Thursday, May 31, 2007

A hidden LotRO joke

I happened to mention "Windows" in a LotRO in-game chat, and it came out as "@#$%&*!@#". Made me smile. Apparently the developers consider Windows to be a dirty word and catch it with the foul language filter. They might have a point there. :)

Blizzard sues Peons4hire

Blizzard announced on their forums that they were sueing the gold-selling company Peons4hire in a federal lawsuit, but failed to say on what grounds. They only mentioned they asked them to cease and desist in-game spamming. Intelligent commentary from my favorite lawyer.

The one thing Blizzard *isn't* sueing the gold sellers for is for gold selling. Because you can't go to court on that issue without tackling the difficult question of whether something like virtual property even exists. And if the courts would come to the conclusion that it does, based on the existing trade in it, that would open a vast can of worms which could kill the MMORPG industry. So you can't sue the gold sellers for selling gold, and have to get them for spamming. Reminds me of Al Capone, who ended up in jail for tax evasion, not the numerous crimes he committed.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

What is good?

Trick question: Which is the better movie, Spiderman or Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal? Which is the better book, Harry Potter or Joyce's Ulysses? In both pairs the first is the low-brow, popular one, and the second is the high-brow, critically acclaimed one for a much smaller and more select audience. Terms like "good" and "bad" don't really apply, and you can't really compare.

I've had some complaints that I'm talking bad of raiding in WoW, but in effect raiding is the high-brow part of WoW for the smaller and select audience, while leveling up and doing quests from 1 to 70 is the low-brow, popular choice for the whole family. There is nothing inherently wrong with either. What *is* inherently wrong is having both in the same game and expecting people to switch from one to the other at some point. What if Spiderman 4 was an angst-ridden, existential movie that had Spiderman play chess against Death? What if the last Harry Potter had a chapter which consisted of somebodies unsorted thoughts in one endless sentence without punctuation? People would justifiably complain. Not because the high-brow part is "bad", but because of the bait and switch.

I think there would be room in the MMORPG market for a well-done game with forced grouping shortly after the newbie zones, leading up to more and more difficult content, and a raiding end-game in which only the best players could succeed. Unfortunately the last games that tried that weren't very polished, and just failed to excite. But as a concept, that kind of gameplay is totally valid, and is just waiting for somebody to implement it right.

But turning World of Warcraft into a game which is primarily about raiding is a mistake. You just can't make a game in which you can solo casually all the way up to 70 and then expect people to jump into a hardcore type of raiding where the slightest mistake wipes the whole raid. If your main game is for the average Joe, your end-game has to be too. If you want to have raids, you need to make them easy enough that a group of 25 average pickup players stands a chance. And you need to put in other sorts of things to do that are accessible to every age group and gender, for example player housing. It is not that WoW raiding is "bad", it just doesn't fit with the rest of the game.

NewBreed on How TBC killed WoW

I don't have a monopoly on the opinion that the Burning Crusade changed World of Warcraft for the worse, by concentrating on a very small percentage of raiders. NewBreed of Work Avoidance Strategies did a wonderful job explaining the problem in this long post.

Most relevant quote in my view: "The fact that now if a person drops connection, doesn’t perform 1 task perfectly, or goes AFK, it wipes the raid. It doesn’t just hurt them, but WIPES them. This is not game design that I wish to participate in."

The thing is that before TBC there existed a strange beast, you could call him the "casual raider", and I certainly was one of them. Every guild had really hardcore raiders, but most guilds didn't have enough of them to fill every last raid spot, and there was room for the casual raiders. As a casual raider you didn't perform quite as well as the hardcore, didn't participate in every raid, spent less time on preparation. But you were still needed in the raid, and able to contribute in a positive way. TBC removed this possibility for casual raiders to do a positive contribution to a raid. Everyone has to play at 100%, and a moment of inattention, or a small technical problem, will not only kill you but wipe the whole raid as well. That is not the kind of responsability a casual raider wants to shoulder.

If you are a hardcore purist, you might be happy that the "slackers" are gone from the raids. The quality of the remaining raiders now is certainly higher than the average quality of raiders in Molten Core. But as people themselves rarely change, that increase in quality was achieved by a decrease in quantity. What I *hoped* TBC would do was split a large raid into two smaller raids. But what TBC *really* did was transform one large raid into one smaller raid, and slam the door in the face of the remainder. I used to be *in*, now I'm *out*, and that isn't totally by choice. I just happened to be in the less dedicated half of the raiding population, and this part now *isn't* part of the raiding population any more.

The percentage of the total player population that is raiding now is smaller than it was last year. I can't say exactly how high that percentage is, but as a percentage of subscribers (not as a percentage of people online, because measuring people online counts hardcore players more than casual ones) it is in the single digits. The game that went up to 8.5 million subscribers by being "for the rest of us" is now more and more turning into a game for the elite, which is why we don't see any new subscription records any more. World of Warcraft has stopped growing, and that is because it lost sight of their customer base.

Heroes of Might and Magic V - Late first impressions

Sometimes it's good to be late to the party. As I mentioned, I recently installed Heroes of Might and Magic V on my computer, having had the shrink-wrapped box on my shelf for some time. Installation consisted of installing from CD, then downloading the patches 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3, installing those patches in the right order, and then running the patched-in auto-updater to download and install patch 1.4. I was playing with that version, but in fact I need to run the auto-updater *again* and download and install patch 1.5 to get to the current version.

With 5 patches in one year, you can guess that the launch of HOMM5 wasn't without problems. And the reviews you can find on the game often reflect the bugged status and missing features of the earlier versions. But playing HOMM5 *now*, in it's patched version with all the missing features added, I found the game to be bug-free, polished, and enjoyable.

The main attraction of HOMM5 is that it *feels* very much like earlier versions of the series, especially like HOMM3. It is coming back to its roots as a great game, from the somewhat cluttered and less good HOMM4. But while keeping all the old appeal, the game has undergone significant updates, both in introducing 3D graphics, and in reworking the gameplay of the different factions, building trees, and the heroes skill system. While I've been playing this series since King's Bounty, the "HOMM Zero", I'm not a purist. Yes, the 3D graphics take some time to get used to, but they are undoubtedly pretty, and having the ability to rotate the camera freely allows me to look into corners which would be hard to see with a fixed angle camera. I even like the 3D cutscenes. Yeah, the story couldn't be any more cliché, but I'm playing fantasy-themed computer games for too long to expect anything more. I rather have a well-told fantasy soap opera giving some background to the different maps than no story-telling at old and random maps.

One definitely strong point of Heroes of Might and Magic V is that it is newbie-friendly. An "easy" difficulty setting has been patched in, and the first campaign is basically the world's longest tutorial. You can't really do much wrong, and more and more features get introduced with each map of the campaign. There isn't exactly an abundance of good new turn-based strategy games around, so for anyone trying to get into this genre HOMM5 is ideal. (Although I'd be grateful for hints about other recent good turn-based strategy games.)

I'm currently trying to get hold of the first expansion pack, Hammers of Fate, which is out of stock in many places in Europe. In the US you can buy it as download, but that option isn't available elsewhere. And the second expansion, Tribes of the East, has been announced for the end of this year. Reviews I've seen praise the Hammers of Fate expansion highly, the dwarves seem fun to play.

But for the moment I'll still be busy for some time just playing the 30 campaign maps of the original game. And now that there is a map editor, player-made maps are available as well on various fansites. I started at the default "easy" setting and played through the first 3 maps, but I think I'll restart tonight with a higher difficulty setting, and choosing the skills of my main hero more wisely. Last night I was glued to my screen in the old "just one more turn" way, and enjoying myself very much. What more can you want from a game? Recommended.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Shipping incomplete games

A MMORPG is never complete, we always expect more expansions, patches, and updates to add to it. Which necessarily means that the MMORPG industry is in the business of selling incomplete games. Even games that were already huge and didn't have any obvious missing features at launch, like World of Warcraft, have changed since then to contain not only much more content, but also many more features. On launch WoW had a very different UI (e.g. only a single hotkey bar), only half of the content it has today, and all the classes have undergone major rework since. Games with a not-so-good launch, like Star Wars Galaxies, have been completely changed since then (and not always for the better). So if you get into a new game early, you need to be aware that you aren't playing anything close to a final version, and that a final version might never exist.

Like any MMO at launch, LotRO is far from complete. But unlike Vanguard, where the lack of polish was distributed evenly over the whole game, LotRO made sure to make at least the first half of the game polished and more or less complete, and then has content getting thinner in the higher levels. The upcoming content patch Shores of Evendim in June is basically adding lots of level 30 to 40 content, which was previously missing. I would expect future content patches to further pad out the content in the higher levels, before some expansion raises the level cap. I can't see how LotRO would for example add more playable races to the game, they just wouldn't fit in with the lore.

Having this feeling that the upper levels in LotRO are currently low on content is one of the reasons why I'm taking it slow this time. I'm sure there are already level 50 players in the game, but apart from taking a break I wouldn't know what to do at level 50 in LotRO. There isn't much end-game content yet, and the PvP will only get into the swing of things when a large enough part of the population is high enough level to participate on the Free People side. I even prefer to reach level 30 only after the Shores of Evendim are out. I'd rather play other parts of the low-level game a bit more, for example by leveling an alt in a different zone than the Shire.

Now if I was paying for LotRO with a monthly fee, and was "outleveling" the content faster than the developers could add it, I would be angry. But as I paid for a lifetime subscription, I don't feel that I'm losing anything. Have to wait one more month for level 30ish content? No problem, I have all the time in the world. It is not as if that content was actually "missing" from the game, it is only "not in yet". As long as I understand a MMORPG as a work in progress, and not as a product that is final as shipped, it all becomes a question of *when* the content is added, not whether it will be added.

Monday, May 28, 2007

LotRO Journal - 29-May-2007

I keep playing Lord of the Rings Online in a low intensity way. My minstrel is level 21 now, and my guardian is level 19. I'm mostly playing the guardian, who is on a tour to explore Bree-land, and collect deeds there. I visited all the ruins and other points of interest on the various lists of things to see, and now I'm on the deeds to kill various critters. Including my very first orc in this game.

The critter-slaying deeds difficulty lies in finding enough of that type of mob to kill. The easiest were the neeker-beekers, because there is a dungeon that has over 20 of them in it, and can be run repeatedly. Mobs like brigands or orcs are usually easy, because they tend to live in camps in high concentrations. The animal mobs are sometimes more difficult. Some live concentrated in some places, like spiders in the middle of the marsh, but others are all over the place. I don't know how I'm supposed to kill 90 sickle-flies, I haven't found more than one at a time yet.

Collecting all the deeds isn't strictly necessary, but I like it. It is a low-key way to play, killing mostly mobs far lower in level than myself. That is a good way to earn money, as you get tons of loot for very little repair cost. And it forces you to visit all the corners of the zone, which is great from an exploration point of view. I especially like to do it with my guardian, who is miner, because the remote corners tend to be full of ore nodes. Not the fastest way to level, but I'm not in a hurry to get anywhere.

I did a couple of quests beside the deeds, as opportunity arose. There are a lot of group quests in Bree-land, and I didn't want to organize a group myself, so I just joined groups that were looking for more. The LFG system in LotRO isn't used any more than the WoW system is, which is a pity. Most groups form in the old-fashioned way of shouting for more people in the LFG chat channel. Just like in WoW there are quest series which get harder as the series progresses. For example the quest series on the alliance between orcs and brigands, I did the start by myself, teamed up with another guy for the middle part, and joined a full group for the final mini-dungeon instance.

I'm enjoying LotRO whenever I play it, but usually 2 hours a day is enough for me. I don't feel the urge to play every free minute as I did with WoW. That is probably a good thing. I get around to play some other games and get more Real Life ® done. Last night I installed Heroes of Might and Magic V, and it looks very promising.

World of Warcraft Trading Card Game

I played around a bit with one starter box of the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game, duelling against a friend. Each starter box comes with a simple 30-card deck, two packs of boosters, and three oversized hero cards, which can be used like the normal ones. WoWTCG plays a bit like Magic the Gathering, in that you have a deck, a hand of cards, one opponent, and the goal of the game is to deplete your opponents life points. Compared to Magic the Gathering it is a lot simpler.

Your hero is the most important card, and isn't shuffled into your deck, you start with him in play. Your hero determines whether you are Horde or Alliance, and he also has a character class. Your faction and character class determine what other cards you can put in your deck. I got a night elf druid, so I can use Alliance allies, spells like Mark of the Wild, and leather armor. Most of the cards in the boosters were spells or abilities for other classes, or items a druid can't use, so I would need to buy a lot more cards before I have a deck for every character class. Good business for Upper Deck Entertainment, but expensive for the players.

You start a game with 7 cards in hand, and you draw a card every turn. To play cards, you need to pay their power cost, and for that you need resources. The best resources are quest cards, because you can later play them face up and later do whatever the quest demands to get a reward, like drawing another card or shuffling your graveyard into your library. But if you don't have quests, you can play *any* other card face down and use it as resource. As you are unlikely to not have any cards in hand at the start of the game, you can count on having one resource in play on turn 1, two on turn 2, three on turn 3, until you don't want to play resources any more.

Cards you can play are allies (creatures), items including weapon and armor, or abilities. After doing that, you usually want to start a combat. Unlike Magic the Gathering you don't just attack the other side in general, you get to choose a specific target. So you can decide whether you want to kill your opponents allies off, or go right for the opposing hero. Only if your opponent has allies with the "protector" attribute can he intervene in your choice of target. Some allies are "elusive" and can't be attacked. Every ally has an attack value and a number of health points. Any damage you do is permanent, marked with counters, so a tough defender can be killed in several rounds. And of course there are healing abilities to remove counters. Battle rages back and forward until one hero runs out of health and his opponent wins. Relatively simple and straightforward. An online demo on how to play can be found here.

All the classes, abilities, items, and quests are taken from the World of Warcraft MMORPG, and that is the main interest of the WoWTCG. If you don't play WoW, stay well away from the trading card game, there wouldn't be much interest, there are much better trading card games around. But for WoW players the idea to play "offline" might be interesting. And to lure these WoW players to buy more cards, Upper Deck Entertainment is also adding a UDE point or loot card to every booster, giving you WoW in-game items, which are purely decorative. Although your best bet to get these might be EBay.

Having played Magic the Gathering for years, I wasn't impressed by the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game, it is too simple for my tastes. Buying more cards gets expensive without getting more intricate. But if you want to have a look, buy two starter boxes and play an afternoon with a friend who is playing WoW as well, that is fun enough.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Use of real time in virtual worlds

When I'm logging into World of Warcraft nowadays, it is more often than not to just do a transmute with my alchemist, once a day. Meanwhile most of my alts in Lord of the Rings Online are camping scholar work orders, which they can get every six hours. The common thing is that my progress in these areas is limited by real world time, not by anything I do in the game. Being offline I still advance, and in both WoW and LotRO I also gain rest xp bonus by just waiting. EVE Online even has their complete skill system being based on real team, it takes so and so many days to gain a skill level, whether you are online or not.

The advantage of such systems is that they are the ultimate of fairness. Each of us gets 24 hours per day, no more and no less. And our monthly fees to the game company are also based on real time, so for once everyone gets what he paid for. The only way to get more transmutes would be to make an alt and level him up to the level required for transmutations, but most people would consider that excessive.

The disadvantage of that is a certain disconnect. I didn't really enjoy gaining skills in EVE; gaining skills by doing something is so much more rewarding than gaining skills by waiting. And the transmutes in WoW or the work orders in LotRO are a simple matter of logging on, doing your thing, and logging off again. There is no sense of achievement in that.

I think that games like World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online strike the right balance here: Real time is mostly used for minor tradeskill things, and doesn't have too much of an influence on your main progress in the game. Only the waiting time on rest xp bonus influences your level progress, and that is something which usually ends helping those that need it most. A system like in EVE effectively puts a real world time limitation on your leveling progress, and that is not that good. Would you want to play a game that told you "Sorry, you already leveled once today, come back tomorrow"?

Dungeon Runners first impressions

I've been playing a new MMO today named Dungeon Runners, from NCSoft. Dungeon Runners is not only free to play, but also free to download, making it even cheaper than Guild Wars. The catch is that if you play for free, you won't have bank storage, and you won't be able to use the better items in the game, including the better potions. If you pay, you get the membership benefits, like jumping the queue when the servers are full, for a monthly fee of $5, which still is a lot cheaper than other games. If you are a Fileplanet subscriber, you can get a 7-day trial of the membership benefits. So, if it's free or so cheap, can it be any good? Depends on what you are looking for.

Dungeon Runners is an order of magnitude less complicated than World of Warcraft or similar games. It is basically a Diablo Online game, with simple mouse-based combat. You hack'n'slash your way through lots of monsters, and collect loot. If you run out of health or mana, you drink red health potions or blue mana potions. When your inventory is full, which happens a lot, as items take more than 1 slot, you use a teleport scroll back to town, sell the stuff, then teleport back. Very simple.

There are only 3 character classes, fighter, ranger, or mage. But you can buy the skills not only from your class, but also those of other classes, mixing and matching yourself a character as you like it. For example I made a fighter, but bought a 30-second run speed enhancement skill from the ranger trainer. I could have made a fireball-wielding fighter, but obviously that wouldn't have worked very well, with me running out of mana too fast to make it efficient.

There are quests in the game, but they are of the simple kind: Kill 25 rats, or collect 12 wolf pelts. The quest-givers are in towns, which are public areas, where you can meet other players and chat or form groups with them. But the quests happen in instanced dungeons, where only you or your group has access. Quests don't give xp, only money and kings coins, which can be traded for special treasures. Killing monsters seems to be the only way to make xp and level up. Whenever you level up, you can distribute 5 points among 4 stats: Strength, agility, endurance, and intelligence. Again it is best to concentrate on a few areas, and not put points everywhere. But if you are unhappy with your distribution, you can always pay some gold and redistribute the points.

Graphics of the games are on the low polygon-count side, but pretty and cheerful. Thus system requirements are low, this game should run on about any old machine. The controls are more mouse-centric than WoW, which takes a while to get used to, but they work well enough. I never had any problems with lag, nor did I encounter any bugs yet. There are several servers, but you don't need to remember on which of them your characters are; you only have one character per account, and he is on *all* servers, you simply choose a server based on population.

Dungeon Runners doesn't take itself too serious, the general tone is more humoristic than trying to create some sort of lore. For example as fighter you get the skill Way of the Roo: "You were raised by a semi-domesticated pack of kangaroos that taught you the secret art of Kung Roo. Their teachings have provided you with an innate ability that gives you 25% increased speed with all melee weapons." And the voice-overs of the NPCs frequently make fun of you.

I haven't played in a group yet, but I know it's possible. I just don't know whether at higher levels you must group, or whether it is optional. In any way, interaction with other players is limited: There are no guilds, and there is no way to trade with other players, neither directly nor via auction. There aren't any mailboxes either. Looking for a MMO without gold farmer? Dungeon Runners is it!

All in all, Dungeon Runners is very playable. It is a simple, cheerful, and cheap game. Fun enough, as long as you don't expect the same complexity as a World of Warcraft in a free game. From a technical point of view this is a lot better than most of the free games I've seen up to now. And as downloading it and trying it doesn't cost you a cent, I can only recommend trying it out.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Anonymous commenting stays in

Thanks for all the helpful discussion. Several people remarked that they couldn't or wouldn't want to log in to comment, for privacy reasons. Others correctly pointed out that the need to be registered doesn't help fighting trolls on many message boards. So I decided to leave anonymous posting in.

But please be advised that your opinion will be more valued by me and others if you put at least a nickname in. Just select the "others" option under "Choose an identity" and type some nickname in the name field. The web page field is optional.

And please keep the tone polite. It is totally okay for you to disagree with me on lets say the importance of the last WoW patch, or hardcore vs. casual issue. But just don't call me or other commenters fanbois, idiots, or similar stuff. I'll be tougher deleting that sort of posts in the future. Argue with your opinion against other's opinions, not with name-calling against other's person.

Anonymous commenting

The internet is full of people unable to communicate in a polite and civilized manner. If you disagree with somebody, it is so much easier to call him names ranging from fanboi via idiot to asshole, than to explain exactly why you think that person isn't right. Unfortunately the ability to be anonymous encourages name-calling, trolling, and other sorts of bad behavior. Up to now I've allowed anonymous commenting on this blog, but as the size of my readership has gone up, I attracted more and more of the trolls. I can't voice *any* opinion, good or bad, any more without somebody calling me at least a fanboi, and more often worse. This lowers the quality of the comment section, and by that indirectly the quality of the blog. And most of these comments are written anonymously.

So I'm considering turning anonymous commenting off. And I'd like to hear your opinion about that before I do it. I don't want to block out anyone who is trying to contribute to the discussion politely. Check out this Blogger Help article, which explains my options here. Currently the "Who can comment?" field is set to "anyone", and if I changed it, I would change it to "only registered users". Which means that you would have to create a free Blogger account to be able to comment. Don't worry, you're not forced to write a blog if you do so. :) Of course you don't need to use your real name for that, so it is still kind of anonymous. But I'd think it would stop some of the worst abuses. Remember, this is not about stopping people from disagreeing with me, I think differences of opinion are the lifeblood of internet discussion, but to moderate the tone to a civilized level.

What do you think? Should I turn the ability to comment anonymously off or not?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

World of Warcraft Patch 2.1.

Yesterday was patch day for World of Warcraft in Europe, the US got the patch a day before that. WoW patch 2.1.0 is one of those big content patches, adding a new raid dungeon, a couple of new level 70 solo and small group content areas, and a very long list of adjustments to various character classes and professions. I downloaded and installed the patch, read the patch notes, and then failed to get interested enough to even try playing.

Adding content is good, but I doubt I'll ever see the Black Temple from the inside. What Blizzard *should* have added to the game is the equivalent of Zul'Gurub, but what they *did* add is the equivalent of Naxxramas. And the majority of players have never even visited Naxxramas yet, half a year and 10 level later. It is safe to assume that most players will never see the Black Temple either. What a waste of resources!

The long list of modifications to many different talents, abilities, and items is in most cases not changing the game much. Sure, if you play class X and find that your favorite ability has been nerfed by 5% you are probably going to be upset. But in the greater scheme of things these changes will be forgotten and taken for granted very soon.

The only game-changing part of the raid I've identified is Blizzard's attempt to make raiding more popular, by making it both cheaper in consumables (alchemy changes) and by improving the stats of the epic loot found there. This is a direct result from the fact that the Burning Crusade made raiding less popular, instead of making it more accessible as initially hoped for. Whether the patch 2.1 changes improve this situation much remains to be seen.

So, how did you like the patch? What changes did stand out for you, and will change the way you play the game the most?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

American adventures

My trip to the USA this time isn't going well. I managed to eat something which gave me a nasty stomach bug, and I was flat on my back for two days. That also gave me the opportunity to experience the American health care system first hand, which was interesting. A lot more paperwork than in Europe, and much, much more expensive. Seeing a doctor for like 5 minutes and having him prescribe me something cost me $117, which is 3 to 5 times as much as the same visit would cost in Europe. Not counting the UK, where that visit would have been free.

I'm back on my feet again, but can't follow all my reader's friendly advice on what to eat over here. I need to stick to bland food and isotonic drinks. Most of which don't taste very well. If you make lemonade by squashing lemons, then how is Gatorade made?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Innovation in compensation

Lord of the Rings Online had a couple of issues with their login servers after release. Not totally unexpected, but annoying nevertheless. So following industry standards Codemasters is giving out a couple of free days as compensation. But unlike other companies, Codemasters has a problem there: How do you give compensation to somebody with a lifetime subscription? Lifetime + 4 days doesn't make sense. So they came up with the following announcement:
To make up for your frustrations and time lost during the downtimes, we would like to give you some tokens of our gratitude.

For every player that had a current subscription as of 20th May, 2007 we will be giving the in-game bonus item
Name: "The Glass of Aglaral"
What it is: Bag item
Type of object: Bound
Enhancements modifier: 1+ Hope

For Lifetime subscription customers we will be giving the in-game item:
Name: "The Fallen Star of Gil-Galad"
What it is: Pocket item
Type of object: Bound
Enhancements modifier: +1.5 Power Regeneration in non-combat

For non-Lifetime subscription customers we will be giving:
4 days free game time, which will be added to all accounts that had a current subscription as of 20th May, 2007.

The extra game time will be added within the next week, whilst the items will be added with the Shores of Evendim update, (Turbine need to build these into the next update).
Nice idea, I had already thought that I'd forever lose out on all compensation in situation like these. The items aren't great, but it is the thought that counts. :)

Monday, May 21, 2007

Who is buying all that WoW gold?

As I'm mostly playing Lord of the Rings Online nowadays, I only log on my WoW characters occasionally to do things like alchemy transmutes, jewelcrafting, or auction house buying and selling. This means I usually log on my level 70 warrior alchemist and my level 70 priest jewelcrafter only as long as it takes to do their craft, then send all the stuff to a level 42 shaman who is my auction house mule. The level 42 is on longer than the level 70s. Nevertheless the level 42 never gets any tells or spam WoW mails advertising gold. Only the level 70s do. Apparently the gold sellers assume that mostly the level 70s are buying gold.

Now when Blizzard bans gold farmer accounts, they ban over 100,000 of them at one time. I'd say that nearly all of these are playing on US and European servers, players on Chinese servers are probably less rich and less interesting as customers. Divided by about 400 total servers that makes 250 gold farmers per server. Each of them making in excess of 1,000 gold per day this produces a *lot* of gold. Who is buying all this? Some of it is certainly bought by casual players not wanting to grind money for their various mounts. But I would figure that casual players don't need that much gold in total, 2,000 covers the essential first three horses, and casual players buy very little of the high-end consumable stuff, like potions and enchants. Playing solo usually produces more gold than it consumes.

Raiding on the other hand is a money sink, it consumes far more gold than it produces. A single Gruul raid can cost over 1,000 gold in potions and stuff. And it is the raiders who need all those expensive primals and other materials for enchantments to keep on the very top of things. Now there are certainly raiders who have the time to grind for all that gold or materials themselves. But not everyone does. The fact that gold farmers target level 70 players with their advertising suggests that it is them who buy most of it. Raiding itself and preparing for it with attunements and grinding reputations is time-consuming enough, I wouldn't be surprised if many raiders "outsourced" their gold farming to a gold seller. Of course they'd never admit it, the hardcore players are a lot more concerned about their image than the casual players. But I just don't see casuals consuming all that much virtual gold, while the cost of raiding is well-known and often discussed.

Makes me wonder how much of the upcoming changes to Alchemy, reducing the number of potions used in a raid significantly, are Blizzard's way of fighting gold farmers.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Advances in travelling

I'm in the USA again for the week. Another business trip to the same place as always. After half a dozen trips it begins to feel more like a realy looooong commute, and less than a big voyage. Still a couple of things were different than usual, so I'm blogging them. Nothing game related, so you might want to skip this. :)

What's the first thing you do when coming out of bankruptcy? You buy yourself a fancy home-entertainment system. At least that seems what Delta has done. I love it, they now have a video on demand in-flight entertainment system, loaded with lots of different movies, plus TV series, plus a special HBO TV series section. The whole thing is Linux based, as I learned when the computer decided to reboot in the middle of a movie. Good to know that this doesn't only happen to Windows. Besides films there is music and games. Even on a long transatlantic flight you don't have the time to see it all, there is so much stuff.

I don't remember whether I've ever done this trip on a Sunday before, usually I go on a Monday. Apart from losing one day of my weekend, it turned out that the planes are fuller on Sundays. I got stuck one hour in a huge queue at immigrations and arrived at the gate of my connecting flight just in time for boarding. And it isn't even Memorial Day yet! (At which time I plan to be safely back home)

The last change over previous trips was that I had finally gotten around to organizing myself an Avis Preferred card. Not that I get any frequent driver miles from that or anything, but it makes getting your pre-reserved car a lot easier. Before I always had to go to the Avis counter and have somebody typing all my personal data into a computer, where for some reason the data weren't even stored, so I had to do it all over again on the next trip. With the Avis Preferred card you don't even have to go to the counter, your name is displayed on a board showing where your car is, and the keys and contract are in the car. I just needed to show my driving license to the guard at the gate, and I was on the road. Practical.

I haven't gotten around to do any shopping yet, except for a bottle of water at a supermarket. But I plan to take full advantage of the dollar nowadays being worth about as much as the Turkish Lira (okay, okay, I exaggerated there), and buying stuff on the cheap at this very favorable exchange rate. At its height in 2000 a dollar bought you 1.20 Euro, now less than 75 Euro cents. As my salary is paid in Euros, my purchasing power in dollar terms has increased by 60% just from the fall of the dollar. I was just reading how world poverty has decreased in the last decade, with poverty being defined as "less than $1 per day". Made me wonder how much of that decrease in poverty was due to $1 being not worth as much as before any more.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Day and night

I'm not really sure I like the day and night cycle of Lord of the Rings Online. What I do like about it is that it makes a difference, and thus feels real. There are even a couple of quests that only work at night. And with 3 hours to a complete LotRO day, you never need to wait more than one-and-a-half hours for the other part of the cycle. I never liked the World of Warcraft day and night cycle, where the time in game was the same as the time in the real world, but night was a light as day, just having more blueish colors, and it didn't really matter.

On the negative side the night in LotRO is too dark sometimes, especially if you want to go exploring. You know the landscape is beautiful, but you just can't see it because of the dark. And it's dark for over one hour, which can be annoying. Your personal torch, which you can activate with Alt+F10, isn't illuminating more than a small radius around you. And you can't see other people's torches. Wouldn't it be cool if you could see other people moving in the dark by the lights of their torches? Well, if it gets too bad I can fiddle with my gamma settings, but I don't feel it's optimal.

If you designed a MMORPG, how would you handle the day and night cycle? How many real world hours per virtual world day? How much difference between light and dark? And how would you like light sources to work?

Starcraft II

Blizzard's rumored big announcement today turned out not to be World of Starcraft, but Starcraft II. Given how cult Starcraft is in Korea and that Blizzard announced it there, this isn't really a big surprise. But that still leaves a lot of people hoping for another MMORPG from Blizzard, and if it isn't World of Starcraft, I don't really see what. It's too early for WoW2, and World of Diablo would be too similar. Well, I guess at least the Koreans are happy.

LotRO fellowship maneuvers

The ever-helpful The Brasse has an article on how fellowship maneuvers work, complete with a colorful fellowship maneuvers chart. Which would probably be very helpful if you played in a well organized guild group.

In pickup groups I never got past "everybody click red" in fellowship maneuvers. And even then you rarely get all group members reacting to it. Which is a pity, because if you mastered them, your group could do some really awesome moves with those fellowship maneuvers. Besides damaging the opponent with red, restoring lots of power to everybody with the blue circles seems to be a good move for long boss fights. Now I just need a group with a burglar and people patient enough to try to master all this.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Vanguard decline

You might already have heard, but Vanguard isn't going well. Now SOE bought Sigil out, and fired all employees, to rehire half of them at SOE and keep the game afloat. Apparently Brad McQuaid already despaired of Vanguard in December, and hasn't been to the Sigil offices since.

SOE still claims Vanguard is a success, having sold over 200,000 copies since launch. But somebody at Silkyvenom only counted 65,000 active players in one week, so the retention rate seems to be low. Well, it sure didn't retain me, I had enough of Vanguard after trying the beta, unfinished as it was. Nevertheless SOE had probably the right idea that it's cheaper to buy this unfinished game with good potential and fix it, than to develop a new game from scratch.

LotRO Journal - 18-May-2007

The more I play my hobbit guardian, the more fun he is. The main reason for that is that combat is more interactive for him, as many of his abilities can only be used after he blocks or parries. So you can't just press the same sequence of hotkeys in every fight, you need to watch what you can use at any given moment. Now level 17, my guardian even has a small self-heal useable after he blocks. I did most of the deeds of the Shire, and a good number of Ered Luin deeds with the guardian, and now I've started doing deeds in Bree. In spite of the map I still managed to die several times in the Old Forest, I'm starting to hate that place, especially the elite trees and their damn roots. Well, I got my deeds there, and except for the epic quest line I don't intend to do the other Old Forest quests with this character.

My minstrel is on hold, he might end up turning from my main into an alt. I mostly use him to buy crafting stuff for the alts, but that turned out to be a bad idea. I fell for a stupid scam where somebody was selling a series of trade goods for 5 silver bid, 10 silver buyout, relatively cheap. Only one of them was not 10 silver buyout but 1 gold 10 silver, which is badly visible. So now I lost 1 gold to a scammer. As the AH mail with the item doesn't even show how much you paid and who the seller was, I can't even report the guy. I'll look a lot closer in the future.

Besides the two hobbits I have one human, one elf, and one dwarf alt, mainly for tradeskills. As you can only have 5 characters per server, at least I have all races and most crafts covered. Right now most of the alts are parked at Duillond, the elf main town, because I found an interesting way to get the otherwise hard to get scholar materials: work orders.

You can buy work orders at different places for different kinds of materials, like skins, ores, or scholar materials. They come in three levels, for 10, 20, or 40 silver. If you buy a 10 silver work order for common scholar materials, you need to wait 6 hours for delivery, and then you get a random selection of apprentice and journeyman materials. As these are otherwise hard to get, and very expensive on the auction house, what you get is usually worth more than the 10 silver you paid. I tried one 40 silver work order for hides, but then I had to wait 40 hours to get it, and received some sturdy and pristine hides, the latter of which are actually too high for me yet. I don't think work orders are profitable for all crafting materials, but as scholar materials are more rare than others, I'll try this for a while.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Is LotRO the methadone for WoW addicts?

At first I dismissed it as a personal peculiarity, I'm playing less hours of Lord of the Rings Online per week than I used to play World of Warcraft. But in many comments on this blog, and on many other blogs, I hear the same thing remarked. People seem to generally be "less addicted" to LotRO than to WoW. But as they switch anyway, they end up playing less. Is LotRO a kind of methadone for WoW addicts?

I think part of the reason is that LotRO is a more relaxed game, I feel less of a rush to reach the level cap. The earlier zones are prettier and actually better made than the higher level zones. And there isn't that "my friends are all raiding MC/Karazhan, I have to catch up" feeling (yet). Makes you wonder if there is something fundamentally different in LotRO, or whether it is just a function of game age. Imagine this as a marketing strategy: "Ween your spouse/relative from his WoW addiction, buy him LotRO!"

How about you? If you played WoW before and play LotRO now, did your playing hours per week change? Why do you think that is so?

Elitist Jerks on raid size

As you might guess from the name Elitist Jerks is not a site promoting casual gameplay. So I was a bit surprised about this article on raid sizes, which is a very reasonable and well thought out analysis of the subject. And I admit that I was one of many who thought that a 25-man raid would be more casual player friendly than a 40-man raid, and got proven wrong by BC.

Good quote on why this could be: Perhaps it is more difficult to design encounters where each player is now twice as important – perhaps further segregating skill and execution level amongst diverse raid guilds. Especially when there are no "easy" raid dungeons around for the other half who isn't as good in "skill and execution".

Also there is a surprisingly honest quote about what this skill and execution really is, and why it is hard: At some point ... skill becomes a non issue – and “knowledge” is all a small gifted guild really needs. If walking in a circle was the only execution based element to a fight, it would be soloed 90% of the time by a single player. But have 40 people doing this in concert, and you have one of the hardest fights in the game (Thaddius – uh oh, time for a graph… 0.9^40!). The concerto of players, and the potential elements of larger numbers must be a factor in this simplicity. 0.9^40 is just over 1%, so any activity that could succeed 90% of the time, if you require 40 people to do them at once lowers your success chance to 1%. With 25 players you have a 7% chance of success, which suggests that a 25-man raid would be easier than a 40-man raid. But in fact in a 40-man raid there were probably only around 25 people or less who actually were required to execute perfectly, the rest was slack. And as the slack could add or take over a function of somebody absolutely required, 40-man raids were easier than 25-man raids now. The "slack" is necessary, because you can't exclude the possibility of somebody having a sudden Real Life ® interruption or losing connection. If one priest in a MC raid got disconnected, the rest could continue. If one priest in a Karazhan raid gets disconnected, the others wipe.

The only way to make 25-man raids more casual player friendly would be to make them easier, so that they *could* be done by 15 perfectly focused players, and the average guild can go there with 15 reasonably focused players and 10 not-totally-necessary players as backup.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Time for a New Vision

"The Vision" is a MMORPG design philosophy which was created by developers of Everquest. As these developers, and players that grew up playing this Vision, later developed other games, you can find back the Vision in nearly all level-based MMORPGs of today. Even World of Warcraft is based on a softened version of the Vision. "The Vision" was frequently mentioned in interviews, and Brad McQuaid even used it as marketing for Vanguard, but there is no publicly available document describing the Vision in detail. Nevertheless by all the mentions it got, and by the games that were made following it, one can come to a pretty good understanding what "the Vision" is about:

"The Vision" describes a virtual world as a harsh and unfriendly place, full of challenges. The challenges have a clearly defined "level", from easiest to hardest, and a good part of overcoming these challenges consists for the players to raise his own character level. At some point the challenge becomes too hard for a player to overcome alone, and he has to seek help, in the form of a group. The hardest challenges, and the accompanying biggest rewards are reserved for the largest of groups, the raid groups. The idea behind this concept is that by forcing players to work together, social interaction is fostered, friendships are formed, and players end up playing the MMORPG forever because they don't want to abandon their friends.

In its purest form the Vision has been proven to not work as well as intended. The latest Vision-centric game, Vanguard, apparently has big problems of player retention, with decreasing subscriber numbers already a few months after release. World of Warcraft's most popular parts are those where the Vision has been diluted, and players can solo all the way up to the level cap, while the end-game, which still is very much Vision-based, is often criticized. While people still form guilds to have raids, with time this has become a much more mercenary affair, resulting in little loyalty to your online "friends" or the game. In many cases the Vision even destroys social bonds, with players ditching their friends for a more advanced guild. People keep playing as long as the game still has challenges to offer, but as content is never endless, the dream of a game that people play together forever is still far. Many people recon that World of Warcraft has reached its peak in subscriber numbers. And as games like LotRO or AoC or WAR only vary the same theme, for example concentrating on PvP challenges instead of PvE challenges, or using a well-known license, it is unlikely that these games will ever beat WoW in subscriber numbers. What we need to really take the next quantum leap in MMORPG game development is a New Vision. And by observing what features people like, and what they say they want, I have some ideas how such a New Vision could look.

The New Vision should paint the virtual world in a friendlier light. There are still lots of challenges to overcome, things to achieve, but these aren't so linear from easiest to hardest any more. There is no more defined "top" to reach, no more "end-game", but instead there are many different and equally valid tops to reach in different categories, plus lots of goals that players set themselves. There are many stories to experience, and gameplay is more story-driven. The virtual world itself is a living one, which can change over time. There should be events with variable outcomes, for example an orc invasion, where the actions of the players decide whether a village is burned down or the invasion is beaten back for a few weeks. And most importantly by having everything strictly level-based, there should be more opportunities for players to play together. Not because the game forces them to, but because the game doesn't stop them from playing together just because they don't spent the same amount of time in the game.

The focus in the New Vision is less on beating the game than on living the virtual world. If the old Vision can be compared with the Tour de France, a race to win, the New Vision would be a family bicycle trip through France. Superficially similar, but with a totally different purpose, and more accessible to a much larger audience. The gameplay of the New Vision is more open, with many more different activities than just killing monsters. But each of this activities still has goals and challenges, the game isn't completely unstructured like Second Life is. If you spend less time in the game, you can still take your pride from mastering one thing, and aren't relegated to the bottom of the heap. Somebody spending a lot more time in the game can master more different things, without running out of things to do at some level cap. A New Vision game would combine the best features from classical MMORPGs like World of Warcraft with those from social virtual worlds like Habbo Hotel. There is a space for epic slaying of dragons, but that isn't the only purpose and thing to do in the game.

I think something similar to this version of New Vision I described will be developed in a few years. Not necessarily totally replacing the old Vision games, as these are valid options for players that only play to achieve. But World of Warcraft showed that the more accessible you make your games, the more customers you get, and MMO games will have to target a broader audience. And with the "social spaces" attracting large amounts of people, but little revenue, a convergence with MMOs would just be natural. But for this to happen the game developers have to look a good bit beyond of what they did in the past, and introduce some real innovation into the genre.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Mix and match?

I played both World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online last night. Logged on to WoW to check the mail and the AH, but got invited to a group. Didn't really work out, we only killed the first boss of the instance before we split up, but was fun anyway. Then I switched to LotRO and got my captain to level 10. Yep, he's better with a pet. But I never liked pet classes all that much. And having a "pet" that is human and is controlled by a pet action bar full of animal symbols somehow disturbs me. I'll try it a bit longer, but I don't think this captain has much of a future.

And playing two games I ended with the feeling of not having gotten much done in either. Can you mix MMORPGs, or should I cancel my WoW account?

What if the real casual players hit level 70 in WoW?

While I'm often defending the point of view of the casual MMORPG player, I can't honestly say that I'm a real casual player myself. I play too many hours, in too large blocks, I read (and write) too much about these games, and I even participated in raids. But fortunately I have a real example of the species "Ludio Casualis" at home, my wife. Although she plays World of Warcraft since over 2 years, she has never hit the level cap. She played several characters to between level 40 and 50 before she finally discovered that rogue is her preferred character class. She made it to level 60 only after the Burning Crusade was already out. And last weekend she dinged 66 in Nagrand. Even at her speed she'll reach level 70 in a few months, long before the next expansion comes out.

And now she asked me what she should do when she eventually reaches level 70. I didn't have a good response. In the two years she played my wife *never* visited an instance, except one low-level dungeon together with one of my high-level character. She doesn't know the first thing about tanking/healing/dps aggro management in a 5-man group. She never even *was* in a 5-man group, the biggest groups she did was with two other random players killing some elite mob for an elite quest. Most elite quests she just abandons. And of course she never ever did any sort of PvP, she isn't interested at all in that. So if she doesn't want to do instances, and she doesn't want to do PvP, what can she still do at level 70? She can do some remaining quests for the item rewards, even if there are no more xp. Or she could grind some faction. But for all practical purposes the game is over for her. She could start a new character, but she repeatedly tells me that she doesn't know how she ever lived without Vanish, and I don't know what other class she could still have fun with.

There is no rule saying "a casual player plays X hours per week / month", and not everybody started WoW over 2 years ago, so nobody can say how many players are in the same situation. But it is safe to say that a majority of players, however casual, can reach level 70 in the 3+ years from WoW's release to the release of the second expansion. And neither WoW nor any other game of the genre has come up with a good plan on what to do at the level cap if you don't want to do PvP or groups. In spite of the "massively multiplayer" label, it is the ability to play without too much interaction with other players that got World of Warcraft to 8.5 million subscribers. Losing this feature at the level cap risks losing these solo players when they finally reach the cap, and I suspect that there are more of them around than you'd think. They aren't that visible, because they don't write on forums or blogs, and don't interact much with other players in the game. I once called them the dark matter of WoW. But in spite of being invisible, they are having a profound impact on Blizzard's bottom line, because each of them pays the same $15 per month than the most famous guild raid leader. We might not even notice them leaving, except for the fact that we'll wonder one day why Blizzard never announced 10 million subscribers for WoW. The day more people are leaving than coming new into the game, World of Warcraft will start its slow decline. And that day could well be now, or at least not very far away.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

LotRO Journal - 14-May-2007

While my minstrel in Lord of the Rings Online still is level 19, my guardian got up to level 16 this weekend. Now I seriously have to consider whether I should go back to the minstrel, or just keep playing the guardian. Both are fun, but they play very much different. And I'm in no hurry to reach the level cap. Maybe I just play both of them.

My guardian was defeated for the first time at level 13, having joined a group to kill the warg of Budgeford. Too bad, no more new titles for being undefeated. Although the level 10 title of "the Undefeated" is the best-sounding one anyway. At level 14 I would have gotten "the Indomitable" title, and I have the sneaking suspicion that few people would have known what that even meant. Anyway, not having to try to not getting defeated is kind of a relief, it gives me more freedom to try riskier things without worrying about some title.

At level 15 I finally was able to wear the fancy "critical success" hardened bronze armor that I crafted myself. *Huge* difference when going from a level 10 crafted medium armor to the level 15 critical success heavy armor, although its hard to say how much of that is the better armor class, and how much is improved stats. The only problem was that the armor didn't look good, being all beige. But that problem was easily remedied by applying olive dye to all parts of it. Only the chest is still mainly beige, apparently the dye is only applied to the seams, while the main part with the "chain armor" look isn't changing color. Still looks a lot better now, as the pants and arms are now green and the ensemble looks less bland.

The level 15 guardian class quest in my opinion is bugged. You need to defend a farmer from bandits, which come in groups of two, with a single signature bandit at the end. You would be able to solo that, if the first two groups of two didn't come within just seconds from each other. No way can you defend the farmer against 4 bandits at the same time at level 15 solo, although after that everything else would be soloable. Well, I died, came back, found another level 15 guardian with the same problem, and we finished the quest together. The helmet I got had the same armor class as the crafted one I was wearing, but looked a lot fancier, and had stats that were more suited for a guardian.

Besides the guardian I was mostly playing alts. I made a new man captain, and leveled him up to 9. I still plan to take him to level 10 or a bit higher, to see how that class plays when he gets a pet. Because frankly, up to level 9, with no pet, the captain is the weakest class I ever played in this game. He is constantly running out of power (what other games call mana), and then he can't do anything any more. In LotRO all characters use power for all special attacks, but although my other characters hit all their hotkeys as fast as they can, they never run out of power except when fighting more than 2 mobs at once. The captain even gets low when he just fights mobs one by one, and was the only character where I really needed to pause between fights to get him back up to full. Which is especially annoying for this class, as he has lots of abilities that only work after he has defeated a foe, so you'd need to start the next fight right away to make the most out of them. I really want to see whether the class gets better after receiving a herald pet at level 10, because right now I foresee a constant stream of "captain sucks" posts on the LotRO forums.

I made the captain a scholar, inadvertently adding the worst tradeskill in the game to the character with the worst class in the game. With all the money and power of my alts I just can't get the scholar to even be proficient at the apprentice level. Every recipe he has needs rare components, especially aged scraps of text, and those are simply too hard to get. Scholar nodes are much, much rarer than wood or ore nodes; they only appear around a few ruins, are surrounded by mobs, they respawn slowly, and there is no tracking skill to find them. You can get scholar materials from mobs, like goblins, but you need to kill around 15 goblins for one aged scrap of text, and then you need 3 scraps to make one scholar scroll or potion. The scraps go for really crazy prices on the auction house, and are one of the most bid on items there. Scholar is definitely the craft that is hardest and slowest to advance.

I then made another alt, just to cover all the tradeskills, an elf hunter with the jeweler profession. Now that one was very easy to skill up, just by using the amethysts and agates that my guardian had found when mining. As the captain besides scholar is also a weaponsmith, and I do have a forester / woodworker dwarf champion alt, I now have all the bases covered. That is insofar interesting as it allows you to level up your low-level alts very quickly. LotRO has crafting quests, where you need to hand in crafted items to get some crafting materials plus xp as reward. And the xp are quite good, for example there are two quests in Bree and near the Forsaken Inn that each give 753 xp for handing in just one amethyst ring. And sometimes the crafting materials are interesting too, like getting those aged scraps of text from a weaponsmith quest in Combe, or sweet Lobelia seeds in Bree for a cooking quest.

Besides the crafting quests, and the obvious advantage of having easy access to starting equipment for all possible alts, I mainly did all those alts to explore all the different tradeskills. In generally I like the tradeskills of LotRO, but sometimes I do have the impression that they aren't as complete or well-balanced as they could be. Which isn't really surprising, because you could say the same about WoW or any other game that has crafting, with the possible exception of UO. Tradeskill systems seem to be something that is designed as an afterthought by the B-team of developers in all MMOs, which is a pity. A good player economy can add so much life to a MMORPG, and you can't have that if your crafting system isn't top notch. Players usually manage to get the economy running somehow, because enough players just like crafting, but that is in spite of all the flaws, not because the crafting system is so well done.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Paid-for reviews

Did you ever read a review and have the impression that the author got paid by the game company or site he was reviewing? You know, that fake enthusiastic tone that stinks 3 miles against the wind, and the final review score being much higher than on all other sites. Or don't you believe those exist? I recently got the following e-mail:
Hello, I'm the owner of [site name removed] and I'm interested in purchasing a review of my site on your blog. Basically I would like you to write a 200-300 word story about my site or MMORPG auctions in general and mention my site with a link back to it. If this is something you would be interested in, please let me know.
Well, I must admit that is one step above the people that try to get links to their gold-selling sites by adding comment spam to my blog, I have to remove several of those every week. But in spite of not really being a journalist, I feel that offers like that hurt my journalistic integrity. I'm not going to do it, I didn't even reply to that mail. If I wanted to profit from the large secondary MMORPG market, I'd put up Google Adsense advertising, and not fake reviews. I don't judge people buying or selling virtual currency, but this being such a highly controversial topic I don't want to be seen taking sides by getting into business with the gold sellers.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

LotRO Journal - 11-May-2007

I spent most of yesterday evening with my minstrel in the Barrow Downs. I found a spot far away from the entrance where there was a decent number of barghests, and got both the first barghest-killer title, and a couple of clean barghest tails for my guardian smith. This also turned out to be profitable, I had less than 10 silver repair cost but got over 60 silver in loot. This repair-cost reducing patch really improved things, at least as long as you don't die. XP for killing level 15ish barghests at my level 19 are low, but I made good XP and loot from completing the Bone Man quest with the help of some strangers.

While I didn't have time to level my guardian, he is still level 13, I got all the clean barghest tails that my minstrel collected, plus some from the auction house, and started making master armor. Using every last tail I had I just managed to make a complete set of master level 15 heavy armor, with really awesome stats for that level. Now I'm looking forward to hitting level 15 this weekend and being able to wear the stuff. I don't know if this sort of armor would be possible to make without a higher level alt, or worth making it if you only had one character. I'll outgrow it quickly. But with several alts the situation changes. Crafted armor doesn't bind when equipped, so having a set of the best possible level 15 armor available means that I'll be able to use this same set on every heavy armor wearing alt I'll make.

Making alts in LotRO is generally a good idea, especially if you are crafting. So looking at the materials and recipes I tend to find, I noticed that I could use a scholar alt. And I am kind of interested in the captain class, because I always find the human pet banner bearer running behind them so silly, and wonder whether those are useful. So I made a captain, a human, because that is the only race that can play that class.

Being a bit lazy and in a hurry, I started a silly experiment: I tried to get him through the newbie zone doing just the "introduction" quest line, and none of the side-quests. Interesting experiment, which ended up in total failure and me deleting my captain and making a new one. If you only do the main quest line you only have level 4 for the final quest instance to leave the newbie zone, and no good weapon or equipment. So I died three times in the instance, was unable to kill the signature level 5 boss at the end, and gave up. First character ever that wouldn't even the "the Wary" title for reaching level 5 without dieing, so I preferred to start over.

Games and controls

Microsoft has a Games for Windows initiative which plans to make playing games on a PC more similar to playing a game on a console. The initiative has some laudable parts aiming to standardize games and make them easier to install and handle. But another part of the initiative is Games for Windows - Live, an online service working like the XBox Live service, for players to meet online and play games against each other. And for some titles that have been released for both the PC and the XBox, you are supposed to be able to play against each other, regardless of platform. Sounds nice? But early testing revealed a problem: The average gamer playing a first person shooter on a PC with keyboard and mouse wtfpwns the average gamer playing the same game on a XBox 360 with a gamepad.

Aiming a virtual gun with a mouse is so much faster and more precise than aiming with a thumbstick that somebody playing on a XBox 360 simply doesn't stand a chance against a PC player. First person shooters are a genre in which people invest in higher resolution optical mouses and special mouse pads to get an advantage. Bringing a gamepad to such a battle is like bringing a knife to a gunfight.

I remember playing Final Fantasy XI on the PC with a gamepad, because the game had been designed for a console, with gamepad controls, and simply ran better if you used the controls it had been made for. Later I tried to use the same gamepad on other MMORPGs, but that didn't work well at all, because the other games had been designed for other control methods. This is often cited as obstacle on bringing a game like WoW to consoles, the controls will just be difficult. Playing a racing game or flight simulator with a steering wheel is a totally different experience than trying to play it on a keyboard. For space shooters a joystick is often the best control method. Every genre has its favorite mode of controls, and they usually aren't working well in other genres.

So either we'll end up having both our consoles and PCs hooked up with keyboards, gamepads, joysticks, and steering wheels, or there will be genres that just go better on a console or on a PC, with multi-platform games being difficult. Right now I prefer to play each game on the platform where it runs and controls best. How about you? Would you want to play WoW on a console? Or console games on your PC?

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

LotRO Journal - 10-May-2007

Login issues apparently resolved for the moment, I was able to play LotRO again. I did some more mining with my guardian, and got my metalsmithing up to master artisan. So I was able to check what rare monster part I need to make critical success bronze armor. It turned out that this was "clean barghest tails", something that drops from barghests, a kind of undead dog in the Barrow Downs, close to Bree. As the dogs are level 14 to 16, and my guardian is level 13, I switched to my level 18 minstrel instead.

First I went to Bree and grabbed all the quests I could find, several of which where for the the Barrow Downs. Then I walked over to the Barrow Downs and found it choc full with other players. There were more other players than mobs around, which made hunting there rather difficult. Especially stupid was an escort quest, which takes quite a long time, and other players can't start it before the previous escort finishes. So the spot where the hobbit lady to be escorted spawns was camped by several groups of players. I joined a group, and in spite of dying once on the escort managed to finish the quest. That also finished another quest, to kill wights. A nice quest where a ghost was giving you directions to a barrow I was also able to finish. But in all that I only got one clean barghest tail, because it was so difficult to find a dog that wasn't tagged by other players already.

So I went back to Bree instead, handed in the quests, and made level 19 in the process. There is one significant difference between WoW and LotRO, and that is the importance of quests. In WoW doing a quest gives you about the same number of xp as you get by killing the monsters during the quest. In LotRO the quests give more xp and killing monsters gives less xp, and you usually need to kill less mobs to finish a quest than in WoW. "Grinding" mobs in LotRO without a quest gives very little xp, and isn't recommended. Interesting concept, as long as there are enough quests for your level. But I hear that at the higher levels quests are currently thin on the ground, which is obviously problematic. And the higher you get, the more quests are group quests, making it harder (but not impossible) to solo your way to the top.

After this adventure I did some more farming. Due to the farming nerf the yield of seeds has been slashed, but as the prices for the other ingredients and the vendor prices for pipe-weed are unchanged, it is still profitable to farm with the seeds you have in stock. I had 250 seeds in my bags, and kept farming until they were gone, getting my money back up to 3.5 gold. So now I'm out of seeds and have to wait for the June patch to fix the farming system.

Somebody from my guild is a scholar, and scholars can make dyes. Now my miner had lots of copper salts from mining copper, and it turned out that these are needed to make olive green dye. So I send the scholar the copper salts, and got some dye as thanks. I used them on my minstrel, who was wearing mostly green armor, but had a cloak and leggings that didn't fit in color. It turns out that with dye you can change the color of any visible item, which is very cool. Even quest rewards and loot drops can be dyed, and be made to fit in color with your other gear. This is something that is very much missing in WoW, where by choosing the gear with the best stats you often ended up running around dressed like a clown. I always wondered how much people were after tier whatever sets in WoW just for the fact that the sets fit together in style and color. LotRO shows how easy it is to just apply a die and change the texture color of an item.

LotRO Journal - 9-May-2007

Just for the record, the European login servers for Lord of the Rings Online weren't working last night, so I didn't play. Again. Seems to happen several times a week. I am starting to get annoyed about that, because LotRO in the US seems to be a lot more stable and have less problems. The problem is somewhere with the Codemasters account servers. The game servers itself are up, but if you can't login that doesn't help you much.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Panem et circenses

In the first century AD the Roman author Juvenal wrote about the Roman plebs that they wanted only two things: Panem et circenses, that is bread and games. Nearly two millenia that discovery finally reached the Blizzard developers, and they realized that just adding content ("games") wasn't enough for their 2.1 patch, they also needed to add phat loot ("bread"). With stories of raiding guilds after several wipes killing a boss for the first time, and then promptly disenchanting his loot, there was definitely something wrong with the item balancing in Burning Crusade. So in the 2.1 patch the level 70 epics will be increased in power, by increasing their "item level" by around 10 percent. World of Raids has a list of the new stats of epics.

Of course that opens up other cans of worms, with raid items now being much better again than PvP or crafted items. And the next expansion again having to introduce more powerful level 71+ green items to get everyone on the same equipment level. But it appears that the WoW system is more or less infinitely scaleable. And you simply can't expect people to jump through all sorts of hoops to go raiding and then only reward them with crappy loot.

Go to DMOsbon for LotRO music

I have a tin ear. I can't play any instrument, and when I sing the milk turns sour. That's why I play a minstrel in LotRO, because when *he* sings, wolves drop dead. :) But a lot of other people are a lot more musical than me. And Lord of the Rings Online gives them the opportunity to prove it, with the /music command. If you have the appropriate character skill, which all classes get at level 5, only the guardian needs to wait to level 10, and you equip an instrument, you can turn music mode on by typing the /music command. Then you can play notes on your instrument, for everybody around you to hear. And that's all I know about the subject. I tried it, the harp I equipped turned out to have the graphics of a flute, and I still can't hold a tune. So if you want more information, check out the info on DMOsbon's blog.

Oh, and you might want to invest in a programmable keyboard or something, because there isn't any way to record a tune and play it back yet, only live performances in this game right now. Rumor has it the next content patch will improve that.

Monday, May 7, 2007

The link between level and gold

Once upon a time, in a galaxy not so far away, there was a MMORPG named Everquest. It wasn't *the* first MMORPG, but it was *a* first in many of its aspects, being 3D and level-based, as opposed to the 2D and skill-based Ultima Online. And it was a lot more "massively multiplayer" than its MUD roots. And so with little precedent to go on, the developers had to design many features and interactions from scratch. And many of the things the EQ developers designed have become standards and conventions of the MMORPG industry. One feature I want to talk about today is the link between your character level, and the virtual gold you earn. And I want to explore what went wrong with that concept, and whether its time to throw it overboard.

The main source of money flowing into a MMORPG economy is loot from monsters. While you might make a lot of virtual gold by playing the auction house or selling things in other ways to other players, that process doesn't create gold, it just moves it around in the economy. Only by finding coins or loot on a monster, or by getting items from some sort of treasure chest or resource node, and selling the items to a NPC vendor, is money brought into the economy. And the design basis from Everquest on earning this gold was that how much you could earn depended strongly on your level. At level 1 you would be killing rats and sell rat whiskers for 1 copper piece to a vendor, while at high level you would be killing giants that dropped platinum pieces as loot. Your virtual wealth would grow with your level, giving you another incentive to level up.

The developers obviously thought that your wealth being tied to your level was well implemented and written in stone. Thus the items in Everquest did not have a minimum level, and most weren't bound to the person picking it up, but could be traded freely. Apparently the designers were thinking that this wouldn't be a problem, as a low-level character would never be able to get hold of a high-level armor or weapon. He wouldn't be able to kill the mob that dropped it, and he wouldn't be able to afford the item when it was sold on the open market. This turned out to be a fundamental design flaw, because the developers hadn't thought of two major developments: asymmetric trades and mudflation.

Asymmetric trades is when character in the game gives something to another character in the game for nothing or much less than it is worth. It turns out that this happens very frequently, especially if the two characters belong to the same character. EQ didn't have mailboxes or shared bank accounts, but you could drop items on the ground in a secluded spot, quickly log off, log on your alt and pick it up. Or you gave the item or gold to somebody you trusted to hand it to your alt. Asymmetric trades also happened between friends, relatives, guild mates, and then people selling platinum on EBay started to appear. All that meant that a low level character now could get hold of virtual currency far in excess of anything he could have earned himself.

Mudflation is a form of deflation, where the value of a specific item in the game world drops. In Everquest the majority of items weren't bound to the players in any way, thus you could always sell your old equipment to other players when you found better things. Lets take a specific item, the Short Sword of the Ykesha (SSOY), dropping from a level 47 ghoul lord in the Lower Guk dungeon. At the start of the game none of these existed. Then some day people were high enough in level to go to lower Guk and the first SSOY dropped, being incredibly valuable at the time. And from then on more and more SSOY entered the EQ economy. And because it was a good weapon, very few of it ever left the EQ economy, instead being handed down from player to player. With more and more SSOYs in the economy, supply rose and demand stayed the same, so the market value of a SSOY dropped. Until at some point a low level twink with a couple of platinum pieces from his high-level character or a friend could buy a SSOY and start killing level 1 mobs with a level 47 magic sword. Which is obviously working a lot better than doing it with a level 1 rusty knife.

Later games introduced level limits to items, or made at least the magical items bound to the characters using them, so they couldn't be handed down to lower level players. Nevertheless twinking was never totally eliminated. In WoW you can still see lots of level 19 or 29 players in battlegrounds equipped with the rarest and most expensive armor available at that level, financed by some higher level character. With features like mailboxes or shared bank vaults nowadays making transfers between characters much easier, you basically have a common pool of wealth shared over all of your characters. And gold farming has become a multi-million dollar industry, allowing you to even twink your very first character. How rich or poor you are depends on how you play the game, whether you have higher level characters or friends, whether you buy gold, and has little relationship to your level any more.

Still the level 1 rat drops copper pieces and the high-level giant drops gold or platinum. If you have a level 70 character and a new level 40 character, both being dirt poor, and you don't want to buy gold, but you do want to earn enough gold to buy your first level 40 mount, what do you do? Grinding gold with your level 40 character would be obviously stupid. You can earn a lot more gold grinding with your level 70 character and then mailing the gold to your alt. As your wealth is shared between all your characters, and the earnings depend on your level (as long as you don't cheat an buy gold), your wealth is effectively controlled by your highest level character, with little or no contribution from the others. With a low level character you can play the auction house, but you can't make much money by killing mobs or gathering resources, and you can't even make money by crafting, because crafting is also often linked to your character level.

We are trapped in a convention coming from a flawed design of an old game. There is absolutely no reason any more for your virtual earnings being linked to your level. A system in which a character could earn the same amount of gold pieces per hour from different activities, regardless of his character level, would work just as well. You would just need to have minimum levels on all items, and have all money sinks, like training costs, also remain constant with level. The only real resource a player puts into a game is time, so why shouldn't one hour of his time be worth the same amount of virtual gold, regardless of level?

The big advantage of such a system would be that you could finally create an economically viable crafting system. Right now it might well happen that both a level 5 character and a level 70 character both decide to take up a craft like smithing at the same time. Assuming the low-level character isn't twinked in any way, he will have to run around and mine copper, to craft himself his first low-level armor, which isn't really good. Meanwhile the level 70 just buys all the copper from the auction house and skills up smithing in a very short time. That leads to the perverse situation that the low-level smith is actually better of mining the copper, selling it on the auction house, and buying magic loot drop armor from the proceeds. He'll end up with no smithing skill, but better armor and more money. If both the level 5 and the level 70 character would make the same money from killing mobs, they would also compete on equal footing in the area of crafting. Being able to skill up a tradeskill to the highest level in one hour, as long as you have the cash to buy the resources just shows how broken the current crafting systems are.

Another advantage of a flat money distribution, instead of a level-based one, would be that twinking, and in consequence buying gold from gold farmers, becomes less interesting for the lower level characters. While the current system forces the gold farmers to level up first, once they are high level they earn more gold per hour than any lower level character. So one hour of their time is worth more than one hour of the regular low level player's time, and they can use that leverage to sell him the gold he needs. Whether your low level character is twinked by a higher level character of yours, by a higher level character of a friend, or by a high level gold farmer in the end has the same effect on the economy. The motivation to earn little money with your low level character when you know how much more a high level character makes just isn't there. And it is the big cash pool of the high level characters that ends up dictating many auction house prices.

Tying virtual earnings to your level has just lead to problems, from Everquest to the MMORPGs of today. You might argue that you'd expect a dragon to be richer than a goblin, but it isn't as if current dragons would really have treasure hoards. Poor Onyxia has less cash on her than the price of a good (aka epic) horse, Smaug would be ashamed of her. And if you designed it right, the dragon could still have more cash than the goblin, just as long one hour of dragon killing earned you the same as one hour of goblin killing. It is time to cut the link between gold and level, it serves no useful purpose.

Potshot on LotRO graphics

Potshot has a very interesting article with screenshots of LotRO, comparing the same view in three different graphics settings, from ultra-high quality to lowest quality. As you can see the difference is pretty big. On the highest setting the graphics are really very pretty, but on the lowest they aren't all that great. So if you see somebody writing about how ugly the LotRO graphics are, he was probably playing on an older computer at lower settings. Check for yourself the screenshots how LotRO *could* look on a new computer. And on my computer at these ultra-high settings, the game is still running very fluent.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

LotRO Journal - 7-May-2007

My minstrel in Lord of the Rings Online is still level 18, I was mainly playing my guardian, who now is level 13. I think I now have all the quests in the Shire covered, although I might have missed some hidden ones. And I had lots of fun to gather ores and advance my guardian in his metalsmith profession. I ended the weekend with a big role-playing event, our guild's farmer's market.

I enjoy playing that hobbit guardian. Mainly because it is so hard to kill him, at level 13 I still haven't been killed once. For arriving at level 10 without being killed I got "the Undefeated" title, and I'm still dreaming of getting more of these titles. They look good on a tank. But then the only way to reliably avoid getting killed is playing solo, a bad group can always get you killed, no matter how good you are. So if I want to advance on the epic quest line, which has lots of group only quests, things will become more dangerous.

As a prospector and metalsmith I gathered huge amounts of copper and tin ore with my guardian. The ore nodes in LotRO are relatively close together, when mining one you often already see the next one on your radar. And the respawn of these nodes is much, much higher than in WoW. So you search for a nice area with lots of ore spawn points and run in circles, and as long as you are the only prospector around you'll never run out of nodes to mine. The advantage of smithing metal armor over tailoring cloth and leather armor is that no class can wear metal armor before level 15, so the lowest level metal armor you can smith is level 15, not level 7 like in tailoring. That enables you to gather enough resources and smith yourself an armor before you can even wear it. While in tailoring by the time you can make an armor from the dropped hides, you are too high level to wear it.

Less brilliant is the option to smith tools. I bought a couple of recipes for bronze tools from the auction house. But then I found that to smith a tool you need not only bronze, but also vendor-bought ingredients costing 3 silver 20 copper. But you can buy the same bronze tools from a vendor for 2 silver 20 copper, so making one yourself costs you 6 bronze and 1 silver more than buying one. Which is obviously silly.

To advance my skill I smithed a couple of armors, and put the on the auction house. The LotRO auction house has one thing that is better than the WoW auction house: you can have auctions running up to 3 days. But for the seller the LotRO auctions are less profitable than the WoW auctions, because there is no refund of the initial fee. So you end up paying both an initial fee based on the vendor value of the item you're selling (which is fortunately low), *plus* a 5% fee when you actually sell the item. So putting up a piece of armor for 10 silver might cost me 1 silver in advance plus 50 copper if I sell it, ending me up with only 8 silver 50, while in WoW I would have gotten the initial fee back. After all that talk of encouraging a player economy by making tradeskills interdependant, Turbine shouldn't have put a brake on trade with those fees.

People use the auction house because normally nobody has time to flog his wares for direct trade. But on a role-playing server time flows slower than on a normal server, and isn't so valuable. It is more important to have fun in your playing time than to use it effectively. So on Sunday my guild organized a farmer's market in Michel Delving. We all had different things for sale, I came with my minstrel farmer and sold different sorts of pipe-weed. I had also baked a supply of pies and gave that to a lower level guild member, who hadn't got anything crafted himself. Others were selling potions or scrolls and other crafted things.

So we had announced the event on the forums, and placed ourselves in the empty market stalls in Michel Delving, shouting what wares we had for sale. And other players played along, looked at the stalls, inquired about our goods, haggled, and bought this or that. We had started just before in-game dawn and had the market up for nearly 2 hours, until dusk. Great fun, with lots of role-playing interaction. A lot of people were interested in pipe-weed, but most only bought one or two of them. I didn't make much money, because I sold weeds that sold for 61 copper to a vendor for just 1 silver to other players, with a 20% rebate if they took 10. The artisan level Eagle's Nest pipe-weed I sold for 2 silver, but the vendor price is 1 silver 21 already. Since the farming nerf these prices don't even cover the cost to produce pipe-weed, but I had stocked the plants before in preparation of the market. With money being tight in this game, and pipe-weed doing nothing except blowing smoke rings, getting people to pay 1 or 2 silver for that privilege is hard enough. More than half of my stock ended up getting vendored after the event, because I just didn't have enough bank space to store it. The pies sold for less than the cost to make them, because nobody would actually buy them at cost. But hey, the event wasn't really about money. It was fun to play a hobbit farmer on the market, with lots of other hobbits and some tall folk or dwarves looking around and talking to you. To be repeated.

The other LotRO maps

I love the handcrafted Lord of the Rings Online maps from The Brasse, but of course they don't cover all of Middle-Earth, and so I was looking around for more good maps. Bad news is that I didn't find any other hand-drawn maps. Instead I got the same lame sort of maps that is available for World of Warcraft, just ripping out the graphical information directly from the game, with no artistic input whatsoever.

The most interesting is Arda Online, which has a kind of "Google Middle-Earth". They took the graphics that is usually displayed in the small radar-like mini-map of LotRO and patched them together into a zoomable big map. That works to show you the layout of things, but of course doesn't give you any information of what is where, and in places like the Old Forest you just see the trees from above.

I found two sources with a dynamic map or interactive map of LotRO. Based on screenshots of the in-game map, at least these are clickable and have coordinates and information added to them on various points of interest. Most other game sites just have various screenshot maps with or without annotations, but with no coordinates. As the in-game maps aren't great, all these screenshot maps are rather bad for orientation. Where have all the artists gone?

Saturday, May 5, 2007

More on World of Starcraft

As previously predicted, CVG is now reporting that Blizzard will announce World of Starcraft on the 19th of May in Korea. Of course nothing is for certain until it actually has been announced, but the rumor seems pretty solid. With Starcraft being one of the leading video game brands in Korea, the move isn't really surprising. Obviously Blizzard hopes for another WoW-like cash cow. We'll see how that plays out in the end.

Put a Tauren on your credit card

Adding to the long list of things that the world doesn't need, Blizzard is now offering a WoW Visa card. Besides the usual evil trick of "introductory" 0% APR, which then turns into a 14% APR, 24% cash advance, 32% penalty rate, the card offers a host of other hidden fees. "No annual fee", but a $1.75 "finance charge" every month. Et cetera, et cetera. Same sort of customer gouging offer that every American bank swamps its clients with. Not available in Europe, because these terms would be considered predatory lending over here.

But hey, you get %1 of your purchases as WoW gametime, so you "just" need to spend $18,000 a year with this credit card to play WoW for free. And you'll need to learn to live with the strange stares when you hand the waiter a card with an axe-wielding cow or rotting undead on it.

Friday, May 4, 2007

LotRO reviews coming in

Lord of the Rings Online is being reviewed everywhere, and gets good to excellent grades in those reviews. The New York Times is very enthusiastic. The International Herald Tribune gives it three stars out of four. And I'm left wondering how that happened, that serious newspapers like this got into the business of reviewing MMORPGs. On the current trend I'll be unemployed soon, losing all my readers to the New York Times. :)

Of course all the more traditional sources of reviews cover Lord of the Rings Online as well. GameSpy gives it 4.5 stars out of 5, and the editor's choice award. Other sites like Gamespot haven't got full reviews out yet, but already high scores in the readers' reviews section. I think it is safe to say that Turbine has a winner on their hands here.

State of the MMORPG market

Somebody anonymously posted a question to me in a comment thread which didn't quite belong there (Hint: you can send me an e-mail). But as the question is interesting enough, I'll copy it to here: "I know this is a tad early, and you did mention you getting into it later on this year, but I was ondering what your initial impression with the sudden wave of MMO's coming out? I remember when if you had two MMO's coming out within a year of each other, it was considered flooding the market. But with a WoW expansion, WAR, LOTRO, another Guild Wars expansion and (the one I cannot wait for) Age of Conan, we are experiancing a veritable golden age of MMO's. We now have so many options within this once niche genre that the consumer is able to enjoy a more specific game type, able to cater to a specific audiance. Now, is this just an inflation we are experiancing for a short period of time, or will we be able to sustain multiple MMO's on the market at the same time because of an increase in the size of the consumers?"

My take on this is that what we are experiencing is a mix between viable new games that will survive due to the much increased market, and not-so-good me-too games and niche games, which will either fold or just survive near to the break even point. And I think it is safe to say that World of Warcraft is somewhat responsible for most of them, good and bad. I'm not saying that if WoW hadn't come out there wouldn't have been any new MMORPGs, but certainly a lot less.

The games industry works pretty much the same as any other industry. Take a typical example from another industry, lets say the car industry. A couple of years ago only few car companies offered SUVs. But then SUVs became more and more popular with urban buyers, and the companies making SUVs made huge profits. So the other car companies started offering SUVs too. For game companies the first MMORPG breakthrough was Everquest, which lead to a first wave of "second generation" MMORPGs, with different degrees of success. Personally I consider World of Warcraft to be last one of this second generation, Blizzard being a bit slower than the competition, as usual, but making more polished games. In any case WoW was the second breakthrough of the MMORPG genre, leading to the next generation, we can call it the "third", of games. This nicely coincides with a growth in broadband internet connections, making the growth of the market possible.

As I said, this is mostly a business phenomenon. World of Warcraft probably made more money than any previous PC game. An executive of any other game company would need to be blind and stupid to not even consider trying to reproduce that sort of success. And suddenly there are not only bosses in game companies, but also venture capital companies willing to finance this sort of game. If you were a game developer with a small independant company trying to develop a MMORPG you might have gotten a lot of doors slammed into your face before WoW, but after WoW suddenly your phone started ringing all day. So if you suddenly got investors in early 2005, and given the 2+ years it takes to develop a game, the "wave of MMO's coming out" in 2007 and 2008 isn't so surprising. That includes games that have been under development since before WoW, but got sudden injections of cash to speed them up or make them bigger. EA buying Mythic for Warhammer Online is a typical example of a game company giant wanting a piece of the pie, and buying in the expertise from a smaller company with a good track record.

In terms of gameplay and design, the "third generation" isn't as clearly defined. A game like Vanguard could as well have been part of the second generation in terms of design, having a distinctive "pre-WoW" feel. But games like LotRO obviously profited from the development of the genre by WoW, and apply the lessons learned from that game. And then there are other games which reacted to WoW by trying to differentiate themselves from it, for example by covering other genres than fantasy, while still trying to profit from WoW's success and growth of the market.

In all that Sturgeon's Law applies, 90% of everything is crud. But even if only 1 out of 10 MMORPGs is good, an influx of cash into the genre leading to more games being published is still increasing the total number of good games, even if they appear to be swamped by the much bigger number of bad games. And some of the 90% "crud" games aren't so much bad as niche, only being interesting to a much smaller audience. And that is a good thing too, we are better off if not all games are the same mass market style. The growth of the market allows smaller games to survive, even if they are far from reaching the success of World of Warcraft.

So whether you like WoW or not, I think over all it had a positive influence on the viability and growth of the genre. MMORPGs becoming "mainstream" certainly has some disadvantages as well as advantages, and not everyone will like it. But our chance to find a good game that we like, niche or mainstream, has certainly gone up this year. That can't be bad.