Sunday, December 30, 2007

Blog transformations

This blog underwent some transformations over the year, visible in the number of visitors.

Visitor numbers kept growing during the first quarter, and then two things happened in the second quarter: I quit WoW and I switched my RSS feed to enable reading my full articles via a feed reader. So while my December numbers look a lot lower than the peak in March, in reality the number of readers has remained pretty much constant. Instead of 3,000 visits a day, I now get 2,000 visits, but Feedburner tells me that 1,250 people are reading my feed. Of course feed readers are harder to count, the Feedburner numbers are just an estimate, and feed readers could always click on the article and get counted as site visitors as well.

The idea of this blog isn't to make money with views or clicks on ads, but to spread my ideas and to encourage discusion. So I'll keep the RSS feed this way, even if that diminishes the number of site visitors. Last year I paid about $100 for the advanced Sitemeter stats, but I let that lapse now. Google Analytics and Feedburner are giving me the same information for free. I'll just keep the basic Sitemeter counter for the cummulative count.

I hope you enjoyed my blog this year, and wish you a happy new 2008!

WoW and the lowest common denominator

In other forms of media, for example books or movies, people are well aware of the difference between "good" and "popular". There are "good" books and movies that are critically acclaimed, count as literature or art, and that find their way into a typical school curriculum. And there are "popular" books and movies like Harry Potter and Spiderman, which the critics often call trash, but which make millions of dollars of profit. The reason why World of Warcraft has over 9 million subscribers and makes half a billion dollars of profit per year is that it belongs in the second category. Unlike many other MMORPGs it is made for the mass market, it is accessible for everybody, it is targeted at the lowest common denominator.

When we recently discussed losing in PvP, a reader named Xash made a very insightful comment: "Most people simply don't want to expend the effort and dedication required to become good at something. Look at guitar hero. We're swiftly entering a society where more people will know how to play a toy instrument then the real one. And its the same with competitive activities, how many pro baseball players are there? A great deal less then hohum ones. Why? Because the vast majority of people don't enjoy expending effort." I totally agree, I just don't see this as negative. Most people are good at *something*, and expend a lot of effort into their jobs, their families, or social activities. I don't blame them if for their entertainment they want to relax by doing something which requires a lot less effort. They want to play a toy guitar, or play some ball game badly with friends, or get some "welfare epics" in WoW, because all this is just for fun. Nothing would be gained if you somehow forced them to expend the effort to learn a real guitar, to play baseball at major league level, and to become experts at WoW PvP.

In fact it can be argued that MMORPGs in which you are encouraged to expend a lot of effort to achieve something are harmful. All those stories about WoW being "addictive" or people neglecting their job, family, or more often their studies are due to players having the impression that by expending effort in a game they are achieving something. Of course that is an illusion. Most of the time being on top of the game, whether having a 2000+ arena rating in PvP, or being a top raider and killing Illidan, will get you no rewards that are useful in real life. Even the guy who illegaly sold his rogue for $10,000 certainly took thousands of hours of gameplay to get that far, and thus earned less than minimum wages on the hours spent.

There are MMORPGs that are closer to literature or art, for example A Tale in the Desert, which focuses on social interaction between players. EVE Online has a strong PvP focus and is doing quite well with 200k subscribers. But developers must be aware that the choice is theirs: If they make a game which is hard, requires a lot of effort to succeed, and rewards only the best, the game might be "better", but it certainly will be less popular. If they want to make a game with millions of subscribers, they will have to go for the lowest common denominator. The game has to be accessible to everyone, require little effort, and give out plenty of rewards just for showing up. Pirates of the Burning Sea is a "good" game in many respects, but I hope the devs are aware that with their negative sum PvP system they painted themselves into the hardcore PvP niche, and will never get a million subscribers. Warhammer Online could still go either way, depending on how effort and rewards for PvP are handled. If you need to be in a top PvP guild to capture a keep in WAR and get a reward, while Joe Average gets no rewards because he isn't very good at PvP and doesn't have tons of friends, WAR won't see a million subscribers either.

And even the devs of World of Warcraft shouldn't pat themselves on the shoulder for having it done completely right. What they did get right from the start was the accessible PvE leveling game, with its excellent zones and quest system. They got the PvP system popular only two years after release, and they still have to iron out some wrinkles there (like the AV leechers). Their PvE end game originally was rather bad, got somewhat improved by TBC having more end game options for the common player, but still has large areas that are accessible only to a small elite in the form of raid content. If Blizzard wants to get even more subscribers, and reduce the churn rate, in the more valuable US and European markets they would have to go for the lowest common denominator for end game raiding as well. Investing a lot of money to create content that only single digit percentages of your subscribers are ever going to see just isn't efficient. The huge peaks of resubscriptions at every content patch and especially with expansions show that many average players grow bored due to lack of content in the end game. Creating easy mode raiding accessible for everyone wouldn't make World of Warcraft a "better" game, but it would make it more popular, and thus even more profitable. And the hardcore raiders would probably be better off with a niche raiding game, where you wouldn't be forced to level up solo for so long to reach the raid content but could start raiding right after character creation, just like you can do PvP in Guild Wars from the get go.

It is easy to criticize World of Warcraft for catering to the lowest common denominator, to be "popular" instead of "good", for being a toy guitar instead of a real instrument. But MMORPGs are still a relatively young and small market. We *need* World of Warcraft and other games like it to create and grow the market. Once there are many millions of MMORPG players, there will be enough people around to be interested in harder, niche games, catering to specialists in various areas like PvP or raiding. But the majority of average players will always stick to the games that just provide effortless fun.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Making raiding more like PvP

In World of Warcraft there are people who like PvP very much, and rarely participate in the PvE endgame. And there are people who like PvE much more, and rarely do PvP (me, for example). And between these two small groups there is a much larger group of players who like both, and whose decision to do one or the other is often influenced by relative ease and reward of the activities. Which means that many of them are currently doing PvP, because once you done an initial tour of the non-heroic dungeons, it is easier to advance your character further by doing PvP than by doing heroics and raid PvE. Yesterday we discussed one of many proposals to nerf PvP. So lets have a look today at possibilities to make PvE more attractive to balance it out against PvP.

If you look at the epics you can get by PvP, they aren't better than the epics you can get by raiding. So why do so many people prefer PvP? There are three reasons: Less organizational effort, a guaranteed minimum rate of return, and choice of rewards.

You do not need a guild or group to participate in battleground PvP. You just sign up, and a group is being assigned to you. The deserter's debuff prevents people from cherry-picking the optimum group. If you really don't like the group you have been assigned to, you can afk out, but then you won't be able to rejoin another battleground for 15 minutes. And the whole PvP battleground is likely to last only around half an hour anyway. So people learn to live with suboptimal groups. With the opposition often having a suboptimal group as well, it isn't as if having a bad class mix is dooming you to failure. Arena PvP needs a bit more organizational effort, but not all that much. You can still log on, see if other team members are logged in, and organize a quick arena battle on the spot. You need far less people than for a raid, and you don't have to worry about lockouts. PvP is much easier to organize than a raid.

The more controversial feature of PvP is the guaranteed minimum rate of return. You don't need to actually win in PvP to gain something, you get a certain amount of points just for showing up. Show up often enough and you can get some reward even if you never killed a single opponent. PvPers have pointed out that getting a full set of arena epics while losing every battle in 2v2 would take 66 weeks, which is longer than one arena season, so the mythical "dancing naked in the arena" team doesn't exist. But if you are part of a 2v2, a 3v3, and a 5v5 team, you *will* have several epics at the end of a season, even if you completely suck at it. Even more problematic are the "leechers" in battlegrounds. It seems the reporting tool of Blizzard isn't efficient enough to eliminate those, I still hear from guild mates that up to half of the people in Alterac Valley end up with no damage dealt and no healing done on the final scorecard. Youtube has videos of guys tinkering contraptions that press keys on their keyboards repeatedly to avoid going afk, and it takes only a tiny amount of effort to hide somewhere else than the starting cave and avoid getting reported. This part needs some improvement from Blizzard, so that people that put in a honest effort and lose are still rewarded, while those who don't even try don't get anything.

The rewards in PvP come in the form of points and badges, which you can hand in for a reward of your choice. [side-rant: a reward of your choice unless you are a tank. My warrior just collected spirit shards, which you get from doing Auchindoun dungeons while your faction is controlling the towers. When I finally had enough to hand them in for a helmet, I found out that of the three plate helmets there are, one is for dps warriors, and the other two are for paladins. I was told that this is the same for other PvP gear you get for honor or arena points, there is no tanking gear. Presumably because tanking gear is so essential for raiding, and tanks aren't useful for PvP. But it annoys me that I don't even get the option to PvP for rewards unless I respec.] If you ever tried to get a complete set of raid epics, you'll know how big an advantage the ability of choosing your reward is. In raids you get random rewards from a loot table, and you can end up with no reward at all even if you have the most successful raid and clear out the whole place without a single wipe.

So how could we change dungeons and raids to be more like PvP and regain popularity? Obviously we need to give PvE the same advantages of easy organization, and guaranteed rewards of the player's choice that PvP already has. Players need to be able to queue up for a raid and get assigned to a pickup raid, just like they are assigned to a pickup group for battlegrounds. Of course that necessitates "easy mode" raid dungeons, for example in a system where the current difficulty level is labeled as heroic, and an easier "normal" difficulty is introduced in which a pickup raid group has actually a chance to kill a boss. This is simply a question of number of trash mobs, respawn rates, amount of health the mobs have, and for how much damage they hit. Creating an easy copy of a raid dungeon like Karazhan is very easy by just fiddling with these numerical parameters. Once we have that, Blizzard only needs to introduce the queue system for raids, making sure somebody in the raid group can tank and somebody can heal. And of course they need to remove the lockouts for the easy mode raid dungeons.

Once our automatically formed pickup raid group is in the easy mode raid dungeon, they should get "raid points" for every trash mob they kill, and "raid badges" for every boss. There shouldn't be any epic loot drops, just points and badges, which then can be handed in somewhere for epics. To prevent leechers, the pickup raid group should be able to kick out people by majority vote. But otherwise sticking with the raid group you have been assigned to should be encouraged by the same deserter's debuff system that battlegrounds have. How many times you would need to go pickup raiding, how many points and badges you'd need for what reward has to be balanced against the effort to reward ratio of PvP. But in the end you should have a choice where gaining similar epics from PvP and PvE should take comparable effort and time.

And yes, that would change the face of raiding completely, it would make raiding accessible for nearly everyone. Which is actually the big advantage of the system. The "old style" raids could live on in the form of heroic raids, but at least everybody would be able to see the various raid dungeons and experience the various raid boss encounters.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Runescape blocks unbalanced trades

A reader alerted me to the fact that my big discussion with Raph on whether you could eliminate RMT by blocking asymetric trades was actually a bit late. Runescape did exactly that on December 10. Unbalanced trades in Runescape are blocked, that is you can't trade money or items unless the value of the things traded is similar. If the difference in value depasses 3000 gp (sorry, no idea to what that would correspond in WoW currency, I don't play Runescape) the trade is blocked. In a development diary article the devs explain that with these changes they hope to remove RMT from their game. I wish them luck with that.

Will this completely eliminate all possible forms of RMT and "cheating" using real world money? Of course it can't. But it certainly will significantly diminish the the amount of RMT going on in Runescape. I made a mistake by taking up Raph's expression "eradicate RMT" when I wrote my post about asymetric trade. "Decimate" would probably be more correct. I was just too exasperated by his claim that game companies should join the RMT bandwagon because RMT can't be eradicated. Sure, you'l never be able to remove the last guy doing it. But if RMT goes from widespread to rare, we have already won a big battle. And how widespread or rare RMT is is a design question, because it very much depends on how easy it is to transfer funds in an asymetric way. Runescape blocking unbalanced trades is going to help a lot.

Separating PvP from PvE

Ontherocks wrote me a lengthy proposal, which I am just going to quote here:
Here's a thought. What would be wrong with making PvP earned gear only usable in the open world and BGs/Arenas? Or to put it another way, you can't wear it in PvE instances.

1. People who are PvPing for gear to fill PvE gaps, wouldn't bother, resulting in...
2. LFG for regular 5mans and heroics would increase again, as gearing for raiding would require those runs.
3. You would have to enjoy, truly enjoy PvP to spend time earning gear that could only be used in that manner.
4. PvE gear is inferior for PvP purposes, so there is no conflict with allowing it in the BG's.
5. (Here's the biggie) The shift to a positive sum PvP system is what brought this on. I agree it's more fun and inclusionary, BUT the game overall is worse as a result. This solution lets you keep the Positive Sum PvP, but preserves the PvE experience.

The situation I see on the 2 servers I play on, is that Large Prismatics are considerably more expensive than Void Crystals. That is hugely telling about the state of this game right now. It says:

1. No one gears for Karazhan via 5mans...
2. because it is easier/faster to pick a reward and get it in a week, rather than go through the effort to LFG and hope for a lucky drop from a 5 man, that is worse than the PvP item
3. PvP gear make Kara incredibly trivial, and more so as each new season of gear is released.
4. The result is void crystals in abundance, and very few in 5mans to DE gear and supply the LPS.

Is removing the ability to wear PvP gear in Raids a drastic move? Sure. But it would allow the game to have better PvE/PvP balance.

Now, the economist in me says that I can't stop here. I have to look at the impact to PvP. It will obviously impact the numbers of people who choose to PvP if that is the only change. But there is a finite number of players on a server, so you can't really both raise PvE interest and keep PvP interest at it's current high levels. But at this point, Blizzard is completely free to incentivize PvP however they see fit, without regard for it's impact on "the other game". If the result is that the BG's die completely, then they just got a lesson on how not fun their implementation of PvP was to begin with (read: no one was there for fun). I don't see anything wrong with letting the BG's continue to be a place to gear up for Arena's. They are the Endgame of the PvP game. Add more PvP quests so that gold can be earned in that game as well. Objective based, repeateable daily PvP quests (more than just "win an AV", I mean real quests.) would add depth.

I think PvP and PvE can coexist but not the way it is now. One cannibalizes the other unless they are separated.
I'm not doing PvP, and haven't done so since before TBC came out. But my guild chat tells me that sometimes over half of the players in AV are leechers, just afk or chatting in the starting cave to get free honor and badges for PvP gear. Apparently the new reporting system isn't doing enough to discourage them. But if PvP gear wasn't useable for raiding and dungeons, I bet they would be gone pretty fast.

On the other hand, the more you separate PvP and PvE, the more you force people to choose one or the other. Few will have the time to do both if the gear from one isn't useful for the other. Face it, PvP in WoW is *not* popular by itself, most people are there for the "welfare epics". If those would be made less useful, we'd go back to long queues for battlegrounds, because too few players would be playing PvP. So what do you think?

Non-automatic leveling

Today I'm posting a couple of things my readers sent to me, my apologies for not doing it earlier, but I was rather busy in my christmas holidays with family and stuff. The first is an interesting idea a reader sent to me: Why does leveling in World of Warcraft have to be automatic? You could as well program it in a way that you get a message that you are ready to ding, but the actual gaining of the level would be done by visiting a trainer. Some levels could even require a quest to level up.

The advantage of that system would be that you could stop leveling if you wanted to, without stopping to play. You could remain at level 19 for PvP, or you could stop at any level to wait for your friends to catch up. Seeing how difficult it is to level up together with friends, as people rarely play exactly the same hours, that could be a nice feature. Alternatively there could be a /stoplevel command which would stop you from gaining xp. Maybe if it was easier to stay together in the lower levels, people wouldn't feel forced to rush to the level cap to play together.

Limitations of Auctioneer

Inspired by Og I downloaded and installed Auctioneer, a famous addon to watch World of Warcraft auction house prices. That is I first downloaded the AuctioneerAdvancedSuite, pressed a wrong button on it, got spammed with "this is cheap, do you want to buy it" message boxes which I couldn't turn off, and then uninstalled it again. Then I installed the AuctioneerClassicSuite, which was much less confusing. I think I'll just use it for a while and see what comes out. But although I haven't used it much yet, I'm already more aware of its limitations than many regular user, due to previous knowledge of economics and how the WoW AH works.

Auctioneer overestimates prices: This is inevitable, because Auctioneer doesn't have data on actual sales, it only has data on for what prices people put up items for auction. If nobody buys something overpriced, the buyout price still shows up in Auctioneer, and because the auction goes on until it expires, everybody on the server using Auctioneer will probably register the price. Cheap or underpriced items will be bought much quicker, and not everyone will see them, because the auctions last much shorter. On average the prices recorded by Auctioneer are too high.

Averages hide variations over time: World of Warcraft items undergo cyclical price fluctuations. If you watch prices on every day of the week, you'll notice that items aren't worth the same during the week (especially on patch day) as they are during the weekend. During the christmas event small eggs (needed to bake cookies for a christmas quest) suddenly go up strongly in price. Other one-time events change prices too, for example prices for gems skyrocketed with the latest patch, because people got lots of socketable arena season 1 gear for honor points. Auctioneer can store high and low prices, but won't tell you at what times prices are usually higher.

If everybody would use Auctioneer, you couldn't profit from it any more: Auctioneer can help you to buy things cheap and "flip" them, selling them at a profit. But that only works because some people sell goods for cheap, because they don't know what they are worth. If you sell something frequently traded, like lets say Runecloth, it is easy to see for how much other people are currently selling it and then undercut them. But if you want to sell some green item, the "Dastardly Dagger of the Duck", chances are that when you sell it there are no other identical pieces for sale. Thus people usually accept the proposed bid price (which is 50% over vendor price) and then post a buyout price somewhat higher. That has nothing to do with the market value of the items. Traders know that for example the same item "of the eagle" (+sta and +int) sells for more than "of the gorilla" (+str and +int), although the bid price WoW suggests will be the same. The profit comes from many people being not well informed, and thus selling items too cheap. If everyone had good information on previous prices, "flipping" would be much harder. Note that other games, e.g. Pirates of the Burning Sea, give price information on the average sales price of every item over the last 30 days.

I can see the interest in making quick virtual bucks by flipping items on the WoW auction house, but that business isn't for me. I don't see myself camping the AH for profit instead of adventuring. Not that I don't enjoy trading, but in WoW trading isn't the most fun part of the game. I'd rather do my trading in PotBS, where it is much more fun and the adventuring is less good than WoW.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

How the WoW raid of the future will look

Hammer of Grammer has this WoW comic on the future of raids which is very funny. And so true.

I found this via Og's Ledger, a blog dedicated curiously enough to the art of WoW auction house flipping, buying low and selling high. Very interesting read. I'm not sure I'm doing Og a favor by linking to him, as I'm aware that some players consider AH flipping to be some sort of crime. I'd say it's just applied economics meeting bad AH design by Blizzard. But that would be the subject of a much longer post.

Second epic flying mount

Woot! I reached one of my goals: I now have an epic flying mount for my other level 70 character, the priest. I started gathering money a bit over 6 weeks ago, at which point I basically had zero, because I had bought the first epic flying mount just before my break. But I made about 100 gold a day from daily quests, and the remainder by transmuting Primal Earth into Water. So now both of my level 70s have the maximum riding skill and at least one mount to go with it. My warrior already has two mounts, the bought one, and the Netherray. And he is already revered with the Netherwing, so I'll probably continue those daily quests and get the Netherdrake too.

The various mount types are just fluff. But having the 300 riding skill for the epic flying mount makes a big difference for travel speed. And I would assume that the next expansion at least has zones where you can use the flying mount. I don't know if Blizzard plans to introduce further riding skill increases for even better mounts in future expansions. But I have the impression that an epic flying mount will be more helpful in Wrath of the Lich King than any gear I might pick up, because the gear will be replaced by new stuff fast. Riding skill is forever.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

World of Warcraft enchanting

I know it isn't optimal, but my World of Warcraft level 70 characters are running around without enchantments on their gear. One problem is that I never know when I'll get the next upgrade, so spending lots of money on an enchantment for an item that might be replaced tomorrow doesn't seem worth it. But the even bigger problem is that it is so damn difficult to get your stuff enchanted.

When you hear an enchanter in the trade channel offering enchants, more often than not he asks you to "bring your own mats". Which is pretty stupid, as only enchanters can produce the dusts and shards in the first place. As non-enchanter I can only get the materials from the auction house, and then I don't know what the going rate is for most of them, and risk overpaying if I buy them in a hurry. If the enchanter doesn't properly link his enchantment, I don't even have an in-game way to find out what the mats are, I need to look them up on some website. By the time I have everything together, the enchanter has logged off or joined a group and is now in the middle of a dungeon.

And I really don't understand what the added value of that system is supposed to be. Forcing strangers to meet each other? World of Warcraft already has itemized enchantments, so-called augments, for example the Aldor and Scryer inscriptions.

Why can't an enchanter simply produce such augments with his craft, portable enchantments that can be sold via the auction house?

The main advantage for the enchanter would be that it is a lot easier to make a profit if he sells enchantments via the auction house. When my priest still was enchanter, he found other players notoriously unwilling to pay anything for enchanting services. I was supposed to spend hundreds of gold on rare enchanting recipes, and then do enchants for free if the mats were provided. Now he is jewelcrafter, and while people still want rare gem designs done for free if they bring the raw gems, at least I can sell crafted gems on the auction house for more than the price of the raw gems. Why can't enchanting work like that?

If enchantments were available from the auction house, a lot more people would use them. Right now enchantments are mainly used for the players at the top of the game. If you are still leveling or gathering gear at a steady pace, enchantments are just too complicated to get to make them worth while. If you could buy them on the auction house, you could get a cheaper enchantment for the gear you hope to replace soon without losing all the time hunting for materials and an enchanter with the right recipe. Right now enchanting is a fringe tradeskill. Making enchantments tradeable would make it accessible for more players.

We just don't want to lose

If you haven't read Scott Jenning's How to Make a Game with PvP Done Right article I linked to two weeks ago yet, you should do so now. The only problem I have with it is that it talks a lot about how PvP can't work, and a lot less about how PvP can work. There is an up to now not disproven theory that PvP can't work in a MMORPG at all, because it is incompatible with whatever makes a MMORPG a MMORPG, for example levels and gear. But I think *if* PvP can work in a MMORPG, it can only do so by rewarding *both* the winner and the loser.

I came to that conclusion by listening to a conversation in guild chat where one player was complaining how much it sucked that he got only 83 honor points in half an hour of Alter Valley battleground. I restrained myself from typing into guild chat that "this is called losing". Because I understood perfectly well that he wasn't complaining about losing AV, he was complaining that recent changes to AV made losing give less rewards than it used to. You get more honor per hour now from winning, as battles are shorter now, but less from losing. And apparently although you get "some" honor and 1 victory mark for losing, people like it less than the previous situation, where the difference in honor gained for winners and losers wasn't so big.

The other insight I arrived at this year was that people care a lot about individual PvP rewards, but don't care all that much about which side is winning. In the Pirates of the Burning Sea beta we had a situation where a hardcore guild after one wipe switched to a previously underdog nation, leveled up to the cap quickly, and then started to dominate PvP with their higher levels and better organization. That turned out to be a bad idea, because you could read endless rants from them about how the enemy nations had a "conspiracy" going on to "boycott" port battles. What really happened was that players from other nations had quickly realized that they were losing each battle, and thus simply didn't go to them any more. Because if you came to a port battle and lost on the sea part, your ship lost durability and eventually sunk. A big personal loss, not considered worth risking for the small possibility of winning, which only helped the nation, but gave no individual PvP rewards.

In the December video podcast of Warhammer Online the devs again talk a lot about their RvR PvP-system, about keeps, siege weapons, and victory points that make one side or the other win. What they are strangely silent about is personal PvP rewards, and how these are affected by winning and losing. Keeps are probably going to change owner many times between map resets. That is certainly going to be huge fun to do a couple of times. But if you EA Mythic expects people to keep doing it for a long time, they better hand out personal PvP rewards for every time you capture a keep or accomplish other PvP objectives, whether they are instanced or open world RvR objectives. *And* you better also give personal PvP rewards for the losing side. Not for "losing a keep" if you lost it while asleep. But unsuccessfully defending a keep should give nearly as many personal PvP points per hour as successfully taking it.

People simply don't want to lose. And they certainly don't want to pay $10 to $15 a month for the privilege of losing. That means PvP has to be positive sum, so if you win some and lose some you still end up coming out ahead. But as some people lose a lot more than they win, the only way to make sure PvP is positive sum for everybody is to give out PvP rewards for losing. The huge increase in PvP activity from before to after patch 1.13 in World of Warcraft, which turned WoW from a game where PvP rewarded the winners to one where PvP rewarded the losers nearly as well, tells us that this is the way to go. After all, X hours spent in PvE in a MMORPG are certain to earn you a reward. So if PvP wants to compete with that, the same X hours have to earn you a similar reward. Losing doesn't hurt if you still come home with a nice reward for the time spent, and the fact that the winner got a somewhat bigger price even keeps you motivated to try and do better. That system is still full of design pit traps (like afk honor farming in AV), but those problems can be solved with careful design.

Monday, December 24, 2007

A thought experiment on RMT

As part of my ongoing discussion with Raph on RMT, I came up with a thought experiment, based funnily enough on Ultima Online, the game Raph designed. The one design question UO more or less "solved" was whether people wanted unrestricted PvP. It did so by creating two mirror images of the world, one with and one without PvP. Over 90% of the population ended up in the non-PvP half called Trammel, while the PvP half called Felluca ended up pretty much deserted. So although in discussions the PvP lovers were shouting much louder, once people had the chance to vote with their feet it became obvious that unrestricted PvP was not so popular. Now lets apply the same to World of Warcraft and RMT. I'm splitting WoW into two otherwise identical copies, which only differ in their handling of RMT and trades, and you tell me which one you'd like to play.

Tobold's low-RMT WoW

1) Gold can't be sent by mail to characters on other accounts, nor can it be directly traded in a trade window.
2) The auction house is changed into a "blind auction" system like in Pirates of the Burning Sea, that is you see that there are X items for sale and that the average price for them in the last 30 days was Y, but you don't see who sells them, and you don't see exactly what the buyout is. You bid, and if your bid is higher than the lowest buyout, you receive it at the price you bid.
3) As added precaution against "selling worthless rock for 1000 gold", all sales which exceed 5 times the average sales price get flagged for inspection by a GM, who has to approve it before the money arrives.

Note that this still doesn't totally eliminate RMT, nor does it do anything against transfering your UserID and password to a company to have them earn gold / xp / honor for you. That's why this is labeled *low*-RMT, not zero-RMT.

Raph's high-RMT WoW

I'm trying to represent Raph's ideas to the best of my understanding. If I get anything wrong, I'm sure Raph will correct me.

1) RMT is declared legal. Blizzard opens up Blizzard Exchange, which works like Station Exchange in that it is a platform for legal RMT controlled and guaranteed by Blizzard, so you don't have to worry that you never get the virtual currency or item you bought. Blizzard is taking a percentage of each deal.
2) The "bind on pickup" characteristic is replaced by "bind on equip" on all items in the game, including raid items. The level limit is replaced by an effectiveness factor, so if you are level 10 you *can* wear a level 70 raid sword, it just doesn't work quite so good. Quote Raph: "They’d be the classic fantasy hero stripling given the magic sword before they know how to use it."

I didn't add "Blizzard sells gold / items" to the list, because I'm not 100% sure that Raph proposes that. And of course RMT in that world isn't mandatory. Just like there is no zero RMT game, there can't be a 100% RMT game. But as RMT would be save and legal, and you could buy raid epics for cash, it certainly would be much more RMT as the normal or low-RMT version.

So tell me, of the three alternatives Tobold's low-RMT version, Blizzard's existing "RMT is illegal but wide-spread", and Raph's high-RMT version, which one would you prefer to play?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Raph not open to new ideas

In a typical example of how little developers are open to new ideas, Raph tries to discredit me by saying that my proposal to remove asymetric trade is equivalent to removing groups and guilds and all forms of cooperation from MMORPGs. Apparently he didn't understand or chose to ignore the important word "asymetric". A group in which one person tanks, another person heals, and other people deal damage is *not* asymetric as long as the characters involved are of roughtly the same level. Each player performs a different role, but each of these roles is equally important. I never proposed removing groups from MMORPGs, Raph did. Nor did I propose to remove all trade from MMORPGs. One person selling a Primal Water to another person for 20 gold is totally fine. One person selling a worthless rock to another person for 1000 gold is not, because nobody would do such an asymetric transaction if there wasn't a real world counterpart to it.

Lets have a look at a real world example: A politician needs his house renovated, and the work to be done has a independantly estimated market value of $50,000. If the builder send the politician a bill for $50,000 and the politician pays it, we have a symmetric trade, and everything is fine. If the builder send the politician a bill for $1,000 and the press gets wind of it, everybody will assume that an illegal counterpart for this asymetric trade occured, like the politician getting a big city contract to the builder. Raph saying that to prevent asymetric trade you have to eliminate all trade and cooperation in the game is like saying that a politician shouldn't be allowed to renovate his house or buy anything at all. It is an invalid extrapolation, trying to make a reasonable request seem crazy by exaggeration.

Yes, removing asymetric trades from MMORPGs would remove *some* forms of non-RMT assistance from these games as well. You couldn't send 1000 gold to your friend or girl friend for example. Sending it to your own twinks could be enabled, for example with a shared bank account. But you don't have to remove guilds and groups from a game to achieve this, although you might want to remove the ability of level 10 characters gaining xp when grouped with level 70 characters to prevent that form of powerleveling as well.

Over at Raph's some commenters propose removing "bind on pickup" and "bind on equip" features altogether. That shows a disturbingly naive view of human behavior. To anyone with half a brain it should be obvious that if you make all items in the game tradeable, you would much increase RMT. Especially in a game like WoW, where raid epics are designed to be accessible only to a small percentage of players. Next thing you'd see would be the "Chinese Raiding Guild", just keeping the most essential epics for themselves and selling the rest for dollars.

The whole discussion started with Raph's blanket statement that "RMT cannot be eradicated" which he used as argument that game companies should get into that business as well. I found his accompanying statement of "Will the gamers like this? Flatly, no. At least not publicly. But a heck of a lot of them will pay up quietly." somewhat insulting to players. My problem here is that players do not even get the choice to prove that they would really prefer a game without RMT, because developers aren't open to new ideas that could actually remove it. Raph having to try to ridicule me and turning my proposal into something monstrous that I never said just shows that he doesn't *want* RMT to be removed. Because he sees it as the revenue model of the games of the future.

As so often, one of the most insightful comments to the whole discussion comes from Darniaq, who said "What is the real problem with RMT? That it exposes the underlying truth of mass acceptance of inequality." There is huge inequality between players of a game like World of Warcraft, from the most casual player who never even reached level 70, to the guy running around in Black Temple epics. Unrestricted RMT where everything is tradeable somewhat levels the playing field, as now some of the players who would never be able to reach top end raid epics otherwise now would be able to buy them for real money. But having played Magic the Gathering Online, I have already experienced how such a model can destroy a game and turn it into an ugly bastion of unrestricted greed which would make even Gordon Gecko flinch. I can live with a restricted RMT model, like WoW has it, where gold can only be used to buy things like epic mounts, but not dungeon / raid loot. But if game companies would be running the RMT themselves, simple business logic would encourage them to make larger and larger parts of the game available for money. The moment where the players thoughts go from "Wow, I found the fabled Sword of Uberness" to "Wow, I just earned $50", the game is dead.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Live Gamer

A reader alerted me to a new company named Live Gamer, who is trying to provide a legit platform for RMT with the support of the game companies themselves. Several companies, including SOE, back the venture. Raph thinks that "Will the gamers like this? Flatly, no. At least not publicly. But a heck of a lot of them will pay up quietly." and calls the idea a no-brainer because uncontrolled RMT is "impossible to eradicate" and "worth billions to someone else". Controlled RMT would be "controllable and therefore potentially less damaging". Blizzard disagrees and won't use Live Gamer.

I think that RMT is possible to eradicate. You just need to make gold "bind on pickup". That is, you need to remove all possibility of asymmetric trades where one player can give or send gold to another player. And you need to change the auction house system to make it anonymous and blind, so that players can't buy a worthless rock for 1000 gold and transfer money that way. This is totally possible, but it would have a cost: it would also remove twinking (unless you program a shared bank) and sending money to friends or guild mates. But possible it is, the only thing that is missing is the will of the game companies.

I still believe that Blizzard, in spite of their public anti RMT stance, is secretly regarding RMT as a feature, and is therefore unwilling to eradicate it. They did a good job in reducing secondary negative effects of gold selling, like gold spam. They *could* eradicate gold selling itself, but they won't, because lots of players do buy gold and would be annoyed if they couldn't.

So in a way the companies signing up for Live Gamer are more honest. It just isn't a "if you can't beat them, join them" attitude as Raph suggests. Game companies just realized that RMT is a way to close the gap between people playing a lot and people who don't have that much time. Far from being damaging to the game, RMT actually prevents millions of players from quitting the game because they can't keep up with the Joneses. And once you realize RMT as a feature, of course the game companies want to cash in on that feature themselves, and not leave it to third parties and potential scammers. Right now Blizzard is only "taxing" gold sellers by periodically banning a huge number of them as publicity stunt, and then selling each of them new game boxes and accounts to let them back in.

Why Fantasy?

On Terra Nova Richard Bartle asks Why Fantasy? and the Ancient Gaming Noob lists blogs with responses. My personal answer is that it is a freak accident. It isn't that people wouldn't play a good SciFi game, it just happened that the best games of the MMORPG type were of the fantasy genre, while the people who made SciFi games produced less good games (my apologies to Raph). EVE Online isn't doing so bad, but with its bad tutorial and hardcore PvP it remains niche and inaccessible for the average WoW player.

That doesn't mean that all future successful games have to be fantasy. The hypothetical World of Starcraft game would probably get millions of players. And while the future of Star Trek Online is uncertain, Stargate: Worlds looks quite interesting. If we just wait a few years we'll be able to see people discussing "Why SciFi?" or "Is Fantasy Dead?".

Dustwallow Marsh much improved

In April 2005 I wrote
One quite interesting detective quest has to do with a burned down inn, at the border between the swamp and the Barrens. There are three "clues" hidden in the inn, a shield, a tiny badge, and some hoofprints. I had found the shield, but the other clues I only found after reading about them on Thottbot. Each clue leads to a quest, leading to the perpetrators of that crime. Unfortunately the series ends with a dud. After you did everything, you are told to bring the black shield to somebody in Thunders Bluff, for the final revelation of the mystery. And there you hand in the shield, get a tiny xp reward, and the quest abruptly ends without explanation. Seems a bit unfinished. Maybe you would get more information if you did the Alliance side quests from the same three clues, but my druid only found the black shield at the time, and now his account has expired.

Maybe the reason why the Dustwallow Marsh are a bit underpopulated is that this is not the only bad quest in there. There is a guy in a hut in the swamp, "Swamp Eye" Jarl, who gives three quests which don't make much sense. First he wants three soothing spices, which you have to buy from a vendor, and the reward is only some food without stats. Then he wants 40 spider eyes, but he is talking crazy, and you don't really know what for. And then he wants an expensive smithed sword for the third quest. I declined that third quest, because I knew how valuable the sword was, and the reward he offered was worth a lot less. But I checked on Thottbot if there was another quest behind that, which would explain and reward a bit more, but there apparently isn't. Simply a badly written series of quests. It actually speaks for the otherwise high quality of the World of Warcraft quests if the bad ones are jarring so much.
Well, I'm happy to report that the detective quest continues after handing in the shield now. And Swamp Eye Jarl, while still being crazy, also much improved his quests. He doesn't want spices and a smithed sword any more, he now takes frog legs and a sword that drops from a named murloc. His quest texts have been rewritten as well, so that he comes over more believable as the mad guy living in the swamp. Going there is now definitely worth it, because he also gained a less crazy room mate with even more quests. And then there is the grave I also previously mentioned.
One very nice, hidden, level 40 quest is in the Dustwallow Marsh. There is a hut with a guy named "Swamp Eye" Jarl, who gives very bad quests (best avoid doing those), but in his garden is a freshly dug grave. When you click on it first, you find a hand. Bring the hand to Brackenwall Village gives you a reward, but no clue that the quest isn't finished. You need to go back to the same grave, and by further digging find a head. From that starts a quest where you boil the head in a troll voodoo cauldron in Grom'Gol to make him speak, which then gives you a quest to find a necklace from crab men in Dustwallow Marsh. After handing the quest in at Brackenwall, you are sent to Orgrimmar, where you get the choice between two very nice blue rings. Well worth it, and I guess not many people did that quest.
Only now the grave has a yellow exclamation mark floating over it, which makes it much more obvious that there is a quest to get there. Of course Dustwallow Marsh also gained a new town, Mudsprocket, and many more new quests. What appeared "unfinished" to me in 2005 is now a complete zone. Makes me wonder if Blizzard is planning to rework other unfinished zones, Azshara comes to mind. Anyway, good job on Dustwallow Marsh.

Work or pay

I bought the original Guild Wars when it came out, but never played much of it. I'm not much of a PvP guy, and the PvE wasn't so exciting. But I'm still in the Guild Wars database of users and so they still send me mail with advertising and special offers. This week I got a mail offering me to buy skill and item unlock packs. Normally when you make a character in Guild Wars you have the choice of whether you want to make a level 1 character and level him up to level 20, and gather all the possible skills yourself. Or you make a level 20 character right away, but that one only has a limited set of standard skills. Unless you pay for the skill and item unlock pack and get access to all the stuff that other players had to painstakingly find themselves. Hmmm, looks surprisingly like RMT to me.

The basic problem is always the same: you can achieve anything in a MMORPG given enough time. But some people just don't have that much time. Conveniently people with little time usually have not much time to play because they have a job, and because they have a job they have more money than somebody playing the game 16 hours a day. Thus offering the guy with little time some of the achievements that the guy with lots of time "worked" for is usually an easy sell. Gold sellers make millions of dollars that way. And of course game companies would prefer to grab that money themselves, and not leave the profit for third parties. Thus NCSoft gives you the choice in Guild Wars: Do you want to work to gather all the skills and items in the game to use them in PvP, or do you prefer to pay for them. I'm pretty sure that players who did work for them won't be happy about this offer.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Pirates of the Burning Sea endgame

Massively recently had a post about the PotBS endgame, but you should have noticed from the "press tour" in the title that what is reported there has nothing at all to do with the real endgame in PotBS. Pirates of the Burning Sea is primarily a PvP game, and the endgame is PvP. There are no raids for phat epics, or other ways to improve your character with equipment. You just make money or grind special royal marks to buy ships with, and then you sink those ships in PvP.

And this is exactly why I don't believe that Pirates of the Burning Sea will keep their players for a very long time. The purpose of the game is PvP, and PvP is a negative sum game. Negative sum because the winners gain less than the losers lose, so if you win one and lose one, you're worse off than before.

What also worries me a bit is that the making money and losing money in PvP part are split between different character classes. The freetrader class is great at making money, even large sums of it, but so bad in ship-to-ship combat that they should avoid any serious PvP action. The pirates, privateers and navy officers will do most of the PvP, but the players enjoying that kind of gameplay might not necessarily be inclined to play in the economic game as well, and so they will constantly be out of money. Now you can imagine a guild having both freetraders and navy officers, with the former financing the latter. But what exactly are the latter going to do for the former? In principle they could escort them, but I doubt that is going to be popular, escorting a freetrader while he brings cargo from A to B. Chances are that if he is escorted, he won't be attacked, so nothing will be happening on that trip, which can be mindnumbingly boring.

A division of labor could work if Pirates of the Burning Sea would have good guild tools, in which the contribution of everyone was somehow rewarded. Unfortunately the PotBS guild tools are very basic, on the same level as World of Warcraft. It is easy to imagine how freetraders in guilds will be paying for most of the ships, get very little recignition for that, and stop playing after a while. The best way to PvP is probably to have two characters, a navy officer and a freetrader, and run the freetrader as money-making alt.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Battlemaster trinkets

A reader was asking my opinion on the Battlemaster trinkets, level 70 epic trinkets that can be acquired in two different ways: Either with 75 badges of justice, or with 30000 honor and 40 AV marks. Unfortunately that is a bit like asking a beggar whether he'd prefer the Mercedes or the Rolls-Royce; I only have 3 badges of justice and 600 honor points on two characters together, so it is hard for me to say which way is easier.

40 AV marks used to be impossible to get when I did PvP a year ago, me being Horde. But apparently Horde wins a bit more often now, and the AV battlegrounds are shorter, not lasting several hours any more. 30000 honor I still haven't got a grasp how fast you can earn those. I only know the daily PvP quest gives 419 honor. I heard people saying several thousand honor per day wasn't a problem for them, but of course that depends on how much you are playing.

Badges of Justice are easier to get nowadays as well. The daily heroic dungeon quest gives you 2 badges in addition to the about 3 you get from killing the bosses in there. And Karazhan and Zul'Aman also drop badges from all bosses, 22 badges for clearing Karazhan once. So if you are in a raid guild that clears Karazhan every week, and do one heroic dungeon per week as well, you'll have 75 badges in 3 weeks.

So what would you say, are the two different prices for getting the battlemaster trinkets equivalent? Or which one would you say is easier to achieve, PvP or PvE cost?

My first epic

Well, my first TBC epic to be exact, as at level 60 my priest was nearly full epic, and still is wearing the T2 helmet from Onyxia. But not having raided yet, and not having done much of the other level 70 endgame either, I didn't have any level 70 epics yet on either character. But yesterday I joined a guild group to farm Apexis Crystals, and this morning I hit exalted with Ogri'la and thus could buy Vortex Walking Boots for my warrior. From a tank point of view they were barely better than the blue boots I was previously wearing, more armor but less agility, a bit more stamina. But then they have a nice bonus to critical hits, which should make farming a small bit easier.

If I would get more Apexis Crystals, I could get another epic, the Crystalline Crossbow. But I use the ranged weapon just for pulling, and my throwing knifes are nearly as good as the crossbow, and don't need ammo.

In other news I'm making progress with Netherwing reputation as well, and found that after all there is at least one reward besides the Netherdrake mount. At friendly I got an Overseer's badge, and at honored the improved version Captain's Badge. At revered I'll get an even better version, with +45 stamina bonus, which might actually be worth wearing all the time. Otherwise I just equip the badge, summon the pet, and then switch back to another trinket.

Monday, December 17, 2007

AFK Gamer on post 2.3 Alterac Valley

AFK Gamer has a post on Alterac Valley after the 2.3 patch which is interesting. Apparently Alliance is losing AV a lot now. Which is curious insofar as in my pre-patch experience Alliance won at least 3 out of 4 Alterac Valley battles. But the patch changed some of the rules, and now the situation has reversed. Readers tell me that at least on some servers the Alliance players are now boycotting AV, so that Horde players can't get any honor there.

The last time I did battleground PvP was a year ago, after patch 1.13 changed the honor system and before TBC came out. My warrior, like everyone at the time, was doing battlegrounds to get some nice equipment for honor points, which previously had only been available to the top PvP ranks. Instead of needing 16 hours of PvP per day for several months, you could now get the same gear by doing an hour of PvP a day for a much shorter time. But while that was an interesting experience, I didn't enjoy PvP all that much. So now although I know that I could probably get some nice gear by joining the arena, I just opted out of PvP.

So as I am not an expert on PvP, I invite you to tell me about PvP in AV after 2.3. Is it true that the situation reversed and Horde is now winning more than Alliance? Why do you think that is so? And please, no "Horde plays better than Alliance" crap, the only reasonable assumption is that players on both sides are the same.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

WoW Journal - 17-December-2007

Christmas is here! Or rather the Feast of Winter Veil started in World of Warcraft. As most seasonal events in WoW that means a bunch of quests with fluff rewards, for example the mistletoe to turn your mount temporarily into a reindeer. As there is also a machine that turns you into a gnome with a santa costume for half an hour, you can be the little santa riding on a flying reindeer through Shattrath. Too bad you won't be the only one who had that idea.

Besides the fluff there is one Winter Veil quest which gives out a more useful reward: the Stolen Winter Veil Treats, leading to You're a Mean One, in which you have to kill The Abominable Greench in Alterac Mountains. Reward is one mid-level random tradeskill recipe. But those recipes can *only* be gotten from that particular quest. They are for alchemy the Elixir of Frost Power, for tailoring a green holiday shirt, for engineering the Snowmaster 9000 (making one snowball per day), for leatherworking the Gloves of the Greatfather, for smithing the Edge of Winter, and for enchanting the Winter's Might enchantment.

Now because of my frost mage I absolutely wanted to have the recipe for the Elixir of Frost Power. Having 4 characters of at least level 35, and two characters from my wife's account, I did the quest 6 times, but no luck. I got the enchanting recipe, which is also useful for the mage, as it adds +7 frost spell damage as a weapon enchant. But fortunately a friendly guild mate found the potion recipe and sent it to me. Hunting the Greench is a bit annoying, especially if you do it 6 times, because there are so many people who want to kill him. Grouping helps, as ideally it gets the quest cleared for all group members. But only if they are all near when the Greench dies. Which isn't as easy, as the group usually spreads out to cover several possible spawn points. In the best case I tagged the Greench with an instant damage spell from my mage, turned him into a sheep, and we killed him when everyone was there. But in several other cases I managed to tag the Greench, but other players not in the group then killed him, before the other players in my group were close. Then I still had the quest done, but neither my group members nor the players who did all that damage to the Greench got anything out of it. Rather inconsiderate!

In any case, this was one of the situations where I was happy that I had played Everquest before. A typical WoW player can't stay 5 minutes on the same spot. An Everquest player knows how to be patient and camp the same spot for a long time. For the Greench I just choose one spot where I had seen him spawn and just waited for him to appear. While waiting I made a macro saying /target The Abominable Greench; /cast . So when the Greench appeared, I was always the fastest grabbing him, even if other players were around. Because they were running around, while I was concentrated on the one spawn, and had the macro to grab it fast.

Besides the Feast of the Winter Veil I mostly did daily quests. Thanks to all the readers who advised me to stick with the Netherwing daily quests! I followed their advice and really, after you get to friendly the quests there become much better. The Booterang daily quest is a blast, and the quests in the mine are also much easier than the quests you need to grind to get to friendly. Meanwhile I got to honored, which opens up some racing quests. But I think I won't do them right now. I'm spending christmas at my parents house, and only have the laptop to play WoW on. For the racing I'd rather have the 22" widescreen monitor, and not the 12" laptop screen, because otherwise I'll never manage to evade all that stuff the guy I need to race throws at me.

In any case I already have a curious problem with the daily quests: I'm hitting the cap of maximum of 10 daily quests per day. Which means I'm making just over 100 gold a day. I have 4k now, just 1k gold to go for the second epic flying mount. I can't do the Netherwing daily quests with my priest, because apparently you need to have the epic flying riding skill to get past neutral with the Netherwing. Strange that the best quests to make the gold for the epic flying mount are only available to those who already have one!

Friday, December 14, 2007

The raiding I miss

Yesterday my guild went to Gruul's lair, and there was an empty spot for the first boss fight, killing King Maulgar. That gave me the opportunity to raid once again, which I hadn't done for a very long. Not counting one very bad Karazhan raid, I hadn't had fun raiding since before TBC came out. And funnily I enjoy the aspects of raiding that the hardcore raiders hate: Gathering all the people together, chatting in front of the raid instance, preparing. And I enjoy doing my job well during the raid. I was happy that I hadn't forgotten how to raid heal, and that the main tank was never anywhere close to dying while I was on him. I even saw more of the fight than I usually do, due to my new widescreen monitor. In previous raids all those raid windows didn't leave much room for a view in the middle, but with widescreen the situation is much better.

The part of raiding that I don't enjoy are fighting for loot or raid spots. Not that we had any fights, but I was deliberately keeping my head low. Maulgar dropped epic shoulders which I could have used, but as soon as I saw that other people needed it too I withdrew my "need" request. As long as I haven't worked out whether I can and want to raid regularly with my guild, I'm not feeling comfortable grabbing raid loot. In my opinion raid loot isn't really the property of the individual player, but more a resource of the whole guild. Giving raid loot to people who aren't using it to increase the chance of success of the guild in the next raid isn't all that useful. Same thing with raid spots, we had more than 25 people for the Gruul fight, we had too many healers, and from the healers I certainly was the least well geared, with the lowest +healing, so I let somebody else take my spot.

Now I am thinking about whether I should try to join one of my guilds Karazhan raiding teams after christmas, if I'm having so much fun raiding. But as I enjoy the social aspects of raiding, Karazhan isn't ideal, the raid is too small to be social. And my usual playing times are from 6 pm to 10 pm, while my guild's usual raiding times are from 8 pm to after midnight. I need to work out how often I am willing to raid until late in the night, getting up at 6:30 am next day for work. Raiding itself isn't so hard, it is the organization around it that makes it difficult.

Oh, forget about market share!

One of the first things you learn when you occupy yourself with graphical display of data and statistics is that such displays can always be tweaked to show what you want them to show, whether it is real or not. And recently I've seen so many misleading graphs on MMO market share that I'm starting to wonder whether these people are so naive, or whether they are trying to mislead. Look at the graphs for example on Raph Koster's website, or the market share graph on VOIG MMOGdata. Raph shows WoW as one among many players between Club Penguin and Habo Hotel. VOIG shows WoW on top, but closely followed by Second Life. But what exactly are these graphs comparing? Club Penguin or Second Life have a share of what?

One thing that is for certain is that it isn't "market share" in the classic sense of share of the dollar value of the market. We now know that WoW is making over $500 million profit a year on $1.1 billion of revenue in 2007. Habbo Hotel was reported to have $77 million of revenue in 2006, just 7% of that of WoW. Second life is "barely profitable". Club Penguin makes $35m of profit on $65m of revenue. In financial terms World of Warcraft is the whale among the minnows, and none of the competitors comes anywhere close.

So Raph is talking about competition for "eyeballs". But again you need to cheat somewhat when counting those eyeballs. Yes, Second Life has over 11 million registered users ... but only 52,000 peak concurrent users. For every Second Life user actually online at prime time, there are over 200 that are not. Most of these users are only still in the system because signing up was free, and Linden Lab never removes people from that database, even if they only ever played for 5 minutes once. The 9.3 million subscribers from World of Warcraft are *active* subscribers, and not counting people who cancelled their account. You can't compare numbers of free accounts with numbers of paid subscriptions!

Talking of eyeballs, which is a term from advertising lingo, of course it is very important of how long that eyeball rests on the message. The average time a Second Life user spends in the game was reported to be 12 minutes per month. Meanwhile players spend over 17 hours per week in World of Warcraft, over 300 times more. I don't know how the numbers look for Habo Hotel and Club Penguin, but as "casual games" they certainly take a lot less hours per week than WoW.

In summary, if somebody talks to you about MMO market share, you better double-check what numbers he is comparing. Mattel might be selling more Hot Wheels cars than Ford is selling real cars, but putting the two numbers on a graph saying "car sales market share" just wouldn't make any sense. Virtual world sandboxes like Second Life or casual virtual social spaces like Club Penguin certainly are interesting market trends. But trying to draw attention towards them by fiddling with the data is only going to backfire, as it already did for Second Life, where the press reporting has turned quite negative this year.

The next bottleneck

The original World of Warcraft had a bottleneck: Around level 40 there were less quests than for the other levels, and most of them were neutral quests in Stranglethorn Vale. People playing alts, even if they switched faction, ended up doing the same quests over and over. And on PvP servers the concentration in Stranglethorn lead to lots of ganking there. But what I called the "Stranglethorn Hole" is gone since patch 2.3: More quests of that level range have been added, especially to Dustwallow Marsh. Other level 40 content that was barely used because it was elite had been made accessible by turning it into normal content, for example Stromgarde Keep in Arathi. And because level 40 quests now give more xp, and you need less xp to gain a level in that level range, the level 40 bottleneck is truely gone ... only to reappear at level 60.

If today you'd meet a level 60 character doing quests in Silithus or the Plaguelands or other spots that were popular pre-TBC, you'd think that the guy was either stupid or hadn't bought the expansion. Nobody is using the old content any more, because the quality of rewards in Hellfire Peninsula is so much better. Everyone leaves old Azeroth as soon as they reach level 58 and can use the Dark Portal. But of course the bonus to quest xp and fast leveling from patch 2.3 ends at level 60. And again both factions find themselves in the same zone, doing the same quests, as the devs took some shortcuts and created the same quests for Thrallmar (Horde) and Honor Hold (Alliance). After the second alt you'll start to hate the place. And even totally new players leveling up for the first time will feel that they are lacking options where to go at level 60.

Now for once the solution to the problem would be easy, as there is already sufficient level 60 content in World of Warcraft. The devs just would need to rework the old Azeroth level 58 to 60 content a bit to give out the same level of rewards that Hellfire Peninsula does. The huge gap in quality between old world and new world items was necessary when TBC came out, because the new world had to offer items that were attractive for people who spent up to 2 years already at the level 60 cap. But now that level 60 isn't special any more, the gap actually hurts the leveling process, because it limits people's options. For both new players and alts it would be better if there was a slower ramping up, maybe starting from the mid-50s, so that moving from the old world to Outland doesn't appear such a huge step. Players would need to buy the expansion to get past level 60 anyway; leaving the old world level 58 to 60 content comparatively unattractive, as it is now, serves no useful purpose. So I hope that one of the content patches before the next expansion contains some more remodeling of old world content in preparation of the future. If World of Warcraft really has a churn rate of 4% to 5% per month, in a year from now half of the players won't even understand why there are all those level 60 zones in the old world if they have so bad rewards. It's an oddity created by history, and the devs should fix it.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Blogger introduces OpenID commenting

I just remarked yesterday how it wasn't a good idea of Blogger to remove the ability to sign your comments with an URL leading to your blog. The guys from Blogger agree, and apologize, while adding a new feature to Blogger, the use of OpenID:
Right now, the only way to add a URL to your name when commenting is to sign your comment with OpenID. We apologize for removing the URL field from the comments form prematurely two weeks ago. That was a mistake on our part that came from launching OpenID support on Blogger in draft.

Ironically, our testing of OpenID, a feature that lets you use accounts from all over the web to comment on Blogger, made it appear that we were trying to force you into getting a Google Account. We regret this appearance, since we're strong supporters of OpenID and open web standards in general.

If you haven't set up OpenID, you can still link to your blog — or any webpage, for that matter — by using the standard <a> tag inside the comment form.
As both Wordpress and LiveJournal are OpenID-enabled, the majority of bloggers should be able to comment here using the new feature without needing to type pesky HTML code links back to their blog.

Nothing but WoW for christmas

Warcraftrealsm published their latest US & EU WoW activity numbers showing an uptick in November, although the numbers are still below the peak in Spring. My anecdotal evidence tells the same story, my guild is full of people coming back after taking a break. If you ask around, there are two major factors to that revival: Patch 2.3 and the fact that all the games we have been hoping for for 2007 have either been cancelled, postponed, or turned out to be less good than hoped. Michael Zenke from MMOG Nation lists why he hates 2007. Lord of the Rings Online gets my "best new game of the year" award, but for me and many others that game lacked long-term motivation. So while I don't regret having taken a break from WoW, for me there is nothing but WoW to play for christmas.

When I'm looking around to how other people are playing World of Warcraft right now, I notice that I'm playing the game differently. I am less goal-oriented, and am concentrated more on the playing aspect. While my level 70 characters certainly aren't well equipped, I don't have a list saying "need to go to dungeon X to get item Y for my warrior". I just play whatever comes along, when somebody in guild chat says "need a tank for this or that", and I have the time, I usually just join without checking what's in it for me. Then when something drops that I can use, it is a nice surprise. Of course that isn't "efficient", I don't even have enchantments on most of my gear because I haven't got a clue whether it is something I'm likely to carry around for a while or whether I'll find something better tomorrow. But I find playing like that less stressful. I'm never disappointed if some loot didn't drop, because I didn't know it could drop in the first place. And I'm certainly not doing stuff I don't like just to get the reward, for example I haven't done any PvP battlegrounds or arena in spite of people claiming there were easy epics to be gained there.

I'm not saying my way to play is better, but it certainly suits me better. And it is also a reasonable strategy in view of the long break I took. Nobody knows the WotLK release date yet, but my 7 months of break will probably be around half of the time between the two expansions. Everybody else is far ahead of me in level of gear, and I'd never catch up to them if I tried. So I avoid the stress, try to have the maximum of fun, and I'll be where everybody else is when the expansion hands out green level 71 items that are as good as the current epics.

Of course that doesn't mean I don't have goals in WoW. I'm making good progress on the money for my second epic flying mount, from 0% to 75% of the money needed in just one month, and that without me having the feeling that I was grinding for it. If I don't have it for christmas, then certainly early next year. I'm also quite happy with my new mage. Again not with the thought of "I need to get to level 70 as fast as possible", but experimenting with how to play that new class, and enjoying the way more than the destination. It isn't unlikely that I manage to get the mage to level 70 before the next expansion comes out. But although a dps class is sure more fun to solo than a tank or healer, those characters are first in line to be leveled to 80, because I love playing in groups with my guild mates more than I like to solo. Having fun with friends, that is what World of Warcraft is all about for me. Shiny epics are secondary.

Blogger vs. Wordpress

While this post gives me the opportunity to link to the new home of Gwaendar's Altitis, the real subject is "moving your blog". Apparently over the last couple of weeks a couple of MMO bloggers moved from Blogger to Wordpress. One cited reason is that due to recent changes of the Blogger comment system, commenters can only link back to their own blogs if that blog is from Blogger. You can post comments under a non-Blogger nickname, but the field that linked that nickname to an URL was removed to prevent spam links. Wordpress doesn't have that restriction.

Now while I'm not happy about that change to Blogger either, I wouldn't move my blog because of that. The problem is that I have a Google pagerank of 5 with my Blogger front page, and about 60% of my traffic comes from search engines. And unlike Ogrebear, I found by Google analytics that the people who arrive at my blog via a search engine nearly exclusively were actually searching for the kind of information I'm providing. On my top 100 search terms there is only one objectionable one: "s i m s p o r n" (excuse the spaces, I just don't want to increase the number of hits I get on this), because of a piece I once wrote about the nonsense of blurring things that aren't even there. All others are about games or at least about computers, linking to the posts where I write about my hardware. If I moved my blog, my pagerank would disappear, and people wouldn't be able to find me, nor the information they were looking for in my blog.

So the only thing I can offer is pointing out again that paragraph 6 of my Terms of Service specifically allow you to sign your comments with a link back to your blog. It's a bit complicated, because you need to use proper HTML code to do it, but I recommend writing that code once into a text file and using copy & paste to sign with it.

I'm not expert enough to say whether Wordpress is really better than Blogger, I haven't even tried it. But if you are thinking of creating your own blog, I'd recommend to try the different possibilities first. If you move later, you'll inevitably lose part of your traffic.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The trouble with WoW loot while leveling

There has been a large multitude of Diablo-like action roleplaying games for single players in the last two years, and even several good attempts to bring that concept online with games like Mythos, Dungeon Runners, or Hellgate: London. Besides the click-to-combat system, these games are characterized by constant gathering of loot. The players are motivated by expecting loot they can use around every corner, a constant stream of upgrades. If we compare that to World of Warcraft, we can say that the end-game to some extent is also very much about loot. But while leveling up, loot plays only a minor role, and doesn't contribute all that much to player motivation. Why is that so?

There are a number of factors that prevent WoW loot to be as fun as it could be while your character is still leveling up: item levels, item material, and stats.

Items in WoW have both a minimum level and an "item level". While the minimum level tells you what level your character needs to have to wear an item, the item level tells you where you are likely to find that item. An item with item level 40 would typically drop as loot from a level 40 monster or be a reward for a level 40 quest. But the minimum level is typically 5 levels lower than the item level, so the level 40 mob drops items that a level 35 character can wear. Obviously players are interested in wearing the best gear they can, so a level 35 player would look for items with a minimum level of 35, which have item level 40. Thus to gather them by himself he would need to do level 40 quests or farm level 40 mobs. That isn't impossible, but it is hard, and it isn't the best strategy to gain the most experience points per hour. You level up much faster if you do quests of your own level or slightly below than if you do quests of higher levels, because the effort to do the harder stuff goes up faster than the xp rewards do. So if a player pursues an optimum strategy for leveling up fastest, the gear he finds will be constantly 5 levels behind.

The problem of item material is one that isn't limited to the leveling part of the game. I'm playing a mage, so I can only use cloth armor and certain types of weapons. Whenever I find leather, mail, plate, or something like an axe, the stuff is completely useless to me. I can only sell it, or disenchant it. Stats are a very similar problem. While technically nothing prevents me from wearing gear that adds to my mage's strength or agility, I would need to be downright stupid to do so. These stats don't do anything for a mage. Again this problem persists even in the end-game, although some classes suffer more than others. For example if my warrior groups with a paladin and we find two pieces of plate armor, one with bonuses to stamina and defense, the other with bonuses to intellect and healing, my warrior could only roll for the former, while the paladin could find use for both of them.

Add it all together and you arrive at a situation in which 99% of the loot that you get while leveling, either from mobs or from quests, is being sold or disenchanted. And the gear you wear is most likely bought from the auction house. Only some long quest series, group quests, or instances are likely to reward you with gear that you would actually want to wear. But there are no important game design reasons of why that has to be this way. There are a number of ways in which Blizzard could improve the fun potential of loot gathering while leveling. And while it isn't very realistic to expect them to do that for the old content, some of the improvements would be possible to implement in future expansions, as each of these adds a new leveling part to the game.

The biggest improvement possible would be to the quest rewards. The moment the game offers you a quest, the game *knows* what class you are, and thus what types of gear you could possibly use. Many quests currently offer the choice only between one to three items, what with 4 possible materials means that some classes won't get anything, while the "choice" of the other classes is predetermined. Instead of offering one piece of leather, and one piece of mail armor, the game should know that I'm a mage, and offer me two different pieces of cloth armor, for example a fire and a frost one. If I'd do the same quest with a warrior, the reward should be a choice between two pieces of plate armor, one with more defense, the other with more strength bonus. And so on. What kind of a "reward" is it if you offer a plate helmet to a mage, which is even bind on pickup? World of Warcraft quest rewards shouldn't force you to study third-party websites just to find the few quests which reward you with items you can actually wear. There is a lot of potential fun in gathering loot, and World of Warcraft should exploit that potential better.

Mage of Frozen Wrath

When I rejoined World of Warcraft and started leveling up my new mage, I commented on how little effect twinking had on that mages performance. The usual mix of gear that everyone is wearing, between quest items, loot, better loot from instances, and gear bought from the auction house mostly adds to your base stats, like intellect or stamina. And while intellect determines the size of your mana pool and has a small effect on your crit chance, the overall effect of such stats on a mage isn't large. Even my heavily enchanted twink mage with all the gear he couldn't have bought with his own money was performing barely better fully equipped than running naked.

So when thinking about it a bit more, I started to come to a radical conclusion, and a crazy idea: As all the gear that adds to basic stats is of very little added value to my mage, I should simply forget about it, and only look for the only secondary stat that really counts for a mage: spell damage, or particularly for my frost mage, frost spell damage. So every time I logged on my bank alt, the one who gets send all the stuff to sell and who is doing all the AH buying, I searched the auction house for "frozen", and bought all the gear "of frozen wrath" up to 20 levels higher than my mage level.

A month later I'm level 35 and I'm nearly completely equipped with gear which is either "of frozen wrath", or which gives a general bonus to spell damage. And the result is astounding: I have a frost spell damage bonus of "up to 169". Now I'm not a theorycrafter, I need to find a mage theorycraft guide comparable to the warrior guide I linked to today. But the base damage of my current frostbolt rank 6 is 174 to 190. And the simple trial and error experiment of shooting mobs with and without my frozen wrath gear tells me that without the gear I do about 200 points of damage with my frostbolt, and with the gear I do about 300 points of damage, a huge 50% more. That results in me needing one or two frostbolts *less* to kill the same mob. I can often kill mobs of my own level with frostbolts before they even reach me! That constitutes a huge gain in kill speed and mana efficiency, as not only do I need less mana to cast less frostbolts, I also don't need to spend the added mana on freezing the attacker with frost novas. Though although I have less mana as I forewent all the +int bonuses (except for enchants), I don't have more downtime, because the added mana efficiency makes up for the smaller mana pool. And of course if I'm running low on mana there is always free water, and a smaller mana pool is faster to fill up again.

I'm sure going to continue like this and concentrate on spell damage gear and consumables. I've started using self-made Lesser Wizard Oil, and soon I'll be able to use Arcane Elixir potions from my warrior alchemist. I'll keep looking for frozen wrath gear on the auction house, but I'll have to find out the other code names for the general spell damage gear. I think there is "of the Invoker" and "of the Sorcerer", but those only seem to exist on Outland gear. Of course once I hit the level cap and start joining groups I'll need to balance that better. Maximum dps doesn't make the best mage for groups, it only messes up aggro management. But for soloing and leveling up, maximizing spell damage is sure the way to go for a mage.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Guild quests

Bliss wrote me with an interesting idea on a possible social engineering feature for World of Warcraft guilds: Guild quests
A recent post you made regarding WoW's future made me wonder if you had any thoughts or suggestions as to what could be done, within the current construct of the game, to increase social engineering. Guild housing, I'm sure, has its own series of difficulties and obstacles for being realized, and although it would be fun to see and have a common "room" to hearth back to with my fellow guildmates after a raid, it doesn't strike me as something that would truly foster a sense of connectedness with them. It would just be a common place that I might run into them from time-to-time rather than outside of Karazhan for instance.

I thought recently that a Guild Master might be able to specify a daily quest for items that the guild bank was needing - similar to the gathering of materials for the opening of the AQ gates. He/She might have an interface that allows choosing of various materials and a guild "butler" NPC might have the quest for the day. The Guild Master says, "Hey - we could really use some Felweed for potions/elixirs/flasks," so they can set a daily quest for collecting these materials...perhaps no more than 2-3 per day so as to not exploit easy questing. Gold payout would be less than a standard daily quest, but would still count towards the limit that a character could do in a particular day. I know that lower level characters don't have access to standard daily quests until max level, but this could be allowed giving lower levels the ability to contribute if they have the gold even; I don't know, just thinking out loud here. :P
Interesting idea in principle, but the devil as always is in the details: World of Warcraft doesn't have a mechanism to count the actual *gathering* of Felweed as a quest item, it can only see that you received it. Thus if there is a quest that gives lets say 5 gold for delivering 10 Felweed to the guild bank, there isn't anything that would prevent all guild members to take the quest, take the 10 Felweed out of the guild bank, hand in the quest, thereby putting the same 10 Felweed back into the guild bank and getting their 5 gold reward. So a quest like that would just hand out free gold to all guild members. To work at all, the quest would need to actually destroy the Felweed, which not only is against the idea of gathering something for the guild, but also then results in people just looking whether 10 Felweed are better sold at the AH or better handed in as quest item.

So let's try to design a better form of guild quest for better guild social engineering. First of all we need a common project in which the guild as a whole would be interested. That could be enlarging or decorating the guild hall, or it could be something more useful. As we started with a proposal to collect herbs, lets stick to that general theme: Lets design a guild quest that adds a temporary potion dispenser to the guild hall. The potion dispenser would hand out a limited number of flasks of various levels, from low- to mid-level flasks useful for soloing, to high-level flasks useful for raiding. Once it is operational, every guild member could use it to get 1 flask of his choice, which would be soulbound. After 3 days the dispenser would disappear, and the quest could be restarted to build the next one. To build the potion dispenser would require a large number of special herbs. These herbs would be quest items, that is soulbound, and could only be found by herbalists as an added "loot" item when "opening" a herb resource node. And, now comes the tricky part, the quest herbs can only be found in herbs in zones that correspond roughly to the level of the character gathering them. That is a level 5 guild member herbalist would be able to find such quest herbs while gathering Peacebloom in Elwynn Forest, but a level 70 guild member wouldn't find any quest herbs in the same Peaceblooms, he would need to gather Felweed in Outland to find them. Thus every herbalist in the guild could participate equally by doing something appropriate for his character level, and have a positive contribution to something that helps the whole guild. Of course that is just one example, you'd need to have other guild quests for the other gathering professions, and something involving killing mobs for the non-gatherers. But the principle should be similar: you only get quest items by killing mobs that are at least green to you, but a low-level guild member can get the same quest item from a low-level mob that the high-level guild member can get from the high-level mob. The reward is some added feature to the common guild hall which also helps all guild members equally regardless of level.

The general idea behind features like this is that guilds should have a common purpose. Right now that isn't the case in World of Warcraft, where the only common purpose appears to be guild chat and raiding, with everybody below the level cap and a certain gear level unable to participate. I would so love to take all the World of Warcraft developers, lock them in a room, and force them to play A Tale in the Desert for a month. They could learn a lot about social engineering from that game, even if it probable has less players than a single WoW server.

The protection warrior guide

Elitist Jerks they may be, but they sure know their theorycraft. Quigon has a very detailed protection warrior guide up on the Elitist Jerks forums, for everyone who didn't know yet that 2.3654 defensive rating = 1 defense skill (which then equals 0.04% improvement on various defensive stats). Which then means that you need 140 extra defense, or 336 defense rating at level 70 over your natural base of 350 defense, to become uncritable. As I said, the guide is very detailed, with formulas and graphs, so at the end I felt I needed to program a spreadsheet to decide what gear to chose on my protection warrior. Then I got over it, and decided to play on without too much minmaxing.

WorldIV Gameblog Interviews

There is an interview with a guy named Tobold up on WorldIV. They are starting a series of interviews with bloggers, and I sure hope they'll get somebody a bit more interesting for the next interview. :)

Just kidding. In fact I was surprised how well researched their questions were. These guys aren't sending a standard form with ten identical questions to every blogger, but form the questions based on the content and style of each individual blog. I'm looking forward to reading other blogger's interviews over there.

The dead horse blog drama

I stumbled upon a post over at Plaguelands, where Krones calls out Jeff Freeman for a rant Jeff wrote about the quality of blog posts on Nerfbat and Massively. Woot! Blog drama! And for once I'm not even in the middle of it and can smirk from the sidelines. Well, *could* smirk, but I long ago decided that I won't smirk on anything Jeff Freeman writes, because I can never decide whether it is brilliant or crazy. So instead of smirking I write my personal opinion on the subject of "dead horses" in the MMO blogosphere subjects.

The discussion of MMORPGs is a narrow subject, a very narrow one even. The total number of MMORPGs is just in the hundreds, and most people only discuss the major ones, which brings the number down to a dozen or so. The genre is very narrowly defined, especially if you only discuss "games" and exclude social virtual worlds with not much gameplay. Thus the number of possible interesting subjects for discussion is limited. A good newspaper article can cover half of them at once, and a good book on MMORPGs probably covers over three quarter of the subjects there are. I have 1675 blog posts (this is #1676), and there simply aren't 1675 different subjects to discuss about MMORPGs. Add hundreds of other MMO blogs, plus gaming sites like Massively, and it becomes inevitable that the same subjects are discussed over, and over, and over again. PvP, RMT, the casual vs. hardcore debate, MMO business models, class balance, those are subjects you'll find discussed repeatedly on every MMO site. But that doesn't make them "dead horses".

There are several factors that keep the endless discussion of the same subjects alive: news, analysis, and new players. For example the recent round of discussion on "welfare epics" was caused by the news of the changes in the latest WoW patch, which made season 1 arena gear available for honor points. Today's PvP post here was reporting the great analysis done by Lum on that subject. But more important is the fact that while *I* might be aware of a large part of the previous discussion of RMT or PvP, I cannot assume that everybody visiting my blog has read all the previous discussion here and on all the previous sites too. You'd be surprised how many people send me mail with questions like "Hey, did you ever play game X?", when my review of game X could be found by typing it's name in the search box at the top of my blog. With every discussion here is a chance that somebody new posts an interesting comment with a fresh point of view. Google Analytics tells me that 62% of my visitors every day are "new visitors", and only 38% are returning visitors, so I can't automatically assume that everybody who reads this already knows what I wrote before.

Eliminating every subject that already has been extensively discussed from our blogs would not only leave them rather empty, it would also be counterproductive. Because none of these subjects are closed. There is no consensus on virtual property rights, or how much PvP a game should have, or whether raiding is good or bad for a game. You'd *think* for example that developers would have learned a lesson from Ultima Online, and then Auran brings out unlimited PvP MMO Fury and promptly goes bankrupt over it, with 9 out of 10 bloggers thinking "I could have told you so" without even having played it.

So when I read other people's blogs, or sites like Massively (where the discussion admittedly tends to be less deep than on personal blogs), and I stumble upon a well-known subject, I just read it quickly or even just diagonally to check whether there are any hidden news or new insights. If not, I just move on to the next article. But just because something might be a "dead horse" to me, doesn't make it an invalid subject for discussion for the rest of humanity.

The blessing of welfare epics

Rohan from Blessing of Kings posted a series of three articles on "welfare epics", starting with this general one, then refining it into a less biased version, before finally hitting the ultimate reason of why raiders can't understand PvP rewards: PvP rewards improve in quantity, not quality, when you put more effort into the activity. Brilliant observation, because it very much explains how raiders can think of the PvP rewards in terms of "welfare epics", even if PvP players have good explanations on how there isn't any welfare involved, and you can't really "dance naked in the arena for a few weeks and get epics".

It was Lead Designer Jeff Kaplan (Tigole) who called PvP rewards "welfare epics" at BlizzCon. I hope his boss slapped him for that, because that was really, really bad marketing. If you have a multi-faceted product, you don't let the guy who designed one facet of it diss one of the other facets in public. The impression of "WoW is all about raiding" is harmful to the profitability of the game, because raiding doesn't appeal to everybody. A "do whatever MMO activity you like best and get equally rewarded for equal effort" image is a much, much better sell. The posts on Blessing of Kings help to understand how difficult it is to understand what exactly constitutes "equal effort", but for once the reality of WoW is better than the public image.