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Reporting In From 'MMOG' Land

by Mark Crump on Feb. 15, 2004 @ 1:28 p.m. PST

Massively Multiplayer Online Games are all the rage these days, and given how frequently they change with expansions, free updates and patches, we felt they were worthy of their own column. This article is our latest in a regularly scheduled (bi-weekly) series devoted solely to MMOG development. To kick things off, we take a look at Mythic's Dark Age of Camelot: Trials of Atlantis and the recent changes/developments...

When we did the review of the latest Dark Age of Camelot expansion, Trials of Atlantis, we mentioned the following about the Artifact Items: "(... )it's too early to tell if these are overpowered". This week Mythic announced that indeed they were -- by a magnitude of 20-50% -- and are nerfing them accordingly. Before I go any further, I want to congratulate Mythic for having the balls to make a radical and surely unpopular decision to those who spent the time to get the items. The rest of the games population -- players who have lives and were unwilling or unable to spend the inordinate time required to get the items -- have damn near flocked the streets to hold a parade in Mythic's honor.

As I mentioned in my review, Camelot has two components: one where you kill monsters; and one where you kill players from opposing Realms. When an expansion is released, its purpose (other than the obvious financial benefits to the company) is to give you neat new monsters to kill -- monsters that naturally drop "phat lewtz". The difficult thing Mythic has to deal with is since there's that pesky PvP component to the game, a component that is the sole reason a decent chunk of their subscribers play the game; you want to give some advantage to people who shelled out the coin for the expansion, but you don't want to completely screw over someone who didn't buy it. The Artifact items also aren't easy to get, since they require extensive camps where you can almost measure your time getting the item in real-life days. Because of the time commitment required to get them, they should be fairly powerful, yet not completely unbalancing the game, which was the result. To give you an idea of how powerful the items were, if it took you 5 hits to kill a player, with an Artifact geared for combat it might now take 2-4, and people who were on the receiving ends of the "2" hits weren't happy (as a disclaimer, that number is a demonstration of the results of the percentage power, and aren't based on any actual in-game item). The line between a "casual" and "hardcore" gamer is often blurry, and it goes without saying that someone who plays the game 10 hours a day should have a better equipped character than someone who plays 1 hour a day. The problem with the Artifacts was, they were so powerful that people were feeling like they had to go get the items to get a chance to compete in RvR

While Mythic deserves kudu's for doing the right thing and rebalancing these items, the real question is: why did they even have to do this in the first place? It's a given that after an expansion launches, there's an item or three that's a tad out whack, so it gets a smackdown with the nerf bat - EQ recently had to "adjust" a key piece of their new expansion, but that was a) clearly a bug, and b) identified quickly. I can't remember any other MMOG that has had key elements of an expansion nerfed in this quantity almost four months after release. One of the explanations they used for the nerf is with the upcoming release of New Frontiers, their free RvR expansion, these unbalanced items needed to be adjusted once and for all. If New Frontiers wasn't currently on Mythic's radar, would these items have been adjusted now, or several months from now, if at all?

There's a growing trend in the industry where betas are used for free marketing, product is pushed out the door before its ready, and then it is patched well after release. The sad, but often true, joke amongst players is that the date a public beta begins is the release date. I'm a big proponent of the theory that balance in an MMOG is only attainable after you can gather data of several thousand players - as opposed to several hundred players in a beta - banging on the product. But gee-whiz guys, what made you think during the design stage that having all these items be so powerful individually, making several of them stack, and then letting it sit there in release for four months was a great idea? This is what should be caught in beta or at least during a meeting where someone asks: "is having items with these stats stack in the best interest of the game?"

I applaud Mythic for doing the right thing and making the hard decision to rebalance every Artifact and high-powered item. Where they receive my criticism is getting into a position where they had to make it in the first place.

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