if you were like me, you could only store three at any time on the phone, and could only send to other phones on the same operators network.  Mobiles have entered into almost every aspect of modern life.  The advent of the smartphone has only increased this influence, roughly half of the phones sold in the UK is what I’d term a smartphone, this is only going to increase as users demand more and more functionality.

So will you ever be sat on the train playing WOW on your phone?  In a nutshell, I think the answer is ‘yes’ but with some caveats.  Firstly lets have a look at how mobiles are already influence how you play the game.  firstly, logging on to the game, the thing you do at least once every time you play WOW, most people (or at least those with any sense) use an authenticator; these come in two flavours; a specific hardware dongle which you can buy from Blizzard, or a mobile application.  A pretty minimal influence on the face of it, but actually, I don’t want another RSA security dongle, its a to carry around, adding the ability to have the authentication done on my mobile makes me far more likely to use it. 

More recent releases from Blizzard have seen the armoury made available on your mobile, you can view do pretty much everything you can on the web based armoury from viewing your calendar to playing with your talent build.  Going even further, the auction house application allows you to browse the AH, look at your bids, and if you buy the ‘premium’ version you can even create auctions, buy stuff and collect your mail.  It all boils down to what your definition of ‘playing’ the game is, interaction with the auction house is something that you could only previously do in-game, there's no question that this is an integral part of the playing experience.  Going forward there's potential for a similar application for trade skills, and any other ‘windowed’ type interface in your normal WOW UI.

But what about really playing, I don’t mean messing around with the AH, I mean doing things like running around and hitting things, doing quests, and herbing.  This is quite difficult to do on a mobile phone for a number of reasons, firstly raw processing power; mobile chips aren’t the same as your standard desktop machines processor, they are optimised to give a balance between power, battery usage, heat and cost.  They are not generally intended for use in rendering graphics (nor are standard processors, hence why you’ve shelled out a small fortune for your graphics card).   Screen size is an issue, I struggle for space on a 17 inch widescreen, on a 3 inch mobile screen you’re really going to suffer.  The restrictions of the mobile network is also an issue, both bandwidth and latency, we’re already starting to see broadband providers limit gaming traffic, I talked about it here, this happens widely in mobile contracts too, most mobile providers have realised that they’ve previously given away more data capacity than they can supply (if fully used by each customer) so have started limiting mobile contracts to 1Gb of data a month.  Latency is the real killer however, even if you have a bank balance the size of the GDP of a small African country, and can afford the mobile data, with latency figures sometimes in the seconds for mobile data the game play experience will be abysmal when you’re needing something sub 100ms for optimum playing experience.

Wifi could be he answer to this, most, if not all, smart phones have wifi built in, most come with free hotspot wifi access with the contract.  So if you happen to be sat near a wifi hotspot you could be onto a winner.  However, even if you have a super-duper mobile with a massive processor, graphics card and a decent wifi hotspot in your location (is anyone else remembering the brick sized original mobile?).  Even given all of that, you’re still stuck with a 3 inch screen, no keyboard, and no mouse;  I don’t know about you, but I have all my number buttons bound, plus a few other specials, plus movement keys, AND for healing I use a combination of alt, shift, ctrl and mouse clicks to cast particular spells.  On a mobile, this simply isn’t going to happen.  There may be a niche of gaming specific mobile phones, the Sony Xperia already aims to do that with PlayStation games, but for this to be included in mobiles as standard is a long way off.  There’s potential for the use of accelerometers and other innovative control and UI developments to aid this, but the implications for user interaction will always put you at a disadvantage to players sat at a standard desktop.  If you don;t believe me, imagine trying to play something like Counter Strike on an Xbox against someone using a keyboard and mouse; you wouldn’t stand a chance.  There's no possibility of having mobile only realms, this removes the attraction of being able to do stuff with your main characters while on the move.  There’s potential for the development in 3D screen technology to solve some of the UI, I’ve got a post in the pipelines around this, as it’s such a big topic, which will be coming along in due course.

Even assuming someone can solve all of the above, any iPhone or Android user will still point out, that unless you’re less than 1m away from a power socket, you’re still screwed.  This kind of defeats the object; unless you fancy carrying a car battery around on your back, you’re not going to last more than 20 minutes before your phone dies, I barely get 45 minutes of hardcore Angry Birding out of my phone as it is, and that’s relatively non-existent on the graphics load front compared to WOW.

You can actually ‘play’ WOW now if you install a remote desktop app on your desktop which basically screen scrapes the desktop display and punts it to your mobile, but this is very clunky and adds even more latency to the link. I’m convinced gaming, and specifically WOW has a future on mobile, it almost certainly wont be the same experience as playing via your PC, things like pvp, raiding or instances strike me as being very difficult, but why not offer the ability to herb, mine, fish, possibly one or two quest zones aimed at mobile usage (i.e. areas which aren’t going to tax the processing load, or require every spell or ability in your kitbag.  I’d certainly like to spend my train journeys collecting herbs or mining, it’d save you guys having to read this drivel…

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Levelling trade skills: pure, pure tedium.

tediousI’m sat here, sad as I am, trying to level blacksmithing from zero.  It’s gash, I mean really gash, I’d derive more enjoyment from continually inserting hot needles into my left eye for three hours than the mindless grind it’s taken to level from zero to 250 in blacksmithing.

Ok, rant over, on a serious note, why? WOW is supposed to be a fun game, the endgame is slanted towards various trade skills to maximise tanking / dps / healing output and the ;best’ trade skill for particular roles or classes tends to change now and then as new releases are a made which forces the more hardcore players to drop one skill and level another.  should this really take the best part of 10 hours to do? (if you ignore the time spent gathering the materials).

EDIT: I wrote this post almost a week ago but have been sitting on it as I published the GM interviews, in the mean time the gits insigtful people over at wow insider posted a similar article here which covers some similar topics, I didn't steal their ideas.... honest, I wrote my blog post first... :-)

Added to the fact that with blacksmithing it takes roughly 8 seconds to create and item, you also need to smelt the ore, AND Blizzard in their wisdom removed the ability for addons such as the Advanced Trade Skill Window to queue multiple items (you now have to manually click ‘process queue’ to move to the next item type), so you cant even go away and make a cup of coffee, or do something slightly more interesting like admire the growth rate of your garden while your toon hammers his head against the anvil repeatedly.  Whether it’s blacksmithing, or any other trade skill, the story is pretty much the same.

Is there not an easier way? I think so. First up, I’d like to state that I don’t think trade skills should be given to players on a plate, there should be some effort involved in levelling a skill, but the top level has gotten so far beyond that of the original level that it’s just another tedious grind.  Levelling to the top level in any profession takes an enormous amount of materials see here for blacksmithing as an example; its fair to say that people levelling trade skills support the WOW economy in a number of ways, in increasing demand from purchasing materials from the auction house, in reducing supply, from not offering those materials they have collected for sale on the auction house (or making the herb and mining nodes more sparse).  Now I’ve levelled two characters recently, both of which have been miners and herbalists, and I’ve banked everything I’ve collected for just such levelling as I’m trying to do with blacksmithing; even with all this banked ore, I still found myself buying stacks of the stuff from the auction house, or heading out to low level zones to collect the stuff.  Now I’m not the type of player who can see a yellow dot on my screen and not go collect it, this would indicate the materials requirement is far over and above the amount a single character would collect in the course of levelling, even with the occasional trip out to grind metal veins or herbs.

This may not necessarily be a bad thing, and may be by design; it keeps the the effort required to level a trade skill, and it keeps the older content useful (although barely in my opinion).  However when you consider trade skills were meant to be levelled in the main part with characters, for those of you who started a character back in vanilla WOW who levelled their trades with their character it was a straight forward task of making stuff as you got the material; your trade level stayed roughly in check with your characters, with a little bit of extra effort here and there, and the final 50 points or so taking the additional effort once you hit 60.  The trouble is, this final 50 points or so existed at the end of each expansion, so platos have developed at the headline skill level from each new release which are a complete pain, rather than just the end game final 20% of levels which should be difficult.  Here are a few suggestions for Blizzard on what I’d like to see to improve things:

Re-evaluate the amount of raw material required to level certain trade skills: blacksmithing seems far more difficult than alchemy for instance.

Reinstate the ability to queue trade skill activities with addons such as the advanced trade skill window, I understand the reasoning for removing it, but it simply doesn’t do what it’s intended to, it just makes the task of levelling more arduous.

Add the ability to queue multiple ‘breaking’ activities; disenchanting, milling and prospecting are even worse than crafting skills, at the very least let me mill by stack rather than per 5, but preferably add the ability to queue multiple stacks of material.  I acknowledge this might be dangerous with disenchanting, so how about only allowing it for greens.

Remove the levelling, platos which exist in the last 20% or so where, in previous releases, they where the top end of the trade skill level.

Add more lower level ‘multiple level’ items; most of the crap which is made is simply vendored anyway, why not add more items which cost 5 times more to make, and add 5 levels.  Or even better, taking into account my suggestion above, just up the level boost of a few items and leave the material requirement the same.

Look at the possibility of buffing players ability to level trades from other tradeskills, how about an enchanted blacksmithing hammer which adds an x% chance to double the level gained, a potion of superior tailoring reducing the amount of cloth required to make a bolt for the next hour, or a scroll of mass disenchant which allows you to disenchant every green item in your inventory. etc. etc.

Add the ability to ‘pay’ for bulk levelling at a trainer; rather than going away and self teaching the first (say) 300 levels in a crafting skill, why not turn up on the doorstep of your profession trainer with a set amount of materials, or a bag full of gold equivalent to the value of those materials which it would have taken you 6 hours to churn through and just exchange it for a level boost.  This would still require the materials, or currency value of those materials, so wouldn’t harm the economy (and done right could be used to boost it).  I’m not suggesting that this replace the whole levelling process, just a percentage of it – perhaps only available to accounts who have one character with a trade skill at it’s maximum level?  This is exactly what happens in real world industry today, you can go to a library, read about stuff and practice yourself, you can learn on the job as an apprentice, or you can get a ‘boost’ by going on an intensive training course – the training course accelerates the learning curve for the easier, apprentice level stuff, but the artisan level skills only come with practice.

Whatever is done, do something to make trade skills less tedious and more desirable, WOW is a game, it’s about entertainment, much of the recent development of WOW has been to make the game more accessible to the mass market, take the same principles and apply them to trade skills!