Saturday, June 30, 2007

Second Life hits 8 million players

Not. But the Times of London claims that Second Life is "the interactive online game with nearly 8m players worldwide", proving once again that just plain lying is often the best marketing strategy. By counting everybody who ever opened a free account for Second Life for 5 minutes, Linden Labs managed to fool the reporters.

The truth about Second Life can easily be found on their own website, which has stats on players and the virtual economy. So how high do you think the number of "premium residents" aka paying subscribers is? 75,000, a factor 100 short of "nearly 8m".

Friday, June 29, 2007

The purpose of quests

I was watching the Warhammer Online video podcast on quests again, and the description of WAR's "kill collectors" quests made me think. Paul Barnett is a funny guy, and spins a great yarn about how it is better if the quest giver rewards you for kills that you already did in the past, instead of sending you out to kill bears when you just spent an hour doing so. You don't even have to keep the bear paws in your inventory, you just get a reward because the game remembers you killed stuff. But is that really better? Or is it totally against the purpose of quests?

Paul says something along the lines of "so if you are wandering along somewhere and see a lot of monsters, and you are not too sure whether you should bother harvesting them, remember, somebody somewhere wants them dead". I'd call that reverse questing, first doing the quest and then looking for the quest giver. One minor problem I have with that is that it isn't very logical from a story point of view. I can't see the hero going into a village and shouting on the marketplace: "I killed 12 orcs, 8 bears, and 17 wolves. Who wants to reward me for that?". Because even if somebody in the village wanted those orcs or wolves dead, he wouldn't be giving out rewards after the fact, unless he had made a deal with the hero before to kill those orcs.

But the bigger problem is from the gameplay point of view. It means you are back to guesswork about what you are supposed to do. You see some monsters and you just randomly kill a couple of them, hoping there will be a reward. You don't know whether there really is a reward, where to get it, and how many mobs you are supposed to kill. There is no real purpose behind your actions, except for some bonus reward on top of the xp and loot you get for the killing itself. Rewards aren't the purpose of quests. If you just wanted to give out a bonus award for killing 30 wolves, you could do it like Lord of the Rings Online, which on killing the first wolf automatically puts the "kill 30 wolves" goal into your deeds log, telling you that you'll receive a title for killing 30 wolves (and a trait for killing another 60 one). You wouldn't need quest givers for that.

The purpose of quests is to guide you, to direct you into areas where you otherwise might not have gone. If you are new to some area you simply can't know whether you should go north or south to find mobs of your level. Go the wrong way and you could either get eaten by monsters far too strong for you, or bored by mobs that are far too low. But if you open your quest journal, you'll find a quest color coded to show that it's for your level, and telling you to go north to kill 10 wolves. That gives you a goal, a direction to go, a hint what you are supposed to do next. World of Warcraft did this especially well, up to the point of detecting that you were a bit too high for this area and giving you a quest to go to the next one. The purpose of quests is to be your guiding angel through an open world, where you don't have the linear storyline of a single-player RPG. Or as the WAR podcast says, quests are the story of a MMORPG. Somebody handing you a bag of gold because you killed some wolves Tuesday of last week isn't much of a storyline, in my opinion. Fortunately WAR has a lot of other types of quests, I assume that the others give you more of a sense of purpose than just rewards for random killing.

WoW players have it easy - compared to UO

One of my readers, Syncaine, started his own blog. And he starts with an interesting topic, comparing World of Warcraft with Ultima Online. Unsurprisingly in that comparison WoW turns out to be a carebear MMORPG. You might get ganked in WoW, but only on a PvP server, and then nobody will be able to loot your corpse. Pffft! Where is the challenge in that? :)

While the description of UO as "it was just an open world with basically no rules. You had no levels, no quests, no instances, just a bunch of forests and mountains with a few towns to explore and make of it what you would" kind of misses mentioning the skill system, which was UO's version of "leveling", Syncaine otherwise has a point. Modern MMORPGs are a lot more user friendly and accessible than Ultima Online. Or Everquest, if you want another comparison. But then, a lot more players play these modern accessible games than did play the old hardcore games. Though part of that might have to do with technology: I first played UO on dial-up, and with local calls not being free here in Europe that landed me with a $500 telephone bill for my first month. :)

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Putting things into perspective

I have set up Blogger so I receive a mail for every comment I get. Most comments are on the front page posts, but sometimes I get some comment spam on older posts. This is how I stumbled upon something I wrote half a year ago, World of Warcraft is not the end of history. Before TBC even came out I thought that WoW subscriptions would decline after the inevitable expansion peak. I was right, but talking about decreasing WoW subscription number gets you labelled a "WoW hater" nowadays. Some people are clearly in a state of panic, some are still in the denial phase. But nobody took the time to really put those numbers into perspective. Let's take the time to do that.

First things first: WoW isn't dying. As Raph Koster explains, MMORPGs shrink much slower than they grow. After 27 months of continuous growth it will take World of Warcraft many, many years to "die". I wouldn't be surprised if it would still be around in 10 years. Hey, Everquest is still there, and Ultima Online is preparing for it's 10th anniversary. World of Warcraft will not only be around for a long time, it will still be the biggest MMORPG for the foreseeable future. There are no "WoW killers" on the horizon. It might still be years before we see the next 8-million subscribers MMORPG. World of Warcraft will be safe on its throne, and profitable to Blizzard.

So the decline doesn't matter? Far from that. We will never know the exact numbers, but the WarcraftRealms graph suggests a 10% decline from the peak in February. That still leaves more players than WoW had in December last year. But if you happen to work in a company, imagine you having to tell your bosses that you just lost 10% of your customers, starting the first decline after 27 months of growth. Big as WoW is, losing 10% means losing more people than Everquest ever had, and it also means losing over 100 million dollars. Do you think that the business managers will just shrug that off as inevitable loss? Or will they ask the developers some hard questions on why the population peaked only one month after TBC came out, and then declined so drastically? If The Burning Crusade had been "better", regardless of what you think "better" would entail, it should have held the attention of the customers for a longer time. The business manager doesn't need to understand anything about game design, he'll just need to look at the subscription numbers to know that there is something wrong with TBC, that it wasn't the success that Blizzard had hoped it would be. That *will* have consequences for the design of the next expansion. It isn't sure that the next time they'll get it right, but at least Blizzard will do their own analysis of what went wrong and try to correct it. Telling your boss that you think the current version is better game design, and to hell with the 100 million dollars is an impossible sell.

It is possible that World of Warcraft will be able to stop the decline of subscription numbers and stay above 8 million subscribers for longer. But the one place where you won't notice it is the MMORPG blogosphere. World of Warcraft will play an important role as point of comparison in most MMORPG blogs. Most discussions will assume that everybody reading it will have played WoW. It is really hard, and actually a bit silly, to try to review a new game without comparing it to the industry leader. But unless you visit dedicated WoW blogs, World of Warcraft will slowly fade into the news background. The buzz will be around the new games. The 137th patch of WoW changing some power of some class by 1.75% will not cause all that much excitement any more. World of Warcraft will be for Blizzard what Mickey Mouse is for Disney: A cash cow, producing hundreds of millions of dollars every year, without being in the headlines much any more. All forms of journalism, including the amateur blog kind, tend to overhype anything that is new, and underestimate the influence of the old. You *can* overlook the 800-pound gorilla, if he has been sitting in your living room long enough.

That has nothing to do with "WoW hating" or "WoW bashing". Bloggers are often the first ones to try new games, the avant-garde. Many people, including me and other bloggers, played World of Warcraft for over 2 years, which shows what a great game it is. But expecting everybody to play that game forever just isn't realistic. People move on, and so do their blogs. Sometimes people prefer a new game over an old one, even if the new game isn't strictly better than the old one. What blogger plays what game is not necessarily a good measure of the quality of the games. The longer you play a game, the more the game's small faults start to annoy you. A new game is fresh and exciting, and many of its defects are overlooked. Bloggers just being normal people like everybody else, that leads to more reports on the faults of old games and how wonderful the new games are than would be justified in a fair one-on-one comparison.

In summary, World of Warcraft is alive and well. It has some visible problems with the last expansion not having the same user retention as the original game, but nothing life-threatening. Nevertheless the news are moving on, to the next generation of games, and WoW reporting will become less, even if the new games aren't better than World of Warcraft.

From recipes to building blocks and beyond

Imagine you are a level 30ish caster in World of Warcraft, and you want to tailor yourself some gloves. Even if you have all the existing recipes, that isn't as easy as it sounds. There are a couple of recipes for level 24 to 25 gloves, for example Truefaith Gloves. But then the next recipe is for level 37, Crimson Silk Gloves. You wouldn't want to wear gloves 10 levels below you, and you'll need to wait another couple of levels before being able to wear the next one. And then you might not like the bonuses on offer. What if you'd really like to have gloves with a stamina bonus? Sorry, no recipe for that anywhere below level 57. Finally, if you are aesthetically inclined, you might find that the Crimson Silk Gloves of course are red, and the color clashes horribly with your green robe. In short, your limited selection of recipes often prevents you from crafting what you really want.

There has been quite some discussion in the MMORPG blogosphere about crafting recently, for example from The Common Sense Gamer or The Ancient Gaming Noob or potshot, who comes up with some good suggestions in his second part. But all these seem to be welded to the principle that crafting is based on making items for which you have a recipe, maybe with some possibilities for modification, like the WoW jewel slots. But what if we just got rid of the recipes?

Why shouldn't you be able to make level 34 green cloth gloves with a stamina bonus? Or any other combination you wanted? The item level would determine how high the bonus is, and what materials are needed to craft it. This could be implemented in many different ways: In the simplest implementation there would be building blocks, so you make those gloves by choosing the gloves building block, plus the green building block, plus some armor class building block, plus some stamina bonus building block. In that case the armor class and bonus chosen would determine the item level. Once you have built your recipe, it would then tell you what ingredients you need, and then you'd go and gather them and craft your item.

But beyond simply choosing blocks, other implementations could introduce more game elements into the crafting process. How about instead of choosing the final result, you get to choose the ingredients? Besides the obvious need for cloth and green dye, some experimentation would be needed to find that Buzzard Wings give a stamina bonus which leads to a level 30ish item. For those who don't like experimentation, websites will soon have the effects of all ingredients.

Or what about some sort of real game of combining runes to create recipes? One problem of current crafting systems is that it is boring, once you have the ingredients. If you would need to play a game, arrange runes on some playing board to create a recipe before you can craft, that would add a whole new dimension to crafting. Crafting could be a mini-game by itself, not just a couple of clicks of the mouse.

Previous blogger have focused on the need of crafted items to be as good as looted items, to create a player-run economy. That isn't going to happen, crafted items will always be slightly less good, so players are still encouraged to go adventuring. But if there was a much larger variety in crafted items than in looted items, the crafted items wouldn't need to be strictly better to be desirable. Somebody always wants that one special item that looting can't get him. And by making crafting itself non-trivial, crafting wouldn't need to be the "easy way" to get items. If you design it right, crafting an item can be as long and interesting a game than killing monsters for an item.

LotRO is a grind after level 40 - Surprised?

My highest level character in Lord of the Rings Online is still only level 23. I don't play LotRO as much as I play WoW, and I have all available character slots full with alts, plus I'm often spending more time doing tradeskills than leveling. So I don't have first-hand experience of the gameplay after level 25. But more and more comments and reports are coming in that the higher-level gameplay sucks. Which, frankly, doesn't surprise me. Because I'm not really the LotRO fanboi as which some people are trying to paint me. I just liked the early part of LotRO, and wrote about it. I am completely aware that *all* MMORPGs suck in the end-game, and there was no suggestion ever that LotRO might have solved that problem.

Details on the LotRO game after level 25 can be found in this review, my thanks to the anonymous reader who sent me the link. If you read it closely, you will find that actually there is no complaint about the game between levels 25 and 39. LotRO used to be short of content in that area, but the Evendim content patch pretty much solved the problem. What the review is complaining about is that after level 40 LotRO turns into a grind. And I can totally believe that, because this is already the end-game. LotRO's level cap is currently 50.

The principal problem is that no MMORPG dares to tell players the truth, that there is a limited amount of content, and once you leveled up to the level cap and did all the quests, the game is basically over. An honest game would simply present you with a game over screen. A Japanese console RPG would present you with a game over screen and have this event unlock you restarting the game in hard mode, or with previously locked character classes. A MMORPG foresees the problem about 10 levels below the level cap, and just adds a lot of grinding to the game. You might have finished leveling, but you can still "advance" by killing 1,000 foozles, or camping rare spawns, or organizing a raid for 20+ people in which only few members will get some reward and most participants will receive absolutely nothing. By giving the players the illusion that advancement is still possible, the game keeps them playing. But sooner or later people realize that this end-game advancement is excruciatingly slow, boring, and doesn't really lead anywhere.

Is there a solution to that problem? There is, but you won't like it. The solution is to play the game slower than the developers can add new content. My wife still happily plays WoW, because she never reached the end-game. She only got to level 60 for the first time after TBC was already out, and after reaching level 68 she suddenly decided to start another alt, and is now playing a blood elf mage. Me leveling so slowly in LotRO is in the same spirit. Walls hurt less if you don't run into them full speed. :)

Does LotRO suck because of that? Not any more or any less than World of Warcraft. Currently LotRO is smaller, so if you play both games at the same speed you'd hit the wall earlier in LotRO. On the other hand it is possible that LotRO could add content faster than WoW did, Turbine has a good track record in that respect. There is also a distinct possibility that the LotRO developers plan to use the same alternative end-game grind that Warhammer Online plans to use: PvP. There has been talk of a lot more PvP zones being added, like Helm's Deep. Filling your end-game with repetitive PvP instead of repetitive PvE is an option, because PvP is less obviously repetitive. You'll conquer the same zone again and again, but at least the enemies, being controlled by other players, don't always react in exactly the same way.

I'm still hoping that one day a game comes along that has a better solution to what to offer at the end of the game.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Hating the people you play with

The hunter took a couple of steps backwards, away from the people meleeing the mob, but got into the aggro range of the next group of mobs, wiping the raid. The priest had a flaky internet connection, getting disconnected several times during fights, also wiping the raid. Next raid the main tank warrior didn't show up, there was no replacement available, and the raid was cancelled after a frustrating wait. One raid everybody relied on the paladin to heal, but he had respec'd to retribution for PvP and hadn't told anybody, causing lots of wipes. The mage is always starting dps too early, before it is called. The warlock suddenly had to leave in the middle of the dungeon, for some real life nonsense, and it took half an hour to replace him. And don't get me started on the new guy, the shaman, who doesn't know the raid encounters and keeps making mistakes, while getting most of the epics that nobody else wants any more.

Sounds familiar? Fact is that whether it is 5-man groups or raids, somebody making a mistake or having an accident can easily wipe the whole group. It doesn't matter how good you play, if the guy next to you messes up, you'll wipe too. The harder the encounter, the less room there is for error, and the smaller an error from one player can kill everybody else. Repeatedly. Obviously that is quite frustrating, especially if it wasn't you who made the mistake. And if enough of those incidents happen, it doesn't exactly evoke love towards your fellow players. Some groups or raids simply end in failure, or even don't get started at all, and you leave you cursing and fuming about the others.

That doesn't remain without consequences. My headline of "hating the people you play with" is an exaggeration. But you don't have to look far on various official game or guild forums before you stumble upon posts where one player disses another player for one of the things I mentioned in the first paragraph: Playing badly, getting disconnected, not turning up, making a "wrong" choice of talents, et cetera, et cetera. And many guilds have formal or informal rules that kick people out, or at least not give them raiding spots, for various "crimes". I've read one guild web site where going on holiday for 3 weeks (as I will in 10 days) is enough for getting your kicked out of the guild, even if you announce it beforehand. Most guilds are far more moderate, but if you have a history of getting the others wiped, don't count on getting invited to the next raid. Even if the problem was related to your internet connection or real life happenings, which aren't really your fault.

But the most serious consequence of other people being able to ruin your fun in a group is that it often results in people preferring to play solo. You would think the main attraction of a massively multiplayer game would be to play with other people, but at any given moment in World of Warcraft there are far more people not grouped than in a group. Playing solo is popular, because it minimizes negative interference from other players. The cost of that is that it also minimizes positive interference from other players. Forced grouping, like in Everquest, although it did foster social cohesion, is now so unpopular that you simply can't sell a game any more that does it. But the degree of friendship you feel towards your fellow players has diminished, leading to phenomena like the Kleenex guild, disposable at any moment.

I'm not quite sure how it can be done, but I think that game design of new MMORPGs should be tuned in a way as to make players not despise each other so much, but see them as allies. Grouping shouldn't be forced, but I think there is room to make it more advantageous, giving better xp bonuses for grouping. And in designing encounters for groups you need to carefully balance the challenge and rewards of everybody playing well with the likelihood of one error wiping the group, and the resulting frustration for all other players in the group. Can they just try again, or is there a respawn throwing them way back in their progress if they wipe? Multiplayer games shouldn't teach us to hate the people we play with. Not just because that "isn't nice", but for the simple business reason that people pay longer for games where their friends are.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

DM Osbon is moving

DM Osbon, a fellow blogger, sent me a mail announcing that he moved his blog to In his first blog entry on the new blog he says: "Many of the subjects touched on in my previous blog will see the light again here but things at Sweet Flag will be documented very differently. More consideration to the words & less clutter when it comes to posting. Less of the ‘heavy’ look of the past & instead a minimal, easy to read blog in Sweet Flag."

Well, it's his blog, and if he wants a clean break from his old blog to make a new and better one, I wish him the best of luck. But of course it made me think whether that would be an option for me too, and the answer came up negative. By making a completely new blog you lose all your history, including whatever counter you use to count visitors, and your Google page rank. If I moved to a new blog, it would be very hard for my readers to find me, even if I leave a last post here pointing to the new blog. Sitemeter tells me that of the last 4,000 visitors an astonishing 59 came here by typing "Tobold" into Google. I'm a "brand name" now, although a very minor one. Making a new blog under a new name would destroy that brand. Making a new blog and still running under the name of Tobold would at least hurt the brand, because my page rank would go from five to zero, making it less likely that people find me when using other search words. Google has a scary amount of influence on what people read on the internet.

Now I could imagine one day *having* to move, a nightmare scenario: Blogger / Blogspot closes down or implements heavy traffic restrictions. But fortunately that isn't all that likely, because Blogger is owned by Google, who with a combination of being very rich and having a company motto of "don't be evil" can afford to offer free services indefinitely. I *do* make backups once in a while, just to be on the safe side, but I'm not too worried.

So if I wanted to redecorate and change my style, I would keep the old address and history, and just change the layout and how I write my new stuff. That would be a visible break, and have some influence on visitor numbers, but at least I wouldn't be restarting from zero.

Cloak of Shadows and PvP balance

I got a letter from a reader who wanted to know my opinion on Cloak of Shadows, as he thinks it gives rogues too much of an advantage over his warlock in PvP. He wonders whether Blizzard gave Cloak of Shadows to rogues so that they could escape mages crowd control, with other cloth casters ending up as the victims of this class review. Well, I can't say, it is hard to know what went through the head of the developers when they made a particular change. But I agree that I too hate getting stunlocked by a rogue, and if my only chance was to fear the attacker, I would be annoyed if he had an ability that made him basically immune against all I could do.

But while we could discuss class balance in PvP endlessly, in the end it all sounds like the rock complaining that he always loses against paper in a game of rock-paper-scissors. I don't think it is humanly possible to design 9 classes with 3 talent trees each in a way that each class/talent combo has exactly a 50:50 win chance against each other class/talent combo. My holy priest hates being attacked by a rogue in PvP, my protection warrior loves them, because they are one of the few classes that attacks from close enough to hit them, and I'm well protected enough by armor so I don't die during the initial stunlock. Stealth, stuns, and Cloak of Shadows magic immunity sure are annoying, but take them away and you end up with a rogue that couldn't win a PvP combat against any other class. It is not as if warlocks are otherwise underpowered in PvP, so having some classes that regularly beat them is necessary. Unless you only fight against people who have the same class and talent spec, every single PvP fight in World of Warcraft is unfair and unbalanced. Only the sum of all these imbalances comes out even enough to not make one class all powerful.

Monday, June 25, 2007

NYTimes on The Life of the Chinese Gold Farmer

The New York Times has a long, well-written article by Julian Dibbell on the life of the Chinese gold farmer. Julian Dibbell, in case you didn't know, literally wrote the book on gold farming, called "Play Money", based on his experience of making $3,917 a month in Ultima Online with RMT.

The only part of the article that is really bad is a comment from the guy who is the most clueless about RMT in the industry. Quote: "As Mark Jacobs, vice president at Electronic Arts and creator of the classic M.M.O. Dark Age of Camelot, put it: “Are you going to get more sympathy from busting 50,000 Chinese farmers or from busting 10,000 Americans that are buying? It’s not a racial thing at all. If you bust the buyers, you’re busting the guys who are paying to play your game, who you want to keep as customers and who will then go on the forums and say really nasty things about your company and your game.”"

Apart from well-explained racism still being racism, Mark unfortunately totally got his numbers wrong. Let's do the the math, based on the other numbers given in the article. The title "hero" of the article, Li Qiwen, is said to earn $1.25 per 100 gold, "earning an effective wage of 30 cents an hour, more or less", which suggests he makes about 25 gold per hour. As he is working "twelve hours a night, seven nights a week, with only two or three nights off per month", he makes 300 gold per day, and nearly 10,000 gold per month. Yes Mark Jacobs seems to think that 50,000 Chinese farmers supply the gold for only 10,000 American buyers. Which would mean that each American buyer would need to consume 50,000 gold per month.

Apart from that being prohibitively expensive, there is simply no way that you could spend 50,000 gold per month in World of Warcraft. The biggest possible money sink is the epic flying mount for 5,200 gold. Pick any two tradeskills of your choice and level them up to maximum using only material bought from the auction house won't cost you more than another 5,000 gold. And 10,000 gold should be more than sufficient to completely equip you with the best epics money can buy, plus enchantments, potions and other consumables. At which point you still have 30,000 gold in your pocket with nothing you could possibly spend it on, except for throwing it away. And that's just what the fictive American buyer is supposed to spend in one month.

Obviously it is impossible to get hard data on this, but a far more realistic estimate would be the average American WoW gold buyer buying not more than 1,000 gold per month. Which means that 1 Chinese farmer supplies 10 American buyers. So the companies choices isn't between banning 50,000 Chinese or 10,000 Americans. It is between banning 50,000 Chinese and 500,000 Americans! (Let's assume the other 50,000 Chinese of the 100,000 estimated total Chinese WoW gold farmers work for the Europeans). Now consider that of the often cited 8.5 million WoW players only 3 million are Americans and Europeans. And consider the 1,000 gold per month per buyer is just an average estimate, with some people probably just buying smaller amounts once or twice in their gaming life. Then you realize that probably more than half of all the American and European players bought World of Warcraft gold at least once in their life. This isn't about Blizzard fearing banning buyers "who will then go on the forums and say really nasty things about your company and your game". This is about Blizzard not wanting to ban half of their customers, which would destroy half of their income!

LotRO Journal - 25-June-2007

I went back to playing my minstrel in Lord of the Rings Online for a bit. Now that farming has become dirt cheap, I finally finished it by going from master farmer to grandmaster farmer. That used to cost over 1 gold piece, but now costs only a handful of copper pieces. On the downside you can't produce anything valuable with farming any more, which makes it a lot less interesting.

On the positive side they undid the seeds nerf for crossbred pipeweed, making it possible to do so again. Crossbreeding starts with rare seeds, Sweet Lobelia, which you can get from a quest, or find as loot. After multiplying those seeds, you then need to buy a recipe for crossbreeding Muddyfoot pipeweed. For this you use a mix of Sweet Lobelia seeds and Longbottom seeds, and you get a mix of Sweet Lobelia, Longbottom, and Muddyfoot plants. You turn the poor Muddyfoot plants into seeds, multiply those, and then move to the next step. Fun for a day, but as pipeweed doesn't do anything but blow different smoke rings, there isn't much of a market for the stuff.

Right now in Lord of the Ring Online there is the summer festival going on, in four locations: Thorin's Hall, Duillond, the Party Tree north of Hobbiton, and the Festival Ground north of Bree. For pipeweed farmers this is interesting, because you can do quests in all these places except Bree to get new recipes and seeds for pipeweeds. Near the Party Tree there is also a mystery quest where you are told to plant some black mushrooms, but won't see the result before the harvest festival.

If you aren't a farmer, there are still things to do. There is an hilarious Tavern League quest starting at the Party Tree, where you have inside a time limit drink 6 beers at the party and in each tavern of the Shire. Not only do you get quite drunk from that, the quest givers also seem to have partied a bit too much, and the last one is hard to find, snoring drunkenly behind the beer barrels in the cellar of the tavern. I especially like the "You should immediately visit a minstrel" drunkeness debuff I got during that quest.

At all four summer festival locations you can learn new dance emotes. Every 20 minutes a dance begins, and the dance master calls out steps from one to three. You need to use the /dance1, /dance2, and /dance3 emotes to follow his announcements. Hint: Use a command like /shortcut 13 /dance1 to put the emotes on a hotkey, makes it a lot easier. As a reward you get a new dance emote at every location, a man, dwarf, elf, and a hobbit dance. I found learning new emotes through a quest an interesting idea.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Not writing about ...

I'm going to write another post about my adventures this weekend in Lord of the Rings Online. But besides that I did other things, where for various reasons I can't or don't want to write about in too much detail. But with a blog being also some sort of diary, I thought I'd at least mention them.

I spent quite some time this weekend playing the secret beta I'm in. I'm having fun, and I even started writing a preview / beta impressions article about it. Only I can't post that article before the NDA is lifted, and I haven't got the slightest clue when that will be. I respect NDAs, and on the beta boards I read the story of people having been banned for trying to sell their beta accounts on EBay, and I think that is justified. So I'll have to wait until the company lifts the radio silence. I'm hardly impartial in that issue, but I do think that game companies could invite bloggers to send in their beta reviews and after vetting them allow them to post them before the NDA is lifted.

I also spent several hours watching American TV series on DVD, the third season of The Shield and the second season of The West Wing. I now watched three seasons of The Shield, and I'm still not sure whether I like it. :) The anti-heroes which make the cast of the show make for compelling viewing, without evoking much sympathy. Watching the show on DVD is relatively expensive, as each season only has 13 episodes, and the "complete season" boxes are actually often more expensive than those with more episodes. The West Wing in comparison was a bargain: I bought the complete second, third, and fourth season all together for just 100 Euros. I really like that one, it is both funny and interesting, and is probably a more realistic fictional account of how politics are really made than many a newspaper article.

I buy a lot of DVDs in the US every time I visit. Others, especially the British TV series, I buy from The problem in both cases is that I can't always get DVDs with subtitles. Subtitles are rather helpful if English isn't your native language, especially when the characters involved have heavy accents or speak some sort of slang. American DVDs sometimes have the special "closed captioning" subtitles, but European TVs and DVD players don't come with a decoder for those. UK DVDs unfortunately very often come with no subtitles at all. Are there no deaf people in the UK? Buying DVDs locally here in Belgium has the disadvantage of often getting you boxes in Dutch or English, my second season of The West Wing actually says "La Maison Blanche" on the cover. And here we often get DVDs later, or not at all. But apparently there is a special market for DVDs for non English speaking countries, and the DVDs often have more than one spoken language, and nearly always a large selection of subtitle languages, not only Dutch and English here, but also exotic stuff like Swedish or Hebrew. Not that I'd be interested in Swedish subtitles, but I could imagine the Swedes are.

While I'm enjoying watching DVDs, I'm not going to start to comment on the episodes. Nobody would be interested in my comments on the second season of The West Wing, seeing how that was originally broadcast 7 years ago. Watching TV on DVD enables you to avoid having to wait a week for the next episode, or to miss episodes. But currently broadcast TV makes for better conversation at the water cooler, or even in blogs. There are a lot of TV blogs around, this isn't going to become one of it.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Wowhead sold for over $1 million

I never used the site much, but I was aware that besides Thottbot and Allakhazam there is a World of Warcraft database site named Wowhead. And the news is that they were bought by Affinity Media's ZAM Network. Affinity Media also owns, or did own, IGE, the world's biggest gold farming company. And according to some sources they paid over $1 million for Wowhead.

Of course that caused some huge discussion, especially the "gold farmers bought Wowhead" part, which they deny. Other worry that Affinity Media now owns all major WoW database sites, a monopoly situation. But whether you think that gold sellers are the devil or the salvation of WoW, does that really matter? Would you refuse 1 million dollars? I wouldn't. If IGE came tomorrow and offered me 1 million dollars for my blog, I'd sell it to them without hesitation. Having a successful website is a nice feeling, but having a million dollars in the bank is a lot nicer, and more future-proof. So I just say "grats" to the guys of Wowhead, and wish them the very best for the future.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Manhunt 2 - can there be too much violence?

Rockstar, makers of the Grand Theft Auto series of games, and having been in numerous disputes over the extensive violence in their games finally managed to make a game that is so violent that you won't be able to buy it in many places: Manhunt 2. NGamer reviewed it and called it "indisputably the most gruesome videogame we've ever played on any platform". As a result the BBFC and Irish Film Censor's Office have given the game a rating that makes it illegal to sell Manhunt 2 in the UK or Ireland. In the USA the game received an Adults Only rating from the ESRB. As many retailers refuse to sell AO rated games, publisher Take Two "temporarily suspended" the release of the game.

That of course led to some comments on censorship, argueing that Manhunt 2 is a form of art or free speech and shouldn't be censored. Well, first of all, at least in the USA it *wasn't* censored. The game most certainly deserved to be labeled "adults only", and that label is not a form of censorship. You can't blame Walmart or other retailers to not sell AO games. The first amendment of the US constitution does protect porn as art and free speech, but doesn't force Walmart to sell porn. If due to it's AO rating the sales are expected to be lower and the publisher prefers to shelve it, that is a business decision, and not censorship.

It would be better if the law in other countries would be similar, that adults could play Manhunt 2 if they wanted, but it wouldn't be sold in places kids are likely to hang out. You know how it goes, inattentive parents, or kid asking his older brother, and suddenly a 12-year old is applying a virtual chainsaw to a virtual human being. Of course that doesn't turn the kid into a real Jack the Ripper. But how could it not leave some psychological scar? I'm all for keeping overly violent games out of the hands of children. And if that means I have to jump through some extra hoops to get a game I want, so be it.

What will be the next big MMORPG?

A reader asked me on my opinion what would be the next big MMORPG success. Now predictions like that are always difficult, but my instinctive guess, based on no beta experience whatsoever, is Warhammer Online : Age of Reckoning (WAR). And the reason for that guess is PvP.

Now I don't like PvP very much, and I don't believe that PvP mixes well with a PvE game. But I am aware that this opinion is a minority one, a great many people do like PvP, or at least the idea of it. Making a good PvP-centric game could be possible, and if anyone can pull it of it's Mythic, because their previous game DAoC is widely acknowledged as having been strong in the PvP area. Add in the deep pockets of EA, who desperately need a MMORPG hit, and you get quite a good starting position. As World of Warcraft is more PvE-centric, WAR could easily achieve several hundred thousand players who prefer the realm vs. realm style of PvP. While ultimately the control of zones in WAR resets, at least temporarily your actions can make a difference to who controls what, and that is a very attractive feature.

There are some other interesting games in development, like Age of Conan, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Gods & Heroes: Rome Rising, or Tabula Rasa. And I'm not saying that these won't be financially successful. But I consider them to be more niche, and not so much mass market MMOPRG. If they are good, they will find their players, but most probably in smaller numbers than WAR.

All together these new games might cause at least a visible impact on the World of Warcraft player numbers that WarcraftRealms is famous for publishing. Nevertheless I don't really see any "WoW killers" on the horizon.

So tell me, what is your prediction about what the next big MMORPG is? And why?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Class balance and melee paladin problems

I got a long mail from a reader who is very upset about the talent spec choices of paladins, which he quoted as being "healbot, ignored and ridiculed". I'm not going to quote the letter in its entire length, as it is a bit ranty, and a bit too creative in spelling and punctuation. But he went to a lot of work collecting quotes and data from the Armoury. Did you know that 96% of the top 20 5v5 arena paladins are healing spec? And that 92% of the paladins who are exalted with Karazhan and have killed Magtheridon are holy? The quotes are from many of the top raiding guilds, who famously use paladins for healing and priests for dps. Now my highest level paladin is level 32, so I'm not an expert, but from all what I read paladins trying to tank with protection spec or deal damage with retribution spec find that they aren't very successful and nobody wants to play with them.

The underlying problem behind that is as old as Everquest: How strong should hybrid classes be? If a paladin would be as good a tank as a warrior, deal as much melee damage as a rogue, and heal as well as a priest, why would anybody want to play a warrior, rogue, or priest who only does one of these things? If you are a jack of all trades by definition you can be master of none of them. While I don't think a paladin should ever be good at dealing damage (covering three roles is just too much), I think the class could be better balanced to be able to replace either a priest or a warrior in a group that can't find one or the other. The reward for not being master of anything should be greater flexibility. Just like a druid is accepted as healer or tank, so should a paladin be able to tank better.

We discussed yesterday how a game's difficulty limits the players' freedom of choice. Certain classes being forced into certain talent specs is a typical example of that. If a raid group needs every last bit of efficiency to succeed, they aren't going to invite somebody who has chosen to concentrate on the weakest part of his class.

Of course having classes in the game that aren't great at dealing damage is a problem for PvP, where damage dealing is more important. Rumor has it that Warhammer Online will try to make all classes be equally good at damage dealing in PvP, although I have doubts that this will work. Even if you'd manage to make all classes equally good in PvP, you'll pay a price for it in PvE. You can't have a set of classes perfectly balanced in two completely different sets of circumstances without making everybody basically the same, which then would be just boring.

Blogging my life

I'm still angry and a bit scared, and put off from gaming since Sunday. I haven't played anything all week, watching The West Wing on DVD instead every night. As the regular readers among you know I really stopped playing World of Warcraft actively two months ago. Last weekend I read a badly formulated guild MOTD which annoyed me a bit (even if I'm sure that in reality the situation in my guild isn't that bad), and which reminded me that I was still paying for a game I wasn't playing any more, and that the next 3-month billing cycle would start soon. So I cancelled my WoW account. That was supposed to be a mere footnote. I only blogged about it because I don't think you can write a MMORPG blog without saying for which games you are paying a subscription. But that evolved into a nightmare, with over 50 mostly negative comments, and that is after deleting the worst of them. Plus a lot more even worse comments on the sites that linked to it. My remarks were ripped out of context, misrepresented, suspected of all sorts of ulterior motives, and a rabid horde of obsessed WoW fanbois generally totally overreacted to what I said. Not fun!

Some remarks especially annoyed me. On WoWInsider several people accused me of being an attention whore. Doh! It wasn't me who linked that blog post on WoWInsider, and I certainly wish they wouldn't have linked to me. I wouldn't have posted an "I quit" post on the WoW message boards, because I'm aware of the kind of reaction that evokes. I just don't see how I'm not allowed to say what games I stop playing on my own blog.

The other annoying sort of remarks were the snotty "more pewpew, less QQ" ones. I really would have expected something better from otherwise intelligent bloggers like Kinless. Instead he tries to put me down with unimaginative leetspeak nonsense. And the worst is that I'm absolutely sure that in the next two years he and many other bloggers will stop playing World of Warcraft. And I don't see how they will avoid posting about quitting and their reasons for it on their blogs. You just can't have a WoW blog and not mention when you stop playing.

Thanks for listening, and thanks for proving that intelligent discussion is still possible here on yesterday's essay on difficulty.

Free epics! - An essay on MMORPG difficulty

Have you ever played a platformer, a jump-and-run game? As the name suggests a major part of the gameplay consists of running towards a ledge, and then jumping at the right moment to reach the next ledge. Jump too early or too late, and you fall to your death, or to a point where you have to run back and try again. For the players that appears to be pretty much binary: Either you make the jump or you don't. For the game developers the matter is much more complicated. Because the run-speed is fixed, the game developer has to define the earliest point at which the jump doesn't fall short, and the latest point where you can still jump. And the length of that window of opportunity for making a good jump determines the difficulty of the jump. Everybody can make such a jump if given over a second of time. But if the window is only a couple of milliseconds long, most people will miss the jump and will need many tries before finally succeeding. This isn't binary at all, the developer can basically choose any value from 1 to 2000 milliseconds. But if he chooses a value that is far too short, the game will be too hard, and people will give up in frustration and spread negative word of mouth on it, reducing sales. If he chooses a value that is too long, the game will be too easy, and that isn't fun either. He could program a bridge between the ledges, so that you don't have to jump at all, but then there wouldn't be a game and there would be no interest.

Difficulty of MMORPGs is pretty much the same, only that the parameters you can tune are different. And again some players fail to understand that, considering for example the difficulty of a raid as a given constant: You either succeed with the raid or you don't. These players are mostly the successful raiders themselves, and as they raid mainly for the epics, they torpedo any discussion about raid difficulty with the completely false "you just want free epics" argument. Even the most casual player can see that "free epics" wouldn't be a good solution, as there wouldn't be any raiding game left if there was absolutely no challenge. That doesn't mean that the current difficulty level is the only one possible, or the optimal one.

Another frequent false argument is comparing the raid game with a competitive sport, like football or baseball or golf. Of all the millions of people who play golf, only a very small elite selection is allowed to participate in the PGA Tour, only the very best. That makes sense, because this is a spectator sport, and the money comes from people paying to watch, or advertisers paying to display their ads to the people who watch. Obviously a golf tournament between the world's best players draws more spectators than a golf tournament between a bunch of average Joes. A MMORPG isn't a spectator sport at all, and it isn't the people watching who finance the whole thing, but the people playing. So if you only give access to a small elite, you only get a small number of paying customers.

The genius of World of Warcraft, and the root cause of its success, was that the developers understood the importance of accessibility for the early game. So they made World of Warcraft considerably easier than previous MMORPGs, in spite of all the criticism from hardcore Everquest players. It only takes a quarter of the time to reach the level cap in World of Warcraft than it took to reach the level cap in Everquest. Furthermore in World of Warcraft you can reach the level cap just by playing through solo-content, without ever joining a group, which was impossible for most classes in Everquest. At the same time the developers of World of Warcraft managed to tune the difficulty that it was still interesting and challenging enough for the average player. WoW is "much easier" than Everquest, but far from "trivial". World of Warcraft also introduced a revolutionary quest system, where you are basically doing quests all the time, and the sequence of quests is designed to guide you and point you in the right direction. Thus players who would otherwise have been a bit lost in the open-ended gameplay of a MMORPG now had a guiding thread to follow. By being so much more accessible, World of Warcraft attracted nearly 20 times as many subscribers as Everquest had in its prime.

The criticism that has been directed at World of Warcraft already since the first wave of average players hit the first level cap, and which intensified with the Burning Crusade expansion, is that this principle of moderately difficult content accessible for the average player has not been continued in the raid end-game of World of Warcraft. There is a noticeable and significant break in difficulty level between the last quest you do to reach the level cap, and the first raid dungeon. You can fill that gap partially with 5-man dungeons, but there is still a big remaining gap. How big the gap is exactly, and how many people exactly are able to raid is a matter of much dispute. But I think it is safe to say that more than half of the players of World of Warcraft never got to see Ragnaros, the final boss of the first level 60 raid dungeon Molten Core. And more than half of the players of World of Warcraft will never see Nightbane, the final boss of the first level 70 raid dungeon Karazhan.

A major part of the difficulty gap is that playing in a group is inherently more difficult than playing alone. Imagine that a particular action needed to beat an encounter has a 80% success chance, making the encounter pretty easy. But now you design a raid encounter for 10 persons, where every one of them has to succeed in this 80% success chance action, and the raid wipes if only one of them fails. Then the total success chance drops to (0.8^10) or about 10%, meaning you need on average 10 attempts before getting it right. If 25 players needed all to succeed a 80% success chance action, the total success chance would be (0.8^25) or about 0.4%.

This is a design challenge. If you wanted 25 players all to have to participate in a raid group action, each one being equally important, and you wanted the whole raid to have a 80% success chance, you would need to make each person's action to have a success chance of over 99%, thus being pretty much trivial and uninteresting. So what developers of raid content do is design it in a way that not everybody needs to succeed for the whole raid to succeed. There is some slack in large raid encounters, especially those with 40 players. A sub-group of key people needs to do their piece exactly right, and the rest just adds to the damage done or to the points healed. It is a lot easier if 10 people together need to do 100,000 points of damage in 1 minute to succeed, than if each of them has to do 10,000 points or fail. Maybe somebody can only manage to do 9,000 points of damage, but if you allow that to be balanced by somebody else doing 11,000 points, the raid encounter still succeeds. The disadvantage of that solution is the possibility of resentment from those players that contribute more to the raid success towards the "slackers" that contribute less.

By making raids smaller, The Burning Crusade eliminated much of the slack. Especially Karazhan, the first raid dungeon of the TBC raid circuit, hasn't go much room for error. If one of the 10 players either makes a stupid mistake, or just gets unluckily disconnected, the raid usually wipes. And with fast respawn rates, recovery from wipes isn't that easy any more, often you need to clear a part of the dungeon again that you already did. This has the advantage of making every individual player in the raid more important. But the disadvantage is a large degree of exclusion, because if every fault can wipe your whole raid group, you can't afford to take anything but the very best players available.

Reasons for not taking somebody on your Karazhan raid are many, and most aren't even based on the real skill of that player in playing his class. One major problem is class balance, and the difference in popularity of various classes. If a raid encounter is designed to be only moderately difficult, and has some slack, the raid group gains a lot of freedom on what classes to take, and what talent specs the raid group members can have. The harder the difficulty, the less freedom. A friend reported from his guild that for Karazhan they even have different raid compositions for different boss encounters, taking more of one class for this encounter, then kicking them out after killing that boss, and taking more of another class for the next encounter. The distribution of classes in the general population isn't equal to the optimal distribution of classes in a raid, which already automatically gives some players a better chance on a raid slot than others, just based on their class. Another important reason to exclude somebody is the way that raidIDs work. If your guild organizes two Karazhan raids on Monday, and on Tuesday only half of each raid group turns up for the second part, you can't just throw the two halves together and continue. People able to attend raids every night won't have that problem, and of course they will learn the specific raid encounters faster through more playing, and thus be preferred when selecting players into a raid group. The "you're my best mate, but I won't take you on a raid with me because (you don't play well | you have the wrong class | you have the wrong spec | you play soccer on Tuesdays)" dilemma is the source of much guild drama. And the root source of that problem is raid difficulty.

Just like the jump-and-run game, the design difficulty of a raid encounter or the whole raid dungeon is completely arbitrary, and can be choosen by the developers in a wide range from trivial to impossible. And it is perfectly possible to make a series of raid dungeons where the early ones are much easier than the current World of Warcraft raid dungeons, and where the difficulty then goes up with every encounter and dungeon. There is nothing wrong with having a series of 10 raid dungeons where only the best 10% of players can reach the final boss of the final dungeon, as long as more than 50% of the players are able to kill the final boss of the first dungeon. If you want raiding to be the "end-game" of your MMORPG, you better design it in a way that most of your paying customers can at participate in the early stages. You don't want to give them "free epics", but you do want them to be able to experience the content and special play style of raid groups, without them having to neglect their family or ditch their mates. The proposal is not to make raiding trivial, but to dial down the difficulty to a level where the average player can have some success, even if his raid group hasn't got the optimum class mix or the very best players in it.

Note that these considerations aren't about abstract concepts of "good" game design. The game design principle of accessibility wasn't invented as a counter-theory to "the Vision". Accessibility by clever choice of difficulty level is simply good for business, the longevity of the MMORPG depends on it. If players hit a wall in the game, where they don't see how they could possibly advance any further without making major changes to their lifestyle, they tend to cancel their accounts. You can't keep players in your game by adding another high-end raid dungeon that they will never see, the pulling power of that is just too small.

Curiously it is World of Warcraft itself that still has the best chance of providing this accessible raiding game. There is no game existing or announced that plans to do anything like that. The end-game of Warhammer Online, for example, will be dominated by PvP, not PvE raiding. Lord of the Rings Online's plans for any sort of end-game are still nebulous. And many newer games are going for a more action-oriented gameplay, which isn't really strategic enough for large-scale raids beyond simple zerg rushes. While WoW's The Burning Crusade expansion raiding end-game turned out to be less accessible than classic WoW one's, at least the intention for more accessible raiding was there and was announced. And recent steps that change the current end-game go in the right direction. So there is hope that in a future expansion Blizzard will get it right, and make the raiding end-game accessible for the majority of players. Wouldn't that be great?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

LotRO horse routes

The Brasse now has a diagram of LotRO horse routes, the fast public transport system of Lord of the Rings Online. And they added some more hand-drawn maps. I still haven't found a site with hand-drawn World of Warcraft maps, I wonder why nobody makes those. Is there nobody who can draw among the 8 million players?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

WoW attunement changes

Thanks to everybody who commented or sent me mail telling me that Blizzard dropped the attunement requirements for Serpentshrine and The Eye a day after I mentioned attunements as one of many reasons for cancelling my account. The timing is hilarious, but there is no causal connection, I don't have that kind of influence. Nevertheless it was both a confirmation that my opinion wasn't that far off, and a comic relief after the flood of scary hate mail from WoW fanbois who think they must mug anyone posting he's quittting.

Blizzard's marketing cleverly painted the company as something like a charitable foundation for the advancement of better games, and many people fell for that image. But in reality this is just a normal company which discovered that making good products is good for the bottom line. The people making the decisions at the top aren't really interested in the question whether reserving the end-game for the elite, the best and most dedicated players, is really better game design. They are only interested whether the prospect of this elite content keeps people subscribed to the game. When dangling that carrot stops working, they backpedal.

I do believe that some accountants and managers at Blizzard watch very closely what is going on in the game and with the subscription numbers. And while I don't have these exact numbers they do, I believe that they couldn't fail but notice that there are relatively few people in the high-end raiding dungeons every week, and a much larger number of people cancelling their accounts complaining that the end-game sucks. I don't know how close to the truth the famous Warcraft Realms numbers are, but explanations like "it's summer time" obviously fail to explain why there wasn't the same drop in numbers in previous summers. It seems obvious that the Burning Crusade initially attracted a lot of interest, and then failed to hold that interest. Of course doomcasting WoW would be premature, but any company reacts in some way if instead of going steadily up, sales and profits are down a few percent.

I think that Blizzard correctly identified part of the problem, and did a good job starting to fix it. I'm not exactly the only one complaining about attunement, this is a feature nearly universally hated, and I haven't found one blog or forum where people are really enthusiastic about it. I presume that Blizzard will continue making raiding content more accessible. The next raiding dungeon opening up will probably be the equivalent of a Zul'Gurub, an alternative to Karazhan without attunement, and maybe even slightly easier. I still think The Burning Crusade moved World of Warcraft in the wrong direction, but I'm happy that Blizzard seems to be reversing that direction, because it didn't work for their bottom line. Here's hoping these lessons learned will show up in the next expansion.

Leaving in style

Cancelling my World of Warcraft account encouraged me to log on again and make some order before leaving the account unplayed for several months. You wouldn't want to still have mail in your mailbox when you leave, or items in your inventory for some half-finished project you won't remember. Although I didn't really play much WoW any more in the last two months, I still logged on often, for example for alchemy transmutations, or for trying to buy cheap adamantite ore and prospecting it into more expensive gems. And all that still earned me gold, but how much?

So I emptied my virtual piggy bank and logged on all of my characters and banking and auction mules, sending most of their gold to just one character. The result was a surprising 5,800 gold. So I decided to leave in style, and bought an epic flying mount for 5,200 gold for my warrior. Another checkmark against a goal achieved that I hadn't originally thought I would reach. The reason why I thought I wouldn't reach the epic flying mount was that given the money experience from WoW 1.x, 5,200 gold sounded like a lot of money. But I hadn't thought of inflation: In WoW 2.x it is a lot easier to make money, thus 5,200 gold is equivalent to less effort than it was before. A single transmutation makes me over 20 gold now, and with jewelcrafting I could transform 300 gold worth of adamantite ore into 600 gold worth of gems. And that was just what I earned without even leaving the city!

Of course buying an epic flying mount I don't plan to use much, if at all, this year is kind of silly. But keeping the cash wouldn't have been any better. It just would have made me nervous that somebody hacked into my account and stole it. Now that it is spent on riding skill, it can't be stolen any more. And maybe in the three weeks until the account finally runs out, I can still find the time to make a final tour around Outland before I leave. I can just hope that whatever new lands Blizzard adds in the next expansion can be flown over.

Designing a better, non-linear end-game

Imagine you plan to go to a cinema to see Spiderman 3, and the guy at the door doesn't let you in because you don't have the ticket stubs proving you have seen Spiderman 1 and 2. Sounds ridiculous? Then why do we accept this sort of thing for our MMORPG end-game? You can't spend your evening in raid dungeon 3 if you haven't been to raid dungeon 1 and 2 first. Either there is some sort of attunement, or you need the loot from the previous raid dungeons to stand a chance in the following ones. To a certain extent the end-game is linear.

A much better system would be non-linear, with no raid dungeon requiring having done another raid dungeon first. You log on in the evening, see who of your friends or guild mates is on, and based on the available numbers, classes, and personal preferences you choose a suitable raid dungeon. There could be dungeons requiring different raid group sizes, and there could be some variation in difficulty. But the difficulty would be in learning the encounters, understanding the raid bosses, and overcoming their challenges, not in accumulating gear, reputation, or attunements. A game based on skill, not on how much time you spent doing prerequisites.

But how could we get to such a system? The easy part is dropping all sorts of attunement, reputation or key requirements. The hard part is coming up with alternative rewards for raiding, which don't come in the form of epic gear which makes your character stronger. The linearity of MC leading to BWL leading to AQ40 and Naxxramas wasn't based on attunements, but on epic gear requirements, with the lower raid dungeons being required to equip you for the higher ones. In fact the whole attunement chain of The Burning Crusade is only there because the epic gear in TBC raid dungeons is less good, and wouldn't be required for going to the next dungeon.

What we would need is all raid dungeons giving the same quality of epic gear, but then give out different alternative rewards that wouldn't make your character stronger, but could serve as status symbol. For example titles like LotRO uses, or armor dyes, or items that add visual special effects to you weapons, or trophies you could display over your mantlepiece in player housing.

With rewards being capped, characters will reach a second power cap shortly after reaching the level cap, the point where they are "full epic", and any further rewards are just cosmetic. With avatars thus being equally strong, there is no more problem organizing raids. And the advantages would also apply to PvP. Any differences between characters would be based on player skill and knowledge, not on the stats of his avatar or the keys and attunements he did. And it would be easy to add new content accessible to everyone, without having to raise the level cap. With added content just adding to your choice, the content would be better utilized, ultimately adding to the longevity of the game. This is something which adding content to the end of a linear end-game just can't provide.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Defining casual

In a recent comment a reader asked me to define "casual". That is actually a tricky question, because I've never seen a clear definition, and most people disagree where to draw the line between casual and hardcore. One solution is add some sort of middle-class, the semi-casual, but then again you can start argueing where exactly the borders are between casual, semi-casual, and hardcore.

Many people try to base their definition on hours played. If you play only 1 hour per week you are definitely casual. If you play 100 hours you are definitely hardcore. But at what number of hours per week do you define the border? 10? 20? 40? We'll never agree, because counting just the hours doesn't completely cover the problem. It is only a starting point. You have to ask yourself not only how many hours do I play, but also what would I have done with those hours if I hadn't played?

So I would define "casual player" as somebody who uses the game as entertainment for his spare hours, but for whom the rest of his life always takes precedence. While "hardcore" is somebody for whom the game has become a greater purpose, and he is willing to make compromises and sacrifice time he would otherwise have spent studying, working, or for real life social activities. The difference is not time spent, or skill, but commitment.

That definition explains a lot about the respective attitudes towards raiding. The problem with raiding for the casual player is often having to be online at a specific time and for a specific block of time, together with the other raiders. If each raider is only playing when he has the free time for it, it is impossible to get a raiding schedule organized. And if you organize 10, 25, or 40 players for blocks of several hours on several nights a week, it is impossible for everybody to attend without making compromises with his real life schedule.

To be "casual friendly" a game needs to have a lot of solo content, and it must be possible for a quickly thrown together pickup group to advance through the group content. That limits the difficulty the game can throw at the players: If group content needs a specific group mix it takes too long to organize groups, and somebody having to leave a group for some real life incident turns into a risk for the whole group. If the group content becomes so hard that people need to practice the same encounter repeatedly and learn how to coordinate with a specific group of people, playing with pickup groups becomes impossible. The impression that casual players are not playing as well as hardcore players is only true on a group level, due to the necessity for the casual player to play with whoever is available. On the individual level the casual player is playing as well as the hardcore player.

Sending a message to Blizzard: World of Warcraft cancelled

The main disadvantage of a monthly subscription model is that if you only log into the game rarely and just for a few minutes, you still pay the same as somebody playing all day long. So I decided that it was time to send a message to Blizzard that I'm not happy with the way World of Warcraft has evolved: I cancelled my account. As far as I know WoW characters never get deleted, so I can resubscribe if the next expansion is better than the horrible end-game of Burning Crusade.

I think what kicked me over the edge was today's MOTD from my guild, the one you see first when you log on. It said they were going to Serpentshrine, and guild members should get their attunement sorted out. Ha, ha! As the attunement for Serpentshrine requires killing raid bosses in Karazhan and Gruul's lair, it is impossible to get attuned without the help of the guild. That made me realize that I'll never catch up to my guild again, at least not before the next level cap increase. I must say I liked the old raid game better. Going to BWL didn't require you to kill Ragnaros and Onyxia (although I *did* kill Ragnaros and Onyxia before going there), so catching up with your guild that had moved to the next harder raid dungeon was still possible. <- Note that this wasn't my only reason, just the last straw in my growing disillusionment with World of Warcraft.

Anyway, I'll probably resubscribe to WoW next year, when the next expansion comes out. But only if that expansion looks as if it was not too raid-centric. Right now I'm hoping that Blizzard gets the message that if they make content mainly for the elite, the masses are going to stop paying. Money talks louder than blog posts.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

World of Drifting blog

Annoyed that I'm not blogging about World of Warcraft that much any more? Interested in WoW PvP? Then you might want to check out World of Drifting, a new blog with daily posts on Drifting's progress in World of Warcraft PvP, and his thoughts on WoW-related issues. The blog just started this month, but what I saw was well written. Too bad I'm not all that interested in the subject matter, I consider PvP the "least good" part of World of Warcraft. Note that I didn't say "bad", it just doesn't live up to the quality of the PvE game.

FastCrawl and Manifesto Games

I discovered a nice little game called FastCrawl, which is half an hour to one hour of dungeon crawling in turn-based 2D. Ideal to install on a laptop and to play while waiting for a plane or something. You lead a party of 3 to 5 heroes into a dungeon, with a random mix of 4 classes: fighter, priest, rogue, mage. You move from room to room, trying to find some objective and the exit to the next level. When you meet monsters you place your characters in the front row or back row and fight them turn by turn. You find treasures, potions, scrolls, and gear to equip. If you go down to the next dungeon level, your characters go up a level and have a choice of different abilities to specialize in. Everything is randomized, so every time you play you have a different group in a different dungeon. The game is simple, but fun.

I found the game on the site of Manifesto Games, an independant game distributor. They ask you to "Join the indie games revolution today!", and address you as "comrade", but of course that's all just fake commie talk for marketing purposes. They do have a huge selection of indie games you never heard of, some of which are quite good. Of course you don't get the high-polygon count 3D games of the big game developers, but that doesn't make the games less good. Most interestingly you can find games here where you had thought the genre had died out, like turn-based RPG or text adventures. Many of the games have free trial versions. And from what I experienced when downloading FastCrawl, there is no complicated copy-protection or activation scheme to make sure you don't commit heineous crimes like installing the game on two computers. You buy the game, you download it, you own it. They trust you not to give it away, which is nice. Oh, and they also have sections for Mac games and Linux games, for all you minority OS fans out there. Worth a look.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Overlord first impressions

Would you like to play a fantasy game which is a bit, well, different? I am thinking of buying Overlord, a single-player fantasy game where you play the evil overlord, battling halflings and heroes to dominate the lands. Fileplanet, where I got the demo from, called it "an evil version of Pikmin", which isn't a bad description. And an "evil Pikmin" is good news for several reasons. Pikmin itself is only available on the Gamecube, so Overlord is the first time PC players get that sort of gameplay. And directing a horde of minions to burn down halfling farms (Overlord) is obviously more fun than directing a horde of flowers to rebuild a space ship (Pikmin).

So I suggest you get the demo and try it. If, like on my computer, the demo fails to run due to a missing file d3dx9_29.dll, you can get that file from many places on the internet, just google for it. Besides having an interesting gameplay mechanism which is unlike other PC fantasy games you might have played, Overlord also has an evil sense of humor, which made me laugh several times. Burning down fields and sending out minions to pillage is a lot of fun. Recommended.

Mouselook and video game motion sickness

I'm playing a new game, which isn't bad, but I can't enjoy it much. The game is using mouselook, that is your cursor is fixed to the middle of your screen and whenever you move the mouse, you move the camera. You walk and shoot where you are looking. And that causes me video game motion sickness, also called simulator sickness, after half an hour I get nauseous and have to stop. Apparently that is something that happens to a lot of people, although the only data available are about military flight simulators used by the air force. The reason for the sickness is that your eyes tell you that you are moving, while your bodies motion detectors (in the inner ear) tell you that you are stationary. The conflicting information causes the nausea.

Obviously if your games make people sick, they aren't likely to buy them. So what can game developers do? A scientist studied the matter in detail, and came up with a "rest frame theory". Simply stated, you get less sick if there is a point in the middle of the screen that isn't moving, where you can rest your eyes. So third-person is good, first-person is bad. And of course the less hectically the camera moves, the smaller the problem. Games without mouselook are better, because if you can move the mouse to aim without moving the camera, your view remains so much more stable. I have no problems whatsoever with third-person games like World of Warcraft. But Morrowind and Oblivion I just couldn't play.

I really wished that game developer would make mouselook at least just optional. I don't see me buying any games that use it. How about you?

Joystiq thinks WoW is in decline

Joystiq has a graph from Warcraft Realms showing declining player activity in World of Warcraft since February. Now we can discuss endlessly how exact these sort of data are. But I think anyone is aware that the "we now have 9 million players" press release from Blizzard never came, so some decline is probable. Note how on the graph the player activity was going up every month, peaked when The Burning Crusade came out and is going down since then.

I think that some top managers and game developers at Blizzard should think hard what exactly they did wrong with The Burning Crusade. If you make an expansion which throws your subscriber number development into reverse gear, you shouldn't plan to make the next expansion in the same way.

Time for a divorce?

Yesterday we were discussing the problem of class balance in games that have both PvE and PvP. The root of the problem is that the PvE and PvP gameplay are so different that the same ability can have different power in the different modes. Similar problems exist between solo gameplay, group gameplay, or raid gameplay. The much discussed warrior taunt ability is a good example. It is obviously great in group and raid gameplay, wasn't implemented for PvP because of being potentially too powerful, but is obviously damn useless in solo PvE. It seems impossible to design a game in which all classes are different, but where they are equally strong in all different modes of gameplay.

While you can PvP at any level, the most PvP is going on between characters having reached the level cap, whether in World of Warcraft or in other games. Also raiding is an activity that typically takes place at the level cap, there are no level 30 raid dungeons in WoW. Technically you can raid a low-level dungeon, but you're punished by getting minimal xp and aren't able to do any quests. That gives us a hint on why games like WoW are designed as they are: They have two distinctive phases, one with solo / small group PvE to level up, and a second phase where the leveling has stopped. PvP and raids are additional content for the second phase, because PvE is less fun when you don't level up any more.

That makes sense insofar as it can be argued that PvP and raids are *more* fun when there aren't huge differences in power between the players involved. A level 20 and a level 70 on the same battleground or in the same raid wouldn't make any sense. In both PvP and raids you still can make your character stronger by earning better items, but the power of the avatars is much more homogeneous. With the characters being more equal, the differences in player skill become more prominent, which is an advantage.

The only problem with having a game in two phases, one with a rapid rise in power over time, the second with a much slower power evolution and more focus on player skill, is that not everybody enjoys both parts equally. Some people are mostly interested in the first phase of PvE leveling up, others mostly in the second phase of raiding and/or PvP. For some unknown reason the people who enjoy the first phase more are being labeled "casual", and the people who enjoy the second phase more are being labeled "hardcore". But that are just semantics. The eternal "casual vs. hardcore" conflict isn't so much about how casual or hardcore you are, but about which phase of gameplay you enjoy more, and thus would like the developers to concentrate on. Nobody is fooled by the game developers trying to sell you a game like WoW as one whole package. The phase 1 players clearly don't like the current end game. The phase 2 players experience the necessity to level up to the level cap as a chore, as seen when the top teams in the arena tournament got banned for account sharing.

So why not split MMORPGs in two? Make one game that is exclusively about PvE leveling up, with no raids or PvP "end game", but raising the level cap in every expansion. And make another game without levels at all, where people effectively start with stats and equipment equivalent to what somebody in blue gear at level 70 has, and which only has raids and PvP in which you can slightly improve your powers by earning gear. For the phase 1 players that has the advantage that once they reach the level cap, they really feel they have "won" the game, and don't find themselves in front of an end-game they don't like. For the phase 2 players, they don't need to bother leveling up any more, they jump right into the part they actually want to play. Now some people claim that leveling is necessary so you learn how to play your class. But frankly, I leveled two priests, to 60 and to 70, in World of Warcraft, and soloing them in PvE with bubble and wand taught me absolutely nothing about how to be a good healer in a raid. If anything solo PvE teaches you bad habits, like doing maximum possible damage for a mage, not taunting for a warrior, and so on.

With the MMO market having grown considerably, there is now enough volume to have more specialized games. There is no real advantage of having both phases in the same game, but there would be a lot of interest in the separated games. What do you think?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

First LotRO content patch

My Lord of the Rings Online launcher is currently downloading 2,705 files to update to version 1.2, otherwise known as the Shores of Evendim content patch. Patch notes here. Best quote from the patch notes:

"There were some invisible walls appearing on the slopes of Weathertop. We made them...disappear. Come on, who writes this stuff? Invisible walls are invisible how do they - what? It's still on? Oh, umm. We removed the offending walls."

As I'm still downloading it, I didn't have opportunity to play with the new stuff yet. But things I like from the patch notes are the reworked farming system, the now scaleable UI, and the addition of a clock to show you what time it is in-game. Things I'm sceptical about are the first 24-person raid instance and the introduction of epic armor sets. Come on guys, if I had wanted raid content I would have stayed with World of Warcraft. :)

Most important change of course is the addition of a new mid-level zone, as previously solo quests in the 30's were apparently too few. Free added content which is accessible to all players, and not just to a small elite minority, is the most important thing a patch can add to keep a game alive and attractive.

Class balance in PvP vs. PvE

Another readers' letter, this one I'm going to quote in its entire length. Except for the name at the end, because I only do that if I either have explicit permission, or the signed name is a pseudonym to start with.
Dear Tobold,

I am a regular reader of your blog. Had an idea recently, and I think that your blog is a much better place to discuss it rather than the cesspit that is the official forums.

It is regarding class balance. In my opinion, one of the main difficulty in balancing the classes is the need to balance for 2 very different situation, PvE and PvP. The mechanics are too different between the 2, thus balancing becomes much much harder. Just one example out of many, the priest SW:Death is meant to be a burst damage skill, of much more utility in PvP. However, many shadow priests are incorporating it into their raid dps spell cycles, ignoring the mirrored damage because VE will heal them sufficiently anyways over the cycle, thus boosting their dps significantly. This is not the intended nor anticipated use of SW:D. Hence, it was nerfed recently - the cooldown is doubled now.

What is the central difference between PvP and PvE mechanics? The answer of course is the existence of threat tables for the opponent you are fighting. The opponent's choice of whom to attack is constrained. Now what if both the opposing PvP team AND your own team are similarly constrained. If properly implemented, the situation of the fight will be quite similar, designated tanks try to force the opponent to attack them, allowing damage dealers to maximize their dps in peace, while the healers try to keep the tanks alive. However, the main implication is that PvPers cannot freely target whom they attack in a group fight situation. Now, people may argue the free-for-all of the current PvP is more fun etc. However, when I imagined PvPing under these rules, I see possibility of the fights becoming much more interesting and tactical than it is currently.

What is your opinion?
Good analysis of the problem, but I have doubts whether the solution will work. I could see how you could make a taunt ability work temporarily, forcing somebody to switch target. But forcing the whole opposing group to target the tank of your group isn't going to go down well with the PvP crowd. Where is the fun if you can't even make choices of who to target?

But I'd be interested to hear what you think of it. The discussion is open.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

No more bots in WoW?

A reader wrote me to tell me that in his opinion "Blizzard made a fantastic smash at the botting community in WoW". Now I'm not playing all that much WoW any more, and anyway I always had problems telling a bot from a real player farming. But I *did* notice that on the auction house of my server which used to be swamped with cheap adamantite ore there is now very little of that ore, and prices have gone up by up to 50%. I wonder if there have been mining bots that Blizzard somehow eliminated, or whether something else happened.

Another sure way to see how successful Blizzard is against botters would be to follow the real dollar prices of WoW gold on the internet. I know there are several price comparison sites, but I never visit them, so I don't know if they offer "historical" data. If Blizzard bans gold farmers or eliminated bot programs, the gold price should go up. Too bad I'm too lazy to check those prices every week.

Kiddie golf

I played some more Albatross 18 last night, and found out I don't like that game. Which is curious, because as I already said it is very similar to Shot Online, which I still like very much. Now Albatross 18 is a lot easier, for example your swing meter is not only strictly linear (Shot Online's is not), but it is also marked with the exact yardage you are going to reach. In Shot Online you can only swing at some percentage from 0% to 110%, and you know *average* yard range of any given golf club. But the exact yards you are going to hit depends on many other factors, like the weather, including temperature and wind speed and direction. Choosing the right club in Shot Online is a challenge. In Albatross 18 you click in the aerial view where you want to shoot and the game chooses the golf club for you. But although I find Albatross 18 too easy, the main reason I don't like it is its style.

Most of Shot Online's golf courses look pretty realistic. The only one I've seen yet that isn't realistic at all is the volcano one, with its lava instead of water. In Albatross 18 nearly all golf courses are over the top. I mean, who plays golf in a frozen wasteland, decorated with igloos, and having whalers as obstacles to lob your golf balls over? Or a desert full of sphinxes and pyramids? And then there are the special effects: In Albatross 18 you can take a pill to hit your ball further, upon which it leaves a flaming trail and an explosion upon impact. All of this is obviously designed to mainly attract children, Albatross 18 is more of a kiddie golf game. Unfortunately some of the people I played against there were behaving like six year olds as well, which is not what you are looking for in a golf game.

Finally I must admit I am slightly disgusted by the Albatross 18 avatars and the options to dress them up. I have an idea what kind of grown-ups would be interested in having avatars of litte girls, with the option of dressing them up in mini-skirts or bikinis, and I find that a bit disturbing. The internet being a potentially dangerous place, I think MMOs for kids should be more like Toontown Online and have online safety features and rather have cartoon animal avatars than avatars looking like children. I'm not otherwise puritan, as long as it involves consenting adults I don't mind what other people do, but when it comes to children I value safety over personal freedom.

Launched, and seriously impressed

It turns out that a community manager from the beta whose name I'm still not mentioning reads my blog, and wrote me an e-mail to ask for details, then wrote me another e-mail with a technical solution. The problem was not that companies launcher, but a corrupt file in Microsoft's .NET Framework. A problem with Microsoft software, who would have thunk that? :)

So not only are my beta starting problems solved, I am now also *seriously* impressed with that companies customer service. I'll tell you more about the game once the NDA is dropped.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Golfing stories

I played a very nice 9-hole round of golf in Shot Online last night. Well, actually it went pretty much perfectly for the first 6 holes, me being one under par in total. Then on the 7th hole on approaching the green my ball lands badly on a very steep slope. I get into trouble trying to play the ball onto the green, it landing far shorter than I thought it would. Then I get nervous and blow the putting, and end up with a double bogey, two over par for the hole, one over par for the round. I play par on the 8th hole, but then produce a bogey on the 9th, and end up with a score of two over par for the whole round. Better than usual, but after the excellent start the finish was a bit of a letdown.

So instead of playing another round, I decide to follow my readers' advice and download and install Albatross 18, another online golf game. I haven't had time to play more than the tutorial. But from a gameplay point of view it seems to be pretty much identical to Shot Online, with just some minor differences in the details. The principle is still the same, you play golf, gain money and experience, raise your skills, buy items to improve your game, and you can advance faster if you spend real world money to buy buffs. The graphical style is very different, being more colorful and cheery, with avatars all looking like little kids and special effects like the rewards for a good hole jumping as coins out of the hole. I'll play it a bit more, but I guess I'll stick to Shot Online.

Failure to launch

I received a beta invite for a game whose NDA doesn't allow me to mention its name. So I follow the instructions and download the 3 GB beta client and install it. But the game uses a launcher and that launcher is apparently broken, and all I get is a "Please report this crash to Microsoft" error window. And another game from the same company I installed recently now isn't working any more either, because the launcher is broken. Grrrr!

So I uninstall both games and try to reinstall. "Can't reinstall because you already have a newer version of the launcher installed". Hey, I deleted that one too! So now I have to open the registry editor and manually remove all references to games and launchers from that company. Once the computer is completely cleaned up of all previous traces, I install again. But no luck, the launcher is still doing nothing but crashing.

So I head over to the game's beta forums. No messages on that at all, "Please log in". I follow the instruction on how to register a message board account with my beta game login, but only get another error message that they don't recognize my account. Back to the account creation page I verify my userid and password, even reset the password, but the beta forum doesn't budge. Well, that explains the lack of messages on it.

Needless to say that up to now I'm not terribly impressed with this new game. But if I ever get it to run, and the NDA is dropped one day, I'll write a review on it.

Ethics of money - part 2

A few hours after I wrote the previous post on alternative payment methods, I receive the news that the New York Times has an article on what SOE plans for the future. Chrismue is also referring to it in the comment section. Quote:
“Right now our revenue is almost all subscriptions,” John Smedley, the unit’s president, said in an interview. “In two years, we would like to see no more than 50 percent of our revenue coming from subscriptions, and five years from now we think less than 10 percent of our revenue will come from subscription sources.”

In general, Mr. Smedley wants to replace subscriptions with a combination of microtransactions, advertising and what he calls the “velvet rope” approach. All three concepts may come to bear in Free Realms, which the company hopes to release on PCs this coming winter and on the PlayStation 3 next summer.

While the company’s traditional fantasy and science-fiction games have been aimed at a hard-core male audience, Free Realms is basically aimed at children, especially girls. The game will be free to play in general, but will require paid membership for access to special zones and activities (hence the term “velvet rope”). In terms of microtransactions, players will be able to buy virtual in-game items like pets and clothing à la carte. And there may also be advertising inside the game.
This is probably going to be very similar to Hotel Habbo or Club Penguin, but maybe with better graphics. Nothing like Everquest at all. But maybe one day we will see Everquest 3 with no monthly fee and micropayments, who knows.

The ethics of money

Raph Koster recently doubted that World of Warcraft was the most successful MMO. By either restricting the geographical location, or by throwing doubts on WoW's definition of subscribers without looking too hard on the definition of other games, you can "prove" that for example Hotel Habbo has more users. Such consideration tend to forget one important aspect: Money. Hotel Habbo or Club Penguin and similar web based browser games are free, with the possibility to pay something for advanced features. World of Warcraft costs about $200 per year, just counting buying the game, expansions, and the monthly fee. If Hotel Habbo can't get quite as many users for a free game than are willing to pay $200 a year for WoW, who is the more successful game?

That isn't to say that Habbo Hotel and the likes aren't profitable. They obviously have much lower development cost and server hardware requirements. If just 10% of the 7.5 million "active users" spend a part of their pocket money on some virtual furniture or access to extra games, that already adds up to quite a stack of money. Many people in the industry assume that alternative payment methods to monthly fees will one day rule, just up to now nobody got that right. There hasn't been the equivalent of a Magic the Gathering for MMORPGs, which would be played by millions, each of them spending an average of $1,000 a year. (I spent that much on MtG in the 90's)

Part of the reason is some sort of "olympic spirit" that players in the western world feel towards all sorts of games: Money shouldn't affect the outcome. Of course that is just an illusion. Top athletes cost a fortune not only in salary, but also to maintain, train, and keep fit. And that is before considering doping or other illegal performance enhancers.

I never understood why many people consider monthly fees to be "fair". They obviously aren't, because not everybody is paying the same amount of money for the same service. People whose real life allows them to play a lot end up paying a lot less per hour than other players with a job and family. The only place in the world where WoW is paid for in a fair way is China, where you are charged the equivalent of 5 US cents per hour played.

But why should MMORPGs be fair, when the rest of the world isn't? I'm not going into a Marxist rage every time I see somebody driving a much nicer car than mine. So why should I mind if somebody bought himself the equivalent of an epic mount in cash in some game where that is legal? Spending lots of money on Magic the Gathering certainly allowed me to build better decks. And in Shot Online I just received the items I paid for, and now play the equivalent of about 4 levels better. On the one side you could consider that "cheating", me now getting more xp and money per hole played, and being a bit more likely to play better. On the other side the benefits I paid for include reduced green fees for the people I play with, plus as long as me and them are below level 21, whenever I play par or better, they get half of the xp I get, so my double xp benefit them directly too.

World of Warcraft is *not* an inherently fair game. If you make your first character and at level 19 visit your first battleground, you're going to be crushed by twinks. In PvE that isn't so visible, but obviously a twink is also having an easier time to level up than somebody playing without help from friends or previous characters. Provided that the game company would allow it, would the ability to buy yourself that sort of advantages be so much worse? And if the game company itself was selling gold or in-game items, wouldn't that be actually better than the bots and spam messages from the gold farmers?

How many people more would play World of Warcraft if it hadn't a monthly fee? Having experienced first hand with Magic the Gathering how easy you can be suckered into paying more for a game voluntarily than you would have been willing to spend on a monthly fee, I still believe in my idea of a trading card MMORPG. Selling things in random "boosters" helps disguising the fact that you can buy your way to success. But you have to get it right, and make the game in a way that people with lots of skill and time, but no money, can still succeed at least as well as people with deep pockets.

Besides having people pay for things that advance them faster in the game, there is also a huge potential market for useless stuff. What if all armor in World of Warcraft was brown, and you could pay real money for dyes, decorations, and special effects to make them look better, without improving their stats?

In summary, I don't think that money is a dirty word in MMO games. There is still a lot of potential where alternative payment methods could be beneficial for both game companies and players. What do you think?