Friday, 11 January 2013

Hyborian Pick-Up Lines: An Introduction to Attributes

This post is the first of a few intended to help new and casual players make more sense of the itemization statistics.
Right from the get-go, MMOs such as AoC, require players to make informed decisions, as in: Should I spend more on a starter pack to get the handy weapons that are advertised?  If I equip that Pirate Ring the crocodile on Tortage dropped, what will +1 Constitution do for me?  Etuu-Agh’s Dirk apparently gives me +4.8 DPS … WTF does that mean?  My goddamn inventory is full, but the creepy-ass obese eunuch I killed has dropped a scimitar that I can't actually use, should I even pick it up ... will it give me syphilis?

Very often, these new player concerns only elicit further questions about more obscure information such as, “How does more ‘constitution’ actually help me?” or “How is my character's DPS influenced by a weapon's DPS?”  A player who may have tried pen and paper RPG’s will have an advantage in MMORPGs, as thinking about statistics that characterize probabilities in game terminology is familiar.  However someone, who’s trying AoC as their first MMO (and maybe even first RPG), may find the stat system a little less-transparent.  Similarly a casual player, who enjoys the game viscerally as a result of its action or because of the immersiveness of its virtual world, might not fret about the statistics overly. Perhaps not until … Dommm-te-dom-dom … he or she faces that first hurdle, such as killing Strom to get heck off Tortage or perhaps surviving that blood defiler long enough to burn it down and get the bloody Phoenix of the South. Sometimes surmounting these challenges requires an understanding of the encounter mechanics (e.g. when to run or what to click); or sometimes a matter of having the appropriate stats; and most often, of being able to combine both.

Some RPGs are pretty simplistic at the onset.  I remember waaaay back in the summer of 1980 when I was just trying Basic Dungeons & Dragons (yes, I am a lich ... my DM's hot older sister always seemed to have the Go-Gos' "We Got the Beat" on in the background!) I recall getting my first +1 sword and learning immediately that it added 1 to my dice roll to improve my character’s chance to hit the enemy as scribbled in pencil on my character sheet ... all pretty simple.  But I digress.

Most RPGs, ancient and modern, allow their players see the immediate benefits.   Single player titles such as Elder Scrolls - Morrowind, Oblivion, or Skyrim and Dragon Age: Origins tend to keep this system of benefits simple, so players of all ages can follow the game’s system and remain deeply immersed.  Age of Conan is targeted at a mature player demographic.  You can indeed generally play without fretting about the stats, by adopting a trial and error approach, letting Hyboria’s simulated version of survival of the fittest guide your decisions. However, if you want to improve your performance by enhancing your character’s performance stats there are some things you’ll need to know: particularly when you hit that wall.

The last thing a mob sees before he truly appreciates DPS.

Before stats are discussed in a little more detail, it’s useful to understand that when the game was designed and initially released in 2008, it was structured such that stats didn’t give tremendous benefits. This was done with the hope that the game would create an appetite for player-skill based combat. Player-versus-player systems and player-versus-environment systems were statistically very similar, because at that point the endgame for Age of Conan was intended to be player sieges.  While initially an interesting idea, the outcome was that players didn’t care about the loot.  In short, the incentive for most RPG veterans to do quests or play instances was low.  Players were asking, “Why spend a few hours or days trying to get an item, if you don’t really need it very much?” So in 2009, patch 1.5 revised the combat system to make items’ stats more influential and the traditional RPG player majority was satisfied, and the seeds for an item-oriented expansion (Godslayer) were sewn.

The Essentials …

The remainder of this post will attempt to explain how the fundamental character attributes initially influence your performance.  In the next post, the combat system for melee and magic attacks will be described in greater detail.

The current (1.5 patch) combat system works on a trickle-down format.  Base attributes give specific benefits and when a base attribute is increased, there’s a smaller benefit to subsequent base stats, as you move down the line.  Additionally, as your character gains levels, some Base Stats increase as do some subsequent stats.

The inherent set of Base Attributes with which your character starts out (viz. Strength, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Dexterity) helps determine your various subsequent outputs (e.g. damage, healing, or how much hate the character does or doesn’t elicit in an enemy.)  Some of these stats are easy to understand (e.g. Health); but getting clear information on others (e.g. Combat Rating) requires a little more digging; and finally, some stats (e.g. Hit Rating) can always be somewhat nebulous.

Players can open the Attributes Window and see their base stats in the General Tab. Here it’s easy to see some trickle-downs in effect, when we examine a generic fresh character on Tortage Beach as depicted in Figure 1.
With nothing equipped (except some shackles which can’t be removed at this point) this conqueror's progression can be observed in the leftmost window.  This stat, Damage Per Second (DPS), it should be noted describes only melee weapon damage.  (Magical / Spiritual attacks will be discussed more in the next post.)

Figure 1. Basic Conqueror with Attributes Shown from Levels 1-3

Having equipped no weapon which actually contributes a statistic, the far left window shows this conq’s base melee DPS is 1.6 points. Mousing the cursor over your actual DPS numbers reveals some useful information in a pop-up that appears just to the lower-right of the letters “DPS”.  This little window shows that the base DPS is clearly the sum of her “DPS from Weapon”, which is 1, added to her “DPS from Combat Rating”, which reflects her lack of acquired skill and, so is a mere 0.6; these two stats add up that base DPS of 1.6 points.
Now consider the three windows on the right side of Figure 1.  The first one, just to the character’s right, is a copy of her Attributes Window as it appears after she has equipped her starting weapon, the Broken Oar.  This weapon provides a 6.1 DPS (its stat is shown the tool-tip window in the yellow box in mid-bottom of Figure 1).   Hence, her base DPS at character Level 1, becomes 6.7 (viz. “DPS from Weapon” (6.1) + “DPS from Combat Rating” (.6) = base DPS of 6.7.)

Finally, the subsequent two windows are copies of the Attributes Window as they appear after the character further progresses.  She gains 2 more levels (by killing crocodiles and then human scavengers on the beach; releasing Cassilda; and then killing poachers).  These windows show that as she progresses to each new level, the character’s Combat Rating increases.  It increases because, as she levels up, her Strength attribute increases (c.f. level 1, Strength is 1;  at level 2, Strength is 4;  and at level 3, Strength is 6).  Thus Combat Rating is the pop-up window shows a trickle-down benefit from those increases to Strength.  Players might also ask “Why does Strength go from 1 to 4 to 6?”  That’s actually an Archetype trait.  She is a conqueror, like all classes within the game’s Soldier Archetype, she will receive better DPS as her Strength attribute goes up.  Soldiers develop proficiency with martial melee weapons.

Other archetypes receive benefits to Combat Rating from different base attributes.  For example Assassin’s will get improved Combat Rating, when using daggers because that class is supposed to cultivate a talent for that kind of weapon because they are nimble and well-coordinated; so the class’s  trickle-down benefits come from Dexterity and applies to dagger Combat Rating. Whereas a Necromancer could also use a dagger as well, but won’t get as much benefit from their Dexterity attribute.   The Necromancer class gets trickle-down benefits to their magic damage by increasing the Intelligence attribute.  And the Dark Templar, a soldier class that employs some magic, will therefore cultivate both Strength and Intelligence to receive trickle-down benefits to stats that affect melee and magic.

So the key to understanding what to collect begins by knowing where the best trickle-down benefits per class can be enhanced. Table 1 presents all the AoC classes by archetype and suggest how the trickle-downs apply to each by indicating which benefits they boost.  Note: The table was generated by looking at the official forums and a few pages here and there on the web (click to enlarge).

UPDATE: An extended, more accurate, and improved version of this table can be found in this post.  

Table 1.  Areas of Benefit According to Attribute by Archetype and Class.

A small caveat, I don’t play some of these classes and there might be a few where I've unwittingly applied a benefit that's less relevant, so feel free to offer suggestions where this table could be fine-tuned.

It should be remarked that many items will boost a stat further along the trickle-down chain.  Thus, one item will give a boost to a base attribute like Strength, which can have broader benefits like to each of improved melee Combat Rating (viz. roughly 36 Combat Rating points trickle down into one melee DPS point) Health, Health regeneration, and Armor.  Meanwhile, another item might give a direct a sizeable benefit to Combat Rating; meaning substantial boosts to melee DPS but no trickle-downs for Health or Armor.

What players will ultimately notice is that the benefits of many items with a broad trickle-down will be less than those of items with a more focused benefit.  The game often giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other; in time that conundrum will become the essential chestnut. It’s where the game’s complexity moves from hard the science of mere number crunching into the jurisdiction of nuanced player intuition.  

Finally, you may already remark some items might give benefit like to Fire Damage or Evade.  The next post will assemble what I have garnered from the game’s forums and so forth, to sort out a rudimentary chart comparing two AoC attack mechanisms:  dealing physical damage and casting spells to do harm and to describe which stats apply to defend against each attack.

Postscript: Funcom Delivers the Goods.

Yesterday, the first component of  Secrets of Dragon's Spine adventure pack went live.  So far, other than the existence of guards in the new playfield on the PvP 'Blood and Glory' ruleset server most reported bugs are very minor.  A small patch will hit next week or so, I imagine. The testlive server forums suggest that the next component is most likely the crafting re-vamp.  This month's GD letter can't come soon enough with details of what's coming a little further out.  So GJ Funcom.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Stygia ... A Little More to See?

While preparing the next full post, it struck me that Funcom's deadline for The Secrets of the Dragon's Spine update is now less than one week away.

Sombre Khemi: where most players get a first taste of Stygia

On the forums and in the 'blogosphere', players rightly are expressing skepticism as to whether the first phase of the expansion will delivered on time and bug-free by next week.  Funcom is up against the old triumvirate of quality, cost, and speed.  In most commercial projects, only two of these are really possible.  As we know FC is on a budget, so cost is not an option.  Players are either gonna get quality or speed.

Funcom may indeed have had a crack-core of Followers of Asura, unpaid interns, and entry-level devs testing an internal build over the holidays. This approach would've mitigated quality shortfalls or more likely enhanced delivery speed. However, this is highly unlikely for a company that's just had to tighten its belt due to restructuring after TSW's slow start.

Ol' Murddock here is tacitly rooting for quality. Why doesn't Funcom just take another week and run it on the test-live servers?  To be effective, why not offer all players, who put in a few hours on test-live reporting bugs, a small incentive? Is it difficult to send an additional cluster of items, such as the ones given freely as part of the seasonal event, to the accounts of players who log a 3-4 hours on test-live? Just generate a list of coupon numbers that can be entered on the a player's account page,  then PM them to players who report new playfield design, gameplay, and quest bugs over a 5 day period.  It's not as if this would break the bank.

A conqueror exuberantly embraces the test-live experience.

Regardless of whether they get the Dragon's Spine outdoor and group instances out next week, the next question is: what else will the expansion bring?  A new raid instance has been promised (maybe the Palace of Cetriss which has concept art) and we're all very keen on the crafting revamp.  But if The Savage Coast of Ardashir is any measure then, shouldn't we expect a second instance for solo or group as well?  The size of the playfield suggests that this ought to be the case.

It's reasonable to ponder what's next for our game: it's just after New Year's Day, after all. Currently, some of the forum threads show players suggesting what they'd like to see happen in 2013.

So far the gist is as follows:

  • Class revamps and fine-tuning (Conq [as OP] and HoX [as needing some love] are both good cases)
  • Stealth system
  • More progression options (more AAs?)
  • Cross server tech to improve player interactions
  • New/improved GUI elements (for LFG and LFR and for the trader)
  • New loot options / More options to spend tokens
  • An achievement system
  • Bug fixes and streamlining (c.f. missing facial hair on selection screen, the invisible mount, stuttering in some Khitai zones etc.)
  • Mesh-tinting to allow customization of crafted items.
  • Content based on the Legend of Conan movie

  • An announcement of new content areas beyond Dragon's Spine
  • Revamps (e.g. Entity) and unchained versions of the existing instances (e.g. FotD ... personally I want to see The Breach get another pass: at least make an unchained solo comparable to Forgotten City).

  • Revamped/improved sieges (including PvP rewards from sieges)
  • Another revamp to make Bori work
  • A Colosseum and PvP ranking system
  • New PvP Levels
  • Address issue of hacking
  • New Premium PvP content to make F2P PvP subscribe

Although the new Schwarzenegger filck is still somewhat further out, some very new content areas could be considered for an interim adventure pack: Vendhya - an area based on ancient India would be interesting; Hyberboria - offers Finnish or Slavic mythology; The Black Kingdoms - think Queen of the Black Coast's climactic location, that ruined city; Shazidar, the city of thieves, in Zamora as a new fully urban location with lots of stealth quests; or even Vanaheim (or Asgard) but as a coastal area (dare I say it, ... a la Skyrim) with long ships and icebergs.   Even on a smaller scale, FC could even deliver a few simple instances inside existing locations. Let us see more of Conan's palace; the  obsidian tower in Khemi; the long house in Conarch; or the Temple of Mitra in the Noble District. There's still a healthy amount of Hyboria to be explored in this game.  If Dragon's Spine (which dates to 2009) is any indicator, FC still has a considerable inventory of concept art and ideas to draw upon.

What exactly IS inside that obsidian tower, anyway?

To conclude, as the crafting revamp holds so much potential; I'm all for more PvP TLC this year. Whatever the case, let's hope that the Game Director does some extensive PR next week to let us know what's afoot.