Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Tower of Moo Manchu: Repeating History and Moving Forward

The Tower of Moo Manchu has been out for a rather short time and it's already a hotly debated subject; satisfaction was greatly mixed and discussion has spread like wildfire. Curious, I decided to go a little deeper and figure out what triggered this varied and passionate reaction.

Introduction: What's Side Content and How Important is It?

MMORPG content tends to fall into three categories: main content, side activities and side content. From 2012 to early 2014 KingsIsle has been releasing purely main content for Pirate101: content that advances the storyline for all players by means of quests and updates to any content that all players come in contact with as they progress through the game. For example, Marleybone and Aquila were main content releases because maximum-level pirates had the opportunity to gain 15 more levels and progressed further through the storyline.

Side activities are anything that a player can do regardless of their progression through the main content and are usually progression systems that are independent of the player's primary progression system (i.e. the player's overall combat level). If you've played Wizard101, you're probably familiar with pet training, crafting, PvP, fishing and gardening. These are all activities that nearly every player can participate in and can progress, theoretically, without having to worry about where they are in the storyline. In Pirate101, the only current side activity is the pet system where pirates can hatch and train pets of any kind whether they're level 1 or 65.

Side content differs from side activities in that side content usually doesn't have its own system of progression. For Wizard101, this means all side quests as well as areas like the Waterworks dungeon, Aquila, Grizzleheim, Wintertusk, Wysteria and buyable dungeons like the Pagoda Gauntlet, Winterbane Gauntlet and Wysteria Gauntlet fall under side content because while these areas play host to side activities, the areas themselves don't have their own system and rely on the main content and side activity systems for fishing, buying crafting recipes, fighting enemies and progressing through the areas' storylines. Pirate101 currently doesn't have any side content except for side quests- all of which have been around since the beginning of the game with only some being modified as time passes. But this is where the Test Realm comes in: The Tower of Moo Manchu is Pirate101's first independently released side content area. This is a big deal, to say the least.

The Tower of Moo Manchu has its own introductory quest (which is unlocked when all previous Moo Manchu-related quests have been completed) and is repeatable. It has its own set of unlockable badges, exclusive gear and special bosses. There are even new exclusive pet drops and an exclusive cosmetic mount (cosmetic mounts don't have speed boosts; think "living lawn ornament for your pirate's house")! This tower screams Waterworks- but is it really meant to take after the Wizard101 dungeon that ultimately brought the demise of almost all of the PvE experience from Zafaria onwards?

Don't Reinvent the Wheel; Make it Rounder and Give It Chrome Plating

I won't insult your intelligence by going out of my way to point out that Wizard101 was released long before Pirate101 when KingsIsle was still, relatively, a fledgling company whose success was quickly snowballing- but it's important to keep this simple point in mind as we progress through this next point of discussion. While each game has its own separate development team, they are still owned and managed by the same company. As a result, Pirate101 has the advantage of hindsight that Wizard101 didn't and probably won't for some time to come. It makes sense- Wizard101 had combat and experience systems while Pirate101 was still just an idea on a piece of paper; the Wizard101 pet system was in full swing years before Pirate101 got its own pet system. In many ways Pirate101 takes what Wizard101 has done, improves it and takes an additional leap of faith in innovation.

To use the character experience system as an example, wizards collect cumulative experience: if a wizard achieves level 1 when she has 100 experience, she will hit level 2 when she has gained 150 more experience (these aren't the actual required experience point values- it's just easier to illustrate my point with made-up numbers)- in other words, when she has 250 experience overall. To accommodate to a traditional game leveling system, Wizard101 decided that the required experience must increase as the level increases, making sure that leveling up from level 49 to 50 isn't as quick as getting from 2 to level 3. This increase is usually exponential, meaning that required experience increases wildly for higher levels when it only increased gradually at lower levels. This means that, since wizards collect experience cumulatively, it's not uncommon for level 100 wizards to have over 200,000 experience points. While effective, many people will agree that this is a cumbersome system. A Unicorn Way quest will have 30 xp rewards but, because of the cumulative experience system, finishing Khrysalis will force the system to reward the player a whopping 61,990 experience. It just doesn't feel quite right; it feels like a mistake. Personally, I get the same sort of feeling that I do when I'm in a small, cluttered space: generally and unexplainably unsettled.

This is probably why Pirate101 takes a different approach to experience in a couple different ways. Firstly, the cumulative experience system has been done away with and replaced with an incremental system. A pirate who has just reached level 1 has zero experience. He must also get 150 experience to reach level 2 (again, these aren't the actual values), but when he does, his experience point count goes to zero again. This happens every time he levels up, and thus when he hits level 50 he will be back to zero experience. In addition, the exponential system has been replaced by a linear system: the amount of experience needed for the next level doesn't increase more rapidly the higher you go, but instead increases by 120 from the previous level. For example, a pirate needs exactly 6,000 experience to get from level 49 to level 50. To get from level 50 to 51, he will need 6,120 experience. This is the same increase as going from level 1 (120 xp) to level 2 (240 xp). Not only do we deal with smaller, easier numbers when we ignore cumulative experience by resetting experience to zero at the start of a new level, we are better prepared for the far-off but still very real future of level 100 pirates by not exponentially increasing the amount of experience. It has a more purposeful feel, makes the numbers easier to read on the screen and doesn't seem so accidental.

tl;dr- Pirate101 saw what was wrong with Wizard101's experience system and improved using both reparation and innovation by not only fixing what was broken in Wizard101 but also making additional adjustments that ultimately made the system even better.

We can, I believe, apply this same idea to Waterworks versus Moo Manchu Tower. The biggest difference I see is that while players went into the tower wondering if this was going to be the "Waterworks of Pirate101," many were surprised to find that it wasn't- at least, not in the way most people expected. While Waterworks introduced Waterworks gear, which is level 65+ gear useful for many players when questing all the way up to level 100 and, perhaps, beyond, it took pretty much all the thought out of standard gear sets for every school from that point forward (the only exception being sets that accommodate to unconventional play styles such as high critical levels or high defense "turtles") and created the "perfect gear" problem: as wizards gain higher and higher levels, the only thing that would allow players to improve their gear would be to introduce the "next Waterworks" and subsequently the next overpowered gear set to tide us over for the next 50 or so levels. While seemingly convenient I, among others, feel that gear strategy is essential to basic gameplay, teamwork abilities and the freedom to adopt unique play styles; taking away gear strategy detracts from the overall PvE game experience.

Pirate101 seems to have deftly avoided this previously unforeseen problem by simply not adding gear that is particularly better than any pre-existing gear and doesn't put players on a single track in terms of play style. Not only was Waterworks gear overpowered, but many wizards such as myself found themselves preferring WW gear over every other setup no matter what they tried and were suddenly limited in terms of play style: you could either run the risk of "unconventional" gear that forced reliance on other players, or you could settle for Waterworks gear and never think twice about questing alone. I must admit that my main wizard still has her full Waterworks gear set at level 100. I'm not going to go through the trouble of crafting, farming and bazaar-camping if I can find a set that covers all my needs at once- it's just how people work. There's really no fixing the problem at this point except for, perhaps, removing Waterworks gear and rebuilding Aquila's drop tables from scratch. Pirate101 is avoiding these kinds of regrets by completely avoiding "Waterworks gear" altogether.

"Ok so the Waterworks gear thing seems to be an obvious improvement, but that doesn't explain why the tower is such a split issue," you say. "You're correct," I reply. As we went over at the beginning of this section, Pirate101 likes to take things in Wizard101 and improve them by not just fixing what was wrong before, but also by taking an innovative leap forward to make it doubly better. The non-Waterworks-style gear was the reparation, but it's the innovation step that is getting a lot of people upset for a few legitimate, but still contested, reasons.

Research Project

To find out exactly what's going on, I found it was necessary to get the opinions of many different people. I conducted a survey among Twitter and Pirate101 Central users on their experiences in the tower. I asked questions like "what is your pirate's class?" and "how many people were with you?" and even asked them what they would improve to get an overall feeling of how satisfied or unsatisfied they were. Participants were allowed to fill out the survey multiple times- once for each run they made through the tower. Results came back and I grappled with what was probably too much information for a long time. Let's start by looking for patterns in the data. Click on any of the graphs to enlarge them.

Out of the 37 responses I got, 30 completed the tower while 7 didn't.

Smaller teams tended to have a lower success rate, but there were more large teams than small teams, so this might have skewed the data a bit.

Almost everyone received drops they saw themselves using, either cosmetically or for stats. Those who didn't represented all different classes, indicating nothing more than bad luck (as opposed to tower drops being unbalanced in favor of a certain class).

Most teams that didn't complete the tower because of difficulty stopped during the Nefarious 5 battle.
The results seem to show that both large and small teams are at a disadvantage- but when you play through the dungeon for yourself you see that they are each at disadvantages for different reasons.

Pirate101 has a system in place where 4 players who enter a fight will spawn WAY more enemies than if a single pirate entered the battle. The number of enemies seems to be disproportionate to the increased number of pirates to ensure the same amount of challenge whether you're alone or in a group. Instead of 4 pirates and their companions ganging up on only 5 enemies, there are now roughly 4 times the number of enemies as in a single-person fight. This works well, except for the time factor. Defeating enemies takes a while in Pirate101; one must account for the time it takes to choose commands (a whopping 40 seconds compared to W101's mere 20), the time it takes to play out all battle animations of both enemies and allies, doubloon application time and time for bonus moves such as Double Tap and Mojo Echo. Many experienced players are aware of this and know that questing gets a bit slower when they must team up for challenging defeat-and-collect quests. This is the first stumbling block of the tower: time. Many players aren't able to sit down for a few completely uninterrupted hours. They have kids to take care of, homework to do and other real-life commitments. There are ten levels in this tower- eight of which are nothing more than mob fights. Measure the time it takes for one level, adjust the time for how quickly each class in a team can defeat enemies (musketeers tend to be quickest thanks to their AoE abilities and privateers tend to be slower since more of their focus is on boosting their own team rather than tearing down enemies in mass quantities), multiply it by 8, add in the time it takes for the two boss battles in the tower and suddenly you realize that taking 3-4 hours is extremely common for groups of four. While many have attempted and succeeded at soloing this dungeon already, many others won't have the patience required for such a feat and will prefer to be part of a team. While there are many ways to go about solving this problem, my own proposed solution is to curb the number of enemies spawned depending on team size for this dungeon only.

So why are smaller teams still unhappy if they don't have to take as long on each floor? This lies in the Nefarious 5 battle, which is near the end of the tower. Players face off against one boss of each class- 5 bosses in all. Each of these enemies behaves very much the same way a player of similar class and level would behave: frequent healing of oneself and one's team, boosting skills and attacking carefully. While a team of two can easily take care of the mob fights in a fraction of the time it takes a full team, the two will get hung up more easily than the four because enemy numbers aren't dependent on team size in this fight. Small teams who don't spend a lot of time strategizing and playing to the strengths of a diversified group will find themselves failing this part of the tower and not continuing on to complete it. This problem is much more difficult to solve, but some people have suggested allowing people with 3 or less team members have more than one companion. This would be an excellent solution to level the playing field- not to the point that the battle is easy, but just to the point that someone soloing wouldn't have to rely solely on luck to win.

The Future

Not only is there much talk of the present and how much or how little people are liking the tower, there is talk of the future of the game- namely of our fate in the next main content release. I've heard both fears and hopes on how this tower will shape future expansions in Pirate101.

Many people are concerned about the tower's difficulty being a prediction for the difficulty of the next main content release. In a word, this seems unlikely. If we go back and look at Waterworks again, we see that Waterworks was released between Celestia and Zafaria. Waterworks featured multiple cheating bosses that rendered the dungeon nearly impossible unless there were three or four people on a team. Zafaria had only a handful of cheating bosses, the hardest arguably being Belloq, and the vast majority of bosses in that world were normal and fairly easy (my death wizard made short work of most of them and only required help for Belloq and the final dungeon). We should look at what has been done in the past and remember that the developers at KI like to start content out very difficult and make it slightly easier as Test Realm and, eventually, Live Realm progress.

On the same note, side content is always meant to be especially challenging. While Zafaria was, on average, one of the easier worlds, Wintertusk gave many people a run for their money. This is because it was also side content. The drops were way more valuable and the quests gave good experience. This is simply how side content works in KI games- it's not an accurate measure of worlds to come- only, perhaps, of more side content to come.

I do hope, however, that this tower becomes the basis for cheating bosses in Pirate101. There are already a few bosses in the game that "cheat," such as the buccaneer boss Cadmus who uses privateer powers to heal himself and his team and Eep Opp Ork Ah-Ah who drains his teammates' health and takes it for himself when he's close to defeat, but nothing that really screams cheating. In Wizard101 we've seen bosses the cast out of turn, cast spells at a far lower pip cost and many more. I hope to see more cheating bosses in Pirate101: brutal cheating bosses that require teamwork, forethought and relatively significant effort. Moo Manchu's "cheat" is his ability to cast fire and frozen tides that sweep the entire battle board and damage all enemies. While the player can acquire these tidal spells, Moo can cast them as many times as he pleases, and does so at regular intervals. I hope that through positive feedback that the development team sees how doable cheating Pirate101 bosses are and explores this concept further in future main content expansions.

This tower is fantastic. It has great exclusive drops, including a revamped Moo Manchu outfit, pets and a cosmetic mount and fun bosses. It feels like a diamond in the rough due to how greatly experiences differ based only on team size, especially given the fact that previous KI dungeons have encouraged teams of four to make the dungeon easier. While it currently seems best to run this dungeon with 2 or 3 people, I feel that all team sizes should be challenged somewhat equally, given the unusual nature of Pirate101 combat that sets it apart from Wizard101's combat, which strongly encourages the idea of more people = easier fights. I have no doubt that KingsIsle will, as usual, come through with solutions to make this tower even better than it is already. Side content is a breath of fresh air for Pirate101, which hasn't seen a special, max-level side content dungeon ever before. I look forward to upcoming tweaks to the dungeon as well as formulating my own strategies for beating the Tower of Moo Manchu.


  1. HUZZAH! What a wonderful post, Beatriz - definitely worth the read. Your observations on the exp. totaling between games was very interesting and I like how you tied in the results of your Google form. Can't wait to see more informative, complete posts like this.


  2. Excellent post. Very well thought out and beautifully documented. I just LOVE all the graphs. They illustrate you points SO well. You have really considered so many angles and make a lot of sense. Keep up the fantastic work.

  3. Splendid post, Beatriz! This was a most methodical assessment and an enjoyable read. I haven't completed the Tower yet because I haven't been yet able to have a team that stayed together, but I have really enjoyed my attempts (especially meeting the Nefarious 5 with Moo!) and been really pleased by the drops I got, even though I could not complete the tower.

  4. As someone who played Wizard101 from when it was new, I also notice when P101 seems to have learned lessons from KI's mistakes of the past. For example, when it comes to how item and player stats work in P101 compared to Wizard101, which has some serious problems with it's core design in that area (and I remember reading a magazine article years ago where KI devs admitted that basing things on a 1 to 100% system was very bad and painted them into a corner early on).

    It will be interesting to see how Pirate101 matures as a game, with all the wisdom KI has collected from growing W101. I was glad they seem to be focusing on repeatable side-content lately, like pets and Moo's Tower, because otherwise the game felt pretty linear between the new world updates. I know many people (including myself) are anxious for the next major story update, but I think KI is right in focusing on making a good foundation for long term side content as well. It's one thing that I feel was a real weak point in P101 compared to W101.