Friday, August 31, 2007

Lore or political correctness?

The Witch-king of Angmar in Tolkien's Lord of the Ring trilogy was thought to be unkillable, because of a prophecy stating that “not by the hand of man shall he fall”. He was eventually killed during the battle on the Pelennor Fields by Eowyn, who by being a woman deftly sidestepped the prophecy. Nobody had thought of that, because women weren't a regular feature on Middle-Earth's battlefields. Eowyn was a big exception and only got only the battlefield in disguise. What *was* a regular feature of Lord of the Ring battles is that they were racially motivated. Except for the humans, who fought on both sides, you could tell on which side a character was fighting by simply looking at his race: Elves, dwarves, and hobbits on the good side, orcs and goblins on the evil side. By modern standards the world of Middle-Earth is definitely sexist as well as racist. The online version of LotRO is still racist, but as you can't play an evil race except temporarily most people don't notice. And LotRO isn't sexist at all, there is absolutely no difference between male and female characters in this game. Same with World of Warcraft, race determines which side you are fighting on, while sex is irrelevant.

Now a discussion has broken out about Age of Conan, which is more sexist than WoW or LotRO, having female characters start as sex slaves. And thus Age of Conan also deals with the subject of slavery, which other games tend to avoid. Although slaves were historically a dominant feature of ancient Rome, as well as one of the more frequent "cargos" during the age of sail, you won't see any slaves in Gods & Heroes, or any of the many pirate MMORPGs like Pirates of the Burning Sea. Age of Conan also is mentioned in the news because it contains sex (apparently not graphically depicted, but with a buff as consequence). Most other MMORPGs are sex-less. Yes, people can do pretend cyber-sex. But that is something that mainly happens in the head of the people pretending to do those sexual acts. If you look at it you'll notice that in a game like WoW it isn't even technically possible to get nude, nor to show a nipple.

Fact is that most MMORPGs adhere strictly to a 21st century set of values, most frequently based on US moral standards. Thus showing a swastika is okay, but showing a tit or a slave is not. In European countries the swastika would be more problematic, but nudity or slavery less so. And of course these moral standards have evolved very much during history of mankind. Voting rights for women are not yet a century old, the civil rights movement less than 50 years. Homosexuality was considered acceptable in ancient Greece, was punishable by death during some periods of history, and has by now landed in some uncomfortable position somewhere between legal and morally acceptable.

All this is a problem for the lore of MMORPGs. These games often play in other worlds, or other regions of this world, and often in pre-industrial settings. As far as they have historic or literary sources, in the source material the environment is often not conform to modern political correctness standards. Thus you have to choose between staying true to the lore, or staying true to 21st century moral standards. Turbine seriously discussed not to put pipe-weed into LotRO, because some overly correct people didn't want to encourage smoking; they ended with putting it in but having no game effect. For the same reason alcohol in MMORPGs is either not present at all, or has only negative effects. So I don't blame Funcom for making Age of Conan more controversial. Do we really want a Conan the not-so-barbarian who is a teetotaller and always polite to women? Yes, the mature rating is going to hurt their sales with children and women. But not all games need to have a Toontown-like degree of being wholesome for all the family.

It is even worse with historical games. I have the greates respect for the civil rights movement, but is erasing all mention of slave trade from a game playing in the Caribbean in the 18th century or ancient Rome really the best way to treat history? It somehow reminds me of George Orwell's 1984, where the history is constantly rewritten to reflect current thinking. Me, I would think that rewriting history to not mention the slave trade is equivalent to holocaust denial, which happens to still be a crime in several European countries. It is the wrongs of the past that lead to the moral values of today, and forgetting about these wrongs makes today's values less self-evident. It is better to include these wrongs in historic games, and show them as wrong, than to pretend they never happened.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Legends of Norrath compared to WoW TCG

World of Warcraft has a trading card game, and Everquest 1 & 2 now have the Legends of Norrath online trading card game integrated. Joshthestampede called it “cocaine wrapped in bacon”, and although bacon isn’t an officially recognized addictive substance, the image is clear. Both MMORPGs and trading card games have frequently been accused of being addictive, and the combination of the two is a powerful one. So how do the two trading card games and their integration into their respective MMORPGs compare?

Lets first have a look at what is similar between LoN and the WoW TCG. Both are second-generation trading card games, clearly developed by people who have played Magic the Gathering before. Thus they are using many of the conventions invented by MtG: You win by taking all the life points of your opponent, you play with a deck with some minimum number of cards, and some maximum number of identical cards. You draw a hand of cards at the start; there are creature cards, instant spells, and equipment cards. Every round you are limited by some sort of resource (power, mana) in how many and how powerful cards you can play. These communalities are far from making these two games into simple Magic-clones, but they clearly belong to the same family of games. Unlike Magic, but common to both games, is that you have an avatar with a character class, with this class limiting what kind of cards you can put into your deck.

From a gameplay point of view personally I wouldn’t judge LoN to be better or worse than the WoW TCG. There will certainly be people preferring one to the other, but it is hard to clearly identify any superiority of the one or the other. I found both games to be not quite as good as the original Magic the Gathering, but of course the first of a kind always has some advantage of loyalty. The MMO-integrated TCGs live of the card lore being familiar to the players of the MMORPG, while Magic had to build up its own lore from scratch.

The biggest difference between Legends of Norrath TCG and the WoW TCG is that LoN is an online game with virtual cards, while the WoW TCG is played with paper cards. The advantages and disadvantages of virtual vs. paper cards have been discussed since Magic the Gathering started to offer both versions. Paper cards have the advantage that you can stuff a deck into your pocket and play anywhere, without needing a computer and internet connection. They also have the advantage that the day the company stops supporting the game, you can still play with the paper cards you have. Virtual cards stop to exist when the game company shuts down their servers. But virtual cards don’t suffer wear and tear. And the major advantage of virtual cards is that it is much easier to find somebody else to play against. So to play the WoW TCG you need a friend somewhere near willing to play against you. LoN you can play anytime against strangers on the internet, or even against a computer opponent.

This difference between virtual and paper also has a big impact on the integration of the trading card game with the MMORPG. In both LoN and WoW TCG you buy boosters of cards, and you have a chance of finding loot cards that give you items in the MMORPG. But only for Legends of Norrath you also have the reverse reward possibility: You can play Everquest 1 or 2 and in the MMORPG find cards you can use in the LoN TCG. You don’t have that possibility in World of Warcraft; playing WoW will never give you access to new WoW TCG cards. This is a result of logistics: It is easy to have two online games interface, and you can print paper cards with a code for an online game on them. But how do you make an online game produce paper cards? You can’t just send them to your printer, and mailing you every reward card would be prohibitively expensive. So in integration Legends of Norrath has an inherent advantage over the WoW TCG game.

While I am not a fan of using the term “addiction” to describe games, I don’t deny that there are certain dangers. The danger of a MMORPG is that it tends to eat up more of your time than you can afford to spend. The danger of a trading card game is that it tends to eat up more of your money than you can afford to spend. I played Magic the Gathering for 10 years, paper and online, and spent roughly $10,000 in total on it, so about $1,000 per year. A MMORPG costs roughly $200 per year (if you don’t count the cost for the computer and internet connection), and thus is much cheaper. There is no doubt that both Blizzard and SOE launched their respective trading card games to make more money from the fans of their games. You can’t play the WoW TCG at all without spending money. If you have an account for Everquest 1 or 2 you get some free cards for Legends of Norrath, plus the opportunity to gain more cards while playing the MMORPG. But with one booster of cards costing $3 of real money, don’t expect finding too many LoN cards in the MMORPG. You can play LoN for “free”, but the temptation to get ahead by spending money on more cards will be strong.

This is going to cause some controversy. Games are often considered to be for kids, and games that induce you to spend lots of money are easily accused of stealing the kids’ lunch money. But fact is that the demographic of players has changed. Especially for MMORPGs, which already have a money-based barrier of entry in the form of a monthly fee, the average player is an adult. And compared to other hobbies that adults spend money on, a trading card game isn’t excessively expensive. A company trying to sell you an attractive product that eats up your disposable income is simply the everyday capitalism that surrounds us. Nobody forces you to buy TCG cards, just like nobody forces you to buy a big SUV, or a pack of cigarettes a day, or a fancy set of golf clubs. There is nothing inherently wrong with expensive games. You just need to decide for yourself whether spending that money is worth it for you. Just as you need to decide whether spending all that time in a virtual world is worth it.

Me, I only have one starter set of WoW TCG, and I’m not planning to buy any more of them. I will buy some more Legends of Norrath cards this weekend, and explore the game as well as its integration into EQ2 some more. LoN is still in some kind of open beta, I'll do a full review once it goes into release and LoN cards actually drop in EQ2. I don’t think I’ll end up spending hundreds of dollars on it. I already did that for Magic the Gathering, and I don’t consider LoN to be as good as MtG. While LoN is somewhat integrated with EQ2, they are still two separate games, and you can play one without the other. One day an MMO will come out where the trading card game principle is an integral part of the MMORPG, with the virtual cards replacing the skills and abilities used in the combat system. That’ll be the game I might spend a fortune on.

Gamersinfo WAR preview

Some time ago a site called GamersInfo found out that I was writing about games, without me telling them so, and started sending me regular newsletters. There is no way to unsubscribe, so technically the newsletter is spam. But of course I mind well targeted spam about subjects I'm interested in a lot less than the normal sort. So if I find the occasional interesting article there, I'm willing to link to them. Among a lot of other stuff they have an interesting preview of Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning.

Now I'm not, as some people believe, in the WAR beta. Yet. Well, I'm banging on their door hoping they let me in one day, to be more exact, having applied for the Euro beta and not received any response. Due to the perverse logic of blogging and NDAs that means that currently I'm free to talk as much as I want about WAR, and only inviting me to the beta will shut me up. Now, there's a good reason to send me a beta invite if there ever was one. :)

So let me quote something from the GamersInfo article: "One of the things that amused Paul to no small end was the fact that back "in the day" – a while ago, at least – some people (I get the impression it was "marketing people" but they didn't specifically say that) were afraid that no one would want to play races like the Greenskins. They were too ugly!

The beta launched two weeks ago – stable and fun (according to them – they haven't let me in yet!). Greenskins initially outnumbered dwarves 2 to 1! (That population, according to Jeff Hickman, has stabilized down to about 1.2 to 1 now.) Of course, the dwarves were owning the greenskins all day at Games Day, but at the Games Day in Atlanta, GA, it had been the opposite."

Of course that "nobody wants to play the bad guys" fear is a direct reference to World of Warcraft. But whether orcs outnumber dwarves or dwarves outnumber orcs doesn't really matter. The problem is the same: PvP (or RvR) balance.

Most WoW PvP balance discussion focuses on whether one class is better than another class. This matters when you do PvP duels, or arenas and battlegrounds where the number of players on each side is the same. In RvR it doesn't matter whether a warlock is stronger than a rogue, because he sure isn't stronger than two rogues, and fights between equal numbers of players are exceedingly rare. RvR raids get organized at 3 am in the morning, and if your guild raid ends up somewhere which is actually defended, there is a chance that the raid group decides to go elsewhere. And with classes being more or less balanced, the winner is always the side bringing more people to the battle. So if one side simply is more popular and has more players in total, they have a significant advantage. I don't know what races will be more or less popular in Warhammer Online, but I'm pretty sure the numbers will never be evenly balanced. That will cause a lot of howling and complaining on the game forums.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

My WoW wifeometer

Via Zen of Design and Wonderland I found Miyamato's talk on his “wifeometer”, where he observes the interest of his wife in games to see what games are interesting for the female half of the population. Me, I got my proper wifeometer installed, having my wife in the same room as me, playing World of Warcraft on our second computer. So what does my wifeometer say about WoW?

Well, the good news for Blizzard is that my wife is still playing, months after I have stopped to do so. This is mainly due to her playing a lot fewer hours per week. The slower you play, the longer will the content of WoW last you.

The bad news for Blizzard is that my wife was barely interested in the Burning Crusade, and isn’t at all interested in the Wrath of the Lich King. She gave up on TBC after playing one character to 68, all her other characters are below level 50. Then she played a blood elf alt, but she is already on her next alt now, a tauren, thus using practically no TBC content now. From the features announced for the next expansion there isn’t much in it for her, she’ll barely notice when I’ll install it for her. So assuming that one day the current content stops to keep her interested in World of Warcraft, there is little hope that the expansions get her back into the game.

But then, I have no idea what my wife will play next year. Me, and presumably many of my male readers, will be playing Warhammer: Age of Reckoning. But just like Damion doubts that the wifeometer will show much interest in Age of Conan, which like the literary source is extremely sexist, I have my doubts that women will be very interested in WAR. I've never seen my wife participate in any PvP in World of Warcraft, so the main attraction of WAR probably won't interest her. And whether the PvE content of WAR will peak the wifeometer will depend on how it is presented: Too harsh and violent will probably not give much of a pull. But if the dwarves and goblins are depicted in a more amusing and funny way, that might do the trick.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Legends of Norrath: Oathbound started for EQ1&2 players

I had read that on August 28th every EQ1 and EQ2 player would receive free Legends of Norrath cards, so I logged into EQ2 last night an lo and behold, LoN was working now. Not quite sure if it's now working for everybody, or whether that was a result of the beta application email I send in a couple of days ago. But there was no screen saying beta, nor an NDA, and I could play right away.

I did the whole 11-step tutorial, then built a deck and actually won my first casual game against another player. Then I discovered that there is a campaign having you play against computer controlled enemies in a story mode, and started that one. It's still too early for a review, but up to now I like it. The card game itself is maybe not quite as good as Magic the Gathering. But the online adaptation is at least as good as Magic the Gathering Online, so that's a point in LoN's favor. And of course MtGO is standalone, while LoN is connected to Everquest 1 and 2. So right now I'm happy enough, and I *will* buy some more cards (probably $30 for another starter and 5 boosters). More later.


Did I mention that I love my readers? They are a source of a lot of interesting input. Today one anonymous commenter mentioned WoWjutsu, a site I had never heard of before. So I went and had a look, and found it very, very interesting.

The original purpose of the site seems to be to rank guilds world-wide, regardless of server. That didn't interest me much. But to do so they map the progress of all the guilds on all servers through the various raid dungeons, and that yields some very, very cool information, due to the way this is done. WoWjutsu's method is only using data from the Armory, not data collected or provided by the guilds itself. That makes the system relatively reliable and stable. What they do is simply check what characters wear what kind of epics. And as each epic can be backtracked to one boss mob killed, WoWjutsu can see what guild killed what raid boss how often, and calculate a score out of that. As I said, I wasn't interested in the score, and there are some obvious error margins involved in the calculation, like disenchanted epics etc.. Scores are contentious, because some people won't like to hear that Horde guilds outperform Alliance guilds, and Euro guilds outperform US guilds.

But the table WoWjutsu shows on the left column has such significant steps that the margin of error of the method is small compared to the result. The table lists the raid progress of all the major raiding guilds together. To be included in the count a guild has to apply on the WoWjutsu website, have at least 10 level 70s, and have a score which amounts to having been half through Karazhan at least. Thus "casual" guilds and players aren't counted. Now lets have a look at the currently displayed data:

Due to this being basically a requirement for being counted at all, 99.98% of the counted guilds have killed bosses in Karazhan. 64% killed at least one boss in Gruul's lair, 24% killed Magtheridon, 20% killed a boss in Serpentshrine Cavern, 22% in The Eye. Only 2.12% of guilds counted killed one of the bosses of Mount Hyjal, and only 1.83% in the Black Temple. Unfortunately there is no number representing how many percent of level 70 characters wear at least one raid epic, so we don't know anything about the ratio of raiders to non-raiders. But we *do* know that of all the guilds that made significant progress in Karazhan, and can thus be considered as "raiders", only 2% make it to the top. These numbers will increase a bit with time, but in any case it makes those places rather exclusive. No wonder WoW has something strongly resembling class warfare, if the underclass and the upper crust can be so easily identified by their gear.

Waiting for LoN

One thing I did this weekend was following the instructions from the official Legends of Norrath forums on how to get into the LoN beta. You just send an e-mail with LoN in the subject and your Station name in the body. Result: Zilch, zero, nada, I didn't get a beta invite yet. I did patch Everquest 2 which apparently downloaded the LoN clien, but when you press the LoN button you just get a window saying that they aren't open yet. Grrrr, I can't wait to play this, and they leave me waiting.

So to pass the time I'm posting a link to Ogrebear's Thoughts, the Legends of Norrath section. He even has a "how to build a balanced deck" post there. I know nothing yet about LoN, and already find myself half-disagreeing with him. He perfectly explains "You need to have 50 card minimum, there is no maximum. But remember the larger the deck is the less likely you are to get a card you want or need. Smaller decks tend to perform better because of this.", but then says "I aim for 65 cards in my deck.". Why? If there is one thing that years of playing with card games like that have taught me is that if 50 is the minimum, you build a 50-card deck. 65 is exactly 15 too much. In MtG even a deck with just one card more than the minimum would be considered not viable. Of course that assumes that you play to win. If you just play to fool around, feel free to put as many cards as you want in your deck.

That is actually a curious thing I observed when watching the Magic the Gathering tournament scene. At it's heart MtG is a game about coping with randomness. You don't always hold the cards that you want, but instead a random card from a selection you made when you built your deck. Having lots of randomness is fun, but if you want to win a tournament, you simply can't afford it. So deckbuilding to win involves minimizing the randomness to the smallest amount possible. Thus you build decks with the smallest number of cards allowed, and you put in cards in multiple, as far as allowed. Many decks in MtG were 60 cards, 4 of each non-land card plus lands. Thus when drawing an initial hand of 7 cards of those 60, chances of holding the cards that you wanted for your first turn were pretty good. But of course if your deck performs reliably like a machine, lots of the fun of having to deal with unforeseen situations is diminished. If you think WoW has a hardcore vs. casual gap, you should have seen the forums discussing MtG!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Private WoW servers

I have great respect for the intellectual property of others. I don't download pirated music, videos, or warez games. If I want a game or film, I buy it. But like any other legit customer, I'm sometimes annoyed about copy protection, which seems singularly badly designed for maximum inconvenience for legit buyers, while only posing a minor challenge to the hackers. I hate to have to search for the right CD everytime I want to play a game, because the game will only start with the CD inserted in the drive. Thus MMORPGs not having any copy protection for me is one of the advantages of the genre. And for some time I was even persuaded that MMORPGs solve the issue of software piracy. How could you make an illegal copy of World of Warcraft, if then you are unable to create an account and play on the Blizzard servers?

Meanwhile I know better. The answer on how to pirate WoW or other MMORPGs is so-called private servers. A Google search brings up over 2 million hits on "WoW private server". I was too naive when thinking nobody would be playing WoW illegitimately.

But me, I'm not tempted at all. Private servers have two major flaws: There are no (or few) other people to play with, and there is no challenge due to the ability to cheat. You can set your level to 255 and solo Illidan, but where is the fun in that? That's like killing Hogger with your level 70 on a real server, it gets boring pretty fast. And the interest of a massively multiplayer game is playing with other people, even if you don't interact closely with them all the time. Frankly, if WoW was a single-player game, I wouldn't have played it so long. It isn't especially great in comparison to other single-player RPGs, lacking a story and purpose. It is the other players that make the experience special. I was told that setting up a private server just for yourself is rather easy, only the scripted events don't work right, but I'm not even going to try it. I don't see the point of missing out on most of what makes a MMORPG great just to save 50 cents a day. What is your take on private servers?

WoW introduces speedleveling

I would have nearly forgotten to write about it, until = # # = reminded me of it in a comment to my previous post: There have been some semi-official announcements that with the Wrath of the Lich King Blizzard is going to speed up the leveling process from 1 to 60. This is done by giving more xp for quests, and by lowering the amount of xp needed per level.

The original World of Warcraft had a level cap of 60, the first expansion increased that to 70, and the second expansion will increase it to 80. Your guess is as good as mine about whether the third expansion will raise the cap to 90, and the tenth expansion to 160. Fact is that WoW is getting longer and longer. That is good for people who enjoy leveling up, because now there is more of it. But it's bad for people who just want to reach the top as fast as possible, to play the end-game, be it in PvP or raiding.

For the same problem Dark Age of Camelot introduced a /level command, which allowed you to skip levels if you had already played through them with another character. World of Warcraft's new solution is less visible, and less flexible. If you happen to be on your first WoW character after the change, leveling will seem awfully fast, with you constantly outgrowing quests. But then, you'll probably have to ditch elite and dungeon quests anyway, because there are too few people of your level around to form groups.

Nevertheless I feel that this change is somewhat strange. I always considered leveling up in World of Warcraft as "the game". But Blizzard now tells me that leveling up is "the obstacle before the game", and kindly offers to help me get past it faster. Which for me doesn't make sense. It's like paying somebody else to play the game for me (and yes, I know there are people that do that). I think I'll develop a new MMORPG in which for paying me $50 you'll get sent a screenshot saying "Congratulations, you won!", and nothing else. If that is what people are after ...

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Has WoW become too easy?

I got a mail from Goom, who is wondering whether World of Warcraft has become too easy nowadays, due to easy access to tier 5 arena gear. He says: "Do you feel WoW TBC has catered to the casuals too much? I consider myself a casual and I think it did. I'm retired like you, quit back in March because my guild raided too much and I was tired of that. But I have cleared MC, BWL pre TBC, and was in Karazhan when I quit so I know all about raiding. My thoughts come from reading the WoW forums and seeing that scrub arena teams are decked out in their Tier5 arena gear from playing the last 6 months. Tanks are rare because they all play arena except for the few end guilds that are keeping after BT. There seems to be no accomplishment now because gear is so easy to get in arena. I'm not sure I'll even come back when the expansion hits to level up to 80. I guess it wont matter because my karazhan epics will be replaced with 72lv greens that will be better than the arena gear and the BT gear will be replaced by lv 78 or so lol. oh well, still glad I retired but it seems WoW is destroying the game."

I don't know about "too easy". I appears that the higher-up raid dungeons are still pretty much empty, with only very few people being powerful enough to raid there. But of course that depends on what your end-game is. If you don't raid, but just do the things you can solo and non-heroic instances, then of course being decked out in arena gear makes life relatively easy.

World of Warcraft definitely suffers from mudflation, that is items becoming better and better, with newer items making the older stuff obsolete. The Burning Crusade added an unique twist to this, because it was released in a state in which the content was harder, and then repeatedly nerfed to make it easier. I have an old post on how hard Black Morass is, I only succeeded it after a dozen failed tries. But a friend recently ran an alt through it, and assured me that it has been nerfed to a level where an average group can succeed on the first try. Other attunements have been completely removed from the game. I don't know how hard Karazhan is nowadays, but I've read it has been nerfed too. And of course the alchemy changes and the daily easy-money quests have made raid financing a lot easier.

I found the original TBC too hard, because I think that the first available raid dungeon (including attunement) should be relatively easy, for teaching purposes. Raiding is a completely different game from leveling up to the level cap. Just like you don't play your very first football game in a NFL league game, you need a little league raid dungeon in a game to teach people the basics of raid organization. Then the other raid dungeons can get progressively harder. So on the one side Blizzard having made Karazhan raiding easier by handing out arena gear and nerfing content is a good thing. On the other side both the TBC mudflation and the nerfs have created expectations in the players that WoW is a game that gets easier with time. There is a clear message out here that you need just to wait to achieve anything you want. Can't succeed in getting level 70 epic gear? Just wait for the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. Can't get this attunement done? Wait until they nerf or remove it.

The other dubious message I get from World of Warcraft nowadays is that you are rewarded just for showing up. If you log on one hour every day to do one arena fight and all the daily quests, after 6 months you'll be decked out in epics and filthy rich, even if you don't play very well. MMORPGs have always rewarded time investment more than skill, but in TBC this is reaching silly proportions.

What casual players have been asking for is more accessible end-game content. What we received instead is free epics. Some people just never understood that this isn't what we wanted.

Jeff Freeman ends the videogame violence debate

I'm not reading Jeff Freeman's Mythical Blog often enough. The reason for that is that I can't decide whether Jeff is way more intelligent than I am, or whether he is plain crazy. Either option scares me a bit. He has this absolutely brilliant satirical style, which is at times really, really hard to understand. But knowing about Jeff's interest in the subject of how to correctly use statistics and graphs, which often takes the form of making fun of those who don't, I did get the joke on this post on videogame violence.

Jeff takes offence with some graphs showing that crime by some measures has gone down, and trying to link that to videogame sales, which have gone up. To counter that he draws a graph of real data showing that real world piracy has gone up in the last two years. Given the large number of pirate MMOs that have been released or are under development in the same period, there is an "obvious" connection. :)

What that should tell us is that you shouldn't believe any graph or statistic you haven't manipulated yourself. The connection of videogames to violence is a very, very complex issue, which simply can't be captured in any simple graph. You can't argue it in absolutes. Playing GTA isn't likely to turn you into a criminal. But pretending that extensive occupation with violent videogames leaves no traces in a person's psyche at all is similarily ridiculous. Neither side has be very helpful in this discussion, because both sides have just been throwing outrageous sound-bites, false proofs, and other ridiculous arguments. A "GTA made me do it" T-shirt is not a sensible approach to a serious question. Nor is a demand to ban all video games.

And Jeff, you forgot Tales of Pirates in your list. :) And Bounty Bay Online, but that is the same as Voyage Century Online, only repackaged and sold more expensively. Now *thats* a real case of piracy, if you ask me.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

BioShock for noobs

So I finally got around to play the BioShock demo. It's not very long, but manages to give you a good impression what the game is about. Good news first: There is an "easy" difficulty level, even with a helpful hint that this is what you should choose if you don't play shooters otherwise. And at least in the demo I had no problems surviving in easy mode. Graphically BioShock is stunning. The game starts with you in the water, fire all around, and I've never seen water looking so real before on my screen. And that was at standard graphics settings, and running smoothly, albeit on my relatively high-end machine (GeForce 8800 GTS 640MB, 4 GB RAM, E6600 CPU).

The gameplay is first-person-shooter meets Diablo, because you not only have weapons, ammo, and a red health bar, but also spells (called "plasmids" and supposed to be some genetical enhancement) and a blue mana bar (called "Eve"). Thus you can for example stun your enemy with a lightning bolt before clobbering him with a wrench or shooting him with a pistol. The game is atmospherically dense, telling a grim tale of an utopia gone wrong, styled in images from the 1950's.

But in the end it's just a shooter. A good one, as far as I can tell, but nevertheless you need to like the gameplay of shooters to enjoy it. And I don't. Monsters jumping at me from dark corners, forcing me into frantic action with spells and weapons isn't exactly my thing. I prefer slower games that require more strategic thinking. Nevertheless I don't regret having downloaded the demo, it is always good to know what the others are playing.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Hellgate London Euro Pricing

I admit that I'm not waiting with held breath for the November 2nd release of Hellgate London. The post-apocalyptic demons in the London underground scenario just fails to excite me, and it's not really a MMORPG. But for a Diablo type game it will probably be nice enough, and if the hype is to be believed, it will sell well.

But what *is* interesting to me is the pricing, details of which you can find in this press release. After paying for the box, you can play Hellgate London for free, even online. But that only gives you a "standard" access. If you want more features, namely added content, new game modes (including Hardcore, Role-Play and PvP mode), additional character and stash slots, the ability to found guilds, and access to guild and player housing, you need to pay 10 Euros per month. Sounds nearly Korean to me, this business model. Will be interesting to see how that works out. I just hope there will be a free-to-try demo somewhere, I'm still a bit reluctant to buy this particular game.


Coyote at Tentonhammer has written a long rant about MMOWTF, saying "But on the darker side of the force, you have people who abuse this system. They list the content as their own, posting not a link to your article, journal, blog, or even pictures - but the actual content itself. This means that you lose hits, and if you aren’t accredited as the writer in the feed - you lose credit for stuff." Now the funny thing is that I saw this rant on MMOWTF, because that is my favorite MMO blog newsreader. And I wouldn't have seen it on his blog, because it's not one I regularly read. The advantage of MMOWTF over lets say Google Reader is that I don't need to select the feeds myself. Whoever created that site did a nice job of collecting feeds from various MMO blogs and automatically copying the feed onto their site. And yeah, my blog is there too, and I don't mind.

I don't mind because Coyote isn't telling you the truth. MMOWTF *does* in fact link to my and his blog articles. In fact they have a link to the article in question, to the main site of the blog, and to the RSS feed, what more could one ask for? They also have a quite clearly labeled "Posted by Tobold's MMORPG Blog" line on top of it, so I really can't complain of them "listing my content as their own". I know there are other sites that do that, but this isn't one of them.

Coyote is right that you "lose hits" when people read your content there and don't click on the link to your article. But you also lose those hits if you don't have something like Feedburner installed and somebody is reading your blog as a newsfeed. If that really irks you, you can set up your feed to only show the first paragraph of whatever you write, and force people to come to your blog to read the rest. I did that for some time, until several of my readers told me they preferred the convenience of a full feed, and Feedburner enabled me to count them (I have about 780 feed subscribers, apparently). But, as Feedburner says "FeedBurner’s subscriber count is based on an approximation of how many times your feed has been requested in a 24-hour period. Subscribers is inferred from an analysis of the many different feed readers and aggregators that retrieve this feed daily." A site like MMOWTF thus works like any other "news aggregator" site, and even Feedburner can only guess how many people are reading me that way. If people reading your stuff via a feed or news aggregator is hurting your advertising income too much, you could also just turn off the feed totally. But in the end chances are that you gain more readers by people having found your blog via such a site than you lose because everybody just reads the feed.

Persistency or Reset?

Unless you clinch a special pre-order deal for the last days of an open beta, playing a beta means playing a character that is bound to get deleted. Some games reset several times during the alpha / beta testing phases, but all games reset at least once before the release. When you create a beta character you know that he is doomed to get wiped. Which doesn't do much to diminish the fun of playing a beta. Because the interest is in the playing, and maybe in having some influence by reporting bugs and making suggestions, and not in building up a character to some level.

Playing on a fresh server, where everybody is level 1, is fun. Whenever World of Warcraft opens up a new server, there are people abandoning their old characters on older servers to start afresh. A new server gives you better opportunities to find low-level groups, and the economy isn't spoiled that much by mudflation yet. But the older a game gets, the fewer new server open up. WoW had new servers for the Burning Crusade, but I don't think they opened up many after that, because the player numbers have stopped growing in the US and Europe. Vanguard, only 7 months after release, is actually eliminating servers, merging 13 servers into 4. Many other games just reached a stable level, with no new servers in sight.

MMORPGs are persistent worlds. With storage being cheap nowadays, old characters aren't deleted. When I logged into EQ2 after nearly 3 years of absence, my characters from 2004 were still there. In World of Warcraft the first expansion, the Burning Crusade, caused a large number of players to resubscribe, confident that their old level 60 characters would be still there, ready to be leveled to 70. And me, and many others who left WoW since, will resubscribe again for the Wrath of the Lich King, and level up to 80 this time.

But persistency has it's price. Developers have to provide for characters that never die, but continue to want better and better stuff. Thus we get mudflation, with every expansion giving us new loot which makes the old loot obsolete. We also get an accumulation of characters at the level cap, while the low- and mid-level zones become increasingly empty. And that messes with the economy. Most lower level characters you see are twinked or are being powerleveled by friends to rush through the game and reach the end game.

In some special cases persistency turns out to be even more counterproductive. Several upcoming games, like Warhammer Online or Pirates of the Burning Sea, have some form of Realm vs. Realm PvP. And if one realm wins this war, then what do you do? You can't just let the servers be persistent, because the winning side controlling most of the territory isn't likely to be overthrown by itself. So these games introduced the concept of PvP resets. The players of the winning side get a medal or something, and then territorial control is reset to the initial situation, to allow the war to recommence, with the former losers getting a chance to win the next one. We'll see if that works (it might be that the same side wins over and over, due to some numerical or game inbalance), but the concept of sacrifying persistency for the greater good of the game is there. So what if we would extend that concept to levels?

Why not have a non-persistent server or even non-persistent MMORPG, which resets every couple of months? Once or twice a year all characters are wiped and everybody has to start over at level 1. You can have rewards for having reached the top in the previous round, like unlocking new character classes (like the Deathknight in WotLK). And you can also do major changes during the reset, like fixing balancing issues, or patching in major modifications to how some parts of the game work. A Tale in the Desert works like that, with every reset improving and enlarging the game.

The advantage of having resets instead of persistency is that you can have an actual end to your game, major events that change the world before the reset. Because persistent is often also stagnant, a reset allows you to break out of the rut. If done well, the players can have a major impact on the virtual world, making their actions really change something. And instead of every expansion adding new content to the end of the game, every reset can add more content to the whole level range. Older players will have new content to explore when leveling up again, while new players can mix with them more easily and play with them at the same level. Veteran players retain the advantage of superior knowledge, but there is no more mudflation, twinking, or powerleveling.

People get attached to their characters, but the price we have to pay for that are static worlds, and an ever-growing divide between new and old players. Having occasional resets allows the game to refresh itself, to rise like a phoenix from it's own ashes towards a new start. Maybe such renewal can bring real longevity to the games we play.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

1 Million Visitors

Sitemeter is telling me that this blog just reached 1 million visitors since February 2004, with one and a quarter million of page views. Thank you all very much for coming. As I said in the first post after installing the counter, it is the fact that people are reading that keeps me writing. I couldn't have done it without you.

Council of Underpanty Gnome Pirates

Via The Ancient Gaming Noob I found this guild name generator for World of Warcraft from PlayOn. Every time you refresh it, it gives you another 100 authentic sounding WoW guild names. I got the Council of Underpanty Gnome Pirates on the first try. :)

In fact the guys from PlayOn discovered that WoW guild names to 90% follow just 4 simple grammatical constructs. So after reading 22,000 guild names from 5 WoW servers [which in itself is news: Over 4,000 guilds per server? Astounding!], they had enough vocabulary to construct this guild name generator. This program must have secretly been around for years already, because I swear that half of the guild names on the servers I played on sounded as if they were created with this software. ;)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The NDA and me

If you plotted my "alignment" on an old-fashioned Dungeons & Dragons alignment chart, I'd be somewhere on the "lawful" side. I respect rules, even those which would be easy enough to circumvent. Thus, although it would be easy to sign up with a fake e-mail, I use my real e-mail address to sign up for beta tests, and I respect the non-disclosure agreements. I might make a honest mistake, like once I posted a paragraph from an NDA and somebody told me afterwards that under the NDA the NDA itself is secret. But otherwise I keep my mouth shut and don't even mention the names of the games I'm beta testing, unless the NDA allows it.

As I'm currently in three betas, this makes my blogging life difficult. I'm used to blog about what I'm playing. Only now I can't. One of these betas was the first thing I played after coming home from my recent trip, and I'm absolutely hooked and can't wait for the game to come out. But I can't even tell you which game it is.

Now at first I was thinking that the game companies are hurting themselves with those NDAs. Why not get the free publicity? But after thinking it through, I can understand why they prefer the silence. For example take the review of EQ2 I wrote during it's beta, when the NDA was just lifted. Most of the bad stuff I'm saying about the game back then: bugs, server lag, feature incomplete, has long since been fixed. The review was fair insofar as that was the state of the game at the time the NDA was lifted, and even still pretty much true a month later on release. But if EQ2 had postponed their release by a couple of months and kept the lid on, the review would have looked a lot better for them.

If the betas I am playing were release versions, I would complain about lack of content, bugs, balance issues, or server problems, in various degrees. But these things are normal for a beta, and experienced beta players just log the bugs and then ignore them. The amount of bugs, or the magnitude of the gap in content gives you an idea how realistic the announced release dates are, with postponements or a release in a half-finished state being both unpleasant options, but that is about it. Sooner or later the bugs will be fixed, and more content will be added. Either in added development time, or after release. Sometimes it is even hard to tell which is the better option. With both WAR and the second WoW expansion expected for the first half of 2008, the temptation must be strong to release a game now, even with some remaining bugs, and not go head to head with the big guys next year. But then, Vanguard is a good counterexample of why postponing is sometimes the better option. Of the three betas I'm playing I can see two having a realistic chance of being released this year in a playable form, while the developers of the third would need to be crazy if they released it now.

So with bloggers and other beta testers being too critical, especially with early faults of a game, I can understand why developers rather keep everyone under an NDA. Far easier to present the best bits during E3 or similar events to traditional media journalists, which are more reliable producers of hype and often less critical in previews. So what I should do (and already did in one case) is to write some "first impressions" piece on the game and stick that file on my hard drive for later use, when the NDA is lifted. There is a risk that I'll need to rewrite the bits that have significantly changed before publishing. But that is something I'll need to live with.

BioShock Demo

I'm back home, and downloading the demo of BioShock from Fileplanet. I don't think I'll play it a lot. I don't like first-person shooters, so I don't play them, so I suck at them, which further fuels my dislike of them. One of my readers once commented that one of the main problems with first-person shooters is that they start hard and get easier later (when you have more weapons to choose from) instead of the other way round. So if I won't like it, why do I download these 1.8 GB?

Well, one thing is that I'd like to have a look at the graphics. Kind of a test of my PC, whether my machine can display this game in pretty mode. And at the same time I want to have a look whether the atmosphere in BioShock is really a great as the hype says. I did like the style I saw in screenshots in gaming magazines, but I'm not sure how well that survives in the game. Do you really *see* all this nice stuff when playing, or are you too busy killing things and are blinded by special effects?

And finally somewhere deep inside of me I wish I would be able to play this kind of game. I want to try whether I get anywhere in the demo on the easiest setting, or whether the first enemy butchers me with a toothpick. I have a theory that new games are often created for the fans of the genre. So I fear that while BioShock is perfectly easy to play for somebody who played all the other first-person shooters, it might be way too hard for a newbie. Especially a middle-aged one who doesn't have a kid's reflexes any more.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Changing rulesets

= # # = (don't ask me to pronounce that) wrote me to tell me about the latest Everquest producer letter. Among other things the EQ producers report that their progression servers, where you can play EQ as it was before all the expansion came out, were a big success. And that prompted some unfinished thinking about other variations of the ruleset.

I think that this is a good idea for major games with lots of servers. Why should all the servers have the same rules? Why not have for example a special original WoW server for people who never bought the expansion? Instead of being lonely at level 60, players could move to that original server and start organizing Molten Core raids again. But classic servers, like EQ and DAoC already have are just one possible variations of the ruleset.

One idea dear to my heart would be making easier and harder servers than normal. Just like many single-player games have several difficulty settings, a game like WoW should have easy, normal, and hard servers. And how about an iron man server with either permadeath or at least a significnt xp penalty on death? Not that I'd play on that one, but it would stop those people from complaining who think WoW is too easy.

Servers with different rule sets already exist in the form of PvP and normal servers. Many games also have roleplaying servers, although those often have exactly the same ruleset, and it is up to the players to live the label. The more expansions a game has, the more likely it is to get a classic server of some kind. But all this is just the tip of the iceberg of possibilities. What other rulesets would you like to see?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Bounty Bay Online

Part of a city trip, besides museums and culture, for me is always also some shopping. So on this trip I was browsing computer games in a shop and found a MMORPG I had never heard of, named Bounty Bay Online. Cost 30 Euros, one month free, then 10 Euro per month. And the feature list on the back of the box read like Pirates of the Burning Sea. Bounty Bay Online too is a game where you can pirate or trade in the Caribbean, have ship-to-ship combat, and all that. Sounded interesting, but I smelled a rat. I'm normally reasonably well informed about MMORPGs, so how come a game is already on the shelves and I never heard of it?

It turns out I did well to not buy it. Because Bounty Bay Online is just a European version of a game called Voyage Century Online, which in turn is the US version of some Asian game. And while the Euro version costs money to buy and a monthly fee, the US version is apparently free to download and free to play. In a typical Asian business model, you can then buy things like "double xp scrolls" for real money.

Of course I much prefer this US/Asian payment scheme to the European pay-before-you-try version. So I will leave Bounty Bay Online on it's shelf and rather download Voyage Century Online for free when I come back. Reviews say that the game isn't so bad, although I doubt that it will be as good as Pirates of the Burning Sea.

Blogging on a TV

Now this is an interesting experiment. I'm still on a short city trip holiday, and didn't take my laptop. But my hotel room is equipped with a TV and a keyboard, and for just 5 Euro a day I can have internet access via the TV. The TV has some non-standard browser, but no Windows. I'd guess I won't be able to visit any sites requiring plug-ins. But for writing a text in Blogger this should be enough, and so I'm blogging. Anyone ever noticed what a horrible low resolution a TV screen has?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Short break

I'm leaving for a one-week trip tomorrow morning, visiting friends. I'll not be taking a laptop or anything, so between social obligations and the problem of finding a computer with internet connection there is a good chance that you won't hear from me until next Thursday. August in Europe is not a very productive month, everything comes to a standstill because so many people are on holidays. And there appears to be some slump in gaming news internationally as well.

But things are looking better for the autumn. I'm in *three* MMORPG betas, and at least one of them has me very excited, I'm just not allowed to write about it. For single-player games there also appear to be good times ahead, lots of good stuff announced for release before christmas.

Meanwhile, there are other things in life than just games. I just finished the last Harry Potter book unto it's predictable end. From a literature point of view I find the idea of publishing a series of 7 books, one per year, with each one getting more and more mature as the hero ages from 11 to 17, quite interesting. From a practical point of view it's unwieldy, the seventh book had lots of characters and events from previous books reappearing, most of which I had completely forgotten during those 7 years. One could now read the 7 books in a row, but then the transition from a children's book to a teenager's book becomes more apparent, and the change of style towards increasing darkness more jarring.

I also got completely hooked on watching The Wire from HBO on DVD. Just started the third season, currently the last one out on DVD. The Wire is brilliant, but unfortunately a bit too challenging for the mass market. For example there is a phenomenal scene in one of the early episodes of the first season where McNulty and Bunk reconstruct a complex crime scene using only non-verbal communication and many variations of the word "fuck". Hilarious, but maybe a bit too strong for middle America. The second season has a scene where a not-so-bright white drug dealer is trying have success in the business by dressing and talking exactly like the black drug dealers. Another highlight is the organizer of the drug dealing operation taking economics classes at the university, and receiving advice on how to sell a "weak product in an aggressive marketplace" from his professor. Crime feels a lot more real in The Wire than in the much bigger HBO hit show The Sopranos. The Sopranos I never even bought the second season, feeling that the joke of the mafia boss visiting a shrink was already running thin after one season. But a lot more people got that joke, and the stereotypes on which that show runs, while the far more complex and often more realistic characters of the Wire pass over many people's heads.

So, see y'all (sorry, couldn't resist that one) back in a week.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Coming late to the party

Several people commented on my recent Everquest 2 posts that yes, the game had improved since release, but starting it now wasn't so enjoyable because there were so few people playing in the low- and mid-level zones. Meanwhile my wife reached level 30 with her umpteenth alt in World of Warcraft, and is complaining that there are no mid-level items or potions to be found in the auction house. I begin to see a pattern here.

People sometimes say that MMORPGs are static. You slay the dragon, rescue the princess, and ten minutes later the dragon respawned and some other player has to rescue the same damn princess all over again. Patches and expansion sets fix bugs and add new content, but very rarely change the old content. My very first WoW character was a dwarven priest, in the September 2004 stress-test beta. His first quest was about killing some wolves, which gained him some gloves (if I remember correctly) as reward. If some new player started WoW today and made a dwarf, his first quest would be exactly the same, giving exactly the same reward. Content is more or less static.

But what changes is the player population. As I reported back then I also made a human character on the first day of the beta, and had problems doing a quest to kill kobold workers for the simple reason that every kobold worker spawn point was camped by half a dozen other players. Create a human level 1 character today, and you might find yourself all alone in that newbie zone, with plenty of kobold workers to chose from. On day 1 of a server everybody is level 1. After nearly 3 years of WoW, most players are at the level cap, and the new players and alts are stretched thinly over the other now 69 levels. Every expansion raising the level cap will stretch the lower levels even thinner. And of course it can make old content obsolete. Scholomance is still there, unchanged, but as there are much better alternatives now for getting level 60 loot than a Scholomance group, the place is deserted.

Thus although the content is static, the dynamic changes in the population change the player experience of a game. Playing your first EQ2 or WoW character now is not the same as it was playing him nearly 3 years ago, even if you would visit only content that hasn't changed since then. Finding a group at lower levels has become much more difficult, and the economy of the auction house has fundamentally changed. Joining a guild of people who know each other for years isn't the same as joining a freshly founded guild in which everybody is new to the game. That affects some people more than others. If you are a lone wolf by nature and play those games like a single-player game anyway, you might actually be happy to have so much of the content for yourself nowadays. But if you are a more social gamer, and like to group, a 3-year old game might already be way past it's prime for you. And it affects some games more than others. A more solo-friendly game survives aging better than a game in which you need a group for everything.

The original Everquest is eight and a half years old now, and chances are that it will reach it's tenth birthday. World of Warcraft will certainly survive ten years too. Even the much smaller Lord of the Rings Online might well make it for ten years. But will any of these games survive 20 years? Only in a museum or on some nostalgians private server, I'd guess. Apart from technical problems, like how to run WoW on Windows 2024, or the development of computer graphics until then, there is simply no way to have a community survive that long. The model in which MMORPGs add new content in every patch and every expansion simply collapses under it's own weight. Can you imagine WoW with 200 levels and 15 continents? How are you going to have veterans and newbies form a coherent community in such a game?

What will happen with all of these games is that the inflow of new players will slow down from year to year. Some veterans will stay on for a long time, others will leave, with every new big game provoking some kind of exodus. The game company keeps running the game as a cash cow, because all of the development cost have long since been paid, and the running costs are low. Servers will be merged. At some point the addition of new content is slowing down, then halts completely. And then some day there will be an announcement that the game will be shut down. Meanwhile the book Lord of the Rings is over 50 years old, and the brand is still going strong. Some media have a longer lifespan than others.

Are GM run events still possible?

Hop, a reader, wrote me to tell me about the GM run event that the original Everquest had when the Kunark expansion came out. GM controlled iksars invaded the Desert of Ro, and evil gods walked the land. I'm afraid I missed that one, I joined EQ just after Kunark came out. I don't remember having seen any GM run events in any major MMORPG. I was at the opening of the gates of Ahn'Qiraj, but that event was scripted.

When Kunark was released, Everquest still had a relatively small number of servers. If World of Warcraft wanted to run an event with characters controlled by GMs, it would need to hire hundreds of people to do the event on their hundreds of servers. You would need to do the event on all servers simultaneously, otherwise people would just create new characters on the event servers, something that happened in the Ahn'Qiraj event.

Ahn'Qiraj also demonstrated another problem with events in general: People gather at the place where the event takes place, causing lag. The opening of the gates on my server was a horrible lag fest, not very enjoyable, even if it was cool. Game companies tend to try to avoid large gathering of players. There have been reports in several games where GMs broke up protest marches, not because they couldn't stand the protest, but because the gathering of people brought the server down.

Thus I have problems imagining a GM run event in a modern, big MMORPG. But I wonder whether something like a "luxury" MMORPG or "premium servers" with GM run events would be possible. Would you pay lets say $50 a month for playing on a server which had regular GM events?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Second life worse than the first one

It seems as if the media finally have fallen out of love with Second Life, a virtual world that was hyped by them far in excess of it's actual importance and user numbers. After reporting doe-eyed about the immense business opportunities in the virtual world of second life, reporters now discovered that the second life isn't any better than the first one. In fact it is worse, from a business point of view.

The main story here is the collapse of the Ginko bank. That is a virtual bank in Second Life, which promised people a 144 percent yield on their savings, by investing in virtual gambling establishments. Then Linden Labs decided that gambling is illegal and shut down the casinos, and the Ginko bank crashed. The bank had 189 million Linden$, which at the current 270:1 exchange rate is 700,000 US$. Ouch! Mr. Ponzi is apparently alive and well in the virtual world.

Other current SecondLife stories are about the inventor of SexGen sueing a guy for copyright infringement. SexGen is a 45 US$ piece of Second Life furniture that allows people to have virtual sex, and somebody illegaly copied that software and sold it on. I'd love to see the face of the judge when the case is explained to him.

Stupidity is the same in the real world as in the virtual one, but in the real world banks are much better regulated, and it is easier to defend yourself legally against financial scams. And if you sold sex beds in the real world, somecopy could copy your design, but would still have to produce the actual item, which isn't the case in the virtual world.

In both cases Linden Labs, the company owning Second Life, is apparently doing nothing. So now real world lawsuits are descending on the virtual world, looking into all of these stories of illegal gambling, financial scams, sex, and copyright infringement. And while that obviously makes for great news, it isn't the best of publicity for Second Life. It (not totally unfairly) paints Second Life as a virtual world which is sordid, all about sex and making a quick buck. Second Life advances us closer to the inevitable point where real world governments start interfering in virtual worlds.

Monday, August 13, 2007

EQ2 vs. LotRO

I was asked to write a comparison of Everquest 2 to Lord of the Rings Online. Which of these two games should you buy? First of all, both of these are good games. You can't recommend one over the other without knowing a bit more about the person who wants to buy a game. The immediate answer to "should I buy EQ2 or LotRO?" is the counter question of "why not World of Warcraft?", with WoW being such a glaring omission on this short list. If somebody is deciding only between EQ2 and LotRO you basically have to assume he already played WoW.

Lord of the Rings Online is the more accessible game of the two. I would also say it has the prettier graphics, but beauty being in the eye of the beholder I'm sure of getting some comments disagreeing with that statement. LotRO's ultimate strength is it's Tolkien license. LotRO does an excellent job of getting you right into the world of Middle Earth as described in the books. You can't play Frodo, Gandalf or any other of the Fellowship of the Ring. But your adventures have a relation with the events from the trilogy, and you meet many of the same characters that Frodo met on his journey. Lord of the Rings Online is a rather casual MMORPG. It is easy to play even if you just have short play sessions available. LotRO's major weakness is it's length: It is excellent in the lower levels, okay in the mid-levels, and gets weaker and thinner in the higher levels. If you are a hardcore player playing MMORPGs over 20 hours a week, you basically "finish" LotRO in half a year or less. Of course this is something that will get better over time, with content patches and expansions added to the game. Slower players will have no problems with that.

Everquest 2 is a much bigger game. With 3 expansions and 3 adventure packs, plus another expansion announced for November, you're not at risk of running out of content in this game anytime soon. But, while not as hardcore as Everquest 1 or Vanguard, in direct comparison EQ2 is more hardcore than LotRO. It is more complex and less accessible, giving you less guidance, but more room to find out things for yourself. The lore of EQ2 is consistent with itself and the EQ universe, but of course it is a lot less well-known than the Lord of the Rings lore. EQ1 veterans will have a lot of "oh, look!" moments, like the hollow tree trap in Blackburrow, but for anyone else there is no connect to a story you already know. Looking through an old review of EQ2 of mine, I must say that most of the things I said back then about technical problems and the game not being feature complete have been resolved by now. It is hard to point at a single thing and call it the major weakness of EQ2. The game still suffers from some needless complexity and lack of information given in-game, but of course that is easily remedied by looking them up on fansites or databases.

In summary, for all Tolkien fans, casual and new players I would recommend Lord of the Rings Online. For the more hardcore players and Everquest veterans I would recommend Everquest 2.

Barriers to entry

Barriers to entry is originally an economic concept, describing how competition can be kept out of a market if for example it takes a huge investment to enter that market. But for a MMORPG player the term barriers to entry describes the difficulty of starting a new game. The recent announcement of Age of Conan being delayed for half a year specifically cited those entry barriers as something they still need to work on. Age of Conan has developed a brand new way of doing MMORPG combat, but apparently it isn't very intuitive, and there wasn't a good enough tutorial to get people into the swing of things.

My personal barrier of entry experience of the last week is Everquest 2. After not playing it for nearly 3 years I have forgotten a lot about how that game is played, and could have used a good tutorial and introduction into how things work. Unfortunately I started in the Nursery, the newbie zone introduced in the Echoes of Faydwer. While EQ2 has excellent tutorials in the original island newbie zone, the devs took some shortcuts and left out many of these introductory parts in the Nursery. This weekend I started crafting. There is a series of crafting quests to get you into things in Kelethin, but these quests contain zero information about how crafting works. First quest is "bring me a fried frog leg", telling you that you fry a frog leg on a stove. So I go to the stove, find the recipe, find the guy who is selling the wood needed to make a cooking fire in the stove. But I can't find a frog leg to fry on any of the vendors. And I didn't see any frogs out in the forest from which I could have gotten one. Finally I ask in chat and it turns out that I need to find a "school of fish" in the ocean bordering the Nursery, and click on it to fish, which after some tries gets me some frog legs. Sorry, but fishing frog legs from the ocean with the fishing skill isn't really intuitive. Some explanation would have been great. I should maybe make a new character just to do the island newbie zone once and learn how everything works. Well, I got my crafting up to level 10 by trial and error. After being hit with accident events for several levels, I finally found the hidden crafting tab in the knowledge book where the icons are that you need to counter those accidents. But some explanation of all that would really have lowered my barrier to entry into EQ2 crafting.

In my opinion the two MMORPGs with the lowest barriers to entry are World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online. Both have excellent newbie zones explaining you just about everything you need to know to play the game. Thus if somebody would ask me for advice on what he should buy as his first MMORPG, I would recommend either of these (depending on how much of a Tolkien fan that person is).

Many other games get away with not having such a good introduction, but doing most things very similar than previous games. Every MMORPG which has a map uses the "M" key to open it. The keys for other activities, like opening your bags or quest log, have not been the same in all games until 2004. But since then, World of Warcraft has become the gold standard, and many games just copied the keyboard layout of WoW. Of course this strategy only works if your new players actually played WoW or a similar game previously. A big part of the success of World of Warcraft is that it has such low barriers to entry, and therefore succeeded in bringing many first-time players into the genre.

Being accessible to newbies is very important. You can't just assume that every single one of your players has played WoW or a similar game before. World of Warcraft has 9 million subscribers, but that is far from the total number of people playing video games. The Playstation 2, for example, sold 120 million units worldwide. A new player has to thoroughly enjoy his first hours in the game to get him hooked. If he spends that time wandering around in a bewildered state, you'll have problems keeping him as a customer. You really don't want barriers to entry keeping players out of your game.

The Silence of the Tobold

I listened to Keen and Graev's first podcast this weekend, and enjoyed it. Keen talks a lot more than Graev, but that's okay. They cover WoW, LotRO, PotBS, WAR, and some more general game theory, like Melmoth's excellent tree analogy of the state of the MMORPG genre.

I've been asked by some people now whether I would start to podcast or participate in existing podcasts. Podcasting is the new blogging. But my answer is no. I don't have to participate in everything that is "in". And there are some solid reasons why I prefer writing my thoughts to speaking them:

The most important is that I can express myself better in writing. When I write a blog entry, there is some amount of editing going on. Not just spellchecking, Blogger doesn't have an in-build spellchecker, but editing to make my initial ramblings more coherent. I reread longer posts and rephrase some sentences, or reorder paragraphs. All that is a lot easier with a written text than with a podcast.

Another reason is that I am not a native English speaker. I had people on Teamspeak laughing about my accent and telling me that I sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger. I don't want to be known as the podcaster with the funny voice, no thank you. As I express myself better in written English, I have a better chance of being taken seriously if I stick to writing.

A deeper reason is that I feel that putting my voice on the internet crosses an invisible line I have drawn to protect my privacy. The last thing I want is somebody recognizing my voice and connecting my Tobold identity to the name that is written in my passport. Unlike Lum or Grimwell, who leveraged successful MMORPG sites into a job in the MMORPG industry, I have no interest whatsoever in a game related job. I already have quite a good job, and that one isn't connected to games at all. So I'm trying to keep that identity and my internet identity strictly separate. Games still aren't considered a serious hobby for a grown-up man.

And finally I'm thinking of my readers. Fact is that all my blog statistics show that I get a lot more trafic during office hours than during the weekend. And some people stated that they prefer reading my blog via the RSS feed, because their company firewall or content filter lets through feeds, but not blogs. I even get blog related e-mail that people sent from their company e-mail address, which is sometimes funny when the company e-mail system automatically adds a footer with some legal disclaimer or a request to send feedback to that person's manager (watch out for that if you work for Dell). In many jobs you can get away with reading blogs or feeds during times when things are going slow without attracting too much attention, but not listen to podcasts.

So for all these reasons I'll remain silent. So if you want a podcast, you can try Keen and Graev, or the for a much larger selection go to VirginWorlds. The "Shut Up We’re Talking" series, hosted by common sense gamer Darren, is very good.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Are quests the new grind?

The original Everquest, despite the name, actually didn't have all that many quests. Your day-to-day way to gather experience points and level up was to get into a group, go somewhere with mobs of an appropriate level, and stay at that spot the whole day, killing the same monsters over and over. That was called "camping" at the time, but over time more and more people called it "grinding". Fast forward to 2007 and grinding the same monster over and over is only done for reputation, or for farming a specific drop from that particular mob. The day-to-day way to gather experience points and level up is doing quests. Has questing become the new grinding?

Players always take the way of least resistance to level up. In Everquest that was staying at the same spot, because "breaking a camp" was quite hard, but then taking out the respawns as they popped up one by one was much easier. There was a disincentive to move at that time. In modern games like WoW, EQ2, or LotRO, doing quests is the fastest way to level up. As long as a game has a sufficient number of quests, and the quest reward is worth the additional effort of moving, leveling up by doing nothing but quests all day is the preferred general activity.

But in the process quests have become less special. Hands up, how many of you aren't reading the quest text any more, except for the short "kill 10 foozles" summary bit? World of Warcraft originally had quest texts arriving very slowly in the quest window, trying to force people to read the text. But an option to make quest text appear instantly, so you could click accept without reading the text, was one of the first WoW UI mods, and later it got included as option in the game. EQ2 is trying to make people listen to the quest text by having it spoken out, but most people still just click through it. These games literally have thousands of quests, each one a small story why this quest giver wants you to have those 10 foozles killed. After having done that for a while the stories all begin to resemble each other. They aren't exactly Hemingway quality to start with, and after having read a hundred, you have read them all. Quests have stopped to be about the story, and have turned into an additional reward for killing those foozles, you would otherwise have grinded anyway. That is still an improvement, because it encourages people to move around a bit more, but nevertheless for some people quests now feel like the new grind. Something you only do to advance your character, not because it is fun.

What we need is better ways to tell a story, and better stories. Final Fantasy XI has special quests which are told with cut scenes, and include your avatar in those cut scenes, which is pretty cool. Lord of the Rings Online has its epic quest line, which is intertwined with Tolkien's epic saga from the books. These are steps in the right direction, but we need more of those.

The underlying problem is that most of the time you aren't really interested in killing this mob or doing that quest, you only do it for the experience points. What you do doesn't really matter, as long as you gain the points, which makes you level up. It is the new abilities and powers you get from leveling up that you really want, you couldn't care less about the farmer having a foozle problem in his backyard and needing them killed. TheMonk, one of my readers, sent me an e-mail with an interesting proposal: What if there was a game without experience points and levels, but quest lines where the reward was directly the unlocking of a specific skill? The direct route, the quest line leads to the skill you want, and not to some generic xp which get you the skill when you have enough of them. Guild Wars, which is less level-centric, has abilities unlocked by quests, I believe. Having a direct connection between the story and the reward you really want might make quests more interesting.

As is so often the case, we have arrived at some plateau, a point in time where developers have found a quest-drive gameplay which works more or less, and implemented it in many different games. Many people currently think that this is the way it has to be, and best possible way to play. But I am sure that quests as we know them now are not the non plus ultra. Sooner or later somebody will come up with a more fun way of MMORPG gameplay, which is even more interesting. And then the current mode of advancing by doing quests all day will feel as antiquated as shouting "camp check" in EQ1 in the commonlands to find which orcs camps are already taken.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Age of Conan delayed

Saved by the bell! I would have felt obliged to write another preview this weekend, on Age of Conan, even if that game doesn't interest me so much. But then, via Bildo, I got the news that Age of Conan is delayed to at least March 2008. Thus it disqualifies itself nicely from my "upcoming games of 2007" series. ;)

Friday, August 10, 2007

Two accounts, one game

I used to pay for two World of Warcraft accounts, but the second one was for my wife, and that one is actually still active, because she is still playing. Having two accounts was useful for transferring goods from Horde to Alliance via the neutral auction house (can't do that with just one account, you can't buy from yourself). And one day I used the two accounts to unlock the Dire Maul door with one of my characters who had the key, put a character from the second account inside, and then used him to open the door with the lever for another character from the first account, who didn't have the key. But apart from that I barely ever touched the second account. There isn't much of a point in having two WoW accounts for yourself, unless you try to powerlevel yourself with dual-boxing.

I also had two accounts for Star Wars Galaxies. In that case the second account was for myself. I tried to get my wife to play it, she tried it, but didn't bite. But in SWG having more than one account for yourself was useful. For starters you weren't allowed to have alts, only one character per account. And then you could only place a limited number of structures like harvesters and factories with each character. So if you paid for two accounts, you doubled your economic output. EVE Online has a system in which skills are learned in real time, but only one character per account can do so. Again having more than one account could be an advantage.

One game of the future where I could imagine having more than one account would be Pirates of the Burning Sea, after reading that you are limited to 10 production buildings per account. That won't help with leveling up my character, but I would have twice the economic power, and could integrate larger chains of production, maybe even have most of the parts together to build ships.

Now some people already consider one monthly fee to be too much, and would never pay two of them. A second account for the same game always has diminishing returns, you don't get twice the fun out of two accounts. But even $30 per month is still less than some people pay for cigarettes. Not that I would want to pay for 40 accounts. But two accounts is something I can afford and what, depending on the game, I might still consider useful. What do you think?

Sorry, you missed it

Two things happened yesterday, totally unrelated, but they ended up being about the same thing. One was an e-mail from a reader proposing heroic deadmines, basically creating more level 70 content by offering a level 70 version of all the old world dungeons. Sounds good, but what do you do when the level cap rises again, do you make them all level 80? The other event was a friend telling me how his guild did a touristic trip to Molten Core, because there were several people in his guild who had never been there, so they gathered 20 Karazhan raiders and kicked some ass in MC for fun. Another form of reuse for old content. Lots of people commented that it is nearly impossible to find groups for old world dungeons, so they either end up not going at all, or they cruise through at high speed with the help a level 70 character from a friend.

All of that made me happy that I played through the old world dungeons when I did it, the time when everybody was still using that content. Because doing the Deadmines either transformed to heroic, or with a level 70 guide, just isn't the same. Molten Core isn't the same at level 70. Not only is the challenge gone, but also the rewards would be considered worthless now.

If you didn't visit the Deadmines when the game was much younger and people still gathered in crowds at the entrance to form groups, you will never see them in their full glory. If you didn't raid Molten Core before the Burning Crusade, you will never get the same sort of experience we had. Sorry, you missed it. It might appear as if the Deadmines and Molten Core are still in the game, but those are just empty shadows. The Deadmines experience, or the Molten Core experience, was about going there at the appropriate level with other people of the same level, all of which were hoping to get some rewards which were cool for that level and that time. The dungeons remain, but the people are gone.

For places like the Deadmines there are possible solutions, for example cross-server instances or a better LFG system. There are still people at level 20, and if you could just gather them, you could still have fun in the Deadmines and get decent loot for your level. But places like Molten Core are lost. Even if you had 40 level 60 characters available, they'd rather go and form 8 groups for the Hellfire Ramparts, which would go a lot faster and give better rewards than forming one MC raid. Just like in real life, we can't turn back the clock.

EQ2 Journal - 10-August-2007

The first day of really playing Everquest 2 after nearly 3 years of absence got me from level 1 to level 8. Before I started I did a small experiment, switched over to the US servers and made a fae warden there, to compare with my wood-elf warden. There are a lot more US servers than Euro English servers. And the good news is that unlike WoW, choosing a race really makes a big difference to your character stats. The fae has a lot less health, but deals more damage with the same spell, due to more intelligence. But for two reasons I went back to my wood-elf: I prefer the less fragile race, so I have actually time to use my healing spells on myself before dying. And I didn't like the look of the fae, didn't want to play a "faerie". Yeah, call me a virtual homophobe, but I don't like to play feminine looking male avatars.

Leveling up my wood-elf warden to level 8 went really quick. They must have sped up the process, my three existing characters are levels 14, 13, and 6, why didn't I get further with them in 2004? Well, I *did* do a lot more crafting than adventuring at the time. Having existing crafters came in handy when my warden leveled up and learned more and more spells. When you level up, you get the new spells with the "ding", they drop right onto your hotkey bar, no visit to a trainer required. But, in a system I didn't like in 2004 and still don't like in 2007, you only get the spell at the "apprentice I" level, and then there are a confusing multitude of other versions, apprentice I to IV, adept I to IV, and master I to IV, I think. But nowhere is that well explained, nor is it explained at what level a spell has what power. I found adept I level spells in the newbie zone, but not for my class. Then I used my alts to look for warden adept I spells on the broker, but those were prohibitively expensive, costing several gold. Finally I managed to craft apprentice IV level spells myself, as one of my existing characters was a scholar. Fortunately that was considered to be trivial, because I couldn't find back the buttons needed to react to the events happening when crafting scrolls, I only saw my potion making buttons. But even without pressing a button I managed to craft those low level scrolls at apprentice IV level. Using the spells at this higher level, plus later choosing an intelligence bonus when given the choice, improved the firepower of my warden enough to advance at a steady pace. Fighting a mob of my own level isn't trivial, but doable.

At level 5 I got a message that I'd now be able to use heroic opportunities, and that I should visit the "know your opportunities" trainer to learn more about them. Only problem is that I never found that trainer in the Nursery, I begin to suspect there isn't one. Well, I figured out how to use the heroic opportunities on my own, but was a bit disappointed by the system. A heroic opportunity is not something that happens randomly, an opportunity to grasp, as the name would suggest. I simply have a button that starts a heroic opportunity. Heroic opportunities advance by using abilities with the same symbols as shown. But my heroic opportunities show only two symbols, a hammer or a green coin, and I don't seem to have any green coin abilities. But both of my damage spells, fire and cold, have the hammer symbol. So I just hit the heroic opportunity button, then cast two of my damage spells, and get some bonus damage for the effort. As I would have used the same damage spells anyway, the heroic opportunity button boils down to just some bonus damage on every second spell. Reliable as clockwork, no interactivity or opportunity involved. Only sometimes I get some short-time buff instead of bonus damage as result. I wish I knew where that "know your opportunities" trainer was, to explain me whether there is more to that system.

I looked through my previous characters, who are now my alts, and when I logged each of them on, I now needed to choose character classes for them, as they were still on the old system, where they were just warrior, priest, and scout. I tried to use them to buy some bags for my new character, but failed. The bags I saw reasonably priced on the broker turned out to be just ammo pouches, not useable for normal items. That was annoying, because this wasn't really obvious, so I bought them and then ended up vendoring them. Everything else, useful bags, spells at adept I level, and whatever I would have wanted to twink my new character was all very, very expensive. I think that when I logged off last in 2004 my crafters were considered rich, due to profits made on making strongboxes. But there seems to have been a gallopping inflation since then, and everything is much more expensive now. The handful of gold I have isn't worth much anymore. But of course there were no level 70 characters back then, it was the first weeks after release and everybody was poor. I need to sort through all of their stuff and abilities, and see whether I can restart my alts on crafting and do some useful stuff now.

Well, meanwhile my new "main" reached Kelethin. I didn't fall off the trees yet, but once it was close, due to lag. Dammit, I have a really high-end 2007 computer, put EQ2 on balanced quality/performance setting, and the game still lags in cities. So I spent the last part of the evening downloading the alternate character models, which are a bit simpler and hopefully eat up less computing power.

All in all I was having fun. I wouldn't say EQ2 was better than WoW, but it isn't much worse either. It is maybe a bit less intuitive, with some stuff handled in a needlessly complicated way, like the spell levels. And the in-game maps in EQ2 are horrible, especially when you are in a non-instanced dungeon and there is absolutely no mini-map or map whatsoever. Following some advice from chat I downloaded a UI mod named eq2map, which helps by adding more points onto your map, but doesn't change the bad quality of the underlying in-game map, which is grey on grey for the Greater Faydark. I think I'll get my EQ2 maps from The Brasse, just like I did for LotRO.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Virtual worlds in the New York Times

I'm still convinced that the journalists of the New York Times have a competition going on into how many different sections of their newspaper they can fit news about virtual worlds. After sports, arts, and travel, their latest virtual world article, about Second Life, is in the Home & Garden part of the style section. Because, you see, in Second Life you can have a virtual home, including garden.

Another article in the NYT is in the business section, about the (I tend to call it Barbie Online) virtual world. Which in fact isn't so much different from Second Life, spouting 4 million registered users, while forgetting to mention that these users didn't pay anything, and nobody knows how long they are staying, and whether they ever come back. But Mattel, wise in the ways on how to extract money out of the parents of Barbie-loving girls, has a plan. They are selling them the "Barbie Girl Device" for $60. That is basically a USB stick / MP3 player, but it comes with data on it that unlock content in the virtual world. So you are buying both something real (a doll-shaped MP3 player) and a bunch of virtual items with one purchase.

I couldn't help thinking of the scene in the South Park episode "Make Love not Warcraft", in which the Sword of a Thousand Truths is revealed to reside on a USB stick. I wonder when the first items for MMORPGs will be sold by the game companies on USB sticks in toy shops. Or maybe just game time. In any case, selling such stuff on USB sticks nicely gets around the problem of how the kid can persuade his grandmother to buy him something virtual.

EQ2 up and running

Having decided to give it another try, I bought EQ2 as digital download from Direct2Drive. The good news was that I just needed to buy one Echoes of Faydwer pack for $40 to receive the full game with all three expansions. I could even log into the game after entering the 20-digit code, so apparently a free month is also included. Not bad for that price. The less pleasant news was that the download was over 7 Gigabyte. I do have 6 MBit ADSL, but of course downloads over the atlantic are never that fast, so the download took something like 16 hours. I decided to buy EQ2 on Tuesday evening, by Wednesday evening I had it downloaded, and by the time I had it installed and patched etc. it was Wednesday late at night, so I haven't really played the game yet.

Thanks for all the advice on which server I should play, but most of these advised servers were US servers. Now if I ever want to find a group, I'd better play on a server in my own timezone. I do speak English, German, and French, but for ease of looking up things I usually prefer the English version, so I went for English (UK). So Everquest 2 presented me with the list of all English (UK) servers, and that was the point where I realized how badly SOE had lost against Blizzard in a fight that in November 2004 still looked like a duel of equals. There are only *2* English-language European servers for Everquest 2. World of Warcraft has 107 English-language European servers. Yes, I know, number of servers isn't strictly linear with number of subscribers, the EQ2 servers could have a higher population. But the difference still is striking.

With only two servers, I wasn't even presented with a choice of PvP or PvE servers, nor servers with or without Station Exchange. The two possible servers seemed to be totally identical. Only that one of them still had the three characters I created in November 2004. Guess where I went! Okay, my highest level character there is just level 16, but if I remember correctly EQ2 has something like shared bank slots, and one of my characters was a carpenter making quite useful boxes for storage.

So I move to the character creation. Now you must remember that part of my reason to retry EQ2 is nostalgia for the classic Everquest I played from 2000 to 2001. And in EQ1 my main was a wood-elf druid. So now in EQ2 I made another wood-elf druid of the same name. Well, actually it's a warden, a druid sub-class. I was actually surprised I was able to choose a class. When I played EQ2 last, I started without a character class at all, then got to chose between 4 basic archetypes on the tutorial island, and a class at level 10. I never made it to level 20, where I would have chosen my sub-class. All this changed, now you chose your sub-class right away at character creation.

Gone too is the ship bringing me to the tutorial island. Instead my newborn character appeared in an area called the Nursery. This appears to be the equivalent of the tutorial island for those characters that start in Kelethin, and not in Qeynos or Freeport. I took a couple of steps, found a level 1 mob, blasted it with a firebolt and killed it. Then I listened a while to a NPC explaining me what the color codes for levels and the up or down arrows mean. I had totally forgotten that in EQ2 all the NPCs talk. Not just canned phrases, like in WoW, but everything they tell you in the speech bubble they also say. Nice feature. Now I know why the download was so long. :) Well, anyway, that was all I did up to now, because by the time I got there it was already late. This evening I plan to do the newbie quests in the Nursery. By the weekend I should have made it to Kelethin and the Greater Faydark. Unfortunately it seems I have to be in the late teens, early 20s, before I can visit Crushbone, and then I need a group for most of the content there. Well, I'll worry about that when I get there.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Does genre matter?

Today I'm taking you to the hypothetical parallel universe called "what if?". This universe is exactly like ours, only that Blizzard in 2004 didn't release World of Warcraft, but released World of Starcraft (WoS) instead. But having been made by exactly the same people, this hypothetical World of Starcraft plays *exactly* like World of Warcraft in our universe. Instead of mages with firebolts, WoS has a blaster class with laser bolts. Melee classes swing lightsabers instead of metal weapons. WoW's gryphon flight paths in WoS become hovercraft flight paths. And so on. All the differences between WoW and WoS are purely cosmetical, all the numbers behind it are exactly the same. So would this hypothetical World of Starcraft have been as successful as World of Warcraft? Or would the fact that it is SciFi instead of fantasy have mattered? Does genre matter?

Historically SciFi MMOs haven't had as much success as fantasy MMOs. But maybe that was an accident of history. World of Warcraft is simply a better game than Star Wars Galaxies, people don't just play WoW because it has elves and orcs and SWG doesn't. In the series of "Diablo"-like action RPGs, which is somewhat related to MMOs, the last big hit was Titan Quest, and the next big hit will be Hellgate London. Neither of those has elves and orcs: Titan Quest is pseudo-historical, playing in a mythical version of the antique, just like Gods & Heroes will. Hellgate London plays in a post-apocalyptic London underground, in a genre which I'd call SciFi horror. Titan Quest sold quite well, and judging by the hype, so will Hellgate London. So if action RPGs don't need fantasy to succeed, maybe MMORPGs don't need it either.

The opportunity, which at the same time is the challenge, is that certain game features go together better with certain genres. For example melee combat goes well with fantasy and pre-19th century historical, while ranged combat goes well with SciFi and modern historical. Ship-to-ship combat probably wouldn't do much for World of Warcraft, but is essential for Pirates of the Burning Sea, or space SciFi like EVE Online. And as soon as you have ships in a game, you can introduce trading, buying goods cheap at one end of the world, and transporting them to the other end, where they sell for more. The heroes travelling with a group of minions of Gods & Heroes fits well into the mythical antique genre, although it would have been possible in other genres as well. But I couldn't imagine solo combat being a central feature in a World War II genre game.

I would go so far as to say that we *need* MMORPGs of other genres if we want to see major innovation of features. Developers making yet another fantasy MMORPG have a tendancy to stick to what they know that it works, and not dare to move too far away from the established state of the art. Sure, WoW's quest system is great. But did you notice that since then there hasn't been a single major MMORPG developed which didn't have quest givers with floating symbols over their head? Yes, that works, but this isn't the only possible way to tell a story in a MMORPG, and sometimes it appears that developers have just stopped thinking about whether there aren't any better ways. So if one day some game company develops a major SciFi MMORPG, we have a better chance of stories and missions reaching you by the cool holo communication device of your space ship, and not by you having to get quests by flying close to an NPC space ship with a golden exclamation mark floating over it.

Fantasy is the archetypical geek genre. But as MMORPGs move into the mainstream, that should open them up to other genres. I don't know about you, but I played cowboys and indians in the garden as a kid, not elves and orcs. And if we look at other kind of computer games, we see other genres dominating there. There are far more World War II RTS games than fantasy RTS games. And fantasy is barely represented in tactical or first-person shooter games. Rockstar never released Grand Theft Horse Chariot. Fantasy has become rare in point-and-click adventures. There is no reason for fantasy being the only viable choice for MMORPGs. All we need is a couple of really good games of other genres. I just hope we don't need to wait for the real World of Starcraft to get there, because that might still take many years.