Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Changes part 3: Time

Between 1999 and 2006 MMORPGs have gotten a lot faster in many aspects. Curiously that had little to do with advances in technology, but a lot to do with changes in perception about the value of time. As not everybodies perception changed, not all games have become faster. But a general trend towards faster games is definitely there.

On the largest scale, the time to level your character up to the highest level, World of Warcraft is probably the furthest away from Everquest. In Everquest, once the level cap had gone up to 60 with the Ruins of Kunark expansion, the average player took over 2,000 hours to reach level 60. In World of Warcraft the average time to level 60 is only 500 hours, four times faster than EQ. The optimum time to reach the level cap is a complex problem. If a game is too slow, the players level progress per session or per week becomes so slow that he has the impression to not progress at all any more, hence the description of "treadmill". If a game is too fast, lots of people reach the level cap and are at a loss what to do next. That arguably happened to World of Warcraft. The advantage of having a fast game is that you can raise the level cap, thereby making the time to hit the cap longer, until you hit an optimum value. World of Warcraft's Burning Crusade expansion will increase the time to level cap to about 700 hours, which is probably a better value than just 500 hours. But there will never be a consensus on the best value, because it highly depends on an individuals time spent playing per week, and that can vary anywhere between 10 and 100 hours.

Difference in time used for playing are even more noticeable on a smaller scale, the time it takes to perform some task. I remember in Everquest I was quad-kiting with my druid in a remote corner of Velious at level 42 (I never got any higher). It took me 5 minutes to kill the 4 snow leopards I was kiting, using up all my mana. Then it took me 15 (!!!) minutes of meditation to regenerate my mana back from empty to full. I had an alarm clock set, and was doing other things like reading a book during that time. In a group with an enchanter, this mana regeneration time between fights went down to 10 minutes, due to the enchanters Clarity buff. Fast forward to World of Warcraft where my level 60 priest regenerates from zero to full in 3 minutes when just standing around, and in less than a minute if sitting and drinking some water. Obviously the time between two fights has gone down considerably between Everquest and World of Warcraft. Other sources of downtime also got faster, for example waiting for a boat in Everquest could take up to 20 minutes, while in World of Warcraft the boats and zeppelins go every 5 minutes.

There are two reasons for a game to have downtime. The official defence of the Everquest developers was that during downtime people had time to chat with their group, thus downtime improved social cohesion and friendship. The more obvious but unadmitted reason is that by adding more downtime between fights and making your game slower, it took people longer to consume the content. So with less money spent on developers programming content your game lasted longer. Unfortunately that financial calculation didn't quite work out, because many people hated downtime and just left the game. World of Warcraft being shorter and faster just attracted a lot more customers, so even if the churn is higher, the financial results for the fast game are a lot better.

A third aspect of time is the smallest scale, the seconds or even fractions of seconds for a combat move. The principal problem here is ping, the time a signal takes to travel from your computer to the server and back, which is already in the order of 100 milliseconds for most people, but can go up to a second or more with lag. Thus MMORPG most often have some form of auto-attack, which continues even if the server doesn't get a signal from your computer. Or for spell casters a single signal starts an action that lasts several seconds of spellcasting. There is a trend to make MMORPGs more "action based", but due to lag that isn't quite as easy as making fast combat for a single-player game or a game played on a LAN. The combat in World of Warcraft isn't noticeably faster than the combat in Everquest. Games where some mouse movement swings your sword and actually hits whatever is standing in front of you, and not just the target you're locked on to, have been announced. But the viability of the concept has yet to be proved.

Content generation

A player of World of Warcraft can play through a zone, do all quests there, and "consume" all of the zones content much faster than in took to create the zone with all the content. That is a problem shared by all MMORPG, but different games have come up with different solutions to generate more content than their players can consume.

One exercise for programmers is to use Markov chains to generate random text, which at a surprisingly low order already much resembles really written text. In MMORPGs the equivalent is using Bryce-like software to generate random landscapes, and random quest generators to produce content for the zones thus created. Anarchy Online has both random landscapes and random quests, so does Star Wars Galaxies. City of Heroes / Villains and Anarchy Online have random dungeons. The obvious advantage is that once you have created the algorithm to produce a random landscape or quest, you have infinite supply and never run out of content. Unfortunately the result is often rather bland. A planet in SWG might have enough landscape to run around for hours, but unfortunately it all looks pretty sameish, and becomes boring to the player very quickly. The same is true for random quests and dungeons, they tend to be all rather similar, and just aren't interesting enough after a while to hold a players attention.

A second way to create content is to let users create the content. The extreme example of that is Second Life, where basically all the content is user-created. Games like A Tale in the Desert (which just started its 3rd "telling") work by mixing developer-created content with user-created content. Unfortunately user-created content suffers badly from Sturgeon's Law: 90 percent of it is crap. Also the number of players willing to create content is a lot smaller than the number of players wanting to consume content, as creating good content is actually hard work. The mixed approach works better than the pure user content approach, and user-created content tends to be better than random content. But neither approach ever produced a smash hit MMORPG.

So in the end the best method of content creation is to pay a lot of game developers a lot of money to create a lot of content, and then try to add content at a rate high enough that you don't lose too many players who have already seen everything. If there is one thing in which the original Everquest excelled even modern games, it is the amount of high quality, developer-created content, and the rate at which is was added over the years. It is no accident that Everquest dominated the market at that time, just as World of Warcraft dominates the market now, because both games are based on having a huge amounts of developer-created content of a very high quality.

Unfortunately that means that games without a triple A budget don't stand much of a chance to contain enough content to keep players happy for a long time. But it is to be hoped that one day game companies learn that infinite monkeys don't write good MMORPGs, and that user-created content can play a part, but not carry the whole load of content generation.

Why I'll never be a real raider

I did another MC raid last night. As this was the night before the MC reset, the purpose was just to practice killing trash mobs, and to farm for stuff like lava cores. While there were a couple of warriors in the raid, the usual main tanks weren't there, and the warriors present were specced for damage dealing, with a far too low defence to tank. So this time I participated with my warrior, who has 368 defence and 35 points in protection talents, and played the role of off-tank. That was an interesting change from raiding with my priest. But nevertheless it just convinced me that I'll never be a hardcore raider.

First of all going to MC again on Tuesday, after having been there on Friday and Sunday already, didn't appeal to me. Especially since there were no interesting boss fights, just boring trash mobs. Not that the fights aren't tough, but with the bosses gone, only annihilators, firelords, and giants remained (we didn't get into the last part of MC with the lavapacks). Two hours of repeatedly killing the same three different types of mobs, *yawn*! At least as off-tank I had something to do, I would have died of boredom had I come with my priest. Doing the same dungeon more than twice per week isn't enough variety for me. And with places like Zul'Gurub requiring you to go on several evenings in series if you want to get to the end, raiding just lacks variety. There are different raid dungeons, but they are of different difficulty levels. You can't do MC one day, BWL the next, AQ the third day, and finish with Naxxramas.

The second reason why I'll never be a real raider is that I left the raid at 10 pm, which was a bit short for a raid planned for 7:30 and effectively starting at 8 pm. But sorry, Real Life ® for me has priority, I need to get up at 6 in the morning on the next day, and if I don't set myself iron rules to stop playing at 10 pm, I'm tired at work the next day. No can do. Younger people might have the stamina to play until midnight every day and be fit the next morning, but I'm getting too old for that. That effectively limits my raid times to Friday nights, all Saturday, and Sunday afternoons. Raids never start at 6 pm server time, because of the people coming home later than that, or living one time zone away.

The third reason against me becoming a big raider is that I have the impression that I am less interested in epics than other people. For example with the DKP system we have, which heavily rewards attending all raids, and me not raiding during the week, I'm effectively excluded from ever having "first right of refusal" on any epics. I only get an epic when all the other players of the same class that raid more often than me already have that particular item. And I don't mind at all. I know that I'm behind, but instead of that motivating me to attend every raid and gather more points, I just don't care. Part of that is due to the announced level cap raise in the expansion. Why should I work myself to the bone now for level 60 items when I'm pretty sure that in half a year I can get level 70 items with similar or better stats for considerably less effort? Of course tier 3 items might still be good at level 70, but I'd be surprised if the blue level 70 items from small dungeons weren't at least as good as the Molten Core loot.

So my program for World of Warcraft activities remains mixed, I'm not dedicating all of my time for raiding, or preparing for raids. I still want to do lots of trips to smaller dungeons, especially Dire Maul and Stratholme, I did enough Scholomance recently. I was even toying with the idea of doing a bit of PvP for fun, but maybe I'll wait until Blizzard comes up with a better PvP reward system. I'm certainly not willing to do PvP all day every day without pause, just to reach the PvP rank needed to get a blue item which isn't better than what I find in a dungeon. Just like alcohol, raids are best enjoyed in moderation.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Changes part 2: Items

Part 2 of my series on how MMORPGs have changed between 1999 and 2006 is discussing items, and by extension the virtual economy of games. Actually the most surprising thing when you compare the Short Sword of the Ykesha (Everquest) with the Krol Blade (World of Warcraft) is how little has changed over 7 years of MMORPG development. People still can wield a one-handed weapon and a shield or off-hand item in the second hand, or they can wield a two-handed weapon. They still have a number of slots for armor items, from helmets down to boots. And there are slots for jewelry. Weapons play a role in determining the damage you deal in combat, armor determines your armor class, and all items can have bonuses to your stats.

The biggest difference between then and now is that while the Short Sword of Ykesha (SSOY) dropped from a level 47 Ghoul Lord deep in the Lower Guk dungeon, it was often seen on very low level characters. Everquest did not have a minimum level to use items. So if you had a second character of higher level, or enough platinum pieces, or a friendly guild mate, or you bought the SSOY on EBay, you could equip your level 1 warrior with it. This "twinking", equipping characters with items they couldn't possibly have acquired themselves was very widespread. Needless to say that the difference in power between a level 1 warrior carrying a rusty level 1 weapon and a level 1 warrior wielding a level 47 SSOY is huge.

In World of Warcraft the Krol Blade drops from random level 55ish mobs, but you need to be at least level 51 to wield it. Twinking still exists, and there is still a market for items like the Krol Blade, but the boost to the power of your twinked character has become a lot smaller. It isn't perceived as a big problem any more, and the words twinking and twink have largely disappeared from the vocabulary of modern MMORPG gamers.

The SSOY was famous because it was one of the best 1h-weapons you could twink with. The Krol Blade is famous because it is one of the *few* 1h-weapons you could twink with at the higher levels. While items that could not be traded already existed in Everquest, they have become much more prevalent in World of Warcraft. All quest rewards, and the large majority of rare (blue) and epic (purple) items are "bind on pickup", meaning the person acquiring them can only use the item for himself, or vendor it, or disenchant it, but not pass it to another player, or put it up for auction. Thus Krol Blades are rare and very expensive, and you don't see every level 51+ warrior running around with one.

The introduction of minimum levels to wield, and making most of the good stuff "bind on pickup" has positive effects on game play. It makes questing and dungeoneering the prime source of equipment. Given the time and organizational effort needed to organize a 40-man raid, it is pretty certain that a lot less people would be raiding if raids weren't the source of epic items that can't be gained by any other way. Compare that to a game like Star Wars Galaxies, where the best items were player-made, and there was no compelling reason for people to seek out and overcome big challenges.

On the other side, making the best items come from loot is doing tradeskills and crafting a disservice. Search any auction house in World of Warcraft, and you will see that less than 1% of the items traded there are player-made. Crafting is occupying some niches of the market, notably for bags (which was as true for EQ than it is for WoW), and for some those potions that can't be found as drops. But for crafted armor and weapons there isn't much of a market beyond the first couple of weeks on a new server. Pretty soon there are so many looted items floating around in the economy, that they become better and cheaper than crafted items.

What has changed in the player economies from 1999 to 2006 is the way people trade with each other. Early Everquest did not have any automated trading systems. People would gather at certain places, like the tunnel in West Commons, and just shout out the items they were looking to buy or sell. The Shadows of Luclin expansion added a bazaar for automated buying and selling between players, and different forms of bazaars or auction houses have been with us ever since. Games where the economy is based more on crafted items, and which have player housing, starting from Ultima Online and peaking with Star Wars Galaxies, have houses turned into shops. Instead of a central shopping station like the auction house, people wander around and search shops for goods. Relationships between shopkeepers and customers develop, with players that always have a good selection of items at reasonable prices developing quite a reputation. In spite of Napoleon's opinion of the English, most players prefer to play heroes and adventurers over playing shopkeepers. But as crafting is still quite popular, it is to be hoped that future games will find a better balanced between a loot-based and a tradeskill-based economy.

Related to the changes in trading items, the ways to transfer items between players have also improved. In Everquest you could still drop items on the ground, and pick them up again with another character, and that was the main way to transfer items between two of your characters. Not very safe, as other people could come and pick the item up while you were switching between characters. Dropped items have disappeared from games, but now you can transfer items between players on the same account using shared bank slots (EQ2) or by mail (WoW).

In any game where you can transfer items and virtual currency from one character to another, there exists the possibility of people trading virtual items for real world cash, the so-called Real Money Trade (RMT). Nothing much has changed there from Everquest to World of Warcraft. Officially RMT is against the terms of service of these games, and can get you banned. But the practice is widespread, with a market estimated to be worth an incredible $800 million per year. There are big companies like IGE selling virtual currency in nearly every game and every server. And the game companies are on shaky legal ground when claiming that all virtual items belong to them, not to the players, and are thus unwilling to sue IGE. They just occasionally ban some small fish, especially those gold farmers that use cheating programs or bots, then proclaim the bannings loudly for public relations reasons, but let the majority of the RMT continue. The biggest change since 1999 is that on some servers in EQ2 the RMT is now sanctioned by the game company, and done via a secure trading interface on the game companies website. With the obvious advantage of the game company earning money on the trading fees, instead of third parties. Sanctioned RMT with secure trading also removes a major source of costly customer service calls in which players complained about being scammed. At the moment it is not very clear where RMT is heading. Will it become sanctioned by more companies, or will it be eradicated by disabling transfer of virtual currency in games? My bet is on the former, but many game developers hate RMT with a passion, and so it could go either way.

The battle for China

While in the US and Europe the players of World of Warcraft pay a monthly fee of around $15 directly to Blizzard, the situation in China is much different. First of all in China there is no monthly fee, but Chinese players buy pre-paid cards from which the equivalent of 5 US cents per hour is deducted. The other big difference is that the money doesn't go directly to Blizzard, the pre-paid cards are distributed by a Chinese company, The9 Ltd, and Blizzard gets only 22% of the money, that is just 1 US cent per hour per customer.

With 4.3 million players in China, even 1 cent per hour adds up to some serious cash. But as these players on average play 60 hours per month, Blizzard earns only 60 cents per month per Chinese customer, which isn't much compared to the $15 from each customer in the US and Europe. So understandably Blizzard is fighting with The9 Ltd for a bigger share of the pie. But as The9 Ltd is equally understandably loth to part with all that money, Blizzard is now holding the Chinese WoW players hostage.

Blizzard has decided not to release the Burning Crusade expansion in China unless The9 Ltd coughs up more money. They also threaten to look for a different distributor for their pre-paid cards in China.

I just hope nobody blames the problem on the pre-paid cards for hourly payments. Because I'd really, really, would like to see that business model applied to the US and Europe as well. I'd be quite willing to even pay 10 US cents per hour played. With the hours I play on average that would cost me about the same amount of money per month than a monthly fee, but would feel a lot fairer. Blizzard's operating cost for servers, bandwith, customer service, etc., are all directly related to the number of hours played. I always found it very unfair that somebody who plays the game for only 50 hours per month pays the same as somebody who plays for 500 hours per month.

The advantage of an hourly payment model is that you wouldn't have to cancel your account if for some reason you stopped playing for a while. As it is, if your interest in a game declines, and you find yourself only logging on occasionally into the game, you can't justify the $15 monthly fee to yourself, and often just cancel the account. And then something major like a big content patch or expansion must happen before you resubscribe. Thus with an hourly payment model Blizzard could capture the "long tail" of people playing few hours per month. updated

Following my advice (just kidding), Sir Bruce updated his website with the latest subscription numbers of MMORPGs.

May I draw your attention to the market share chart, which shows over 50% of MMORPG players being held captive by World of Warcraft. Another graph on market share by genre shows 92.6% of players being in a Fantasy MMORPG. Given the much lower market share of Fantasy in other forms of entertainment (books, TV, movies), this suggest the market is ripe for games exploring other genres. Fortunately there seem to be more Science Fiction, Pirate, and Historical themed MMORPGs announced nowadays than Fantasy.

I still wonder if Fantasy inherently makes better MMORPGs, or whether it was just an accident of history, coupled with the natural desire of game companies to clone instead to innovate, which leads to this crushing dominance of Fantasy in the market.

The internet is for porn

A major British newspaper, The Independant, made a shocking discovery: the internet is for porn. Well, World of Warcraft players already knew that. In fact I'm a bit surprised that stories like that still hit the news.

I only write about that because The Independant article also talks about internet porn causing problems in people's sex life. I just finished watching the second season of CSI Miami on DVD, and the last episode was so bad that I decided not to buy any more of the CSI Miami on DVD. The story was about an 18-year old who suffered from erectile dysfunction due to having watched too much porn. Quote: "Real women just don't do it for me any more." So he goes and kills his favorite porn star, in the hope that this will cure his problem. An 18-year old who can't get it up any more because of porn? Who writes drivel like that? Pat Robertson?

So that episode and the one episode where the videogame turned students into mass murderers just for "high scores" made me decide that CSI Miami was not the right thing to watch for somebody with a more liberal view of the world. I am sure that both video games and porn can cause problems, but showing them both as causing people to become killers is totally exaggerated. It really seems that there is some sort of religious right political agenda behind sensationalist TV scripts like that, and that is not something I am looking for in my entertainment.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Changes part 1: Death penalty

I am planning to write a series of posts on how game design elements have changed from 1999 to today. I'll mainly compare the original Everquest with World of Warcraft, as these two games both had a dominant market share in their time. I will try to discuss what changed from EQ to WoW, and more importantly *why* it changed. The first part of this series is about death penalties, how games punish you when your avatar gets killed.

First of all it has to be said that a penalty for dying is absolutely necessary. If whenever your character died you just would need to push a button to resurrect with full health and mana, ready to continue the fight, you could beat any monster, and the game would become pointless. To be able to win a game, there must be an option to lose.

What has changed from 1999 to 2006 is the harshness of the death penalty. In Everquest, when you died, you reappeared alive but naked at your bind point. You could only have your bind point in a city, and non-casters weren't even able to set their bind point themselves without the aid of a caster. So potentially the bind point was very far away from the point where you died. You then had to do a so-called "corpse run", running naked from your bind point to where you died, to collect all the items from your body, your armor, your weapons, and all your bags with all the items in them. In addition to this corpse run, you were also punished by losing xp. If you were just fresh into a level, you could even lose a level from dying.

Unsurprisingly, corpse runs were not very popular. The worst case scenario was that you "lost" your corpse, having died in a place where you were unable to retrieve it, thus losing all your equipment and inventory. That did not happen very often, but it was possible. For example from the Erudin newbie zone to the newbie dungeon The Warrens you had to pass over a ledge. If you fell down that ledge you ended up dead at the bottom of a level 50 dungeon, and unless you had some high-level people help you, your body was irretrievably gone. A more common occurrence was that you retrieved your corpse, but died a couple of more times on the way, losing more and more experience points. A bad evening could set you back weeks in experience points.

One notable consequence of the corpse run system was that there were a couple of dungeons where people of the correct level to gain experience there would never go. If you fight your way into the deepest point of a dungeon and your group wipes there, while the monsters behind you have all respawned, you were all in deep trouble. Thus for example the fabled Frenzied Ghoul at the bottom of the Lower Guk dungeon, a level 42 to 44 mob, was never hunted by a group of level 45 to 50 players, who would have gotten xp from him. Instead level 65 players who didn't have any risk dying there camped the Frenzied Ghoul for the Flowing Black Silk Sash, a rare magic item. As dying deep in a dungeon had a real risk of you losing all your equipment, the reward / risk ratio wasn't good enough for dungeoneering. So people played it safe and went hunting in zones where they were sure to be able to get back to their corpses if they died.

Since Everquest death penalties have become less harsh. Corpse runs where the first thing to be eliminated from MMORPG game design. But also the experience point penalty changed: You lost less experience point for dying, then games started to introduce a xp debt instead of a loss of xp, so you couldn't lose levels any more, and finally World of Warcraft eliminated the xp penalty totally. One game erred on the side of having a too lenient death penalty, Star Wars Galaxies, where people found that committing suicide and repairing the death penalty damage was often faster than running back to the city. World of Warcraft has a reasonable well balanced death penalty system, where you lose 10% of the durability of your items from dying, and you can walk back as a ghost (that can't be harmed on the way) to recover your corpse, or you can speak to a spirit healer at the graveyard and resurrect there, with all your gear, but with an additional 25% durability loss and 10 minutes resurrection sickness.

In summary, the death penalty of a game is a powerful tool which strongly influences how much risk the players are willing to take. Theoretically you could make a game with permadeath, where when your character dies, you need to roll a new one. Obviously in such a game you would see people not even daring to attack to bunny without a group. Given how many fights you do in a MMORPG, even a 1 in 1000 chance to die would be far too dangerous. In games with corpse runs and lots of xp loss, people will play safe, and avoid getting too many monsters between them and their bind point, which makes dungeon design difficult. At the modern level of death penalty people are willing to be "heroic", as failure isn't too harshly punished. But you can't possibly make the death penalty much lighter than now, because then people would just play foolhardy and not care about dying at all, which then becomes silly.

Kranky Kraut

Did I ever mention that this blog is a honey trap? I get people to link to me or to comment here, and then I follow their link back to their own MMORPG blog. Made my life finding other people's blogs so much easier. :)

My latest find is the blog of Kranky Kraut. Not a big blog, but excellent compilation of leaked Vanguard beta information, among other things. I hope Kranky forgives me for linking to him, his first blog post complains about "circle jerks", blogs commenting on other blogs. :)

Do you remember when WoW wasn't out yet and all we had was this incredible hype leaked from the beta testers? It turns out Vanguard is just the opposite: all the beta tester leaks are either rather negative, or do a bad job of putting a positive spin on uninspiring game play aspects. The more I hear about Vanguard, the less I'm looking forward to it. I do believe that a "hardcore" MMORPG could be viable, if its quality is as good as the more casual friendly alternatives. Imagine WoW with 4 times as many xp needed for each level and a harsher death penalty, and you would have a more hardcore game which would still be very playable. Quality is not related to hardcoreness. Unfortunately in spite of all the promises from the Vanguard team, it seems that it doesn't score very high on the quality axis, so where exactly it is on the hardcore axis becomes irrelevant.

DKP systems

I have a relatively unique view on DKP systems, the different loot distribution systems using some sort of points to determine who gets what loot. The average WoW player is not very interested in math and statistics, but is very interested in getting epics. I happen to be good at math, and for me epics are not the most important thing in going raiding. That allows me to take a step back and look at DKP systems from a more statistical point of view, what is a particular system likely to achieve, as opposed to "what's in it for me". I already talked about the principal problems in an earlier post.

The DKP system that most people who compared different systems consider to be the most fair is the zero-sum DKP system. It has definitive advantages in evening out the distribution of epics. Statistically speaking, that means over a large number of raids, two players participating in the same raids will end up with the same number of epics, while two players where one plays twice as much as the other will end up with the player participating more getting exactly twice as many epics as the other.

Unfortunately the zero-sum DKP system also has disadvantages. Imagine a guild not being able to beat Onyxia / Ragnaros / whatever boss yet and scheduling raids to repeatedly try to beat that boss, with a low chance of success. You sign up several evenings, each evening you wipe against that boss several times, you never succeed, but you advance the knowledge of the guild in the correct strategy and coordination. In a zero-sum DKP system you get absolutely no points for that effort. If you work out the strategy for Onyxia in 5 evenings of wipes, only beating her on the last attempt, a player participating in all 5 raids gets exactly as many points as a player only present for the last, successful attempt. That seems unfair. A zero-sum DKP system earns you more points for stupid farming runs than for trying to achieve raid progress for the guild among sweat and tears. Also a zero-sum system is unable to integrate reward points for desirable behavior (like being on time) or negative points for undesirable behavior (like not showing up when you promised to), unless you can come up with a complicated formula that balances rewards and punishment to still result in a zero sum.

So many guilds run systems which are not zero-sum. Obviously a system where the sum of points is negative, that is after a number of raids the average DKP score is negative, wouldn't work very well. A negative-sum system would favor people who go on raids less often over people who go more often, which is counterintuitive. As a result the majority of DKP systems is positive sum.

The advantage of a positive sum system is that besides giving people points for every boss killed, you can award them points for valiantly getting repeatedly slaughtered by a new boss, for being punctual, for bringing a field repair bot that helps the whole raid, and for whatever other things you want to reward. And you can even hand out penalties for bad behavior, although you obviously shouldn't overdo that like the famous Onyxia raid leader Dives handing out -50 DKP left and right.

Unfortunately such a system works well for a couple of weeks, but over the long run the disadvantages of a positive sum system become apparent. The further away the sum of points earned minus points spent for epics deviates from zero, the faster the system becomes a source of problems. Imagine an epic item costs 100 points, but on the average 40-man raid every member receives 100 points, while they find 20 epics. That means that on that raid everybody gets the points to "buy" one epic, but only half the players can spend their points, while the other half can only accumulate the points. As long as the same 40 people participate in every raid, that is no problem at all. But we all no that this practically never happens, due to Real Life ® constraints. Two players of the same class, with one player participating twice as often as the other, with the point distribution explained above ends up with the player playing more often getting *ALL* the items, and the player playing less often getting nothing. That is because in two raids the first player accumulates rights for two items, and the second player only for one item. As in two raids only 1 items is found for them (statistically), the first player always has more rights than the second and always gets first choice.

Of course if an item drops that the first player already has, he passes and the second player gets it. Now the result of this in practice is that you get a ranking of players of each class, with the most frequent player always having the most points. The first item always goes to the first player, the second item to the second player, and so on. If you happen to be the 5th player in line, your chances of getting anything become practically zero. And if you join a guild with such a system already in place and everybody already having accumulated lots of points, even participating in every raid will take months before you get your first item.

Such a system has one advantage, but only for the tanks: You automatically create a "main tank" with the best equipment. There are good arguments for such an arrangement, as a well equipped main tank is important and helps the whole guild. But for the other classes the same distribution will happen, you effectively create a "main druid", "main hunter", "main priest", etc., which isn't necessarily optimal for the whole raid. Especially if the guild is able to beat both MC and Onyxia, you end up with the "main" of a class replacing his tier 1 stuff with tier 2, while somebody behind in the ranking is still running around with tier 0 items.

Thus a positive sum system can create lots of problems: For example recruitment is difficult if the new recruit learns that he only gets his first epic after somebody else gets his next 10 epics. Another possible problem are guild alliances, where a non-even distribution tends to cause lots of inter-guild political strife. But probably the worst disadvantage of the system is that it creates a growing gap between the first player(s) of each class and the last players of the same class. There is a substantial risk that after you have your main tank equipped with full tier 2 gear, while the other warriors are much less well equipped, the main tank either gets fed up and quits the game, or he switches to a more uber guild, and sets back the development of the whole guild in the raid circuit by several notches. Of course people hate setbacks, which causes lots of guild drama, more people leaving and starting a death spiral of setbacks, so the main tank leaving is one of the major causes of guild death.

So personally I would prefer either a zero-sum system, or a system with bonuses and rewards where the average number of points given out during a typical raid is very, very close to the amount of points spent during each raid, thus being nearly zero sum. One way to achieve that are systems where the cost for an epic is not fixed, but where people can bid points. If people are honest, such a bidding system tends to make players spend more points when they have more of them, thus automatically correcting the positive sum imbalances. Unfortunately the disadvantage of bidding systems is that players have a tendency to collude. For example all the hunters agree not to outbid each other, but work out a separate distribution system among them, and then if the warriors and rogues don't do the same sort of collusion, the hunters end up with more points on average, and are able to outbid the other classes on multi-class items like the famouse hunter weapons. No system is perfect.

How to be popular in WoW

If you want to gather a group for a hard dungeon in World of Warcraft, which two classes are you looking for first? Most people will probably answer "priest and warrior" to this question. If the dungeon is not so hard, or it is a lower level dungeon you visit with higher level people, all sorts of class combinations can work. But when the going gets tough, you better don't rely on a voidwalker tanking, healed by a shaman. Mages are probably the third most popular class for group invites, but priests and warriors are the "must have" classes.

Now that would suggest that priests and warriors are equally sought after. Unfortunately that is not the case, because of the 8 races in World of Warcraft only 5 can make a priest, but all 8 can be warrior. I don't know if that is the reason, or whether people just prefer warriors to priests, but warriors do outnumber priests on every server. On my server, Horde side (Horde only has 2 priest races), during the morning and early afternoon when people do mostly soloing and small groups, warriors outnumber priest 2:1. During prime time people log on their raid characters, and priests being very necessary in raids the number of priests goes slightly up. But still warriors outnumber priests 3:2.

So if you crave to be popular, with lots of people sending you group invites, you getting easily into any guild, and you being able to get a spot on your guild raids even if you weren't among the first to sign up, play a priest. I'm playing my priest more frequently now, he has basically become my main, just because it is so much easier to get accepted by other people when I play him. In the much rarer cases where people already have a healer and are still looking for a tank, I can always switch to my warrior. If my two level 60 characters were lets say a hunter and a warlock, it would be a lot more difficult for me to find groups, and I don't think I could have joined my new guild that easily, and getting taken to MC raids two days after I joined.

Now if your main purpose in life is getting lots of epics from raids, choosing to play a warrior becomes even less good an idea, unless you run your own guild or manage to become the "main tank" of your guild. In the list of popular classes for raids, warriors due to being so numerous are falling behind not only priests, but also druids and mages. Furthermore most guilds operate a loot distribution system which heavily favors one or two warriors over the other warriors present. That is simply a reaction to how the game works, the gear of your "main tank" plays a large role in determining the success of a raid. Thus if half a dozen warriors regularly participate in raiding, giving the main tank(s) the lion share of the loot advances the success chance of the whole raid more than distributing the loot evenly over all warriors. That might seem rather harsh and unfair if you happen to be a non-MT warrior, but most guilds prefer to kill more bosses in every raid by favoring a main tank.

All this makes me feel slightly uneasy. Playing a priest feels like me social engineering the World of Warcraft class system. It is totally understandable for a guild to selectively invite more needed classes, or for a group or raid to preferably invite the must-have classes. But that means that nobody looks at you as a person, but only as an avatar, a class / level combination.

Fortunately I do like playing priests. And as I play MMORPGs since 1999, always having had a preference for tanks and healers, I play my characters competently enough. But sometimes I really wish I could play my warrior more, for example in 5-man dungeons, in a good group, it is the warrior who sets the pace by pulling, while the priest is far more passive, reacting to the group members health bars and not taking much initiative beyond that. As I said, often I like staying back and healing, but sometimes I'm watching some less competent warrior pulling very slowly and / or badly, and wish it would be me running the show. So I can see the dilemma for somebody who starts on a new server and happens to like other classes than me. Do you choose the class you prefer for soloing, or do you play the class which will get you into groups / raids / guilds most easily? If you have the time, I'd recommend leveling up a priest first, getting your network established, and then making an alt of whatever class you really like to play when alone. That is the disadvantage of massively multiplayer games, the best course of action doesn't depend only on you, but is a compromise taking into account what the other players do as well.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

WoW Journal - 29-May-2006

I spent a very nice weekend in World of Warcraft, fun, and for the first time since long with the impression that my characters were advancing again. This is mainly due to the new guild. Not that the new guild is nicer, or the players are in any way more competent. It is mostly an effect of the new guild being bigger, and in a bigger alliance with another guild. During prime time the two allied guilds this weekend had over 60 players online, which makes finding a group very easy. There were even groups running in parallel to a big raid! Sometimes bigger *is* better.

Actually there are two effects at work there. One is simply the guild chat as a replacement for the lacking looking-for-group functionality of WoW. But as many people pointed out in my post about group xp vs. solo xp, the group xp has an invisible factor in it where "competence" or "reliability" or as I'd rather call it, "trust" is rewarded. For example I was in a pickup group, where shortly after a wipe I got disconnected from the server. Took me two or three minutes to get back online. By that time one other group member had left the group, and one had hearthstoned out, assuming that I had quit because of the wipe. In a guild group the players would have had more trust in me and waited 3 minutes.

Perversely my network of trusted players to group with has grown because of me leaving my old guild. As the old guild was set up more as a community, where players with all sorts of different guild tags can remain member even after they quit that guild, I'm still part of the old network, plus I gained the new network of the new guild and guild alliance. I think such a transverse community could work very well. A group of friends with a chat channel and a website, distributed over many different guilds, and being able to gather groups using many different guild chats. So everybody in the group knows at least somebody else in that group, creating trust, but the network stretches much further than a single guild would allow. Maybe the only fault of my old guild was to try to do both the transverse network and the classical guild setup at the same time, creating problems of mixed loyalties and goals.

So this weekend I mainly played my priest and got a lot of things achieved, and saw a lot of new content. I participated in part two of the MC raid I already reported about. Having gone until Shazzrah in the first raid, part two saw us killing both Sulfuron and Golemagg on the first try. As I had never seen these bosses before, that was interesting. We had less success with Majordomo, wiping four or five times on him before giving up. I'm not quite sure where the problem is, I think that fight requires even more coordination between the 40 players than the other MC bosses.

With all these MC raids my faction with the Hydraxian Waterlords is now honored, and I started with the quest series that will give me the water to extinguish the runes in MC, to summon Majordomo and Ragnaros. I killed the elementals in the Plaguelands and Silithus, with the small problem that I didn't read well the description of the quest for the Plaguelands, and ran around a while not finding the discordant elementals. Doh! You need to use the quest item from your inventory to turn a normal water elemental into a discordant elemental, before killing it.

Next I joined a raid to UBRS, mainly with people from my new guild. That went very well, we cleared out the whole place in a bit over 2 hours. That gave me both the eyes of the Emberseer for the Hydraxian Waterlords quest series, and Drakki's blood for the Onyxia key. Another successful dungeon trip was me helping guild mates to do Warlords Command in LBRS, where I got a very nice staff with +25 int from the final boss, Wyrmthalak. So while I still had some dungeon trips this weekend that didn't succeed, my rate of successful dungeons to abandoned attempts has gone way up, compared to my guildless pickup group period.

And that was all I was shooting for. I don't mind if the DKP system of the guild alliance means I'll probably never get any item unless everybody else already has it, or that we wipe on Majordomo, or that we are unable to tackle Onyxia. I'm happy that I am in a network where I can visit MC one day, Scholo the next, and LBRS or UBRS the day after. The raid dungeons just enter into the circuit of other high-level dungeons, creating more variety of things to do.

Friday, May 26, 2006

WoW Journal - 27-May-2006

Due to wisdom acquired during the last guild drama, there will be no more names of guilds and characters other than my own mentioned on this blog. Unless of course I *want* to badmouth somebody intentionally for causing me grief, as a weapon of last resort. :)

So I am in a new guild, which is a bit bigger than the old guild, and has a more powerful alliance partner. Thus even with just two guild the MC raids get more than 40 signups regularly. Luckily it seems that priests are in low supply in these guilds, and on my first signing up for a MC raid with the new guild, I get chosen first from the waiting list. At that point the raid has 3 priests and 6 druids, although later a 4th priest joins. I'm more used to raids with half a dozen priests and only one or two druids. There are also tons of warriors, and few hunters, another situation I know the reverse of better.

On this first raid with them we kill Lucifron, Magmadar, Gehennas, Garr, Geddon, and Shazzrah. With having seen Geddon only once (and lost), and never seen Shazzrah at all, I considered that pretty good, especially all in one evening. All bosses died on the first attempt, except Shazzrah, who needed two attempts due to some repops in the first fight. Teamspeak helps to speed raids up considerably, even if not every last member is using it. And this guild alliance wouldn't even be considered to be "uber", never having even killed Onyxia yet. But they sure do have MC down pat. Fortunately I managed to keep up with that kind of performance, and never messed up my healing. I was "the bomb" three times at Geddon, but managed to run to a wall far away from the others, and even survive me exploding all three times.

The only thing that I was a bit disappointed of was that besides being faster, the raids was exactly the same as raiding with the old guild. Two completely different groups of 40 people using *exactly* the same strategies on all the bosses. There are fine nuances in the exact raid mix, success, and speed of execution, but it is more like comparing two different theatre companies performing Shakespeare's Hamlet than two different armies fighting battles against the same enemy.

Pickup group lottery

In the last two weeks or so I went to Scholomance with a pickup group 5 times. In 4 of these 5 cases we either abandoned before reaching the first boss, Rattlegore, or directly after that fight. Yesterday was the 5th attempt, and we totally cleared out Scholomance, killing every boss including Jandice and Kirtonos (in the correct order to get me 2 quests done). I felt as if I had won the pickup group lottery.

But of course it wasn't a *real* pickup group. While technically we had 5 different guild tags, I came because I knew the guy organizing it, and he knew the other players in the group as well. A network of online friends is as good, if not better, than a guild for forming groups.

The third quest I got done in Scholomance was Dawn's Gambit. I don't know if I did it wrong, or if there is a random factor. But when I placed the item that was supposed to destroy all undead in the room, it only turned the students into skeletons, which swarmed us en masse and wiped us. I think staying outside the room while placing the item might have been a good idea. :) Or the "with a little luck the item will destroy all undead" part in the quest description was meant literally, and we just didn't have a little luck. Anyway, the reward is a *very* nice staff, Dancing Sliver. But I was a bit sad that I lost the roll for the Skullsmoke Pants, because they are very rare, and I don't think you can kill Vectus without having the Dawn's Gambit quest.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Ding 100,000

In February 2004 I added a Sitemeter counter
Site Meter
to this site, to find out if anybody was actually reading my blog. Today this counter hit 100,000 visitors, which is a lot more than I would have ever imagined. Time to celebrate, pop the champagne!

With economics being my second hobby after gaming, I obviously asked myself what my blog is "worth", in the post-dotcom era. Admoolah is telling me that a blog like mine could bring about $2.86 per 1,000 page views when using Google's AdSense. Sitemeter tells me that my 100,000 visitors had 125,000 page views (so not many people get past the front page). So I theoretically could have earned $357 dollars in the last two years from my blogging. Fortunately I have a Real Life ® job in which I earn more than that in two *days*. So I'm still not going to put advertising on my blog. Ask me again when I get 100,000 visitors per month, and I might be tempted. :)

It is not that I am against advertising or earning money. The problem is rather that Google's AdSense would see me writing about WoW and MMORPGs, and promptly plaster my site with ads for WoW gold, powerleveling services, and "inofficial guides". I'm neither really for nor against buying WoW gold, but wouldn't want to promote it. I find powerleveling services stupid (what's next? I pay somebody to watch TV for me?). And most "inoffical guides" are primitive scams where you are sold information you could have gotten for free from a number of gaming sites. Add it all up and AdSense would get me to a point where I earn money only when my readers are being lazy or stupid. As I'm assuming, based on the quality of their comments, that my readers are rather intelligent, the earnings would probably be lower than what Admoolah predicts anyway. If I were blogging about something different, like model railroads or so, and the ads would direct my readers to local hobby shops, I'd probably be willing to run AdSense. But with the "secondary market" for the MMORPG hobby being decidedly seedy, I think I'm better of without advertising on my blog. What do you think?

The Gap on AFK Gamer

Must-read article on AFK Gamer about The Gap developing between average and hardcore raiding players.

What was news to me is that attunement to the new patch 1.11 dungeon for people not revered with Argent Dawn will be "5 arcane crystals, 2 nexus crystals, 1 righteous orb and 60 gold", or about 300 gold. At revered the cost goes down to about 100 gold. Now I totally understand concepts like the UBRS key, Molten Core attunement or the Onyxia key, where you have to do a series of quests, and visit one or several minor dungeons before you can access the raid dungeon. But having to buy your way into a raid dungeon sounds rather stupid to me. Unless you happen to have chosen the unlikely combination of mining and enchanting as your professions, it isn't even technically possible to get these items yourself without using the auction house or guild bank. You might want to buy righteous orbs now and sell them at a profit when the patch comes out. ;)

But the real issue explained in the article is that people who are already raiding a lot will be able to get even better loot, while people who aren't in a good raiding guild yet will not get any stronger. Thus when a raiding guild loses members to the dreaded Real Life, there aren't even people around that are marginally equipped and keyed out well enough to be able to join them. The "minimum requirements" for being hired by a raiding guild are constantly going up, with the potential candidates not being able to reach that level, because they can't get everything just with pickup groups. Unless raiding guilds spend a lot of effort to raise potential replacments, and I don't know any guild doing that, they are going to paint themselves into a corner.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

WoW Journal - 24-May-2006

I leveled my shaman to 41 yesterday. As I'm still avoiding the horrible Stranglethorn Vale, I'm discovering level 40 quests in other places, some of which were even new to me. One very nice, hidden, level 40 quest is in the Dustwallow Marsh. There is a hut with a guy named "Swamp Eye" Jarl, who gives very bad quests (best avoid doing those), but in his garden is a freshly dug grave. When you click on it first, you find a hand. Bring the hand to Brackenwall Village gives you a reward, but no clue that the quest isn't finished. You need to go back to the same grave, and by further digging find a head. From that starts a quest where you boil the head in a troll voodoo cauldron in Grom'Gol to make him speak, which then gives you a quest to find a necklace from crab men in Dustwallow Marsh. After handing the quest in at Brackenwall, you are sent to Orgrimmar, where you get the choice between two very nice blue rings. Well worth it, and I guess not many people did that quest.

From there I moved to Arathi, going to another area which is a bit hidden, Faldir's Cove. You can only get there by swimming from Hillsbrad or Wetlands, or by jumping off the cliffs near Stromgarde. In the cove is a stranded pirate ship with the crew giving you lots of level 40 quests, many of which you can do together by fighting naga under water a bit further out at sea. No problem for a shaman with a water breathing spell, but other classes are advised to bring a water breathing potion.

The reason I'm playing my shaman is that my level 60 characters can't find a group to where they want to go. I joined a new guild, but it has few level 60 chars. So besides helping them do Uldaman or Sunken Temple, I'm not dungeoneering any more. Yesterday people from my old guild asked me whether I could help them in UBRS, but it turned out they only needed somebody to unlock the door for them, and already has a priest, so I couldn't join with Kyroc to get my Drakki's blood. I was joking about my career development in my old guild, from guild master to doorman. :) I could probably have joined their Onyxia raid, but I didn't want to go with my warrior, and the priest, as mentioned, still needs the last step for the key.

What I noticed is that in the virtual "hierarchy" from the top uber guilds, to raiding guilds, to non-raiding guilds, down to the non-guilded people, the class mix changes. Basically in WoW there are too many people playing solo classes like hunters, and not enough people playing healers. Thus all the priests are very sought after, and quickly get recruited into raiding guilds. So if you try to gather a group from small, non-raiding guilds, there is never a priest to be found. That is rather annoying, because while I could just play my priest, I still need to go to the bar in BRD with my warrior. I grinded Thorium Brotherhood faction to honored some time ago already, but that doesn't help me much if the recipes sold as reward for having achieved the faction are in the middle of a dungeon I can't find a group for.

Consumable nerf

I found the following paragraph in the 1.11 test server patch notes, and I'm not happy about this:
We have re-evaluated the mechanics of consumable items in the game and concluded that these should work in a more intuitive manner. As such, most items that can not be equipped with right click abilities have been streamlined into one of three categories. Using an item of
a particular category will trigger a shared cooldown among all other items in the same category. The categories break down as follows with category cooldowns as listed.
Potions 2 minutes: This includes items such as Health Potion, Mana Potion, Invisibility Potion and Mighty Rage Potion.
Aggressive 1 minute: This includes items such as explosives, Really Sticky Glue and Discombobulator Ray.
Non-Aggresive 2 minutes: This includes items such as Healthstone, Night Dragon's Breath, Whipper Root Tuber and Target Dummy.
I'm a big fan of consumable items, but this change makes them a lot less useful. For example my warrior not only uses healing potions, but crystal restore from Un'goro, Night Dragon's Breath, and Whipper Root Tuber to heal. Plus healthstones when I could get one. These are currently all on a different timer, but after the patch they will all be on the same timer, and I will just be able to use one of them, and can throw the others away.

But while this is just annoying for my warrior, the change is devastating for my engineers, the shaman and the pally. Grenades and explosive sheep, or goblin mines, are now on different timers, so if I'm willing to spend the money on the materials and spend the time creating all these explosives, I can blow up a group of enemies with several bombs. Given the low damage output of my paladin, that is really useful, and the main reason I spent lot of effort to learn engineering to maximum skill. But after the patch 1.11 consumable nerf, all explosives will be on the same 1 minute countdown, and again I'll be forced to just chose the best of them and forget about the others.

I don't know yet how it will work with the "buff" type potions, but if these are on a 2-minute timer now too, it will be annoying. Much easier to quaff all the buff potions at once than to have to wait for a long cooldown between each of them.

This change makes the game poorer, because many consumable items that are currently used because they can be used in parallel with better items will in future just become totally useless. Who will use a fun, but not especially effective, explosive sheep, if that prevents him from using any serious bombs?

Lord of the Rings Online Europe

The European website of Lord of the Rings Online just opened up. You can sign up for the European beta there now. I did. I'm not certain how good LOTRO will be in terms of gameplay, but of course walking on Middle Earth has a strange attraction that places like Norrath or Azeroth never will be able to offer.

Sir Bruce's E3 MMOG report

"Sir" Bruce Sterling Woodcock did an excellent write-up of the MMOG games presented at the 2006 E3. So if you want to know what the MMORPGs of 2007+ will be, Sir Bruce's report gives you a good idea which games to look forward to.

Sir Bruce is more famous for his data on MMORPG subscriber numbers. Unfortunately his last data are from November, and could use some updating. But if you look at the chart of games with more than 120k subscribers, it becomes clear why nobody bothers to look at the numbers any more. Just mentally update the number of WoW subscribers to 6.5 million, and then consider that the only two other games with more than 1 million subscribers are the two Lineage games, which only have a tiny market share in the western world. World of Warcraft is the Microsoft of MMORPGs, with a market share that makes all the other games subscriber numbers look like background noise.

On the one side the millions of dollars that WoW made are certainly encouraging some companies to develop a MMORPG. But on the other side the complete dominance and near-monopoly of World of Warcraft isn't a healthy situation. It doesn't exactly encourage Blizzard to improve the game's shortcomings, or to add content at a faster rate. And there is a risk that other game companies hold the wrong parts of WoW responsible for the game's success. So instead of saying "we need a well-programmed game with lots of quests and content, accessible to many people", they might come to much shallower (and wrong) analysis like "the market wants elves and orcs".

Of course the WoW monopoly won't last forever, just like the dominance of Everquest didn't last forever. But in Sir Bruce's E3 line-up I fail to identify a "WoW-Killer". There are some nice games I would like to try, but nothing remotely likely to get even a million subscribers in the USA and Europe.

Monday, May 22, 2006

A theory of grouping

I'm not quite ready to publish my own scientific paper on "social dynamics" of MMORPGs, but I do have my own theory of under which circumstances people group or don't group. The basis for this theory is that while of course everybody is different and has his own goals, the behavior most commonly observed in a MMORPG is the one that maximizes the amount of reward per play session.

I'm bundling gear rewards with experience point rewards here, because better gear ultimately ends up in you being able to earn xp faster in the future, so it is just a more indirect method of getting you experience point rewards. And of course all this is only true below the level cap, we all know how much for example WoW changes at level 60.

So if you look at the reward for solo play, it is relatively easy. You log on, you play, and you get rewards which are more or less linear with the time you spent during the play session. So
Solo session reward = Solo session time x Solo reward rate
with the solo reward rate being the rate at which you earn rewards like xp and gear during a typical solo session, from killing mobs alone, and from quests.

The reward for group play is slightly more difficult. After you log on, you first need some time to actually find a group, and to gather at the same spot. During that group finding time your rewards earned are zero. Only then does reward earning start, thus
Group session reward = (Group session time - Group finding time) x Group reward rate

So if people are trying to maximize the reward per session, they would prefer soloing if the solo session reward is bigger than the group session reward. But they would prefer to group if the group session reward is bigger than the solo session reward. As the term of the group finding time is always greater than zero, if the solo reward rate is equal than the group reward rate, the group session reward is diminished by the group finding time term, and people prefer soloing, because it gives greater rewards.

So what can developers do to persuade people to group? Well, the devs are in control of many of the parameters in these equations, especially the reward rates. One crude, but working approach, taken by the original Everquest, was to diminish the solo reward rate from a certain level on to be zero or near zero. Some classes were simply totally unable to gain any experience points while solo, as the lowest level of mobs still giving xp was too tough to kill. Obviously players resent that sort of "forced grouping".

So a subtler approach is to make the group reward rate slightly bigger than the solo reward rate, so as to encourage grouping, without making soloing impossible. This is something Blizzard definitely at least tried in World of Warcraft. The xp per hour rewards are difficult to compare, but it is very clear that the item rewards from group play are better than the item rewards from solo play. The reason why WoW failed to balance these two better, is in the time terms, which are harder to control. If it takes half an hour to find and gather a group, that is not much if the group stays together for 3 or more hours. But if they stay together for only 1 hour or so, the negative effect of the group finding time on the reward becomes too significant. In World of Warcraft it seems that the average player plays in relatively short sessions (the famous "casual" player), the group reward rate isn't so much bigger than the solo reward rate to balance out the rewards lost during the waiting time, and so many people just go soloing. Changing the reward rates in a patch would be difficult. You can't diminish solo rewards without causing a huge outcry of "nerf!". Increasing the group rewards is possible, for example when Everquest wanted more people to visit dungeons, they simply added a dungeon xp bonus to the game.

But even more effective would be for the developers to introduce tools that diminish the group finding time. World of Warcraft could make huge improvements in their looking for group tools. And meeting stones could be reprogrammed to work like a warlock summoning, so the first three people arriving at the dungeon could summon the two stragglers. The beauty of such changes would be that at first sight they don't change the rewards rate at all. But by cutting down on the rewards lost to a group due to waiting, improved group finding and gathering tools would make grouping relatively more attractive to players, and lead to more positive social interaction between them. We are not a bunch of hermits preferring to play alone, it is the parameters of the game that influence our behavior and preference for soloing or grouping.

WoW players as lab rats

I often quote the Playon blog at the Palo Alto Research Center for World of Warcraft related data, for the simple reason that there aren't many other sites giving data at all. But of course if you have people from a research center and Nick Yee from the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab observing WoW together, the result is a scientific paper titled "Alone Together? Exploring the Social Dynamics of Massively Multiplayer Online Games".

The conclusion of this scientific paper is that "joint activities are not very prevalent, especially in the early stages of the game", or in other words, people spend most of their leveling time solo. Doh! I think every WoW player already knew that. Okay, it is nice to have that fact established with data. But even the data tell you nothing about whether people solo out of personal preference, or whether soloing is simply the pathway of least resistance in this particular game, and people just do whatever it takes to level fastest.

For example in figure 4 it is shown that Warlocks and Hunters spent the least amount of time in a group, and priests the most amount of time. That is interpreted as Warlocks and Hunters being good at soloing, Priests being less good. But that is a commonly held misconception, Priests are actually very good at soloing to 60, as long as they spec in shadow and arm themselves with a good wand. And the third least grouping class is the Warrior, which I would classify rather as a group specialized class than as a solo class. The reason why priests group so much more than other classes is simply that there aren't enough of them. The moment you log on a priest, you get bombarded with tells inviting you to groups. Warriors are much more frequent, and thus have a harder time finding a group.

I tried to find a group to go to BRD this weekend with my warrior, and failed. No healer to be found, as usual. So the guys from PARC, if they were observing me at that moment, would have listed me as "warrior, not grouped" in their statistics. Which tells them nothing about what I wanted to do, but more about the inability to run a high-level group without priests, and the relative lack of priests (especially of priests not being snatched up by a guild and being busy raiding). Even the shortcomings of the WoW looking for group user interface had a bigger effect on my behavior than any "social dynamics" as claimed in the paper.

Still the paper is an interesting read. I especially liked the comparison of WoW with a Skinner box, a device used in a lab where you train a rat to push a lever and get a piece of cheese as reward. The authors compare the smooth WoW leveling curve with such a Skinner box, with the player being "trained" to do quests for rewards, with the challenges continually getting slightly more difficult for slightly better rewards, until the player is thoroughly addicted. Makes you feel like a lab rat when playing WoW. :)

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Stop Playing Memory

Yesterday's post on the repetitiveness of video games made me think a bit more on the subject. I think there are two major game components in video games, but they aren't really easy to keep apart. Let's do a thought experiment, by designing 2 very simple games:

Game 1 I call the reaction game. You and me sit face to face, and we both have a red card in the right hand, and a green card in the left hand. Now I raise one of my hands at random, and your job is to raise your hand holding the same color. We do that 20 times and your "score" is based on your average reaction time, the faster you react, the higher the score. If ever you raise the wrong hand with the wrong color, you're out, and have to restart.

Game 2 works exactly like game 1. Only that instead of raising my hands at random, I always use exactly the same sequence of red and green. I call this the memory game.

It is obvious that your score in the memory game will be equal or better than that of the reaction game. Because if you weren't using your memory at all, you could still simply react to what you see me doing, and the game becomes a reaction game. But the more often you play game 2, the more your score is going to improve over the reaction game score, because you *know*, from your memory, which color card I am going to raise next. Of course playing memory is more repetitive than playing the reaction game, and while your score is higher, the game is less interesting.

Video games often have both elements. The first time you encounter a situation in a game, you will need to react to it. But if you fail and die / wipe, you can reload / rez and do exactly the same situation again. Thus you know what is going to happen, and your memory helps you to overcome the encounter and win. That is true for many games, from first-person-shooter console games to World of Warcraft.

Take for example the Onyxia encounter in World of Warcraft. There are guides for this encounter out there, telling you exactly about the three phases of the combat, what Onyxia will be doing, and how to avoid getting killed in each of this phases. An Onyxia raid is successful if all the participants know this information, and play in accordance with a prearranged plan, based on *knowing* what will happen.

Now imagine what would happen if Onyxia wouldn't react always the same way, but would have some sort of artificial intelligence. You stand there with your fire resistance gear, having quaffed a greater fire protection potion, and Onyxia breathes acid on you, dealing nature damage. Or instead of using deep breath in the second phase, Onyxia sees that everybody is widely scattered, and that the most annoying characters are those cloth wearing, dot casting types, and does a short dive attack, ripping that cloth wearer into pieces.

Why are people so proud to be the first guild to have killed a new raid boss? Because as they were the first, they didn't have the knowledge on the first try, painstakingly acquired the knowledge over several wipes, and then played and won the memory game. The guilds coming after that can worked with borrowed memories, making the encounter a lot easier.

Now the memory game has one distinctive disadvantage. Everybody, including the game developers, knows that the memory makes the encounter a lot easier. So the difficulty level of the encounter is planned in a way that for a person or group *with perfect knowledge of what will happen* the encounter is still challenging. Which usually means that if the player or group does not have the knowledge, but relies solely on reacting to observations during the encounter, the encounter is impossibly hard.

What I would like to see, and what I think could be the future of video games, is better artificial intelligence, and encounters that are different every time you play them. These encounters would be easier, because memory wouldn't help you much with them. Instead of relying on people knowing what will happen, which is by necessity repetitive and becomes boring fast, in each encounter players would need to react correctly to what they see. Ideally the monster would likewise react on what it sees the player(s) doing, so doing always the same strategy would actually make the encounter harder, not easier.

Think of it: Every single guild killing Onyxia would be the first guild to beat that particular encounter, because every Onyxia encounter would be different. Instead of players learning how to beat Onyxia, Onyxia would have a neural network type of artifical intelligence, learning how to beat players that always do the same. The encounter would remain challenging and interesting forever, because it never repeats.

Life After the Video Game Crash

Alan directed my attention towards the Pointless Waste of Time blog, where there is a very interesting article about Life After the Video Game Crash (Post E3 2006 Edition). Only that the article doesn't in fact speak at all about the "life after" part, but only why there could be a crash of the video game market in the not so far future. Interesting read, with a style based on first listing counter-arguments, and then dismissing them.

Now I don't believe in an imminent video game crash, but the author, David Wong, makes some good points that I'd like to quote.
Luke's X-Wing approaches the surface of the Death Star.
"Red Five, begin your attack run."
Luke swoops down into the trench. "It'll be just like Beggar's Canyon back ho-"
Turret laser bolts tear his X-Wing apart.


Luke's X-Wing approaches the surface of the Death Star.
"Red Five, begin your attack run."
Luke swoops down into the trench. "It'll be just like Beggar's Canyon back home!"
Turret laser bolts miss by inches. He skims along the trench.
A Tie Fighter drops in behind him and blows his ship to ten thousand flaming pieces.


Luke's X-Wing approaches the surface of the Death Star.
"Red Five, begin your attack run."
Luke swoops down into the trench. "It'll be just like Beggar's Canyon back home!"
Turret laser bolts miss by inches. He skims along the trench.
A Tie Fighter drops in behind him, shoots and misses. Luke approaches the exhaust shaft... fires a photon torpedo...
...and misses. The Death Star destroys the rebel base.


Luke's X-Wing approaches the surface of the Death Star.
"Red Five, begin your attack run."
Luke swoops down into the trench. "It'll be just like Beggar's Canyon ba-"
Turret laser bolts tear his X-Wing apart.

The first time you play a level, the monster around the first corner is a surprise. After that, it's homework. It's memorizing, via pure repetition, bad guy placement and ammunition deposits and card keys. "Okay, kill the mutant behind the crate. Duck behind the dual doors. Wait for guard to walk out. Kill him, take his key. There's two Hellgoats in this next hall. Pick up the rockets."
We Original Gamers, the hard core, bought every machine that came on the market for two decades. But for most of us OG's, the game consoles we own now will be the last we'll ever buy. There are millions of us, and it's just a matter of time. Literally. I'll pop in a DVD because a movie only requires two hours from my busy schedule of work and home repairs and chasing kids off my lawn. Getting to the end of a video game, however, requires hours upon hours of play. Not because the story is hours long, mind you, but because getting through each scene requires practice and repetition and repetition and repetition, all in the hopes of seeing that exploding Death Star cutscene at the end.
Replace the scene from Rogue Squadron with the last time you got wiped several times when tackling a new World of Warcraft raid boss, and you'll see how the author is a soul mate of mine. Game content taking too much time due to endless repetition is exactly what bugs me about raiding and other WoW endgame content.

The reason why I don't believe that this will cause a video game market crash is ironically World of Warcraft as well. Because the reason why WoW has over 6 million subscribers is that a large part of the content, leveling up from 1 to 59, is *not* too repetitive, and can be done in 2-hour chunks instead of watching a DVD. With one such example on the market, sooner or later other game developers will find this secret formula, and simply make more games for the 2-hour crowd.

And these games might well be MMORPGs. Even David Wong believes that online gaming will change the future. Although some of his arguments for this are more cynical than realistic in the current political climate:
Just think of how porn changes when the user also gets to go in with the toned body of an underwear model. It'll make our current online porn look like just the tip of the assberg.
While the "assberg" made me laugh, I think the political opposition to massively multiperson online porn will be hard to overcome.

When the virtual property hits the fan

The only massively multiplayer game that gets more mainstream press articles than World of Warcraft is surprisingly Second Life, which at 170,000 subscribers, and a far lower rate of online users to subscribers than WoW, is a relatively small game. But unlike World of Warcraft, players of Second Life are legally owning their virtual property, paid for in Linden Dollars, which are exchangeable freely against US dollars. So many stories have been reported on people running a virtual business that ends up paying their real-world rent.

Now something happened that many people have been waiting for, a lawsuit over virtual property in Second Life, as Wired reports. It seems that Second Life botched their auctions page, on which you can buy virtual land, having auctions on it which weren't accessible unless you fiddled with the numbers in the URL. Some clever guys did fiddle with the numbers, accessed auctions that nobody else saw, and bought lots of virtual land for $300 a plot, instead of the going rate of $1,000 per plot.

Linden Labs, the company behind Second Life, promptly banned the guy for hacking and closed his account. Unfortunately the guy was a lawyer, and equally promptly sued Linden Labs. Not surprisingly he wants his money back, at least the $8,000 he paid for the virtual land auctions, not to talk of the over $30,000 in Linden Dollars he owns. He might have a point there, if Linden Labs claims that the auctions were invalid because of his URL "hacking", they shouldn't be allowed to keep the money and not deliver the virtual land.

But of course the lawsuit could have much wider implications on the legal status of virtual property. If Linden Labs allows their players to have legal ownership of their virtual property, then what exactly can the company still do or not do without hurting their players property rights. Banning a player obviously makes his virtual belongings worthless. But even changes in gameplay which cause inflation could destroy somebodies virtual fortune. And what if the game company, like Blizzard, claims that there is no virtual property, and accounts and virtual goods can only be traded on a black market, does that change the owners property rights? Can you sue Blizzard for banning you from World of Warcraft, based on the value of your characters and belongings? Questions like these have been discussed for a long time, but now it might be the first time that US law is pronouncing on it. (Not counting a mock trial with a real judge on some game conference)

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King

I've been playing Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King (DQ8) on the PS2 for two days now, enough for a short review. If I had to describe it in a single expression, I'd call it "Final Fantasy Lite". It is a fun game, great graphics, interesting characters, lots of humor, and easy to get into. But it isn't very innovative, instead preferring to step in the footsteps of classic console RPG gaming.

You are playing a hero and his companions, first just one ex-bandit named Yangus who in the European version has a funny Cockney accent, but gaining two further companions over the course of the game. The hero is working for a king and a princess, but as the title suggests they have been cursed, and the king is now a green goblin, and the princess is the horse pulling his cart. The game tells the story of how the hero goes on a quest to lift the curse, but it is a long story with many complications and mysteries. Besides the main story, there are a couple of side-quests, side boss mobs, and other other things to do, like capturing monsters for a monster arena.

DQ8 was developed by Level-5, and published by Square Enix. Level-5 is known for Dark Cloud (one of my favorite PS2 RPGs) and Dark Chronicle, and DQ8 goes with a cell-shaded 3D look similar to that of Dark Chronicle, but with thinner outlines. That works very well, and the graphics can only be described as beautiful and colorful. But the gameplay of DQ8 resembles more the Final Fantasy games from Square Enix, just without the jumping, and a bit less complicated with the character development.

You spend a good part of the game running around in the world or in dungeons, occasionally being attacked by random monsters coming out of nowhere, just like in Final Fantasy. How strong the random monsters are is determined by the area you are in, and the time of day, with monsters being more powerful at night. Unlike Final Fantasy you get an ability early on which "whistles" to attract random monsters, automatically starting a fight, so you don't have to run around in circles if you are looking for a fight. And you also get items and abilities which prevent random monsters from attacking. So you have pretty good control about how much fighting you want to do.

Combat is strictly turn-based. At the start of each round you tell every character what to do, whether it is an attack, a spell, or using an item. You can also try to flee or intimidate the monsters into fleeing. After you have finished your instructions, the characters and monsters hit each other in an order determined by their agility. Besides damaging each other with physical attacks and spells, there are a range of status effects combatants can inflict on each other, from the more classic poison and sleep effects to more exotic effects like uncontrollable dancing. Yangus list of abilities he can get later in the game includes "Underpants Dance: Paralyzes all enemies". :)

While with minor monsters you might have an interest to attack directly to get them out of the way, in longer fights you can also spend a round to "psyche up", up to 3 times early in the game, 4 times later, which gives a huge boost to your attack strength, enabling you to deal a lot of damage at once. So a typical strategy would have one character psyching up, and another one healing, until the big attack is unleashed. But apart from psyching up, combat is a relatively simple affair. And obviously a bit repetitive. That is lightened up by the funny monsters, like the bunicorn, a bunny with a horn on its forehead. The story and dialogues are also on the light, humorous side, which makes a welcome change from the often melodramatic Final Fantasy stories.

By killing monsters you gain gold and experience points, and the xp will raise your level. Character development is a very simple affair, most stats increases are automatic, your only choice is in which of 5 possible areas to distribute your skillpoints. 4 of these 5 areas are weapons, while the 5th is a character specific area, like courage for the hero, humanity for Yangus, and sex-appeal for Jessica. There is no skill "tree", just a linear list, opening up more spells and abilities the more points you put in an area. Obviously the weapon skills only work if you wield that specific weapon, but weapon skills tend to have a major influence on your damage output, while the character specific abilities are useful, but often less damaging. Depending on your style you can put more points into weapons and just beat the enemies into bits, or take a more subtle, magic-based approach with lots of status effects.

Your hit points and magic points don't regenerate between combats. You either need to return to a city and sleep in an inn to fill them back up, or you need to ingest various herbs and potions to fill them. Getting back to a city is easy, with teleport items and cheap teleport spells you get very early in the game. But then you'll need to walk back to where you were on foot. Items can be found from monsters, or in various chests, bags, and cupboards, even if the owner of said cupboard is standing right next to you. You can also combine items in an alchemy pot into new items, based on recipes found in the world, or experimentation (or from spoiler sites).

All in all very classic RPG gameplay. You follow the story, and if ever the monsters you need to kill for the story are too tough, you do some more random fights to gain xp and level up. I've found sites estimating a duration of about 60 hours, don't know yet how long I will take. I like Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, and I'll probably play it until the end, but I don't think I would play it a second time. It is a more or less linear game, with little replayability. But as long as I have fun during the hours where I'm playing it, I don't mind. I have no need for another game threatening to take over my life, like MMORPGs tend to do. Games with a clear end do have their advantages. :)

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


This is funny, somebody is trying to hack me. Or rather he is trying to get access to my Google / Blogger account by pretending to be me having forgotten my password. Of course Google isn't THAT stupid, in such cases it just sends an e-mail to my home e-mail address, alerting me of the attempt. The hacker would need to click on the link in that e-mail to reset the password. And even then he would still need to answer some security questions to change the password. I know, because I just did change the password, just to make sure.

I do prefer login systems like World of Warcraft, where you don't have to use your display name as account name. On GMail or on typical PHP forums your username is your display name, so in that cases I'm kind of forced to use "Tobold" to appear as me. But then a hacker only needs to guess / hack the second word, the password, to get access to my stuff. So I need to use different passwords everywhere, and change them from time to time, noting them on a list next to my computer. I guess the easiest way to hack me would be breaking into my house and stealing the list. :) Other than that, I'm reasonably safe, with firewalls and anti-virus protecting me from keyloggers and the like.

Wielding virtual swords

I've had sessions in World of Warcraft, playing my warrior, that lasted 6 hours or more. Although in the virtual world my character was busy swinging a rather heavy looking sword for hours, the physical effort I had to spend to make him do that was minimal. In fact in WoW, if you wanted to not use the special moves, you could just right-click once on the mob and all the sword-swinging would happen automatically, burning no real calories whatsoever.

Now Nintendo is planning to change that, with their "Wii" (formerly known as "Revolution") console and special motion detector controller. They presented games on the E3 where you played virtual tennis by swinging the Wii controller like a real tennis racket, played virtual golf by swinging it like a golf club. And in a Wii Legend of Zelda game you will be swinging the controller like a sword to do swordfighting.

Now a Wii controller is considerably lighter than a real metal sword. But swinging it will come closer to physical exercise than many gamers have ever been. ;) Probably fun for a while, but swinging that sword for the 50 to 100 hours it takes to finish the usual Legend of Zelda game sounds far too exhausting to me. I think I'll give that console a miss.

Blog bot

Here are some quotes from a gaming blog:

Major Nelson's Xbox - 05/15/06
You would think I had died and gone to heaven when Major Nelson showed up to play. Gamer score stands at 3437. That is a gain of 15 points over last time! He played Battlefield 2: MC, and wished it would never end, but it did and that was sad.

Major Nelson's Xbox - 05/14/06
I saw Major Nelson walk by yesterday morning... I was hoping he would come play and he did. 3422 points and climbing. That is a gain of 30 points over last time! He played UNO gaining 2 achievements, and after that powered me down without even saying good night. I mean what the hell?

Major Nelson's Xbox - 05/13/06
Hmmm... Major Nelson was nowhere to be seen yesterday... maybe he is at E3. If he is, he better bring back some awesome swag, like some hot new exclusive demos.
The strange thing about this blog that it isn't written by Major Nelson, it is written by Major Nelson's Xbox 360. If you have a XBox 360 on the internet, you can sign up at 360Voice with your XBox Live Gamertag. Your XBox already collects all the information about how long you play, what you play, and what your score is. 360Voice takes that information in XML format and transforms it into a blog, written from the point of view of your XBox. A blog bot, so to say.

Depending on your point of view that is either the future of blogging, or silly, and slightly menacing. There is a lot of information collected on you by your XBox, and sent to some Microsoft server. Whether you want to blog it is your choice, but even if you don't, some people have access to those data, and will study them for marketing purposes. Knowing exactly what games your customers are playing, and for how long is pretty powerful, much more powerful than the Nielsen Rating for TV, which just works on a small "representative" sample. And just like the Nielsen Rating today can make or break a TV show, the data collected by the XBox 360 will be used to determine what games will be made in the future, and even how these games will be priced.

From a "future of blogging" point of view, I'm less concerned. I don't see me replaced by a blot bot anytime soon. Of course it would be totally possible for Blizzard to collect that sort of data in World of Warcraft, how long you play, what quests you do, what dungeons you visit, and when you level up, and offer that to you in XML, for use in an automated blog. But compared to me writing about what I did in WoW last weekend, such an automated blog would be lacking the opinions, and rants, that make a blog worth reading.

Philips 20PF4121/01 TV

So I went TV buying, and ended up with a Philips 20PF4121/01. I found a competent salesperson, and bought the TV in the shop. I knew well that this costed me about €100 more than if I had bought it via the internet. But buying via the internet has disadvantages as well, having to wait, having to be home for the UPS delivery, and if the thing ever breaks down getting the TV repaired on guarantee is next to impossible. And somehow the salary of the competent salesperson has to be paid. :)

The advantage of the Philips 20PF4121/01 TV is a low response time, 16 ms, which is necessary if my main application for the thing will be playing games on it. With 20" screen size it has the good size for the place where I wanted to put it. And the price was reasonable, on the low end of the LCD TVs on offer. Where I had to compromise was with the resolution, the thing isn't exactly high-definition yet. While a 720p video format is supported, the actual number of pixels is only 640 x 480. More than enough for the PS2 games, but I'm afraid it could be a bit on the low side for the upcoming PS3.

For one minute I was toying with the idea of buying a "future-proof" TV, with HDMI, 1080 pixels of vertical resolution to have the best possible image in 1080p video mode, ready for the high-definition TV (and game consoles) of the future. Unfortunately HDTV is still years away, there are very few channels already supporting it, and then only part of the time. Thus only the top range of TV sets are really offering that resolution and the HDMI interface. The sets on offer were much bigger, and a hell of a lot more expensive. A 40" / €4000 TV certainly has the best possible image, but wasn't exactly what I was looking for. So I bought the small and cheap TV for the small room, and will replace my old CRT living-room TV with something HDTV in a couple of years, when there are more sources of high-definition video signals, and the prices have come down.

The Philips 20PF4121/01 just weights 8.8 kg, or 11.5 kg with the box, manuals, remote, etc., so I had no problem transporting it myself. Setting it up was very easy. I moved the PS2 from the living room to the small room and hooked everything up. Up to now my PS2 had stood flat on a shelf, but where I put it now I was able to use an interesting feature of the PS2, the ability to stand it upright. The DVD drawer is designed cleverly, so you can place the DVD in it without it falling out, even if the drawer is upright.

So now I have a secondary entertainment center in my appartment. I tested watching DVDs there, and it works, only that I'm currently limited to DVDs with an European regional code. I don't want to modify the hardware to make the PS2 multi-zone, and while I've heard you can do it by software, I don't have that software available. The image is sharp and crisp, with a good contrast and luminosity, no complaints. Then I started playing Dragon Quest VIII, and that worked well too. I actually had to *reduce* the brightness, contrast, and color from the initial settings, so I'd say the rumors that LCD TVs are pale aren't really true any more.

I admit that buying this TV was a blatant case of consumerism, buying stuff to make me happy again. But the thing is, it works, provided you can actually afford the stuff you are buying, and don't get into even greater debt-related depressions later. Fiddling with a new electronic gadget, and playing a new PS2 game, took my mind of guild drama and feeling stuck in World of Warcraft. I will just have to see how my interests develop, whether I'll take a full break from WoW for a while, or I play WoW only on the weekends when I have larger chunks of time available and can do dungeon groups. In a way being unguilded is a liberation, you don't get the feeling that you "have to" log on any more.