Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Crime and punishment

I was already thinking about an article on punishment for crimes committed in virtual worlds, when some anonymous commenter wrote this in reply to yesterday's thread: "That is, jerks in reality are kept in check by other people in the community and/or the powers that be, yet in games, despite all the god-like powers that available, there are rarely systems in place to properly handle the asshats that crop up. It almost seems that in the real world we try to jail the wrongdoers, yet in virtual worlds they jail everyone else in singleplayer/instanced/grind environments just because there a few other players that are dicks."

The US in 2005 had a murder rate of 6 murders per year per 100,000 inhabitants, down from 10 in 1980. The global scale of murder rates ranges from 40 for places like Venezuela and South Africa to 1 in places like Germany. But even a murder rate of 40 per 100,000 means that 99.96% of people *don't* murder each other in the real world. The murder rate in virtual worlds where PvP is unrestricted is much, much higher. Due to the fact that the same person can be murdered several times per year, it is probably even above 100,000 murders per 100,000 inhabitants per year. The big difference is one of consequences.

On the positive side the consequences for the victim of a virtual world murder are much less grave. In some games, like World of Warcraft, you lose absolutely nothing if killed, except the time needed for you to respawn. But even in the harshest games you get reborn after being killed, maybe poorer by some xp or items.

The bigger difference between virtual worlds and real world is the consequence for the killer. In the real world the vast majority of homicides are solved, thus if you'd murder somebody in the real world you'd have a more than even chance of ending at least in jail, or even suffer the death penalty. That is an obvious deterrent. In virtual worlds there is neither jail nor capital punishment, although in Roma Victor you can get crucified for ganking. In some games you acquire some sort of negative score when killing other players, which prevents you from visiting the more lawful areas. But often the consequences of killing another player are only positive, you might even get "honor points" for it, even if you just stabbed somebody in the back dishonorably while he was fighting a mob. This lack of consequences for the killer explains the huge murder rate in games that allow player killing.

So right now we basically have two kinds of virtual worlds, one kind in which murder is technically impossible, and the other kind where killing somebody isn't punished. That makes me wonder whether a third kind could be possible, a virtual world in which you can kill any other player, put would have to live with potential serious consequences. How about whenever you kill another player there is a 50% chance that you get "caught" and put into jail for 1 real week of real time. You'd find yourself in a jail cell which you can't leave, not even by magical means, and you are limited to local, guild, and private chat. Of course in that game there would need to be some negative consequence for being killed for the victim as well, like losing xp. The idea behind that is that people would be nicer to each other if they know the other guy can hurt them. But a player killer would find himself behind bars often enough to discourage ganking. Do you think such a system of virtual punishment could work?

Massively singleplayer online roleplaying games?

If you read on blogs about EVE Online, you can find the most wonderful stories, often involving treachery, betrayal and assassination. Then when you read blogs about stories that happened in World of Warcraft, including mine, they feel rather tame by comparison. Sometimes there is guild drama, usually about raid slots or loot distribution. But often people just tell about zones they explored, quests they did, or boss mobs they killed. And because Onyxia is always the same, all the stories on "how we beat Onyxia" are somewhat similar. So why are not more people playing EVE, if it is so much more exciting? Because that excitement is player-run, and not really part of game.

I received an interesting e-mail recently, from somebody who talked about his favorite game: "Face of Mankind is a completely player-run game. While there is very loose guidance by the devs and GMs, all missions, faction events, and structure is handled by and for the players. It's a double-edged sword - the freedom creates a very genuine sense of reward when players are successful, but it also leads to gross mismanagement and abuse of power by people who gain stature through seniority. Still, when this game was in open beta and had swarms of players, I was hooked." and then asks "Is there something else like Face of Mankind? Something player-driven with lots of breathing space for RP? Something with freedom and exploration? I am told that EVE is a game I should look into, and I indeed see many things on the surface that are quite appealing, but after three trials that I gave up on after a few days, I don't see it."

I had the same problem with EVE, I played it when it came out and gave up on it before the free month was over. The player interaction was exciting, but not always in a pleasurable way, like when I was ganked by another player and podded (killed). But most of the time you don't interact with players, you interact only with the game itself, like in any singleplayer game. And as a singleplayer game, EVE isn't so hot. There is too much boring asteroid mining, and equally boring long spaceflights.

World of Warcraft on the other hand is a great massively singleplayer online roleplaying game (MSORPG). You can have thousands of hours of fun without interacting with other players. There are so many places to explore, quests to do, monsters to fight, and items to collect that you never get bored just because you are alone.

Now theoretically you could have both, a great MSORPG with exciting player interaction added on top of it. But practically there is a problem with player interaction often driving away more customers than attracting it. The "Eve Intergalactic Bank" is a great story, but the hundreds of EVE players getting scammed out of large sums were probably pretty angry. And the other story with the guild being infiltrated, it's leader killed and all the guild money stolen makes you wonder how many of those guild members quit the game in disgust.

So most MSORPG have only neutered player interaction. Limited death penalties when being killed by another player, or even no non-consensual PvP at all. No stealing, nowadays not even real killstealing or ninjalooting any more. There is a "bad word" filter integrated into the chat system. Toontown even has no more open chat at all, you communicate mostly with pre-designed safe phrases, unless you know the other player from outside the game and exchange a secret code with them there. The stories of World of Warcraft sound so much more harmless because there really isn't much you can to do another player. But apparently that is what the majority of players wants. A few people would love an alternative WoW in which you freely kill and loot other players. But experience shows that there are always many more victims than player killers, and in the end such a feature only harms a game.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Richard Bartle plays WoW

Sometimes the news comes from unexpected corners, like in a small footnote to a big story. The big story in this case is not a very good one: Richard Bartle, creator of MUD, made a bad joke in an interview and it backfired horribly with a "I'd close World of Warcraft!" headline in The Guardian. The real news is hidden in a blog entry where he explained the gaffe and said "I wonder if the fact I worked up 3 level 70s in WoW myself will save me?".

Now that is a surprise! Richard Bartle is part of the Terra Nova crowd of people discussing MMORPGs from a purely academic and designer point of view. In many discussions there Bartle took a very annoying "we designers made good games and the players ruined it" attitude, which didn't exactly endear him to me. (I believe player behavior directly results from game design, and is thus also the fault of the designer. It is a lot easier to change game design than to change human behavior.) That made me doubt whether he knew what makes a game fun. And now I find out that he must have spent at least 1,000 hours, and probably much more, playing World of Warcraft. So he *does* recognize fun when he sees it. He still says "I just want better virtual worlds.". Well, so do I, although our opinions probably differ what exactly would make them better. But in spite of all the discussion favoring "world"-type MMORPGs, he ends up playing the most "game"-like MMORPG there is. An interesting contrast of what he says MMORPGs should be like, and what he actually plays. I wonder if he realizes that.

PSP Holiday Review

Home, sweet home, I'm back from my holidays. During three weeks a PSP was my only gaming device. So did the PSP do what I wanted it to do, give me a sufficient dose of computer gaming fun in the absence of bigger computers and consoles? Here's the review:

The Good

I played 4 games from start to finish, all of which I liked very much: Puzzle Quest, the two Metal Gear Acid games, and Field Commander. I had another 4 games with me that I also liked, but didn't play that much: Worms Open Warfare, Sid Meier's Pirates, Everybody's Golf, and Lego Star Wars The Original Trilogy. Of these especially Worms and Golf seem more suited for a quick game in the train or while waiting for something, and not so much for playing it for many hours. But that is fine, the PSP is suitable for both styles.

The PSP kept me entertained throughout my holidays, whenever I needed entertainment beyond going to the beach or taking walks with the wife. I also brought books, which I ended up not reading. And on an "hours of entertainment per weight / volume" the PSP easily beats books; I put the 9 UMD game discs and the manuals, plus the PSP and charger in a small bag I had once bought for transporting my Gameboy. All in all that was smaller and less weight than the Lord of the Rings trilogy I had with me. And though that is a big book with nearly 1200 pages, I can read it in the same time it takes me to play through one PSP game.

The Bad

I was disappointed by Tales of Eternia, mostly because I didn't like the twitchy combat that didn't leave enough room for tactical decisions beyond mashing buttons. I'm still looking for a good turn-based RPG for the PSP.

I also had a few crashes, which I found unusual, as I never had a Gameboy crash on me. But other than that there was nothing really bad to report.

The Ugly

Two very general things in this category: other PSP features and money. Let's talk about money first. Single-player games are much shorter than MMORPGs. So if you buy a PSP game for $40 and then play it through in 20 hours, you paid $2 per hour. Compare that to World of Warcraft, which with 12 monthly fees and one game or expansion box to buy costs you $200 per year. If you play 20 hours per week, each hour costs you $0.20, and thus is ten times cheaper. Of course that doesn't include the price of the platform and the internet connection, but that is hard to calculate, because you don't use your PC and internet only for WoW. Still, I didn't list the PSP games cost under "bad", because that is just the price you pay for being mobile.

The ugly thing about the other PSP features is that I didn't use them during my holidays. Yeah, the PSP can theoretically connect to the internet via WiFi. But not only is the browser fiddly to use, but the whole concept relies on you having WiFi internet access. That might happen in a business hotel, but not in a holiday resort. The PSP can also play videos, music, or show photos. For experimenting I had transformed a CSI DVD into the PSP format, and stored it and some songs on my PSP, but I never watched the videos or played the songs. For a video player the PSP is too small, and for a music player too big. I'm certainly not going to buy a movie on a UMD disc, which costs the same as a DVD, and can only be played on the small screen PSP. And if I needed a music player I'd buy one the size of a USB key. The only extra feature I did use was looking at photos, as my wife has a Sony digital camera using the same type of Memory Stick, and the PSP screen is bigger than the LCD screen on the camera. But other than that I used the PSP exclusively as a handheld gaming console. Which makes you wonder how well a "PSP Lite" without all those useless extra features would sell, as it would be cheaper.

So, all in all I was happy enough having brought my PSP. It wasn't perfect, but certainly better than going cold turkey and living three weeks without computer games. I could have survived just spending the time reading or watching TV, but playing games on the PSP was preferable

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Where to, turn-based gaming?

Once upon a time, when computers were still beige boxes that ran pretty slow, all strategy and role-playing games were turn-based. That wasn't so much a design decision, but rather based on the limitations of the platform. As soon as computers became powerful enough to run real-time combat, nearly all strategy games and many role-playing games switched to real-time. Which is a pitty, because often the turn-based games were better and had more depth. Is turn-based gaming heading into history's bin of oblivion?

Turn-based gaming is alive and well on platforms where technical limitations still prevent a move to full real-time combat, for example hand-held consoles. You'll find relatively more turn-based games on hand-helds than on full-size consoles. But with hand-helds like a PSP being already nearly as powerful as a PS2, that limitations is falling. Me buying Tales of Eternia and expecting turn-based combat, but then getting a real-time combat game I didn't like is a good example. Strategy games on hand-helds might be stuck in turn-based for a while, because of the size of the screen. It isn't easy to run real-time strategy on a tiny screen without losing overview.

Another unexpected corner where turn-based combat is still thriving is MMORPGs. Game companies did a good job of disguising it, but at the heart of it a game like World of Warcraft has turn-based combat. There are pseudo-turns, given by the rhythm of the automatic attacks, leaving you generous amounts of time to perform special attacks. Again the reason for this is a technical limitation, the speed of the internet. The timescale of combat is given by the latency of the players, which limits it to tenths of seconds, not milliseconds. And that will be hard to fundamentally change unless the internet changes fundamentally. People will complain if they lose combat because their ping is slightly higher. In Final Fantasy XI there was a controversy once, where American players felt disadvantaged when trying to "tag" named monsters, because Japanese players being closer to the servers always beat them before they even say the named mob spawn.

In single-player games for the PC or next-generation consoles it is getting hard to find major games that are turn-based. Besides Heroes of Might and Magic 5 I can't think of any recent triple-A PC games that are turn-based. But the PC has a big advantage here, a big independant games scene. Indie games are technologically less advanced, plus they cater to audiences that the major game companies consider "niche". So there are lots of indie turn-based games for the PC. No such luck for consoles, due to the proprietary nature of these there are no indie games for them, and thus less and less turn-based games.

So we can only hope that major game companies rediscover the advantages of turn-based games. While real-time combat looks more realistic, turn-based combat is closer to the experience of board games or pen & paper role-playing. By making combat fast, it loses a lot of depth, making fast decisions more important than good tactics. But the gaming population is getting older, and thus less interested in shallow, fast action. Older player like to be challenged intellectually, to think while playing. Not just because they are slower than the teenies, but also because the aren't so easily pleased with flashy graphics and special effects hiding a shallow game. Turn-based franchises like Civilization or HOMM keep selling very well, so there would be room for some new brands in this field. Just because you *can* make combat real-time doesn't mean that this is the best option for strategy and role-playing games.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

PSP Holiday Journal - 24-July-2007

After finishing Puzzle Quest and the two Metal Gear Acid games, all of which have certain roleplaying elements, I started the only real classic RPG I have for the PSP: Tales of Eternia. And was horribly disappointed by it. Why is this game reported to be the best RPG on the PSP? It't pretty boring, and I didn't like it a bit. After just over 8 hours I gave up on it.

The main problem with Tales of Eternia is the combat, the Linear Motion Battle System. Combat isn't turn-based, but you control your hero in a system that goes back to the Street Fighter games: The battlefield is one-dimensional, scrolling left to right. You can move and mash buttons to hit monsters and perform various combos. The other party members are computer controlled. If you want to give them orders, or use items, you need to pause and use a fiddly menu to do so. Most of the time you are just hitting buttons wildly, with very little strategy or tactics involved.

I'm a big fan of Sid Meier's definition of a game as a "series of interesting decisions", and Tales of Eternia falls way short on that account. The story, besides being rather generic, is strictly linear and doesn't involve any decisions. And in combat you take very few decisions as well, as it puts action over tactics. So the game ends up being more like a film, interrupted by action sequences.

Anyone know a good roleplaying game for the PSP with good turn-based combat?

Well, after Tales of Eternia I tried Lego Star Wars II, which is funny, but more difficult than it looks. Sometimes you simply don't know what you are supposed to do next, and the inability to turn the camera independantly doesn't help. Then I played a bit of Everbody's Golf, which is fun enough, but not something I'd want to play for many hours on end.

So I finally ended up playing Field Commander. This is pretty much a clone of the Gameboy's Advance Wars, but a good one; it got IGN's best PSP strategy of the year award last year. You control an army of infantry, various vehicles, air force and navy in turn-based tactical combat against a computer opponent. There are 18 different unit types, modified by many different division powers. The campaign has nearly 30 missions, so I'll be busy with that for a while. I could also create and play my own missions, but I doubt that I'll do that, there is no surprise in that.

Anyway, it's already the last week of my holidays. Time flies when you are having fun. I even got a very un-geek-like tan.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Random elements use for tactics

Somewhere in World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs is a random number generator. Your fireball might do between 157 and 218 points of damage, with a 5% chance of a critical hit for 297 points, and the random number generator determines the outcome. The problem of that is that the player doesn't care too much. On average the above mentioned fireball does 193 points of damage, and that is all that counts, because you use the spell often enough. The random number generator only kicks in *after* you made your decision to cast the fireball, so the random event has no influence on your decision. To make random events more interesting, they need to happen *before* the decision process.

I just finished Metal Gear Acid 2 on my PSP, and that is a typical example on how to use random elements to make tactical combat more interesting. What "cards" you have in your hand is determined by the random draw that happens before you act. You can have 30 to 40 different cards in your deck, but your actions in every round are limited by the random 6 cards you are holding in your hand. Your decision depends on the random draw, because you can't use the rocket launcher if you didn't draw it. Thus even if you repeat the same combat several times with the same deck, it will always be different, because you draw the cards in a different order every time. That increases replayability a lot.

So why aren't there any MMORPGs with random elements influencing your decisions? In WoW you quickly find what order of spells works well and then usually use that same order over and over for hours, making every combat nearly identical. Chronicles of Spellborn announced they will be using a skill system in which you won't have the same hotkeys available every round. But there is no randomness involved, you manually put the abilities into hotkey bars 1 to 6, and they just rotate through that sequence.

Having a "deck" of random abilities from which you draw is one good system for introducing random elements to which the player has to react. But it isn't the only one possible. One curiously under-used way is random behavior of monsters. Ever seen a mob raising its shield for some time, making sword blows less effectice against it, but opening up a vulnerability against kicks? A few boss mobs in WoW have damage shields or magic shields, to which the players have to react. But in the standard solo PvE combat the mobs rarely do things that would force a player to react. If a mob has resistances, it is always the same, like a fire elemental being resistant to fire spells. There are no mobs with random resistances, which you only find out after the first spell you use on them. If monsters would do actions which make certain player abilities more or less useful, that would make combat a lot more interactive.

More interactive combat would be easy enough to implement in classical MMORPGs. The trading card style of combat from Metal Gear Acid would need a completely new style of MMORPG. Game companies are often highly conservative, rarely daring to introduce radical innovation. But the potential spoils could be huge. Because once you have trading cards as the base of your fantasy online world combat, you have the possibility to sell random packs of cards. Of all the games I played in my life, I spent the most money on Magic the Gathering, by a large margin. The urge to buy more cards to make yourself stronger, or to complete your collection, is strong. I'm really surprised that nobody has tapped into that urge for online roleplaying games yet. I've published the idea years ago, but nobody wants to borrow it. A "free to download - free to play - pay for added cards" model could be very popular, as it enables everybody to play according to his financial means. That would be a welcome change from the current games, where only your disposable free time counts.

Monday, July 16, 2007

PSP Holiday Journal - 16-July-2007

In spite of lots of other holiday activities, I'm making fast progress with my PSP games. Playing mostly MMORPGs one tends to forget how short really those single-player games are usually. Anyway, I finished Puzzle Quest, beating up Lord Bane on the first try after very few moves. The warrior's Deathbringer spell is a great finishing move. And of course the way I tend to play these games helps: I'm doing all the side-quests and all other activities in the game. So at the end of Puzzle Quest I had reached the level cap of 50, had gathered all the runes there are, captured all the cities, and had used the money from the cities to boost my stats pretty high. That is a slow way to finish a game, but you get the most out of a single game. The disadvantage is that there isn't much motivation to replay it with another character class.

I found that the best strategy for a high level warrior in Puzzle Quest is to use the rune items you can craft, giving you lots of initial mana before the fight even starts. Only the weapon I used was from a quest, the bow that gives +1 to damage for every 5 levels you have, which is pretty devastating at level 50. So I only needed to collect some more blue mana at the start, cast Bloodlust to fill up my red mana gauge to full, and then finish the opponent off with a Deathbringer or two.

After finishing Puzzle Quest, I quickly finished the first Metal Gear Acid. I had played that in the Christmas holidays until nearly the end, and just needed to do the last couple of missions in the last building to end the game. That got me in the mood to start Metal Gear Acid 2, which I found to be the better game: Not only are the graphics prettier and the story less weird, but also there have been some good improvements to the gameplay. I particularly like the surprise shot you can do when pressed against a wall, jumping around the corner and shooting enemies by surprise. But the upgrade function to improve your cards in the deck editor is also very nice.

Again I'm playing not on the fastest path to the end, but am trying to get a big card collection first. It helps that by having played MGA1 you can "import" one of your MGA1 save games and get a few points and one card from your old collection. So I grabbed the Big Boss card, which doubles my victory points. That, plus an upgraded Military Gain card for more bonus points, quickly gained me huge point scores to buy cards and upgrade them with. That is important, because in the first pack of cards you only find rather ineffective "use" type weapons, and not very many of them. But if you gather lots of those and upgrade them, you get the much better "equip" type weapons, which even at the harder difficulty setting are able to shoot a guard or even an armed patrol bot. As in most single-player games, playing it slow and preparing more makes the rest of the game easier. In MMORPGs that works less well, especially at the level cap.

Avoiding gold seller scams

A reader wrote me that he got scammed by a gold-selling website and asked me to warn people about them. But as any publicity is good publicity I don't want to mention that site's name or link to it. Instead I thought I post this useful guide on how to avoid being scammed by fake gold farmers.

One major reason why MMORPG companies are against RMT, the selling of virtual items or gold for real currency, is that there are so many scammers around. Then the scammed customer is often calling the game company, which uses up valuable customer service time. One call to customer service causes more cost than the customer brought in as profit for the month. SOE cited this as reason for introducing the safe trading platform Station Exchange. And normally the game company is totally unable to help you against a scammer anyway. So what else can you do?

Well, I kind of have to mention it, although it sounds like the pope's recipe for birth control: If you don't buy gold, you are totally safe from being scammed. But just like pre-maritial sex, buying gold is sometimes too tempting, and then the abstinence advice doesn't help much.

The easiest way to avoid being scammed is not dealing with people you never heard of. Just because you got a website's address from in-game spam or by searching in Google doesn't mean the company is legit. Farming gold might be easy, but simply taking your money without the farming and delivering is often even easier. And with the company often sitting in China, your options for litigation are often limited to non-existing. So if you must buy gold, buy it from people who have a reputation to lose, the biggest gold sellers in the business. Just type the name of the company you want to buy from into Google, and if you find several blog articles stating that this company is the devil and should burn in hell for selling gold, you're at the right address.

The other big advice is to pay gold sellers preferably via Paypal, or with a credit card, not by any other way. So if the company never delivers, you can go to Paypal or your credit card company and dispute the charge. Then you get your money back, and it is up to the Chinese company to prove they delivered, which they will be as unable to do as you were to prove that they didn't. Now, if an evil plan begins to form in your mind, don't do it. Defrauding gold sellers is bad for your karma, and you never know wheather it doesn't land you into trouble with your credit rating or the authorities after all.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Full RSS feed enabled

By request from several people I switched my RSS feed to showing my posts in full length. I'm not using feeds very much myself, so I'd be happy about feedback whether this is working well, and whether you prefer it this way.

The disadvantage of having a full RSS feed enabled is that some of my readers will turn invisible now. I'm not quite sure how these work, but I don't think my Sitemeter counter is detecting people who read my posts only through the reader. The advantage (or one more disadvantage if you see it from the employers point of view) is that now people can read my posts at work even if their firewall blocks the blogspot domain. So in spite of the Sitemeter count I might end up with more real readers, just less counted readers.

Rewards for failure

A rainy day on my holidays, so I sneaked off to the internet cafe to read my e-mail and do a blog entry. The holidays have been nice so far, weather a bit mixed, but in the first couple of days I was content doing nothing and sleeping a lot. And in the sunny periods we went to the beach and I promptly got sunburned. When it rained I was mostly playing Puzzle Quest on my PSP. The PSP works well as a holiday gaming device. Only you can't play long hours without getting backpain, because it's hard to play other than hunched over the handheld console.

Anyway, I already got quite far in Puzzle Quest, having just vanquished the Great Orc of Kor. Since I got past level 30 and have the Deathbringer spell, I'm winning most duels quite fast. The game was actually harder at the start, when I had less spells and no powerful combos yet. But that wasn't really a problem, because in Puzzle Quest you aren't punished when you lose a fight. In fact, you are even rewarded: While you don't get the xp and gold for winning, you do get the xp and gold you collected during the battle. Fighting the same too hard mob over and over will eventually beat him with luck, or get you enough xp to level up and come back stronger. Of course if you are on a story line quest you *have to* fight that mob again and again until you beat it, otherwise you are stuck. But you could go on a side quest first and get stronger if necessary.

With modern MMORPGs already having a much milder penalty for failure and dying than the old school games like Everquest (naked corpse run anyone?), I wonder at which point we'll see some reward for failure in MMORPGs as well. Or is the current level of death penalty as low as you can go? I'll leave you to discuss that while I go back to my beach. :)

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Out for holidays

The suitcases are packed, the alarm is set for very early tomorrow morning, and then I'm off for my holidays. So on my blog it will be rather silent for the next three weeks. I found out that where I'm going they have an internet cafe, so maybe I can report occasionally how I'm surviving with just a PSP for games. But I'm not promising anything, first priority is family and relaxation. See you later!

Friday, July 6, 2007

Shadowing WoW

There is a distinctive peak in March, followed by a continuous decline to June. Still, there were more people around in June 07 than in December 06, so it's not all bad. Talking about the WoW subscribers numbers again? No, this is actually the description of the below graph counting visitors to my blog. Ignore the July numbers, those are "month to date", the graph only looks good on the last day of a month.
But the resemblance between this graph and the WarcraftRealms WoW activity graph is remarkable. Just like WoW this blog has been growing since its release, and has now gone into reverse, with a small decline. July numbers will be horrible because of my holidays, and then we'll see how it continues for the rest of the year. If I keep between 2,000 and 3,000 visitors per day, as it is now, I'd be happy.

Now I'm wondering whether the decline is just because I stopped playing World of Warcraft. I mean, I'm still writing enough about that game, it is not as if I could write about MMORPG design and ignore WoW. With an inherent assumption that everybody reading a MMORPG blog will know about World of Warcraft, it is easier to base examples of new ideas (like player-created dungeons) on that game. And with a firm intention to come back to WoW if the next expansion is any good, I'm obviously still interested and writing about World of Warcraft news.

So when I'm reading about gaming slumps on various blogs, it makes me wonder if there is something larger going on. Are people maybe less interested in MMORPGs than they used to be? Did my blog just lose the people who aren't interested in non-WoW writing, or has the traffic on WoW blogs gone down as well?

In the early days of World of Warcraft there was a lot of talk about the "rising tide lifts all boats" theory. WoW would attract new players into the genre, and when they eventually would leave, they would nevertheless stay with MMORPGs and just move to newer games. This is certainly happening to some extent. But there must also be people who played World of Warcraft until they burned out, looked around and saw that all the other MMORPGs had more or less the same sort of gameplay, and thus left the genre. The question is only how many people are staying with MMORPGs, and how many are going back to console games or whatever else they were playing before.

Part of the problem is certainly the "first love" effect. My first MMORPG love was Everquest (I never got that attached to UO), and all the MMORPGs I played from 2001 to 2004 just weren't as fascinating. Not before WoW did I find a game that I played for as long as Everquest. Now there are millions of people for who World of Warcraft was their first MMORPG ever, their first love in the genre. And the generation of games coming out now is probably appearing pale in comparison. Even Warhammer Online is far from being a guaranteed success. So maybe lots of people are currently disillusioned from MMORPGs in general, and that would affect game subscription numbers as well as blog visitor numbers. Either that, or my blog numbers are just shadowing WoW numbers. Not sure which of those is the scarier scenario.

Player-created dungeons

Many a single-player game comes with some sort of map editor, and the ability to load and play on maps created by other players. Of course not all of those maps are good, but then there are often websites from which you can download these maps, and rate them, and through the ratings of other players find the good ones. This player-created content adds a lot to the longevity of the game. So I wonder if something similar would be possible for a classic MMORPG like World of Warcraft.

Now virtual worlds like Second Life are all about player-created content, but there is no game behind them. Sure, you can design a fancy shirt or a curiously shaped sofa, but besides looking good these items don't do very much. And there is a danger that player's creations tend towards the obscene or try to promote real world ideas or brands. In a classic fantasy MMORPG you wouldn't be able to create just about anything, because that could break the game. But if you have reasonable restrictions, why shouldn't players be allowed to create for example a dungeon?

Games like Anarchy Online or City of Heroes have random dungeons put together from tile sets and populated with random monsters corresponding to that tile set. Player-created dungeons could use similar tile sets, with a dungeon editor to put them together. You choose a tile set and a level, then build the dungeon by linking together tiles of corridors and rooms and stairs. You get a selection of mobs that fit with the level and tile set, and you can place them in your dungeon, and determine patrol paths or spawn points. There could be a couple of boss mobs to place, with different special abilities. There could even be some sort of event editor, adding some special effects, doors opening only when a boss mob is killed, or events like ambushes to the dungeon. You would not be able to place rewards yourself, because you shouldn't be able to make a dungeon full of treasure chests and no monsters for your friends to harvest. Instead the rewards are placed automatically using standard loot tables for the monsters you placed.

For the players in the game, there would be special entrances to these player-created dungeons in zones of the corresponding level. Once your group enters the instance portal, the group leader is presented with a list of all player-created dungeons for this level, which can be sorted by popularity rating, size, creation date, or the name of the player who made them. When the group leaves the dungeon, regardless whether they finished it or just gave up, they will have the opportunity to rate the dungeon on a scale of 1 to 10, thus creating the popularity rating mentioned before. But every player can rate every dungeon only once.

Now I'm not saying that this would result in dungeons as good as the existing developer-created instances. But the best of the player-created dungeons could come close. And obviously there would be a lot more of them. Would you rather run through the Deadmines again and again, or try a player-created dungeon of the same level?

Thursday, July 5, 2007

The better Freezing Jihad

Four months ago I wrote a parody about the next World of Warcraft expansion, which I called The Freezing Jihad, in an obvious antonym of The Burning Crusade. That one got a lot of laughs, and even Blizzard linked to it from the WoW homepage. But what many people didn't notice was that it was actually a sad and pessimistic text, making fun of all what is wrong with TBC and assuming that the next expansion will continue that trend towards the unimaginative. So today I'm going to write a different text, not so funny, but idealistic and optimistic. I'm keeping the Freezing Jihad name, but I want to imagine what features the next World of Warcraft expansion could have that while still being realistic are a lot more exciting and innovative. So here is the feature list of the better Freezing Jihad:
  • No change of the level cap, it remains at 70.
  • A huge new continent, Northrend, with over 20 new zones offering content from level 1 to 70.
  • 6 new dungeons, one each for level 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, and 70. The level 20 to 50 dungeons are for 5-man groups. The level 60 and 70 dungeons are for 10-man raid groups, but designed to be relatively easy, a training ground for people to learn raiding and work together in a group.
  • 4 new races, with 4 different newbie zones, which form a new faction, neutral in the war between Horde and Alliance. The neutral faction can't participate in any form of overland PvP, but they can participate in duels, arenas, and battlegrounds. On battlegrounds they will join the numerically smaller side as mercenaries, for better balance and shorter queues.
  • 3 new hero classes, bard, monk, and necromancer. You can't create characters of these classes from scratch. But there is a level 70 soloable quest on the new continent which allows you to have the character who does the quest to die and be reborn as a hero, at which point he can choose one of the three hero classes. A reborn hero starts again at level 1, so you are effectively losing your level 70 character. But you keep all your reputation, gold, belongings, flight paths etc., and everyone will know you gave up a level 70 character to make this hero. The bard is a healer / dps hybrid, healing, short-term buffing and hurting with the power of his songs. The monk is a tank / dps hybrid, using his deadly fists or a quarterstaff. The necromancer can summon skeletons from the corpses of his slain enemies.
  • Player housing in instanced zones, accessible from all major cities of your faction. Each player housing instanced zone has room for 100 houses, which are arranged in a block around a central square. There are different types of houses available, guild houses which have a guild vault feature, private houses in which you can store goods or display trophies, and shops in which you can sell wares via an NPC vendor for no fee and without a time limit. You can visit all housing instances for looking around or shopping, not only the one where your house is in. Houses have an upkeep depending on size and features. This upkeep has to be paid once per month. If you don't pay, your house will be shrunk to miniature size by a local mage and put into your inventory. When you come back, you can place it in another instance without losing any of its content, but you will have lost your "spot" in neighborhood you were in and thus housing instances can't accumulate deserted houses.
  • New professions of lumberjack and woodcrafter. The lumberjack can fell trees at new tree nodes distributed all over the world and gather wood, which the woodcrafter turns into bows, arrows, and staves.
  • Dyes to change the color of your armor and clothing.
So what do you think? Would you like this list of Freezing Jihad features more than the first one? And what is your guess, will the real second WoW expansion be all about the level 70 to 80 game with another layer of raid dungeons, or will we get content for all levels and totally new features like player housing like in this proposal?

Adding new classes and races to WoW

I've been critical towards the idea of adding new classes to World of Warcraft in the past. The problem is that it is hard to imagine a class adding a completely new function to the gameplay. We'll still have tanking, damage dealing, healing, and support functions (like buffing or crowd control). Why add a new healing class, or new dps class, if there are already plenty of those? The same is true for new races, besides enabling Horde paladins and Alliance shamans the new draenei and blood elf races didn't add much new functionality to the game.

But saying that new classes or races don't add much to the depth of a game misses an important point: new classes and races add a lot to the breadth of a game. Lord of the Rings Online has 4 races in 3 newbie zones. World of Warcraft started with 8 races in 6 newbie zones and now has 10 races in 8 newbie zones. The advantage for replayability is obvious. As long as a new race comes with it's own new lore, new newbie zone, and new quests, it is a valuable addition to the game. Most people liked the draenei and blood elves, because their starting areas had a lot of new and interesting quests, actually often more varied than the quests in the original starting zones.

New classes could do something similar. Maybe it isn't such a bad idea to have a monk class, even if as melee dps class with low armor it wouldn't be all that different from a rogue. But people who liked one character class and are starting an alt because they don't enjoy the end-game often are looking for something not so different from what they already played. You can always invent slight variations in the way special abilities work, and give the monk some sort of zen power instead of mana or energy. And often much of the attraction of a class is in the looks. I played a friar in Dark Age of Camelot, and his combat maneuvers just looked cool. So maybe some other players would like to play a necromancer with skeletons instead of a warlock with demons, even if they wouldn't play all that different from one another. Adding more content to a game is never wrong.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

How much would you pay per hour for WoW?

I used to play World of Warcraft over 100 hours per month, thus paying less than 15 cents per hour. When I cancelled my account, I was down to about 1 hour per month, just logging on here and there for alchemy transmutations and the auction house, thus paying 15 dollar per hour. I mentioned it as the first reason why I cancelled, although that got lost in the discussion about attunement. World of Warcraft has a regressive pay model: The less you play, the more you pay (per hour).

Now this isn't true all over the world. In China World of Warcraft is payed per hour, at a rate of 0.45 Yuan per hour. At today's exchange rate, that is 6 US cents per hour of World of Warcraft. But of course the wages in China are lower, and 6 US cents buys you more stuff in China than in the US. So at purchasing power parity (PPP) the 0.45 Yuan per hour correspond to about 25 US cents per hour. Which isn't quite that cheap any more.

From 1991 to 1997 AOL ran the first graphical MMORPG, called Neverwinter Nights, which cost $6 per hour to play. The text-based Island of Kesmai also cost $6 per hour. I paid something similar for my first month of Ultima Online, because I was still on dial-up then, local calls aren't free in Europe, and the telephone bill cost me more than UO's monthly fee. I stopped after the first month because I just couldn't justify paying $500 a month for a game, but then came back once I had flat-fee ADSL. I haven't played anything with a cost per hour since. But in principle I like the idea. Only, how much I'd be willing to pay per hour for World of Warcraft or a similar game?

Obviously if World of Warcraft cost 10 cents per hour, I would gladly pay that. Even if I played as much as before, I'd pay less than before. But I don't think that this price is very realistic, because then Blizzard would earn significantly less from WoW, because most people play much less than 150 hours per month, and would end paying much less than $15 per month. I think I could live with the PPP adjusted Chinese price of 25 cents per hour. I'd pay more than before in months where I play a lot, but less if I play just occasionally. The advantage for Blizzard would be that I wouldn't feel the need to cancel my account, which makes it easier for them to get me back into the game. A monthly fee constitutes a barrier to entry, if you aren't sure that you like the game, or that you will play enough, you're reluctant to pay a monthly fee. I certainly wouldn't play anything that costs $1 or more per hour.

So how about you? How much would you pay per hour for World of Warcraft or a similar game, if there was no monthly fee?

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Curing a gaming slump

Keen from KeenandGraev.com is in a gaming slump, not enjoying any games at the moment. He wonders whether that is because he read too much about Warhammer Online and can't enjoy the current games because he is looking forward to the next big thing. That would be bad, because it'll still be a year before WAR comes out. So how do you cure a gaming slump?

I noticed that trying to play something completely different isn't much of a help. Chances are that if you don't feel any enjoyment from the MMO games you are usually playing, changing to console games or other genres of PC games won't help much. Only if you happen to get hold of something new you were really looking forward to it might break the slump, but as I said, if you are waiting for WAR, don't hold your breath, it will take too long.

I think the only thing that really works is taking a break from gaming. I'm feeling a bit in a slump myself, but hey, just 4 more days until I leave for a 3-week holiday without computer. That should cure it! Nevertheless the thought of 3 weeks without games, and the weather forecast predicting rain, makes me a bit nervous. Being terribly bored for 3 weeks will cure your gaming slump, but the cure is worse than the disease. So I packed my PSP and all the games I have for it, and will test the suitability of the PSP as a holiday emergency gaming device.

That is insofar a good idea that I didn't yet play my money's worth out of my PSP. You simply don't play with a handheld gaming console if you are at home with three PCs and two video game consoles, even if those aren't "next generation" yet. But for a rainy holiday the PSP should be perfect. I have Puzzle Quest, both Metal Gear Acids, Everybody's Golf, Field Commander, Lego Star Wars Original, Sid Meier's Pirates, Tales of Eternia, and Worms: Open Warfare. Not that I plan to play all day, I'd rather get a lot of sun and fresh air. But if rain should keep me indoors, I have the Lord of Rings trilogy to read, and the PSP to play, so I'm covered. It'll be a mix of not playing at all and playing something completely different. And I fully expect to be out of the gaming slump by August when I am back.

Talking about games in past tense

I just noticed I have a curious problem of grammar when talking about games I used to play: What tense should I use when talking about them? I find myself writing things like "Star Wars Galaxies had resources with stats", and then correcting myself and thinking that SWG probably still *has* resources with stats, and I shouldn't use the past tense. But then, I haven't played SWG after it was completely redone in the so-called NGE, so how am I supposed to know? Should I write all those phrases as "When I played it, SWG had resources with stats, and I'm not sure how it is now"? That'll get cumbersome quickly.

It gets more complicated if you want to talk about a game which changed, where different statements are true only for specific times. Did Ultima Online have free-for-all PvP? It did, but only pre-Trammel. Does Star Wars Galaxies have 9 character classes? Yes, but only since the NGE. And sometimes the statement has many answers depending on what time you take as reference point. "Everquest had 400,000 subscribers" is strictly true only for two dates in time, the day where it went up to 400,000 and the day it passed 400,000 in its decline. We should say "as far as we know Everquest had slightly over 400,000 subscribers from 2002 to 2004", but again that becomes unwieldy.

It gets downright dangerous with phrases like "World of Warcraft was a good game", because then people still playing the game feel insulted. World of Warcraft *is* a good game. The past tense is solely indicating that the speaker doesn't play the game any more, which is usually more likely due to personal burn-out than to the game really having changed in quality that much. On the other hand today I said "Auto Assault isn't that bad a game", and then found out that on August 31 I would have to change that phrase into the past tense, because Auto Assault will cease to exist.

So if you ever catch me using the wrong tense, you know where it is coming from. I have a certain tendency to use the past tense for games that I used to play, but don't play any more. You shouldn't read too much into it, I surely don't want to suggest that the game is dead as soon as I leave. Just imagine an unspoken "When I played it" in front of those phrases.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Van Hemlock on Auto Assault

Via Michael Zenke's great Massive Update on 1up project I found three posts from Van Hemlock on Auto Assault: Introduction, an essay on why nobody plays it, and a final review. Van Hemlock has one of those blogs I'd like to read more, but rarely get around to it, although it is really well written. And since my own Auto Assault coverage was cut short by video game motion sickness, I can only recommend reading what Van Hemlock has to say about it.

He reports that there is only one server, and that on that server there are only about 100 concurrent users, including the free trials. I'm not quite sure, but he said he got there via a European free trial, so it is possible that there is another Auto Assault server for the US out there, with maybe some more players. But that would still suggest that Auto Assault is a flop, and I can't really understand why. Okay, so the game caused me nausea and I couldn't play it, but I doubt that is the reason why everybody else isn't playing. Auto Assault isn't that bad a game, it's actually quite fun if you like the fast and furious version of fun. Van Hemlock mentions an effect I usually call the negative network effect, people aren't playing Auto Assault because nobody is playing Auto Assault.

Nevertheless, the lack of success of Auto Assault makes you wonder. The same company, NCSoft, is about to bring out a new game, Tabula Rasa, which has some things in common with Auto Assault: fast and furious gun-shooting in a Sci Fi setting. And I really wish them success with that one. But if Tabula Rasa tanks as well, they'll have to ask themselves which part of that formula isn't working. With other non-fantasy games doing well enough (EVE, City of Heroes), I don't think that this means only the fantasy genre is viable for MMORPGs. But I could imagine that somehow the shooter gameplay isn't really appealing to the same sort of people who like the character development gameplay of a MMORPG. Or to say it even harsher, the average age of MMORPG players is well above the average age of the fans of the first-person shooter genre. I have no problems admitting that I'm simply too slow for a FPS, but is that a general problem? Are fast and furious shooters incompatible with MMORPGs? With quite a number of "faster" MMORPGs announced, not only shooters but also faster versions of sword-fighting fantasy, is the genre heading into a cul-de-sac?

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Gnome warriors, hobbit guardians

My first World of Warcraft character to hit level 60 was a troll warrior. But sometimes I regret not having made a gnome warrior instead, because I really like playing short races. My troll just doesn't look good in plate armor, while the same armor looks much more impressive on a gnome. I'm happy that in Lord of the Rings Online my tank is a hobbit guardian. But the really surprising thing about those choices is that the effect of your race on gameplay is so small.

If you play classic single-player computer role-playing games, like any of the Might & Magic or the Wizardry series, or if you play pen and paper D&D, it is very obvious that a troll, half-orc, half-giant or whatever big and strong races the game has is far superior as a warrior than a gnome or hobbit. From the small races only dwarves usually make good warriors. Making a gnome warrior in most games would be a serious penalty, you would basically gimp your character. But in MMORPGs like World of Warcraft it doesn't really matter. The difference in stats and abilities, especially at higher levels, is so tiny, you'd have a hard time to measure it.

This isn't immediately apparent if you look at starting stats, where for example a troll has 24 strength versus a gnome's 18. But that difference doesn't go up with level, so at level 70 in the same gear the troll might have 524 strength versus the gnome's 518. The only real difference between races are the racial traits. And while the troll racials are arguably better for a warrior, the gnome's escape artist is certainly quite useful for a warrior in PvP. There is a difference, but it isn't really big enough to matter. Nobody would turn a gnome warrior away to take a warrior from some other race with similar gear and experience into his group. Race, which used to be an important characteristic in earlier RPGs has become something that is mostly cosmetic.

The reason for that is that word "gimp" I used earlier. My first Everquest character had the wrong race for his class, plus at the very start I had to distribute stat points and did that in a wrong way, based on bad information in the printed manual. By the time I found out how the game really worked, I noticed that I had gimped myself, making my character noticeably weaker than others of the same class and level. And, there being no way to repair that, I started over with a character of the same class, but a more suitable race and all the stat points distributed to where they should be. At some point in time between EQ and WoW game developers decided that the ability to gimp yourself was not something they wanted to have in their game. Instead of allowing any race to play any class, but some races being better at some classes, they just made all races nearly equally good for the classes they could play. And they simply disallowed the combinations they didn't want, like gnome hunters or orc mages.

Is preventing players from making bad choices a good idea? It does make the game more accessible to people not used studying guides and websites before jumping into the game. But it also makes these choices uninteresting, because they simply don't matter that much. It is hard to imagine how a game could allow you to change your race later in the game, so making the choice of race matter a lot risks setting up a trap for the unprepared. But I liked the elegant solution of Final Fantasy XI, where your choice of race was final, but you could always change your class. You'd lose your level, but not everything else, so if you found that a Taru didn't make a great warrior, you could still continue playing him as a mage. I think it is okay to allow players to make bad choices, as long as there is some way to repair it at a penalty less harsh than deleting your character.