Thursday, November 30, 2006

World of Warcraft trading card game

After 10 years of Magic the Gathering (paper and online) and 2 years of World of Warcraft you would assume that I'd buy the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game as a matter of reflex. But in fact I am not interested at all. For the simple reason that I wouldn't know who to play with.

So if you are waiting for a review of the WoW TCG from me. You're out of luck. I only read a description of the game in Beckett Massive Online Gamer magazine, which also lists all cards. But the game seems to be a lot simpler and more primitive than Magic the Gathering, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Nevertheless the whole exercise smells of somebody trying to revive the flagging trading card business with a license from a highly successful video game.

But in my area people aren't even playing Magic any more. And all the other trading card games had tiny followings at the best of times. What good is a trading card game if you have neither somebody to trade nor somebody to play with? The next time I play Magic will be when Magic the Gathering Online v3.0 will finally be released, after years of delay. Online games are the future, because there is always somebody online somewhere.

Webasto parking heater

More than 20 years ago, on a particularly cold winter night, I was driving my car homewards, coming from a visit to friends. I had scraped the ice from the windshield, but it was so cold, and the heating of the car directly after starting the motor wasn't doing much, that my windshield iced over while I was driving. I couldn't see where I was going, and the car drifted sideways without me noticing. I ended up hitting the boardwalk with both tires of the left side simultaneously, and both tires burst. So I stood there, with two flat tires, only one spare, at night, in winter. Not a very pleasant situation. Well, I walked back to my friends and phoned from there to get my car hauled to a mechanic, and all ended well. But since then I'm a bit paranoid when it comes to the visibility through my windshield.

So when a few years ago I first heard about parking heaters, I was interested. Heating up your car *before* you start driving is a good idea. But parking heaters aren't cheap, and as I was still driving an old car, installing one wasn't worth it. But this year I got a new car, and in autumn I had a Webasto parking heater installed. Today was the first time where my car had frozen over during the night, and with the use of the parking heater I ended up with ice-free windshields and a comfortable warm car. Instead of scraping ice I just needed to wipe the molten ice from my windshield.

The parking heater I have is burning petrol, it is not an electric block heater that needs to be plugged in. I have a remote control, and 20 minutes before I leave the house I press the on button. The parking heater burns a small amount of petrol in a controlled way, which heats the motor cooling circuit, and when that is warm the fans in the interior of the car are activated to blow warm air against the windshield. Of course that costs me some petrol, but not very much, about 10 ml per minute. A burner is a lot more efficient than letting your motor run while the car is standing to produce heat. And because the burner heats the motor, I use less petrol when I'm starting up the engine. Cold engines waste a lot of petrol.

Bigger cars have parking heaters as optional original equipment. For my Toyota Corolla I needed to have it installed after buying the car. At first I had problems getting it to work, because I use to have the ventilation of the car set to "automatic", which turned out to interfere with the parking heater's control of the ventilation. But the Toyota also has a button to direct the ventilation to maximum windshield defrosting, and that button turns off the automatic ventilation. So since I push that defrosting button in the evening, the parking heater works like a charm in the morning.

Yeah, I know, this is just a gadget. Not something which is absolutely necessary. But I've always been a sucker for gadgets, and this one at least does what it promises to do. I can afford this bit of luxury: a warm car and no more ice-scraping.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Playing on Methadone

I told my guild that I was taking a break from raiding until the Burning Crusade. I "finished" playing the BC beta by leveling up my mage to 20. And I installed Dungeons & Dragons Online - Stormreach (DDO). If playing World of Warcraft is an addiction, then I'm on Methadone now. :)

Playing DDO is easy enough. Many things are similar to WoW or other MMORPGs. And at least the early game hasn't changed much since my first impressions of the beta test. And this game is definitely less addictive than World of Warcraft. In fact it feels more like a single-player game than like a MMORPG. One reason for that is that nobody is playing it. DDO has a total of five (5!!!) servers. I chose one at random, Aureon, and when I looked how many people were playing, there were only between 100 and 200 players online. So I looked at the official forums, and found a thread stating that another server, Lyrandar, was the most populated. I created a new character there, and found about 400 people playing on this server. Now I think these servers are international, and as European I'm automatically playing "off-peak", due to the time zone difference with the USA. But if at the time where I am playing all servers together just have about 1,000 concurrent users, even at peak times DDO can't have much more than 5,000 concurrent users. Compared to the 400 US and Euro servers of WoW, with over a million concurrent users at peak time, DDO feels really deserted.

But hey, I bought DDO when it came out, and still had the box shrink-wrapped in my games library. Better get some play value out of the money I spent for it. DDO is not a bad game, but it's main attraction for me right now is that it is "not WoW".

I need to get away from World of Warcraft before I burn out totally. I'd rather play something else now, and be eager again for the Burning Crusade expansion. Especially the level 60 raiding game is something that I had enough of. Yeah, I'm happy and proud to have seen BWL until Nefarian. But that took us two raids last weekend until Chromaggus was dead, for a total of 10 to 12 hours, waiting times included. The idea of doing that every weekend for the next couple of weeks before moving to the next raid dungeon filled me with dread and boredom. I don't know if that is different for other classes, but as priest healing and decursing in BWL plays pretty much the same as healing and decursing in Molten Core. Just the scenery is different. The fights are a bit harder, and the loot is better, but who needs tier 2 loot with BC just around the corner? The only change to that routine in sight was the next patch disabling decursive, and making dispelling magic a lot more hectic for priests. Not something I was looking forward to. Time to take a break.

That doesn't mean I cancelled my account for World of Warcraft. I might still check out the patch, maybe do a little of the "new" PvP (although I guess that the arenas will only be accessible in training mode, because the arena reward system is reserved for level 70 characters), or do some minor preparatory stuff for the expansion. Not sure whether I still want to play my level 63 priest in the BC beta. I just don't want to raid any more. I'll sure be back for the expansion, and that is less than 2 months away.

What I enjoy about DDO is that the playstyle is markedly different from World of Warcraft. Every quest is an instance, and there are a lot more scripted events, jump-climb-and-run parts, switches, puzzles, and the like. As I am still level 1 (there are only 12 levels in DDO, although each has 5 "rank" sub-levels), I didn't try grouping yet. I'll see how that goes a bit later. I choose a cleric for the same reason that I play a priest in WoW: figuring that it would be easier to get an invite. And in the D&D system priests are actually good at soloing, because they can wear heavy armor and heal themselves after the fight. I even got a "celestial dog" summoned pet.

The only trap is assuming that things are the same as in WoW when in fact they aren't. I had great difficulties with a quest where I had to dive through an underwater tunnel, running out of breath far too fast. I searched the potion vendor in vain for a water breathing potion or something. Until I finally looked in the manual and found that I could have breathed a lot longer under water if I had removed my plate armor and heavy shield. There is a certain logic to that, I just didn't think of it because what armor you wear doesn't make a difference to swimming and diving in WoW.

If you happen to play DDO and run into a cleric named Tobold on the Lyrandar server in the next couple of weeks, that's me. :)

World of Warcraft addon turmoil

While talking about the PvP changes in the WoW 2.0 patch, I totally forgot to talk about the most immediate impact that this patch will have on every player: All your addons will stop working. Or as the official forums say in techspeak: "WoW 2.0 represents a major change in the UI code, and as such ALL AddOns will need to be updated before they will work, if for no other reason than the Lua 5.0 to Lua 5.1 changes. Some AddOns will be more seriously affected, and a few will have to be redesigned." I already experienced that in the beta, if you copy your current addons in the directory of the beta client, they will all show up as "incompatible" on the addon window (you know, the one you get to from the character select screen).

This affect every existing addon, even if it's very simple and doesn't use any of the disabled old functions. I don't know much about the WoW scripting language, but I'd guess that updating the simpler addons will be relatively easy, I've seen discussion about writing a small piece of software that does it. But most people will just download the new 2.0 versions of their favorite addons from places like Curse Gaming or WoWInterface. Of course these sites will be break down under the load next week, so you might have to wait a while before you can download the 2.0 addons.

Some addons won't be immediately available, because they aren't that easy to update to 2.0 and their authors might have abandoned them. You'd either need to switch to another addon doing something similar, or wait until somebody else updates the abandoned addon.

Other addons simply won't exist any more, because their functionality is not supported any more. Basically any addon that made an intelligent decision based on some condition won't work any more. Prime example is Decursive, which was able to look up who is cursed and automatically dispelled the curse on the push of a single button. I don't know if it will be called that, but "Decursive 2.0" won't be able to do that this way. The best thing that it can do in 2.0 is show you a list of everybody who has a curse on him, and you will need to click on their name in that list to dispell the curse.

Bigger addons with lots of functionality will probably have to be rewritten completely. They will have to remove those parts that did any sort of decision, and maybe add some new functions based on the new script commands. For example I use CTRaidAssist, which has a decursing function, which will have to be rewritten.

Generally we can expect a lot of addon chaos next week, but it will calm down after a couple of days, and people will quickly get used to a new set of addons. But if you are an addon junkie, with dozens of them installed, prepare for some major turmoil.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

World of Warcraft PvP v2.0 - New honor and arena system

Found a very informative post on PvP rewards in v2.0. Two important quotes:

1) Entire epic set is 95,500 pts plus 80 AB marks, 50 AV marks & 30 WSG marks.

2) The rough rule that we're using is "10% the honor you used to get." So, think like 500-1000 honor an hour depending on how you play.

You know me, given the data I can't resist doing the math. Especially since this one is so easy: You can get the entire epic set by doing between 100 and 200 hours of PvP in battlegrounds. That is the level 60 PvP reward epic set you previously needed to be rank 13 to get. Now 200 hours is non an insignificant amount of time, but it is *much* less than what you would have previously needed to reach rank 13 and get the same rewards.

So this is my take on the new PvP v2.0 system, as I understand it: There is a non-competitive and a competitive part. I call the battlegrounds and overland PvP part "non-competitive", although it obviously still involves killing other players. But although it is PvP, it works a lot like PvE: your skill only affects the rate at which you earn rewards. A highly skilled player might need only half the time of a player with very little PvP skill to achieve the same reward, but eventually everybody gets there.

The big flaw of PvP v1.0 was that you competed against *your own* faction more than you competed against the people you were killing. If you were the world's most skilled PvP player, with a perfect team that won every battleground, but Real Life ® limited you to playing 4 hours every evening, you would never reach rank 14, because somebody much less skilled than you who played 14 hours a day would gain more honor, and push you down in the relative ranking. If the perfect PvP player with the same 4-hour schedule and the bad-PvP no-lifer with the 14-hour PvP schedule do battlegrounds in PvP 2.0, the no-lifer still gets his complete epic set in less days. But at least the perfect PvP player can get the same reward, and has the satisfaction of getting there in less hours, even if these hours are stretched over a larger amount of days. This is a lot more fair than the previous version.

And then there is the competitive part: arena combat, where if I understood the system correctly, skill counts for more than time spent. Apparently it works a bit like the ELO system in chess: you start with a base rating, and every win increases that rating, while every loss pushes it down. Winning against somebody weaker is worth less points than winning against somebody stronger, but winning will never lose you points, and losing will never win you points. So this is really "competitive" PvP. And the factions, Alliance and Horde, are not involved in arena combat. You can end up fighting against teams from your own side. Pairing is done on a rating basis, the system will try to pair you against an equally strong opponent. But if there is nobody equally strong, the longer you wait in the queue, the wider the rating difference becomes against who you could be paired.

More info on arena combat here. You need to play at least 10 games to get rewards, and you need to participate in at least 30% of the games your team plays. At team can have up to twice as many members as needed, so your team for 2v2 arena fights can have between 2 and 4 players. You can be in one team of every format (2v2, 3v3 and 5v5) at once, and at equal performance the bigger teams will get more arena reward points. Even if you don't play very well, you still will get some arena points, but the difference in the amount of points that the winners will get compared with the losers is a lot wider than in the battleground system. You can't "grind" the arena, because playing 100 games with a 50:50 win:lose ratio is worth exactly the same amount of points than playing 10 games with a 5:5 win:lose ratio. Actually if your team has done 10 arena battles and won them all, it would be hard to gain any more points, unless you count on being paired against better teams and still winning, which would give you more points than just winning against 10 low ranking teams. While the points are given out every week, it seems the arena teams stay together and keep their ranking. They will need to do another 10 games next week to get more points, but starting from an already higher ranking. On the one side such teams have an advantage, starting the week already higher rated. On the other side, if the pairing system works well, these teams will be paired against other high-ranking teams, which makes winning more difficult.

Ideally this will allow "casual" PvP teams to also have some fun and get some arena rewards. They will be crushed by better teams, but then they are ranked lower, and will be paired against other casual PvP players. But that is the *ideal* situation. Now I happen to have played Magic the Gathering Online for years, which has a ladder system for leagues, and I can tell you that pairing is never easy. It is a compromise between how long you want people to have to wait for the start of a game, and how close you want them to be in ranking. If only the best and the worst team are waiting to enter the arena, sooner or later they will be paired against each other, which isn't much fun for either of them. The better team will complain that their win only gave them minimal ranking points, and the bad team will be depressed that they didn't stand a chance.

But if you are a so casual PvP player that you can't show up regularly for a team, arena is not for you. You can still do battlegrounds, and unlike the previous system you won't be penalized for doing PvP only occasionally. And there is a chance that in the battlegrounds you will be paired against the infamous pre-made expert PvP teams less often. After a month or two, a very good PvP team will have achieved all possible battleground rewards, and only the arena will provide even better rewards. So the concentration of casual players in the battlegrounds should be much higher than in the arenas.

I really like these changes a lot. I don't think they will turn me into a hardcore PvP arena champion. But at least I'm more tempted to participate in casual PvP, knowing that I will eventually earn some nice rewards, even if I'm not doing it very seriously. And the people who claimed to be the best PvP players will have an opportunity to prove it in the arenas, where their skill is really going to be measured. Just grinding PvP will only work in the battlegrounds, while in the arena you really need to be good to win and get ranked high.

Patch date announced

The next World of Warcraft content patch, called "Before the Storm", otherwise known as WoW v2.0, has been announced for next week. The US servers will get the patch on December 5th, the Europeans on December 6th.

If you still PvP this week, and manage to gain another rank, you will get this new rank in your display options. But you won't get the opportunity to buy PvP rewards based on the new rank, because directly after the ranks are updated, the rank system is discarded. Quote: "For those who have been seeking high-rank PvP armor and weapons, note that the new Honor System will still include these item rewards, and it will actually be easier to earn these items under the new Honor System than under the old Honor System. Those who wish to see how their PvP abilities measure up against other players will still be able to do so under the new Arena System."

Well, if you start from zero, the same rewards are easier to earn. But if this week you go from rank 10 to 11, instead of just buying an epic mount for very little gold, you will have to hand in 90 battleground victory marks to get it. Whatever the marketing talk, it is hard to disguise that the patch erases a lot of previous effort.

Can gold buying be outlawed?

Followup on today's earlier gold farmer post, where Felsir in the comments suggested banning the gold buyers. According to this newspaper there are as many as 500,000 Chinese gold farmers. That is for all MMORPG together, but obviously WoW has a significant market share.

In Blizzards regular gold farmer bannings press releases the usual number of accounts banned is between 60,000 to 80,000, and that is just the accounts that have been found using bots, Blizzard doesn't ban "manual" gold farmers.

Lets do some hypothetical math. Lets assume that WoW has a total of 100,000 gold farmers. Each gold farmer earns $100 per month (see link above). According to the spam tells I keep getting in game, its about 1,000 gold for $50, but I'd say 80% of that is kept by the companies running the gold farms. So each farmer only gets $10 per 1,000 gold, and needs to make 10,000 gold per month to earn his $100. Which means that each month 1,000,000,000 aka 1 billion gold are being sold, for $50 million. Wow!

But now lets look at the buyers. 1,000 gold seems to be a frequently traded amount, so lets assume that a typical buyer buys 1,000 gold per month. But if each gold farmer produces 10,000 gold per month, there must be 10 buyers per seller. So that would make 1 million gold buyers, or 1 in 7 World of Warcraft players.

Blizzard can well afford to ban 80,000 gold farmers. It makes for good publicity. And most of them will be back within a day, so Blizzard isn't actually losing any money from the bannings. As they need to buy a new account key, Blizzard actually *makes* money from these bannings. At $20 per new account, banning 80,000 gold farmers nets Blizzard $1.6 million. Call it a Blizzard tax on gold farming operations.

What Blizzard couldn't possibly afford is to ban the 1 million gold buyers. As these have no commercial interest in playing WoW, and banning would destroy the characters they were willing to invest in, a large percentage of the banned gold buyers would *not* open another account and start over. Blizzard can't afford to lose one seventh of their player base. Especially since we can safely assume that most gold buyers are in the USA or Europe, where Blizzard earns a lot more per month on each account.

Do you know what Blizzard could do to permanently remove at least half of the gold farmers from World of Warcraft? Easy, just decrease the cost for the different levels of riding skills by a factor of 10. Learning to ride an epic non-flying mount should cost 80 gold, not 800. And the epic flying mount 500 gold, not 5000.

True, the gold farmers exist only because there are gold buyers. But the gold buyers exist only because of the money sinks in the game. If there weren't expensive things like epic mounts to buy, and if raiding would net you more gold than the cost of repairs and potions, few people would need to buy gold. And then the gold farmers would be out of a job.

Confusing big with endless

My Draenei mage in the Burning Crusade beta is now level 19, and in the last corner of Bloodmyst Isle, doing the last of the new Draenei quest. When I have done them all, I'll be level 20. But there is a definitive "game over" feeling to that. This being a beta, the character will be erased when the expansion comes out. And while doing all the new quests was fun, there are no new quests between level 20 and 60 in the Burning Crusade. All the quests that my mage could still do I have already done with other characters. There is no fresh content left for him. And that makes me somewhat sad.

But looking at it objectively, that sadness is my own fault, based on a stupid expectation that World of Warcraft had endless content. Of course it hasn't, it just is very big.

By the time my mage hits level 20 and did all the quests in the new starting zones for the Draenei, he will have played over 20 hours. The single-player RPG Fable, which sold well enough, only has 10 hours of gameplay, and there are lots of other games that don't deliver more than 20 hours of content. Playing just one character through his newbie zones is already more content than many single-player games offer. My first level 60 character took 500 hours to level to 60, the next two took about 300 hours each. I don't know which single-player computer RPG is the longest, but the highest numbers I remember reading was 200 hours of gameplay for Baldur's Gate and Oblivion. And in World of Warcraft you can level about 4 characters to 60 without having done too many quests more than once. And that doesn't even begin to count the time you can spend in the more repetitive endgame. A friend of mine just clocked 1 million seconds, that is 118 days or nearly 3000 hours on his main character.

So World of Warcraft is huge, which explains the confusion. We play this for much longer than we would play a single-player game, and World of Warcraft never seems to end. There is always something new around the corner for hundreds and hundreds of hours. So the day when we actually reach the end comes as kind of a shock.

I have done over 95% of all existing quests, many of them twice or even more often. I have seen every corner in every zone, except AQ40 and Naxxramas. I have played every race, and every class to at least level 30, except for the mage who is still level 19. As much as I hate to admit it, the game is basically over, until more content gets added to it in the expansion. Its like turning the last page of the latest Harry Potter book and having the equally unattractive options of waiting for the next volume, or starting over reading the existing books again. I'm a bit at a loss about what to do next, while waiting for the Burning Crusade to come out.

I don't want to start another character, or level up one of my existing mid-level characters, because none of them has quests I haven't done yet, or could go to visit new places. I could raid, but that is getting old, and now that I've been until Nefarian I probably won't be seeing any new bosses for quite some time. I could level up my level 63 priest in the beta further, but that is basically living on borrowed time: The more content of the expansion I "consume" now, the less long will it keep me occupied in the release version. Maybe I should just take a break, install D&D Online or play single-player games until the expansion comes out.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Inside a gold farm

GigaOm has an article on Chinese gold farms, *yawn*, who hasn't? But it links to two YouTube videos, showing actual footage filmed in Chinese gold farms, from a TV documentary.

One theme of the documentary is "the future of work". The gold farm owner explains that he was in the US and found that a meal or haircut there cost 8 times as much as in China. If he could easily export meals or haircuts, he would make a lot of money. But as these things aren't that easy to export, he turned to the one "service industry" which allowed him to export Chinese labor to the USA. I guess he is paying neither customs nor any form of taxes, which makes that an attractive business.

In a way that gold farm is just a typical example of globalization. Work is done at the cheapest possible location. With the Chinese economy growing so fast, in 10 or 20 years the Chinese will be too rich to do such gold farm works. Meanwhile probably Africa will have acquired enough people with internet access and we'll talk about African gold farms.

The other theme of the documentary is exploitation of the young Chinese guys working in that gold farm "sweat shop". Now that argument I'm not buying. Sure, the gold farm looked not terribly clean, with two dozen people sleeping, eating, and "working" in the same house. But you can't compare that work to an US office job, you'll have to compare it to a job that an unskilled Chinese guy could find in China. I've seen another documentary about Chinese day laborers, most of them working in construction, and the gold farm work looked comparatively paradisiac to that.

In fact I've seen US dorms that looked remarkably similar to that gold farm. I bet if I installed a big table with a dozen computers running WoW in an average US college dorm, after two weeks the place would look exactly like the gold farm in the video. Just with pizza instead of ramen noodles, and the Americans not being paid to play WoW. If the Chinese guys are getting paid to play WoW, and the Americans are paying to play WoW, who is being exploited here?

Guild management in World of Warcraft

Managing a guild in any MMORPG, whether as guild leader or officer, is hard work, can be pretty stressful, and is often a rather thankless task. Since burning out on a guild leader job in Dark Age of Camelot, which basically ruined the game for me, I have kept my head low and prefer to avoid the responsability. But having been in several guilds in World of Warcraft, I have observed some typical modes of behavior of guild leadership, and I think WoW guilds are somewhat different from guilds in other games.

Over the years, playing so many different MMORPG, I've seen a lot of different guilds and types of guilds. And one type that was slowly developing out of the fact that there are so many more games to play now was the multi-game guild. I've been in an American multi-game guild, which was very nice, and only the inevitable problems of living in different time zones prompted me to leave. I joined an European multi-game guild, just to see it run into major problems with World of Warcraft. And I think the issue here is the underlying purpose of guilds in WoW and other games. Especially with multi-game guilds the purpose of a guild is playing together with friends. It is a lot nicer to move to a new game with a bunch of people you already played with, than to start every time again with a group of strangers. You then can expand your circle of friends and invite some new people, but the people who knew each other the longest form the core of the guild, and are often the guild leaders and officers.

In World of Warcraft the purpose of a guild is a different one: progressing together in the raid circuit. Many casual guilds either develop towards raiding, or have constant problems losing guild members to raiding guilds. Guilds start measuring their success in terms of what the most difficult boss is they can kill. Is your guild "only" killing Venoxis in Zul'Gurub, or are you killing Ragnaros, Nefarian, or even Kel'Thuzad? The original purpose of "playing with friends" becomes lost, and you start valueing people more for playing the right class in the right way than for being nice persons. In previous games to get recruited into a guild I often had to play with them for a while, to see whether I was a good guy and friendly character. In WoW most guilds have some restriction to recruitment based simply on your character class, and tend to ask more questions about what gear you have and what dungeons you are attuned to than verifying whether you are a decent chap.

It is somewhat ironic that World of Warcraft is a game where it is a lot easier to solo to the maximum level, but there are more people guilded in WoW than in other games. Guilds are considered a necessity to advance in the endgame, not an option to play with people you like.

What remains the same is that the guild management is often done by a small group of friends, some inner core of the guild. Guild size is more dictated by the number of people you need for a raid than by social concepts like the Dunbar number. The number of friendly relationships you have is often smaller than the number of people in the guild, so you consider some guild members your friends, while others are just a necessary addition for raiding.

Very often the guild's inner circle is the people that play the most, the people who are at the front of the raiding effort, and most advanced on the raiding circuit. Unsurprisingly loot rules often favor these frequent raiders, so they are also the best equipped. And with the very purpose of the guild being raid advancement, what is "good for the guild" is defined in how it pushes forward the progress of guild raids.

The big downside of that is that people who join the guild later, and are less far advanced than the average guild member, often have a hard time to get integrated. They might be required to have a certain level of equipment or certain attunement quests done to participate in the guild raid events, but at the same time the guild is too busy with the top end howthey *they* got their starting equipment and attunement quests by playing together, and how much harder it is to do the same in pickup groups. The same thing applies to learning how to raid well. When the top raiders of a guild tackled Zul'Gurub or Molten Core for the first time, there was a lot of discussion and learning how to raid together well. Later a newcomer might be able to join a MC raid where the dungeon is cleared out in record time, but without anyone explaining him the tactics. He'll have a better chance to get epic loot, provided everybody else already has most gear from there, but as a learning experience of good raiding that isn't so good. Besides being shouted at when he does something wrong, such a raid is more confusing than teaching him much.

I've seen that again and again how guilds are so concentrated of pushing the front forward that they basically forget about the stragglers coming behind. The worst uber guilds just kick out the people that fall behind. But even the better guilds basically let the newbies fight for themselves, or think that by letting them have an epic from MC they helped them more than enough. But purple loot can't replace the feeling of being part of a community, and new players having to endure pickup groups while the guild is raiding BWL probably don't feel much friendship towards the others. By the time they arrive at being able to raid Zul'Gurub, the guild has probably just decided to not give out any DKP for ZG raids any more, because no officer can be bothered to join these "low level" raids. The gap between players even inside the same guild is growing. And if everything is organized by guild officers that are the guild's top raiders, it is logical that not much thought is spent on the problems of the "lesser" guild members. I've seen some cases where the guild leaders evolved so far ahead of the rest of the guild, that they ended up quitting and leaving the bulk of the guild behind. Or they burned out and quit, with nobody left to take over guild leadership.

My hope is that the Burning Crusade fixes some of these issues. On the one side the smaller number of players per raid should make smaller, more casual guilds viable for raiding. It is a lot easier to know everybody and integrate everybody in a raid guild that only needs 25 people to attend each raid, than if you need 40 of them. For existing guilds, the fact that the Burning Crusade loot easily replaces the previous raid epics makes it possible to close the gap between players and let people newer to the guild catch up with the top raiders and guild officers.

Of course that won't be an easy process. There are a multitude of risks, things that could be managed badly. One very likely problem is that most guilds will keep their loot distribution and DKP system, which is in many cases heavily loaded against newer players. So on their first level 70 raid guilds might end up giving most loot to people who raided the most level 60 dungeons, although the link between having raided level 60 dungeons a lot and contributing to the success of level 70 dungeons is somewhat strenuous. With everybody wearing gear acquired from BC quests and dungeons, why should somebody have priority on level 70 raid loot, just because he went to Molten Core a hundred times? Another probable problem is that level 70 raids could easily be oversubscribed, because the 40 people who raided MC/BWL/AQ40/Naxx together all show up, and only 25 people can raid together now.

A difficult period will be the first weeks after the Burning Crusade comes out. Guilds that used to raid every night will have to somehow replace these large scale guild events with organizing lots of small scale 5-man groups. There is a danger of everybody soloing, and the guild not having any purpose or events left at all, with people drifting apart. And then not everybody will level up at the same rate, with the first level 70s impatiently tapping their feet while waiting for enough others in the guild to level up for raiding.

So I don't envy all these guild leaders and officers, they have a difficult time ahead, managing these massive changes to the previously established guild routines. Some guilds will probably not survive the transition, break up, and reform. But if that ends up grouping more similar people together, maybe that is not such a bad thing. Maybe the current World of Warcraft guilds, operating under the special 40-man raid constraint, are just too big for their own good.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

WoW Journal - 27-November-2006

This weekend I spent a lot of hours in Blackwing Lair, raiding the place both Saturday and Sunday afternoon / evening. It was a rather successful duo of raids, killing everything including Chromaggus, and saying hi to Nefarian himself. As I previously had only come until Firemaw, the whole second day was new to me. And even if we haven't killed Nefarian yet, at least I have seen everything in this place now.

My least favorite, and maybe even hardest fight in BWL is the first one, Razorgore. As you need to split your raid in 4 groups, you don't get many options in the class composition of the raid, you basically need every class at least 4 times. That often leads to our BWL raids starting an hour late, until we got everybody together. We promptly wiped on the first try, although we had popped all eggs at that stage, but with nearly all healers dead it was impossible to finish Razorgore off. But after that everybody was fully awake, and on the second try we won easily enough.

Directly afterwards comes my most favorite fight in BWL, Vaelastrasz. I love this fight, because I can do it in silly mode, spamming Holy Nova. That is as effective as Prayer of Healing for group healing, and does a bit of damage to Vael as a bonus. Too bad this spell is only good if you have unlimited mana.

After Vael BWL gets a bit more annoying. Fighting through the suppression room is a bit of a bore, and the Broodlord at the end isn't particularly exciting. And after that, you still need to clear out the remaining mobs in the suppression room.

The next fight, Firemaw, is more exciting, as you need to play with your line of sight, and fight him at a very specific location, with everybody in the raid placed just right. The trash mobs after that are rather nasty, but we got the strategy down good, with some mobs kited away while we kill the others. With that we finished the first day.

On the second day we killed more trash mobs, and the next two dragons, Ebonroc and Flamegor. These are similar to Firemaw, just without the line of sight problem, which makes them easier. Both go down on the first try, so up to now we did all bosses in one shot, except for Razorgore.

So now it's time to try Chromaggus, which the guild has killed only once before. The raid leader says we will do one not-too-serious attempt on him, just for practice and to find out what colors of ability he will be using. We expect to wipe, and then use the knowledge of what abilities he is using to bring him down in the next attempt. But it turns out that Chromaggus abilities this weekend aren't his strongest, and we end up killing him on the first attempt too. Man, we are good!

Lootwise there wasn't much on offer for priests. Only Firemaw dropped something I was interested in, the Black Ash Robe. With its +30 fire resistance it makes a very nice addition to my fire resistance gear. With fire damage still being rather prominent in the first zone and dungeons of the Burning Crusade, FR gear might actually still be useful to collect. I'm not really much interested in getting loot from BWL otherwise, I'm fine wearing 3 pieces of tier 2 and 5 pieces of tier 1 gear.

As an added bonus of my BWL adventures, I got my semi-retired troll warrior to do something he had never done before: Use his alchemy recipes for flasks. On our first BWL day we had just cleared out the place enough so that the alchemy lab in there was accessible without meeting any mobs. And the guild needed flasks of titans for the main tanks. My alchemist warrior has the recipes for flask of the titans and flask of supreme power since over a year now, but never made any of them. Whenever he was in Scholomance at the alchemy lab, he had forgotten to bring his materials. And with me playing nearly exclusively my priest nowadays, he didn't have much opportunity to do Scholomance in the last year. But now it was as simple as getting the materials, being invited by somebody who was saved to the instance, and going in after him. Me and several people from the guild donated materials, and I ended up making 9 flasks of the titans for the guilds raiding efforts. I also made 2 flasks of supreme power for myself, just for fun and because I had the mats in the bank. Obviously not for raiding with a priest, but maybe I'll need them in the Burning Crusade. I don't remember having seen an alchemy lab in the beta, so with the expansion lowering the interest in BWL and Scholomance, I don't know how making flasks will go in the future.

One bottleneck for getting the materials for the flasks was the stonescale eels. So I decided that it was time that my warrior learned fishing. Between raiding, playing some Medieval 2, and playing the BC beta I only managed to get him up to 75 skill this weekend. But I'd rather do this a bit slowly. Fishing is a good activity to relax. Using the tacklebox addon it involves less clicking, and I can read a book while fishing. This is something I always wanted to do with my alchemist, as fish appear in some alchemy recipes, but haven't go around to do. This pre-BC period is a good time to finish all these little projects you never had time for before.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Your worst World of Warcraft decision?

When playing World of Warcraft you have to take a lot of decisions: What server to play on, what character class, what talent build, what guild to join, and many more. And while we'd like to think of ourselves as perfect, given a large enough number of decisions to take, we are sure to get some of them wrong. So to get some discussion going for this weekend, I'd like you to tell your worst World of Warcraft decision. Did you chose a PvP server and hated being ganked? Did you join a guild where you didn't fit in?

My worst World of Warcraft decision was leveling a second priest to 60. Playing the other faction was fun, and chosing a character class that gets easily invited to groups had a certain logic. But of course I should have taken some other popular class, like a druid or mage. Ending up with two level 60 priests was just plain dumb, at level 60 they play too much alike, whether they are Horde or Alliance. The idea of having several level 60s is to have a choice of playing something different, having the choice between two priests wasn't very clever.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Medieval II - Total War Review

I managed to miss the complete Total War series of games, Shogun, Medieval, Rome, because they were mainly advertised as real-time strategy games, and I prefer turn-based strategy games. But the Total War games always had both a turn-based and a real-time part, and the latest title in the series, Medieval II - Total War (M2TW) improved a lot on the turn-based part. After seeing a video review of the game on the DVD of a computer magazine I bought, I decided that it was time to try this.

I now played my first grand campaign, leading England from just three provinces to ruling all of England, Scotland, and Ireland, plus controlling the continental coast from Rennes to Hamburg. That already took a whole day of playing, and I think I'll stop that particular campaign there and restart with other settings.

The turn-based part of M2TW plays a bit like Heroes of Might and Magic, with some similarities to Civilization: You start out with some cities that produce both money and troops. You can construct buildings in these population centers to either increase your income, or to build more and better troops. You have heroes, known as "generals" in this game, which can gather the troops into armies to attack other armies, or to conquer more population centers. Thus your empire expands. You also have diplomats, merchants, priests, spies, assassins, and princesses. These "agents" walk over the same turn-based map to perform different functions, adding a bit of spice to the conquering game.

When your army gets into a fight with another army, you have the choice of either letting the computer calculate the result automatically, or fighting a real-time strategy battle. The RTS battles are simple enough, there is no building of bases or anything, both sides just fight with the troops that met on the turn-based map. This being a game about medieval warfare, your troops are archers, spearmen, and cavalry, in many different types. In the RTS battle you try to maneuver your troops in such a way that you gain some advantage by having local superiority, hitting the enemy at his weakest spot, outflanking him, and fighting his troops with the troops he is weakest against. For example spearmen are strong against cavalry, while cavalry can easily trample down archers. Archers can rain arrows on the spearmen, and if the spearmen break formation and run after the archers, they become vulnerable against cavalry attacks. Add the effects of terrain, weather, and in the case of sieges city walls and towers, and you get a wide variety of possible battles.

I really like Medieval 2 - Total War. The mix of turn-based and real-time strategy plays very well. The turn-base game has events and missions, giving you some guidance and direction. And with your agents roaming the map on different tasks, from diplomacy to strengthening your influence with the pope, you get a lot more than a simple build-and-conquer game. The real-time strategy battles are quite fun, once you got the hang of it. Before my first battles I saved the game, and replayed the same battle several times to learn what works and what doesn't. But later I just went ahead, and accepted the occasional setback, they usually aren't life-threatening.

The part I am not totally happy with is the user-interface, controls, and automated management on the turn-based map. You can move every character (general or agent) only a limited distance per turn, just like you would expect from other turn-based games. But unlike other games there apparently is no button to cycle to the next unit that hasn't moved yet. You have a button to cycle through all of your units, but every time you find one that hasn't acted yet and move him, the list resets and you start cycling through the same units again. You can't set a unit to "don't bring this unit up again this turn", as in other games. And the order in which the units are cycled through isn't totally logical either. I ended up using the list scrolls to cycle through all my units, but these need a couple of clicks to open, and then you see three lists: generals, settlements, and agents, through which you can click to check for characters that still haven't moved yet. As the list takes up half of the screen, you end up playing on just the other half. I don't know if I missed some keyboard shortcuts, nothing is mentioned in the manual, or whether this functionality is just badly designed.

The AI automanagement I know how to fix, but I will need to start over with a new campaign to do so. In the default setting you can control construction and recruitment only in cities which have a general as a governor present. Unfortunately your number of generals is limited to male members of the royal family, that is your king's sons or brothers, plus the husbands of your princesses, and sometimes you get the opportunity to adopt somebody. But in total your number of generals is usually lower than your number of cities and castles. I tried to play it with this default setting, having some generals wander from city to city to act as governors and set construction, with other generals leading the armies into battle. But it soon turned out that I also needed generals to transport troops between cities. You *can* move troops without a general, but if they can't make the move in one turn, they end up standing around being led by a "captain" with no stats. And there is a chance that this captain is disloyal and the whole stack of troops goes over to the rebels. Then your troop transport ends up creating a big rebel army in the middle of your territory, which is quite disrupting. So I used my generals to transport troops, which left lots of cities without a governor for several turns. Then it turned out that the AI which controls these cities with no governor is a bit paranoid, and starts recruiting massive amounts of spearmen for defence, even in the most secure locations. You can turn that off, but only manually, and you have to think of turning it off again every time a general enters the city and leaves again. So I am going to restart, and set the starting option of being able to govern cities without a general present, because the recruitment and upkeep cost for the thousands of useless spearmen the AI built for me was killing me. Fortunately this is a problem easily fixed in the campaign start options.

My last little niggle is with the merchants, whose role it is to sit on a resource on the campaign map to create income. So most of the time they don't do anything, unless another merchant arrives who wants to take over the same resource. That isn't very exciting. And the exact effect of having the merchant sit on that resource is hard to figure out. When you click on him he tells you he is creating X florins per turn of income, but the number seems to vary frequently, going up and down for no apparent reason. And the relationship between the merchants and the trade building you can construct in your cities isn't obvious, not even on the city trade screen. I never found out whether these merchants really were a good investment, as they aren't cheap to recruit.

But besides from these minor complaints, the game is very much fun and has a lot of depth, both strategically and economically. You can transform your castles into cities and vice versa, which is very interesting. Cities generally bring better income, while castles give better troops, and have better defensive walls and structures. But transformation costs some money, and destroys the buildings that the new type of settlement can't have, so you better decide whether you want a city or castle when the settlement is still small. Balancing your economics with your troops is an interesting task: If you would build only cities and money-making buildings, your empire won't expand, and you risk being attacked. If you only build castles and recruitment buildings, you soon are broke. Finding the good balance is a nice challenge.

The real-time strategy battles are fun too. You can try varying tactics, using the terrain to your advantage. Nevertheless it is good that you have the option of letting the battle result be calculated instead of playing it out, because fighting out every battle isn't worth it, especially if your troops are far superior in strength. I also ended up putting most siege battles on automatic. Breaching the walls with rams, ladders, and siege towers is fun enough. But inside the city combat takes mostly place in the streets, which aren't very broad and don't allow much maneuvering. So the fighting in the streets, until you conquer the plaza, resembles more a brawl than a battle, and your options for fiddling with the tactics are limited. You definitely should do it a couple of times to get the hang of it, but running it automatically doesn't produce much worse results.

Medieval II - Total War also has a multiplayer part of the game, but this is limited to the real-time battles. I wasn't much interested in that, and didn't try it. For me the single-player turn-based campaign game is the main attraction of M2TW. Of course your mileage may vary, and maybe you like the multiplayer battles more than the single-player campaign. When I play RTS battles against the computer, I enjoy the possibility to pause the game to give orders, or to speed up the time when nothing interesting is happening. I don't think that would work in a multiplayer battle. You can have up to 8 players in M2TW multiplayer battles, but I wouldn't consider this to be the strong point of the game. If you like the battles more than the campaign, but don't have other players to battle against, you can also fight historic or random battles against the computer.

Graphically the game is pretty enough. It ran smoothly on my computer, Pentium 4 640 3.2 GHz, 2 GB RAM, Nvidia GeForce 7800 GTX, which is "last years model", but on the more expensive end of the scale. M2TW has an autodetect function, which adjusts graphical settings to the power of your computer. On my computer the autodetect decided to turn off the anti-aliasing, so I see some jagged edges, and I'm only running on 1024 x 768 resolution. For maximum prettyness you would need a dual core processor and one of this year's high-end graphics cards, which wouldn't come cheap.

Winning M2TW isn't too difficult, at least not on the easy setting I tried for my first campaign. I'll try a medium difficulty setting for the next one. Another setting I'm going to change is the campaign length, I had chosen to fight until conquering 45 provinces, which would have taken far too long. Normally I would prefer to just play the long campaign, whether I finish it or not. But in M2TW winning campaigns unlocks new factions. From the 17 playable factions only 5 are accessible initially, the others have to be unlocked by winning campaigns. Or you could just cheat and edit the data\world\maps\campaign\imperial_campaign\descr_strat.txt text file to unlock the other factions.

The long campaign might be interesting, because apparently if you play long enough you get the option to discover America and conquer the new world, battling against the Aztecs. I'll try a short campaign playing Spain next, and maybe after "winning" I get the option to play on, which would be nice.

I think I'll be spending quite a number of hours playing some more of this game. Of course no single-player game has as many hours of gameplay as a MMORPG, but M2TW will still keep me occupied for some time. I've read some people complaining that if you have already played Rome - Total War, the Medieval 2 version didn't bring that many new things, being more an evolution than a revolution. But as I haven't played the predecessor, for me Medieval II - Total War is fresh and fun. Recommended.

Playing other games

It is not always easy to buy last year's PC games. If they have been a big hit, you might still find them in the bargain bin for half price, or in a cheap "gold" edition. But the less successful games simply disappear. So when I see a game I think I would like, I tend to buy it *now*, even if I know I'm currently busy with another game and will only be able to play it later. After over 2 years with World of Warcraft, I accumulated a lot of these games which I bought but never played. Time to devote them some attention.

I'm not quitting World of Warcraft, but until the Burning Crusade expansion comes out, I'll tone it down a bit, not playing every day any more. I always tended to raid mostly on the weekends, and I can still do that. But instead of spending every weekday in WoW soloing or doing smaller groups, I want to play some other games for the moment. And if I play WoW, it will mostly be exploring the beta a bit more.

I have three level 60 characters, and I don't feel like leveling up another through the same old content I already know by heart. Playing the level 60 characters solo doesn't make much sense, with the knowledge that expansion is just around the corner. Why do some endless grind for little reward if the Outlands offer much greater rewards for much less effort? Whatever gear I acquire now will be obsolete at level 65 anyway. I'd still like to do some more raiding, not for the loot, but for hanging out with the guild and having fun. But of course that depends on whether the other guild members still want to raid. I'll see how this develops over the next couple of weeks, before the Burning Crusade kick-starts us all again.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Measuring World of Warcraft burnout

I'm getting a bit tired of World of Warcraft myself, waiting for the Burning Crusade expansion which will renew my interest. I observe a certain amount of WoW burnout in my guild. I read blog entries and "I quit" posts on the forums. All of which is just anecdotal evidence, and no indication of the health of the game. The number of people quitting isn't really relevant, the health of the game depends on the difference between the number of people joining and the number of people leaving. So how do we measure whether there is a general burnout of World of Warcraft players in this pre-expansion time?

Reliable information in this case comes from an unexpected source: the stock market. Blizzard is just a small division of a large media conglomerate, Vivendi Universal, and Vivendi doesn't have to inform investors about every little movement in the WoW player base. But The9 Ltd, a publicly traded Chinese company, which runs World of Warcraft in China, gets 99% of their income from that game. Thus investors demand, and get, very detailed information on how the game is going. And the CEO of The9 Ltd just had to announce that in the third quarter of 2006 players in China played 10% less World of Warcraft than in the previous quarter. Quote: "The fall in revenue comes as long-term users begin to desert the aging game in China."

Seeing how the game in China has been running for less long than in the USA and Europe, while being better advertised, we can be reasonably sure that a similar World of Warcraft burnout is happening in the rest of the world. Of course everybody expects that decline to reverse when the Burning Crusade expansion finally comes out. But ideally a game company would release the expansion *before* the people are getting bored and leave. And in China the expansion won't be out in January, as Blizzard is still negotiating about getting a bigger share of the revenue from The 9 Ltd.

Blizzard really needs to work a bit faster and harder if they want to keep their customers in the game for the next couple of years.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Going Medieval

I was in the USA, in an EB Games store, on the day Medieval II Total War came out. But some bloke at the warehouse had forgotten to load the box on the truck, and so I didn't get the game there. And I didn't get another opportunity to buy the game in the US, there being no shops selling PC games on any of the airports I passed through.

Back home I found an e-mail from Fileplanet in my mailbox, offering Medieval II as downloadable full version from their Direct2Drive store. $49.95, the same price as the boxed version would have cost. Hmmm, should I buy that? To make that decision I first downloaded and played the demo, liked the demo, and thus decided to buy the game. Headed to Fileplanet, went through the usual steps of buying things online, and hit a wall: Medieval II is only sold to people in the USA, Canada, and Mexico. Doh! Why that? The game has been released in Europe already, why shouldn't the downloadable version be available for Europe?

So I ended up buying Medieval II in the boxed version from Amazon UK. Pretty much the same price, except for the added cost of shipping. Ordered the game on the weekend, received it yesterday. Only got around to install it and play the tutorial, I'll play it more over the coming days and will post a review in a week or two.

But the story got me to think about the difference between buying a game as download and buying it on a CD/DVD in a box. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages.

The big advantage of downloading a game is that it makes impulse buying possible. You decide to buy and do it immediately. If you have a decent broadband connection, you'll have the game up and running within hours. The disadvantage is that you don't get the game in any physical form. If you don't do a backup of the game and/or the email with the download link and registration key, and your hard drive crashes, you lose your purchase. But if you know that, and you are a careful person, you can easily make a backup of the games you downloaded to a DVD.

Of course you could still get into trouble, depending on the copy protection scheme the game uses. People who bought the shooter Prey from a download service named Triton recently found that they couldn't play the game any more. The service had gone bust, their servers were down, and the game only runs after verifying with the server that it is a legit copy. No server, no game. Fortunately the game's distributor 2K Games are offering a replacement, shipping boxed copies of the game to the people affected. Nevertheless that provided a pointed reminder of the dangers of buying game downloads.

If you buy a boxed copy of a game, you have the game in a physical form, and unless you scratch the disc or your dog chews it, you'll be able to reinstall it if ever your hard drive crashes. You also get the game's manual in physical form instead of just a .pdf file.

The downside is that you'll either have to drive to a shop to buy the game, or wait a few days for a mail-ordered copy to arrive. And then again you can have problems with the copy protection. In the worst case the game decides not to run on your machine, due to some incompatibility of the copy protection scheme with your computer. Or the game installs a copy protection program like Starforce on your PC, which ends up making your computer slower or instable. But the most common copy protection is the game forcing you to insert the disc every time you want to play it.

Now I've been around long enough to remember computers without hard drives. Whatever software you wanted to run, you first needed to insert the disc, a floppy at that time. Most software has advanced far from this stage, nobody needs to insert an Office disc into a drive to start Word or Excel. Only games are still backwards like that, forcing you to keep your collection of discs close to the computer, and start searching for the right disc whenever you want to play another game. The one advantage of MMORPG is that they don't need that sort of copy protection. And while swapping discs on a desktop PC is just annoying, it gets worse if you want to play on a laptop. Your laptop's hard drive might have enough room to have dozens of games installed. But do you really want to lug all those game discs with you?

I am one of the most "legit" people I know when it comes to copyright, I don't pirate "warez" games, nor music or films. I buy the games I want to play. But sometimes you can find me surfing on evil hacker sites, just to download a no-CD crack, which enables me to play the games I legally bought without having to insert the disc every time. Stupid. I really think the game companies should come up with something else, like an online registration of the game, which verifies that you are the legal owner of the game, and then modifies the files on your hard drive to run only on that particular PC, but without a disc in the drive.

So in the end I prefer the downloadable version of a game to the boxed version. I can live without the printed manual, I can make a physical backup copy of the game, and then the advantage of not needing a disc makes the downloadable version more attractive to me. Now I just need to find a store that sells downloadable games to Europeans.

Non-addictive MMORPG

Recently Second Life hit the 1 million registrations mark. But according to Terra Nova the number of peak concurrent users is just below 10,000. The high number of registrations is due to registration being free. Presumably a lot of people try Second Life once, and never come back. The ratio of "subscribers" to active users during peak time is 100 to 1 for Second Life.

Now I don't have really good data on the peak concurrent users of World of Warcraft. The number is only reported for China, where peak concurrent users for WoW just hit 630,000, out of 5 million "subscribers". As the total number of subscribers of WoW is now 7.5 million, I'd estimate the total peak concurrent user number for WoW to be 1 million. But even if we take a much more conservative estimate of 750,000, the ratio of subscribers to active users during peak time is 10 to 1 for World of Warcraft. When WoW came out in the USA, during the holiday season of 2005, it had 600,000 subscribers and 200,000 peak concurrent users, a ratio of 3 to 1, but of course we can expect the enthusiasm to have gone down since then.

So why is a World of Warcraft subscriber at least 10 times more likely to be found actually playing the game than a Second Life subscriber? Is that proof that WoW is highly addictive, while Second Life is a non-addictive MMORPG?

I think the answer is much simpler, the business model is different. If you pay for a monthly subscription, it doesn't make much sense not to play. If the subscription is free, you only play when you really want to. Second Life has less than 30,000 paying customers, the landowners. The ratio of paying customers to paying peak users is probably much better than 100 to 1.

But whether we call it addiction or we call it by any other name, it is also likely that World of Warcraft is more "attractive" than Second Life. Given both an WoW account and a SL account for free, most gamers would end up playing World of Warcraft and more or less ignore Second Life. While people (including me) love to complain about the shortcomings of World of Warcraft, it isn't as if Second Life wouldn't have its troubles. The BBC reports SL problems with self-replicating worms, server outages, and copybots. And among people frequenting virtual worlds, MMOs like World of Warcraft with a large game component have consistently been more popular than MMOs like Second Life, which offer more of a world to hang out, and less of a game.

Lost content?

In a recent comment here, Shalkis remarked that the Burning Crusade expansion would make a lot of the existing level 60 content useless. Hellfire Rampart is not harder to beat than lets say Scholomance, you could even say it's easier, because the dungeon is shorter. But the loot in the new dungeons is significantly better than the loot in the old dungeons. So except for special tradeskill items, like righteous orbs or dark runes, there is no reason to visit the old level 60 dungeons any more.

Now veteran players won't mind. We visited Scholomance a hundred times and won't be sorry to never see it again. But new players join World of Warcraft every day, and there will be people reaching level 60 for the first time only after the expansion has come out. And they will quickly realize that the Outland dungeons are significantly more profitable than the old world dungeons.

Similar things hold true for some other level 60 activities. PvP won't really be affected, as you can use the honor points and victory marks you earn at level 60 to buy level 70 gear. But who would for example do the incredibly difficult tier 0.5 upgrade quest when he can do simple level 60 quests in Hellfire Peninsula which give much better green gear as rewards? And if you can level up further, why would you want to spend a lot of time grinding faction, for example doing the field duty quests in Silithus?

So what do you think? Will there be a big part of the previous level 60 content unused after the expansion comes out?

Monday, November 20, 2006

Traveling with the laptop

Last weeks trip to the USA was my first big trip with the new Dell XPS M1210 laptop. I used to travel with a 15.1" medium-sized laptop (Dell Inspiron 6000), which was still rather bulky and heavy to lug around. The new 12" laptop was a lot easier to handle and lighter to carry. And the 3" less screen diagonal make surprisingly little difference for working and playing.

The new laptop has more RAM, a much faster CPU, and a better graphics card, resulting in a 3DMark05 score of just over 2000, more than twice as good as the previous laptop. That means that World of Warcraft runs perfectly without me having to turn down the graphics settings. And it turns out that running WoW over a hotel room internet access isn't a problem, although that probably depends on the quality of your hotel's internet access. In fact, as I was playing the Burning Crusade beta, it turned out that the European beta servers are actually in the US, and my latency was lower in an US hotel room than at home in Europe.

The only thing that wasn't working was watching DVDs on my new laptop, they were stuttering in both video and audio. Hey, didn't I have that same problem before on my old laptop? Unfortunately, while the symptoms were very similar, the solution wasn't the same. The IDE channel was well set to DMA, not PIO. So I started trying to fix it in other ways. I installed new video and audio drivers. I uninstalled the Dell Media Experience and installed another DVD player with another DVD codec. I searched for new drivers for the DVD drive, but couldn't find any. Nothing helped. The troubleshooting wizard on the Dell site suggested "trying with a known good drive", but where would I get a known good drive on a business trip?

Back home I still had the old laptop (I plan to give it away for christmas), so that one has a known good drive. I found out how to remove drives on a laptop, which is remarkably easy, they are held with just one screw and then slide out and in. But the known good drive, while looking the same size as the not working one, somehow had a slightly larger front panel. While I was able to fit it into the new laptop, the tray was stuck and wouldn't open. So I did the next best thing, and tried the non-working drive on the old laptop. Surprise, surprise, it worked. So I put it back into the new laptop, and even greater surprise, now its working.

I'm not quite sure how switching the drives and then switching them back did fix the problem. But I have two theories: Either the problem was the DVD drive not being plugged in perfectly. When removing it and putting it back, I somehow managed to plug it in better, so now it works. Or, second theory, by switching the drives and turning the laptops on, Windows Plug&Play reinstalled the drivers for the DVD drive, and that was all it needed. No wonder people also call it Plug&Pray.

Anyway, now I have a perfectly working new laptop, which is lighter, easier to transport, more powerful, and does everything I want. I'm quite satisfied. I just wish sometimes I knew more about fixing computers. I usually manage to fix the problem somehow, but that is on a trial and error basis. My desktop PC still has the odd blue screen crash once in a blue moon, and sometimes fails to start. But as the problem only happens rarely, and isn't reproducible, fixing it is very hard.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

World of Warcraft Burning Beta

Generally I support public betas as a good marketing move, besides obvious testing purposes. Just like a free trial, a beta which invites a large number of people can produce a lot of positive hype, provided the game is any good. Having said that, I think that the Burning Crusade beta is a flaming disaster for World of Warcraft. A mix of bad timing of the beta and bad end-game design of the original game is driving more people away than it attracts.

The bad timing is due to the delay of the expansion release to January. Inviting a large number of people to an unfinished beta three months before release is not a good idea, especially without an NDA.

The bad end-game design of the original World of Warcraft has always been with us. At level 60 the normal flow of the game stops, and is replaced by a variety of alternative activities, like grinding faction, PvP, or raiding, all of which have a much lower reward to effort ratio than leveling up and questing. You can still improve your character, but it will cost you a lot of time, and in the case of raiding a huge organizational effort. Now that is not unusual for an end-game, most MMORPG work this way. But all the information coming out of the beta makes is blindingly obvious that the huge effort we put into the level 60 activities will be wasted shortly after the expansion comes out. By end of February most people will have fully replaced all their shiny epics with Burning Crusade green and blue gear. They will also have replaced all their PvP reward gear, their PvP rank will have gone up in smoke, and their PvP factions won't be used for anything any more. Other factions they might have grinded will have become pretty much obsolete.

With the motivation from the rewards falling away, many people start asking themselves why they are doing this end-game. If you raid or PvP or grind because it is fun, everything is fine. If you don't really like it, and just do it because of the rewards or because there isn't anything else to do, the knowledge of the Burning Crusade beta is a big drain on motivation.

Especially raid guilds have always been an uneasy alliance between people who actually like getting wiped repeatedly for 6 hours in a big group of 40 people, and others who are just there for the epics, or because they couldn't find anything better to do. Hands up everybody who is in a raid guild and who noticed a declining participation in raids over the last couple of weeks. My guild has some people openly refusing to go raiding any more, citing the Burning Crusade as a reason. Others don't give a reason, but simply don't show up for raids. Even the people who enjoy raiding, which includes me to a certain extent, are getting frustrated with signing up for BWL raids that never start due to lack of participation, or Molten Core raids which go a lot less smoothly than before, due to many experienced raiders missing. Whether you raid for loot or for fun, at some point you have seen enough of Molten Core.

Curiously while lots of people have been invited to the beta, and more invitations are being sent out all the time, the beta servers are pretty empty. In the beta of a new game you can create a character and learn a lot about how the game works. Although you know that your beta character will be deleted, at least you feel you gained a lot of useful knowledge for the release version. You can also experiment with different character classes and see which one you would like to take for the real game. Playing a copy of your original level 60 character in the Burning Crusade beta is a lot less attractive. You already know how to play him. You gain some knowledge of new zones, quests, and dungeons, and you can experiment with the new talents. But that isn't really enough to keep you busy for 3 months. And the release of the Burning Crusade expansion will then feel like a big roll-back, where your same character gets thrown back to 60 and will have to do everything again. After first proposing ready-made level 60 characters, Blizzard changed their mind and only allowed copies of existing characters in the beta. Thus you can't for example try a level 60 character of a class you didn't play yet.

Lots of people visited the beta as tourists, had a look around, explored a couple of quests and the new instances, and then stopped. Especially the big increase in xp requirements for leveling discouraged a lot of people from playing the beta to 70. Even if you get there, it will be difficult to find enough people to explore the level 70 raid content. So the beta had the curious effect of making people want to play neither the expansion beta, nor the pre-expansion real game. Most of them will be back for the Burning Crusade release, but right now the beta is rather causing a low point in World of Warcraft, and not the hoped-for hype.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Columbus airport

I'm back at my favorite airport again, Columbus, Ohio. Not very big, but modern, clean, and always equipped with the latest technology. I especially like the free wireless access here, of course.

The latest novelty is an e-play kiosk. That is a machine with basically a big hard drive and a DVD writer. The machine is operated via a touch screen, from which you can search or browse for hundreds of movies stored on the hard drive. If you find one you like, you can pay between $10 and $20, depending on how new the film is, and get it burned on a DVD.

The choice wasn't all that great yet, and I didn't find anything I liked. But this is definitely a glimpse of the future. The limitation up to now seems to be the hard drive, which limits the number of DVDs on offer. Now imagine hyper-fast broadband connections, a huge central server with every DVD in existance stored on it, and customers being able to download and burn any DVD they want. Another long tail opportunity.

Well, another 2 hours before my plane goes. And then I have to switch planes to get home to Europe, arriving tomorrow morning. I think before I'll visit another of my favorite features of the Columbus airport: A & W All American Food, a burger shop "with a retro feel", as they say. Good burgers, and draft root beer. Can't get that back home in Europe.

The view from the bottom

I just bought the 6th season of CSI on DVD. If I neglected my job and family, not to talk of other hobbies, hygiene, and good eating habits, I could possibly watch all 6 seasons in one week. Add the CSI Miami and CSI New York DVDs, and I can watch everything in 2 weeks. If I decide to still go working 8 hours a day, doing just the minimum for not losing my job, but still neglecting everything else, it will take me a month to watch all these DVDs. And then I could just start over, watch them for another month, and another month, until I can't stand CSI any more and stop watching. Should I then write an interesting blog post like "The View from the Top stating that CSI is a dangerous addiction from which I have been miraculously cured? Or is CSI a totally harmless form of entertainment, which I abused due to some personal psychological problem?

While I haven't heard much about CSI addiction, I'm always surprised how many people go for the "dangerous addiction" option when discussing World of Warcraft. I think that is part of a more general trend of blaming all sorts of problems on others, never admitting that it might be yourself who has a problem. Got fat? Sue McDonalds. Lost your wife and job? Blame World of Warcraft. Makes you wonder when the first law suit against Blizzard will arrive.

That is not to say that people overdoing World of Warcraft don't exist. But if WoW wasn't there, the same person would search to escape from the real world in some other way, be it TV, books, or video games. So we should offer these people help in the form of counselling for escapism, not shouting for warning labels on World of Warcraft boxes.

Millions of casual World of Warcraft players are enjoying this game in healthy doses. There isn't a threshold how many hours of WoW are suddenly an addiction. You need to know yourself how many hours of leisure time you have, after taking care of your family, your job, your friends, and whatever else is important to you. That totally depends on your personal circumstances, for example I'm sure I'd play a lot less if I had children. Real addictive substances don't have such a safe level.

The term "addiction" suggests that WoW is a dangerous substance, you try it once and are drawn into it against your will. Nothing could be further from the truth. World of Warcraft is just a lot of fun, and it is your free-willed decision whether you want to enjoy that fun with or without neglecting the rest of your life. The proof that it isn't an "addiction" lies in all these miraculous "cures", all these people that claim they were addicted and now stopped. Do you think people addicted to lets say heroin cure themselves that easily? What happens in reality, just like in my CSI example, is that the more you exaggerate consuming World of Warcraft content, the faster you burn out. At one point the game simply isn't fun any more, because you've seen too much of it. Classic MMORPG burnout. No miracle cure of a modern addiction here.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Playing a mage in World of Warcraft

My Draenei mage in the BC beta is level 12 now, and I am beginning to like the class. I never played a mage above level 10. I once played a troll mage to level 10, but didn't really like the class at that time. But that was much earlier, when I did know a lot less about the game, and my main was a warrior. Since then I leveled 2 priests to 60, and soloing a priest is not totally unlike soloing a mage, at least at the very low levels.

The secret of playing a very low-level priest or mage is using a wand as early as possible, which is level 5. The level 5 wand that an enchanter can make is very powerful compared to a caster melee weapon, like a staff. And in the early levels you often don't have enough mana and spells to kill a mob without using a weapon. Of course that is more true for a priest than for a mage. But even a mage can get into situations where he runs out of mana, or he wants to conserve mana. A wand at these low levels has a damage output comparable to typical damage spells, doesn't use any mana, and can't be interrupted.

But the more spells I get with my mage, the less I use the wand, while my priests used their wands up to level 60. Mages have better crowd control, in the form of the polymorph spell, and the frost nova freezing the enemy to the ground. And they are missing the power word shield which makes using the wand as a priest such a good option.

I start the combat from maximum distance with a frost bolt. Fireball has a slightly higher range, if I use the fireball first, the mob runs towards me at full speed for some time, before I can get the frostbolt off. So I prefer frostbolt first, fireball next. By now the mob is close enough for the instant cast fire blast. When the mob reaches me, I have several options. If he is already nearly dead, I finish him off with the wand. If he still a good amount of life, now is the time to freeze him with a frost nova, and step back out of his melee range. Then I can kill him from a distance with a big fireball, or some other spell.

I tried arcane missiles, a channeled spell that shoots 3 arcane missiles over 3 seconds. But I would have thought that it would shoot one missile per second. But to me it seems that first nothing happens for 2 seconds, and then in 1 second I get all 3 missiles shortly one after another. I also don't see any channeling bar to tell me where I am with this spell, which makes it a bit confusing. Not sure if this is working as intended, or a beta bug, or just lag. The fireball rank 3 I got at level 12 seems to be both faster and more mana efficient. I put my first talent points into making the fireball even faster, I was under the impression that "fire mage" was a good option for soloing.

I also got Dampen Magic at level 12. Hmmm, I might be tempted to use that one against spellcasting enemies. In a group this spell isn't that good, because it also reduces the power of healing spells cast on me, but I don't think it affects healing potions.

The ability to make food and water is useful, but not really earth-shattering. Annoyingly you only get the spell to make a particular level of water 5 levels after you could buy and use that water, so at level 10 I got the spell to make level 5 water. In the pre-BC World of Warcraft mages at level 60 could do a quest to get a spell to make conjured crystal water, which is better than the best available vendor-sold water, morning glory dew. But the expansion introduces much better high-level water, far superior to the conjured crystal water. Maybe the time where mages are commonly being referred to as "water boys" are over? People were assuming the mage talent tree looks like this:

We will have to see how the level 70 water spell looks in comparison to the level 65 vendor-sold water.

I'm looking forward to getting my first real area of effect damage spell at level 14. Technically frost nova is AoE as well, but you can't spam it, it has a long cooldown. But with the arcane explosion I get at level 14, I can experiment with killing large numbers of lower level mobs with AoE. Sounds like fun.

Travel journal - 17-November-2006

Oh the joys of air travel! My flight back home got cancelled due to bad weather. I got booked onto another flight for tomorrow, so instead of being back home on Friday afternoon, I'll only return Saturday morning.

Used the courtesy phone to find a hotel near the airport, where I could stay for the night. No problem, the Marriott hotel I called said they had a room and they would send a shuttle. The shuttle never came, so after 45 minutes I took a taxi instead. Arriving at the Marriott the receptionist told me that they were overbooked, and sent me across the street to a Courtyard Marriott. So finally I got a room.

In spite of these problems I usually like to stay in Marriotts, because they have free high-speed internet access in every room. Just that in this room there was no ethernet cable. I go back to the front desk, where the receptionist was chatting with the cleaning lady. I ask for an ethernet cable, and the cleaning lady has one in the pocket of her apron. Wow, I'm impressed. I'm not sure a cleaning lady in an European hotel would even know what an ethernet cable is, much less have a spare one in her pocket.

So I'm all set up for another night in the USA. Fortunately I'm a pessimist (or in this case realist) regarding travel, and alway pack an extra set of underwear. You never know when you might need it.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

This blog is now required reading

Sometimes I check out what sites link to this blog, because usually sites that link to here are about MMORPG games, and thus interesting to me. But my latest link discovery nearly caused me to fall from my chair, I was laughing so hard. The link came from the University of Minnesota. I'm the last link (of just 4) in the required reading material for the week of November 14, labeled "discussion of issues in MMORPGs". This is for the Fall 2006 course "Creating the Social Web" of the IT Labs in the Computer Science & Engineering department.

I find that extremely silly. I'm just an ordinary bloke playing computer games and writing about them. And suddenly some professor is sending his students to read my blog as an example for "the Social Web"? This Web 2.0 craze is getting ridiculous. What's next? Google buying my blog for $50 million? (Hey, I'd take the money.)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Free advertising for gold guides

Read my usual Google Alert on World of Warcraft today, which alerted me to one blog post by a guy named Gitr, titled Gitr hits it big-time. He says "I have finally made an impact somewhere. I got an invitation to review a gold guide by a fellow who saw that I was bragging about how well I do with my auctions and getting gold using my normal methods. I have a reviewer account to give this site’s methods a whirl and see if I see an improvement."

I probably wouldn't even have noticed such an entry, if I hadn't just received probably exactly the same invitation by the same gold guide seller. I wasn't going to take him up on that offer. And seeing that he sent the same flattering words to every WoW blogger out there doesn't make me think any higher of him. :)

You might think I'm strange, but I do think that people selling guides how to earn gold in WoW quickly are worse than people selling that gold directly. That is because the information how to earn gold in World of Warcraft can be learned from lots of free websites. So gathering free information and selling it on seems disreputable to me. Especially since the guy needed to collect the information only once, and can sell it to other people many times. A gold farmer, if he isn't using a bot or dupe, can only sell the gold he farmed once, that is he is selling some sort of "work". A gold guide seller is selling stolen intellectual property. Of course Blizzard would argue that WoW gold is their intellectual property and that a gold farmer is selling stolen intellectual property as well, but that argument never convinced me.

My advice: Don't buy any guides how to earn WoW gold quickly, nor guides how to level quickly. Half an hour of search with Google will probably get you the same information for free. These people do *not* have any secret information for sale which would make you a WoW gold millionaire with little effort. Most of the hints are of the "buy cheap, sell expensively in the AH" type, which are easier said than done. And if there are places where gold can be earned faster than in other places, you can be sure that the gold farmers know about it, and are already camping that spawn, making the information about that place worthless.

US shopping

I did some more shopping during my US visit, got the CSI season 6 DVD that came out today. EB hadn't gotten their delivery of Medieval II Total Wars, so I took that as a sign that I should better play the demo first, and bought Neverwinter Nights 2 instead. I also bought some trousers. It will surprise you when I tell you that I'm not usually a shopping type of guy. Why the shopping spree?

I earn my salary in Euros. Five years ago from today one Euro would have bought me 88 US cents. Today it buys me $1.28. Some readers recently mentioned real wages. In Euro terms my real wages have gone up by about 10 percent over the last 5 years, less than 2 percent per year (which still isn't so bad). In dollar terms my wages have gone up by over 50%, nearly 10% per year. When I stand in a US mall and see what things cost here, I feel rich.

A DVD in the US costs about as many dollars as I would pay for the same DVD in Euros in Europe. So over here I get it about 25% cheaper. And that's besides the fact that I can get DVDs here that aren't even out yet in Europe.

Even stranger are the prices for clothes. The trousers I bought was $25, about 20 Euro. The same trousers in Europe would have cost me at least 40 Euro. Which is curious, because the trousers are made in China, like most clothes nowadays, and probably cost the same to import into the US or into Europe. It seems European clothing retailers have a higher profit margin than US ones.

Well, shopping is limited by the empty space in my suitcase. And I can't buy everything I want in the USA. With most electrical things I'd run into problems of the US having a different voltage and plug size. And while with DVDs I managed to work around the regional code, I can't buy any console games here, because the regional coding on them isn't that easy to get around. Final Fantasy XII is out here in the US, won't be out before February in Europe, but I can't buy the US version here, because it simply wouldn't run on my PS2. Well, you can't have everything. And I think I prefer my higher purchasing power to getting games earlier.

Travel journal - 14-November-2006

Another business trip to the USA. This is always a long trip, but as my company is generous enough to book business class on transatlantic flights, it isn't so bad.

The terrorism scare seems to have abated to a reasonable level. No liquids allowed in the hand luggage, but I just checked my suitcase in. On the airport all the duty free shops had desperate posters out, advertising that there were special arrangements that could be done if you wanted to buy liquids and transport them on the plane. I wonder by how much their business in liquors has gone down.

On the American side everything went very smooth. In spite of my plane being slightly late, and me having only 1 hour for immigration, baggage claiming, baggage re-checking in, and getting through the security scan, I didn't miss my connecting flight. The people from the Transport Security Administration are doing a great job of getting large numbers of people through the system with a minimum of fuzz.

This is the 5th time in 12 month that I'm at the same location in the USA, same hotel, so at least I know how to get there, and where the shops and restaurants are in the vicinity. So of course I had steak for dinner, probably the best feature of the American cuisine. Then I went to the mall and bought a couple of TV series on DVD (Las Vegas season 3, and season 1 of The Closer, Numb3rs, and Boston Legal). I just have to find the time to go to the mall again in the next 2 days, between lots of work. The guy from EB told me that Medieval II would only come out today, and the guy in the DVD shop said that CSI season 6 would be out today. Damn, I was one day too early. Good that I'm staying until Thursday.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

BC Journal - 13-November-2006

This weekend I didn't play my level 63 priest, but leveled up a Draenei mage to level 11 instead. If in the release version I'll make a new character, it will probably be a blood elf, to stick to the Horde side. So the beta is a good opportunity to see the new Draenei starting zone and quests. So here is a screenshot of my mage on the Draenei mount, the elekk:

No, I didn't reach level 40 over the weekend, but there is a very fun quest where for 15 minutes you are allowed to ride an elekk to warn several people of a coming invasion. You can't use the time to go anywhere else, you'll get kicked of the elekk if you ride it away from your target. But it gives you a nice taste of things to come, and how your mount will look like once you have the level and money to buy one.

I had the impression that there are more quests with scripted events, besides the normal "kill 10 foozles" quests. I especially liked the quest where you run from totem to totem to learn the furbolg language, getting temporary abilities like flying or invisibility for each leg of the way. The quest where I disguised as a tree was fun too.

I'm planning to play this character until I did all the new Draenei quests, which will probably be around level 18. And that is the problem of the new races in the retail version, after level 18 you'll be back to the old leveling grounds, to quests you probably already did several times. Not fun, I would have wished for more mid-level content in the expansion. Well, maybe the next expansion will add some.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Sid Meier's Railroads!

I love railroad games. Fortunately Sid Meier's Railroads! is one of the better ones, dragging the original Railroad Tycoon into the modern age, better than the numbered sequels did.

Sid Meier's Railroads! (SMR) is a pretty game. Unfortunately that means it also has rather stringent hardware requirements, like a x800 Radeon or GeForce 6800 or better graphics card. As one reader already reported, this won't run on most laptops, nor on older PCs. But on my "last year's" PC it ran very smoothly and looked great.

SMR is both a very modern, and a very old-fashioned game. The modern aspect is the gameplay, which has been made very, very accessible, easy, and user-friendly. Everybody can play this, you don't need a masters degree in economics, nor do you need to study the game manual for hours how it works. The old-fashioned aspect is that while SMR has a multiplayer part playable over the internet, it is otherwise not very networked. There is not automated update, and the number of scenarios and maps is fixed, with no editor, and no way to download additional maps from a player community. Well, there are 15 scenarios, and the location of the resources changes every time you play, so there is decent replayability. But an editor would have been nice.

You are the president of a railway, starting with a terminal and a short line of track, plus a pile of cash. You make money by adding more track, all of which has to be connected to your original line, building more stations, and running trains between the stations. Laying tracks couldn't possibly be easier, you just first click to some point of your existing track, then to whereever you want to build the track to. The computer automatically calculates the best path, including grading, bridges and tunnels. If you don't agree with the computers choice, you can optimize by not building the whole track at once, but first building just the bit pointing in the direction you want, and then continueing from there.

The only fiddly part is double-tracking, adding tracks in parallel to existing tracks so that trains can pass each other. The double-track button lays the track, but does NOT connect it to the other track. You have to manually add the cross-over points. For example if you want to double track a station (recommended in most cases), you click on double-track, lay a bit of double track just where the platform is, then click on the normal track button and connect one end of the double track to the next signal point of the real track, and then the other end to the other signal point. If you build very complicated tracks, trains sometimes have problems with pathfinding, but on the standard single tracks you're likely to start with, everything goes well.

Every map has cities, ranging in size from village to metropolis. The price of goods in every city is the same, but the larger cities need more different goods. And you can grow a small town into a large city by providing it with all the goods it needs. The bigger the city grows, the more place is there for industry. You can just provide the existing industry with goods, but you can also buy out the existing industry to pocket the profit, or even build new industry on empty lots. Besides the cities there are resource nodes of many different types and sizes. These don't develop, but you can build a station there to get the goods. Some goods are part of longer chains, like coal first being made into steel, and the steel then into automobiles.

You start at an early period of railroad history, with slow steam engines. Depending on the end date of the scenario you might end up with TGV high-speed trains, new trains becoming available at the historically appropriate time. There are also random events, influencing for example the price of goods.

This is not a game for the hardcore micro-management fan. Sid Meier's Railroads! is a relatively simple game. It is more like a good-looking model railroad for people without a huge basement, with an easy game attached to it. Fun, but not too challenging. I like it. Recommended.