Becoming Hardcore: Dark Age of Camelot

My wife still bears a grudge against Dark Age of Camelot. That’s fair. I started playing around the time we moved in together, and I played it a lot.

After college, my group of friends spread across many time zones. At various times we had people in California, Texas, Arizona, Michigan, Japan, Australia, China, and the Philippines. We decided to schedule online gaming a few times a week, plus however often we could catch each other in-game. Our attempts at taking a pen-and-paper game online were not entirely enjoyable (software for that has come a ways, with voice chat these days if nothing else), and many of us were excited about Dark Age of Camelot, so we joined Albion.

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New Content Is Shared Content

Fantasy MMOs tend to start with race-based newbie zones and meet up some number of levels in, thinning to a smaller number of high-level areas before expanding again at the cap (discussed previously). Games with strictly divided PvP factions get a more strongly separated version of this, as you can send your night elf to play with your dwarf friend but not your orc friend. Some games will bring everyone together sooner, others will create several paths to the level cap. Please, make an alt while we work on the expansion.

You spend years making this base content. It takes a lot of work to recreate that leveling path several times, even if you recycle content across the paths (a roc is a red vulture, sure, why not). Unless you are Cryptic, this is something like a four-year development cycle. Now that the game is live, you are expected to patch in new content every one to three months while working on bugs and balance. At least you have some half-developed content that was meant for live, maybe even an advertised feature that was not completed on time; City of Heroes/Villains gets a special prize for patching in the last 10 levels after release twice. Oh, and you likely have an expansion every year or two, and that needs to be big enough to justify selling a new box.

Making new content for each faction is time-consuming, creates balance issues, and has limited value given the number of players at the level cap in multiple factions. Or you can make the new content once and send everyone through it. You will need faction-specific details, but the more overlap you have, the less content you need to develop. Add neutral factions that deal with everyone. Add common enemies. This conveniently encourages PvP and/or cross-faction teams, depending on how you set it up.

So you have one Outland and one Northrend. Albion, Midgard, and Hibernia fought over the one big dungeon, and now their descendants in WAR do the same. Superheroes and supervillains both fight the Hamidon, the Honoree, and Romulus (CoX is odd for having the Statesman Task Force and Lord Recluse Strike Force, very different parallel content). Holiday and event content is often mirrored, with the same content slightly redecorated for the factions’ cities or low-level areas.

I don’t know that I would prefer it any other way. It sometimes feels like corner-cutting, but I do not want to need level-capped characters across multiple factions to see all the new toys, and making two sets of them means more time or more cost. I would rather have two sets of content that I can experience on my main. Although it strikes me that Blizzard has the billions of dollars and the staffing and is still producing shared content at a Blizzard pace.

: Zubon

Most Typical Member

Prototype theory holds that we conceptualize through categories in which some members are more central than others. If I ask you to name a piece of furniture, you are quite likely to come back with “chair,” “table,” or “sofa”; if you immediately thought “armoire” or “ottoman,” you are weird; if you went with “Charles, or Susan if it’s a girl,” you are very weird. If you asked an American for the best example of a bird, the most bird-like bird around, you will get far more robins than penguins and almost no emus.

The usual concept of a western MMO seems clearly descended from DikuMUD, through EQ and terminating in WoW. I would tend to insert DAoC in there, sometimes described as “EQ without the parts that suck,” but I may be atypical. Perhaps I am uncreative, but I do not see much more room for the Diku model to evolve. It has reached its full flower in WoW. You can have refinements and variations (-raids, +PvP, +story, -classes, +Tolkien, -fantasy, +F2P), to say nothing of lousy clones, but it will take something massive to change the view of the most typical member. There is a lot of room (and money) in WoW’s orbit, but if you do not want to be (seen as) conceptually subordinate, you need to head a good distance away.

We have some less typical members, most notably EVE Online. You all know how I love to pull out “here is how City of Heroes solved that problem,” or how I mix a dozen niche games into my bloviations. These can be annoying in the MMO blogosphere when commenters contribute them independently, not in the sense of “here is an alternate way of implementing that” but rather “your entire argument is invalid because it does not apply to my game (or playstyle).” It is as if you were complaining about birds pooing on your car, only to have a passerby disdainfully remark that there are not any penguins in the area and they could not have flown over your car anyway. Well, no, that is not what I meant by “birds,” but thank you for contributing.

Continue reading Most Typical Member


For those of us inclined to do so, the healer is a great role. Yes, it has problems in PUGs when three different people pull then blame the healer, but it is rewarding to see your friends made into boundless engines of destruction and victory.

Healing is great for marginal teams that are barely scraping by, but moving a team from “non-functional” to “winning” or from “winning” to “dominating” is a job for non-healer support. The best times I have had on any support character have been when healing is a secondary role. It is nice to have that in your pocket, in case things go pear-shaped, but support is at its best when healing is unnecessary. Debuffing is great, buffing is usually better, and control is invisibly wonderful if often fragile.

As with many things, City of Heroes does this the best of any game I have played. It is not readily apparent in the early levels, when defenses and abilities are weak and healing is necessary. It starts in the mid-levels and comes into its own in the late game. Everyone who got tired of things in the 30s? You missed the best part of the game (although I concede a love for the frantic newness of the low levels). Kinetics is the big star, with Fulcrum Shift as its last ability, putting your entire team at the damage cap. Life at the damage cap is a beautiful thing. Along the way, Defenders might put you at the speed cap; put all enemies at the speed, damage, or accuracy floor, or all at once; give everyone endless endurance (mana) and regeneration good enough to make healing redundant; and be the best pulling class around. Controllers do all of that with slightly lower numbers and the bonus ability of turning the enemies into statues. If you were not loving the game in the late levels, you were playing with/as a healer and not a Defender.

This is not CoH-specific. Playing a support mage in Asheron’s Call was a beautiful thing, letting my friends specialize all their attacks while multiplying their damage. There was a special joy in debuffing an enemy’s magic skills and watching it fizzle its attack spells repeatedly. My Theurgist in Dark Age of Camelot was a primary damage class that was more valued for its run buff, stuns and slows, and especially the bladeturn chant (self-refreshing group buff: the next enemy attack misses). A Minstrel will improve his legendary items’ healing cost and power buffs in The Lord of the Rings Online, but one “required” legacy is increasing the group melee damage buff, and the damage reduction from traiting for buffs is greater than the healing increase from traiting for heals. World of Warcraft is kind enough to make many buffs last ten to thirty minutes, for your ease as a buffer.

The life of a healer is usually boredom or panic. In a good group, there is not much to do. In a bad group, there are too many people demanding your attention at once, and in a badly designed encounter, you have people going suddenly from full health to nearly dead. Buffers are not half-AFK waiting for a green bar to go down, and there is always something interesting to do as a debuffer.

: Zubon

Early, Middle, Late

For a game that depends on a stream of income from subscribers or RMT shoppers, the first hour of play must be the top development priority. This is where you hook players. After that, the endgame is important because that is where your players will be spending time indefinitely and where your game’s chatter will come from in the long run. Next is the early game, when you build momentum. The mid-game has already fallen this far down the list, as you have certainly seen in a lot of MMOs, and frankly few care much how good the late-game is because they are already fully committed and racing for the end-game.

I stand by my repeated claim that optimizing the new player experience is of paramount importance. You must grab my attention within five minutes, and you must deliver a satisfying hour or two for my first play session. Without that, any free trial is worthless, and you may even lose some people who have thrown down $50 for a box. This is the part of the game that every single player will see on every single character, and if you cannot do a good job here, I have no hope for the rest of the game. Yes, it is hard to make things interesting while giving the player only a few buttons to play with. Suck it up, we all have hard parts in our jobs. That’s why they pay us. Continue reading Early, Middle, Late

Dreams Undreamt

A Casualties member mentioned Crimecraft last night. Ah, a gang-based online thing. “I’ve never dreamed of being in a gang, so not really interested.” Then I thought back through some previous games. I never dreamed of being a dwarf that set people on fire by writing on a rock, of making charcoal and growing flax, of summoning headless ice monsters that rained frosty death upon my foes, of being a buffing psychic cyborg, of…

: Zubon

The Problem, In a Nutshell

Melmoth discusses:

Look, if I fight wolves in the dwarf starter area, and I kill the requisite hundred and fifty thousand million of them for the Wolf-Slaughterer title, it’s fair to say that I’m pretty good at killing wolves, some might say that I am accomplished if not a little genocidal. Therefore, if I then go to another area, further afield than where one might find a new character normally, I should not find super wolves, ten times the power of a normal wolf, who have but to look at me in a slightly disapproving manner for all my armour to jettison from my body and my skeleton to explode out of my skin and bury itself five feet under the ground. I am a wolf slayer! Look! You gave me a bloody title to acknowledge the fact that I spent a lot of time killing wolves, why can I not kill these wolves? ‘Oh’, say the developers, ‘but these are different wolves’. Different how exactly? Were they privately educated? Have members of their number graduated from Sandhurst? Did they train at Hereford in the use of special tactics and weapons?

The epic journey from pig to pig I comment with this image. That’s basically the state of things. The only thing keeping you from leveling on boars from 1 to the cap is that you must complete some quests to get access to zones, like exiting the newbie instance or the faction grind to get into Lothlorien, where the level 61 pigs are. You did not think of “access to higher-level pigs” as one of the benefits of that elf faction, eh? You haven’t even seen the edges of the box you’re trying to think outside of.

I pull this example from The Lord of the Rings Online™, but it is almost universal. My Dark Age of Camelot (Albion) character could do just the same, from piglets to rooters with some zombie pigs in between. I have killed the same goblin 100,000 times, with him in a variety of hats and colors.

: Zubon

Grouping as the Better Option

Some games require grouping. We hate that, especially when certain classes are required, because you can easily spend half your in-game time looking for group members. Some games encourage soloing. We often like that, but single-player games deliver a much better solo experience. Some games discourage grouping, often as an accident of game mechanics, which is just poor. Some games encourage and reward grouping without requiring it, which is the best of all possible worlds.

I have a very long version with many examples after the break, but that is the core of my message today: encourage grouping, do not require it, and make sure the game mechanics really do encourage it.

You encourage grouping by increasing rewards for groups and adding abilities that require groups to take full advantage of them. You require grouping by giving enemies ridiculous numbers of hit points, failing to scale encounters for different numbers, or making encounters that demand (or all but demand) several specific abilities that are spread across the classes. You discourage grouping by making quests difficult to do together and failing to scale encounters for different numbers. Yes, a lack of scaling can both require and discourage grouping.

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Steal This Old Idea

Dark Age of Camelot had concentration-based buffs. If you want to limit the number of characters someone can buff, just code that. Recast timers are annoying; Bob wants to keep these five buffs live all the time, done.

Yes, it encourages dual-boxing. Yes, there are times when you do want things to be timer-based. But if Bob can keep this buff on five characters continuously, just let him do it, rather than having him re-buff every four minutes.

: Zubon

Ultima Online, Mythic Layoffs

According to Destructoid, members of the UO dev team as well as some developers at Mythic have been laid off and the rest of team has been moved from the Redwood Shores, CA studio to Mythic’s Fairfax, VA. UO, Dark Age Of Camelot and Warhammer Online will continue but more layoffs are expected throughout these and other Electronic Arts studios.